The development of a first-round quarterback is as much about not ruining him as placing him in a position to succeed.
A team can have the right system in place and plenty of talent at the skill positions. But if the young signal-caller isn't properly protected and is under constant duress, he'll never excel. Offensive line play tends to be overlooked when it comes to a quarterback's progression. An underwhelming front five can ruin talented prospects. Ask Tim Couch or David Carr.
Enter the Cincinnati Bengals and this year's No. 1 overall pick, Joe Burrow.
The Bengals made the right choice with the pick but lack investments up front to properly protect their new franchise quarterback.
Burrow is coming off the greatest season in college football history with the LSU Tigers. The southern Ohio native captured the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Davey O'Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, Manning Award, Lombardi Award, Walter Camp Award and a national championship during the Tigers' undefeated campaign.
The pocket presence, anticipation and touch Burrow displayed during the 2019 campaign haven't been seen from a quarterback prospect in the last 20 years.
But great performances are often accompanied by other standouts. Wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson couldn't be covered. Clyde Edwards-Helaire emerged as a first-round running back with outstanding receiving capabilities. Tight ends Thaddeus Moss and Stephen Sullivan are both on NFL rosters.
LSU's skill-position performers had an opportunity to excel because they played behind one of college football's best offensive lines.
Center Lloyd Cushenberry III and right guard Damien Lewis heard their names called in the third round. Both will have an opportunity to start as rookies. Left tackle Saahdiq Charles came off the board the following round. Left guard Adrian Magee signed an undrafted free-agent deal with the New Orleans Saints. Right tackle Austin Deculus, meanwhile, returned for his senior season with the potential to be selected in the 2021 NFL draft.
Burrow had the second-longest average time to throw in the SEC last season despite having the third-fewest average blockers in protection, according to SEC Stat Cat. The quarterback proved to be deadly from a clean pocket.
The LSU-via-Ohio State product led all draft-eligible quarterbacks with a 79.3 completion percentage from a clean pocket, per Pro Football Focus. In fact, Burrow led all collegiate signal-callers with a 94.9 grade when allowed to stand tall and not be pressured.
He excelled when working outside of structure too. The 6'3", 221-pound quarterback is an outstanding all-around athlete. As PFF's Anthony Treash noted in December, Burrow graded better under pressure than 84 FBS quarterbacks did from a clean pocket. He's truly special.
However, the 23-year-old signal-caller enters a situation where his protection will be less than stellar, and asking him to produce at or near similar levels against NFL athletes is another matter altogether.
The Bengals will receive a significant boost to their offensive line thanks to Jonah Williams' return from last year's season-ending labrum tear. Williams was the top offensive tackle prospect in the 2019 class, but he never played a down during his rookie campaign. Obviously, some growing pains will occur with a first-time starter, but his talent and technique portend an outstanding left tackle.
The rest of Cincinnati's front five is suspect at best.
Trey Hopkins signed a three-year, $20.4 million extension in December the day before he made his 16th start. Hopkins found a home at center, but he shouldn't be considered a top-end performer. Reliability is one thing. Excellence is another. Still, he's one piece in place.
Michael Jordan, Billy Price, Alex Redmond and Fred Johnson are young options to start at guard or right tackle. Jordan, Price and Redmond didn't play well last season, while Johnson started one game in Week 17.
Bobby Hart, who signed a three-year, $16.2 million extension last offseason, remains one of the league's worst right tackles because he consistently surrenders too much pressure.
The organization didn't attack the position with any urgency in free agency either.
Xavier Su'a-Filo signed a three-year, $9 million deal. The six-year veteran is an experienced starter, but he's been more of a placeholder than an established presence.
Cincinnati's approach to building its offensive line can be summed up in one quote from vice president Troy Blackburn last offseason:
"For those who say you shouldn't have signed Bobby Hart, who is going to play right tackle? Who? Oh, maybe you'll draft one in the third round and he'll come on. Really? You're going to bet your season on that? We may still draft somebody. We haven't had the draft yet. But you just can't criticize. In our business you have to solve the problem."
This year's draft came. Previous ills can be forgiven with a smart approach. With Burrow already in tow, the Bengals should have done everything in their power to properly protect the quarterback. They didn't.
Two offensive tackles with first-round ability—Houston's Josh Johnson and Boise State's Ezra Cleveland—fell to the Bengals with the 33rd overall pick. Neither became the choice.
Instead, director of player personnel Duke Tobin selected Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins. Higgins is a talented option to create an outstanding wide receiver corps. At the same time, his selection should be viewed as a luxury with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross III and Auden Tate already on the roster.
Jones and a few talented interior blockers were still available at the start of the third round.
Yet the Bengals passed on all of them once again. Not all third-rounders should be expected to start, as Blackburn stated, but Jones, Damien Lewis and Lloyd Cushenberry III are projected starters for their new teams. All three could have immediately helped the Bengals, who chose Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson with the 65th overall pick.
To make matters worse, Cincinnati waited until the sixth round before it finally selected Kansas' Hakeem Adeniji for developmental purposes.
Surely, the Bengals can and will do some things to offset this potential problem area.
The skill positions are quite talented with the previously mentioned wide receivers, running back Joe Mixon and tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample. Burrow should also transition well into Zac Taylor's offensive system.
"We've got a lot of similarities with their pass game. A lot of NFL offenses do," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said of the LSU offense in January. He added: "You see a lot of pro passing concepts in their offense, and they did a really good job. But they are things that you see around the league. It's all things that fit very well with what we do and a lot of people do."
Plus, the staff can add more run-pass option concepts, expand the quick passing game, increase crossing routes and work almost entirely from shotgun to ease the transition.
Those things will only do so much behind a crumbling offensive line that finished in the bottom 10 last season by surrendering 48 sacks.
Williams' return from injury, along with the additions of Su'a-Filo and Adeniji, isn't enough to build a secure cockpit for such a talented passer.
A year from now, a predictable question will be asked: How are the Bengals going to protect Burrow?
The fact that Cincinnati will be forced to address the offensive line next year shows exactly how it failed to protect the franchise's biggest investment.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.