2020 NFL Draft: Is Joe Burrow looking for a way out of Cincinnati already?


At this point in the calendar the last two years, we have not known beyond a reasonable doubt who would be selected as the No. 1 overall pick.

It wasn’t until draft day that we fully understood Baker Mayfield was heading to Cleveland in 2017. Last year, despite some useless late smokescreens, Kyler Murray to Arizona congealed in April.

This year we have a slam dunk. Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow, coming off one of the most impressive seasons for a college quarterback ever, has been destined for Cincinnati since late December. Right? … Right?

“Look, this is a long process, right?” Burrow told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week. “[The Bengals] have their process that they have to go through, and so I am blessed to be in the position I’m in. If they select me, they select me, I’m going to do everything in my power to be the best football player I can be.”

I don’t know that Burrow won’t be a Bengal in late April. But I do know I’m less confident in my belief a month ago that he will be.

First it was when CBS Sports’ Boomer Esiason presented Burrow with a Bengals helmet on The NFL Today set the day after he won the Heisman. Interneters had fun with Burrow’s pensive look as he was handed the orange helmet, and Esiason was good enough to apologize if he made things awkward for Burrow. I read it at the time as Joe Cool keeping a level head and remaining focused on the college football playoff.

Then, Burrow opted against competing at the Senior Bowl where he likely would have been coached by the Bengals staff for the entire week in Mobile. Burrow, exhausted from the whirlwind of the extra-long season and having nothing left to prove to secure his spot atop the draft rankings, politely declined the invitation. Again, that also made sense.

Then, at Radio Row during Super Bowl LIV, Carson Palmer issued an ominous warning as if Burrow were Julius Caesar walking around on March 15.

“That’s why I wanted out: I never felt like the (Bengals’) organization was really trying to win a Super Bowl, and really chasing the Super Bowl,” Palmer said of the franchise that drafted him while on the D.A. Show with Damon Amendolara on CBS Sports Radio.

“Because that’s what today’s day and age is. The game today is you can’t just hope you draft well and not go after free agents and you just end up in the Super Bowl. You gotta go get it.”

Yes, Palmer’s brother Jordan is Burrow’s personal coach in this pre-draft season. But that quote never felt to me like Carson had any inside knowledge, or that he had issued this warning personally to Burrow already. The feeling I got was that Palmer rightfully feels 10 years later that his prime years were wasted in an organization that didn’t have an owner committed to winning. And he doesn’t believe that Mike Brown, now 84 years old, has changed his ways.

Since Brown took over as owner/GM of the Bengals in 1991, the team has had seven winning seasons, zero playoff wins and 13 seasons with double-digits losses. It’s a fair warning to issue as someone who has been there before.

What’s becoming extremely clear is Joe Burrow isn’t jazzed about the prospect of playing for the Cincinnati Bengals … right now. Everyone in the football world understands 1) The Bengals need a quarterback; 2) they want Burrow and; 3) Burrow is the best quarterback in the class. And yet, this feels far from a sure-thing now, and it definitely feels that way when you consider the leverage Burrow has.

He doesn’t have baseball like John Elway had in 1983 when he refused to go to Baltimore. He doesn’t have the power of football’s royal family like Eli Manning had in 2004 when he and Archie Manning told San Diego “no.”

If the Bengals draft him and he sits out, Burrow hamstrings the Bengals for not just 2020 but years to come. By the time the end of April rolls around, Cincinnati theoretically would have already dealt Andy Dalton, possibly franchise-tagged A.J. Green and done any number of free-agent moves that would set the team up for the next three or so years.

The centerpiece to all of these moves would obviously be Burrow. If he doesn’t join the team for all of 2020, and the Bengals learn that in late April, the team would have a hard time finding a legitimate quarterback that late in the game. Furthermore, a 23-year-old Heisman winner opting against a payday and instead sitting out of football for a season would send a flashing red light to any future free agent considering Cincinnati as a destination.

Surely, as this process plays out, this decision will be clear well before draft day. All that said, it’s extremely hard to imagine Burrow would actually sit out a season. He even said this week “… whoever takes me, I’m a ballplayer. I’m gonna play.”

If he does indeed play, he still maintains some leverage by this sports-world, multi-million-dollar hostage situation. The Bengals, desperately in need of people locally and nationally to pay attention to them, would market the hell out of Burrow. It’d be extremely difficult for the team to sell fans and ticket-holders on a quarterback who doesn’t want to be there.

But perhaps his greatest leverage resides here: the power of his agents. Burrow is signed with CAA Sports, and he’s represented by Brian Ayrault, Tom Condon, Todd France and Ben Renzin.

CAA Sports is the largest agency in the NFL world with their hundreds of clients on all 32 teams. Power can be found in the powerful. And Condon, a veteran agent, was Eli Manning’s agent for his entire career, including during the 2004 pre-draft process.

None of this is to say Burrow will absolutely force his way out of Cincinnati before he gets there. Sources have been quiet on this front, letting the quarterback’s few words since the national title game speak for themselves.

One could fairly point to the words of Burrow’s mother, Robin, and say this is all a media concoction. At the same trophy presentation, Robin Burrow said, “We have no idea where that comes from. It’s a story out there that someone has created that doesn’t have any substance — from our perspective at least.”

That may be true, but her star-quarterback son isn’t saying that. He’s an adult with education from two universities. He has done hundreds of interviews with media outlets since the fall. His Heisman speech was one of the best in recent memory. And as the top pick in a draft one week before the combine, it’s not a stretch to think he has gotten even more media coaching in the time since the national championship.

I believe Joe Burrow knows what he’s saying and knows what he’s not saying.

He has every right to take a wait-and-see approach with an underachieving franchise that could effectively hold his professional rights into his early 30s. He has every right not to be thrilled with going to a team with such a poor record, like many players in his position surely have been in decades past.

Next week — probably Tuesday — in Indianapolis, Burrow will stand at a podium for roughly 15 minutes and take a half-dozen — or 10, or more? — questions regarding his hopes for his playing future. He’ll have his chance to set the record straight there, or maintain his right to change his mind and keep his leverage.





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