As Cincinnati Bengals enter free agency, Joe Burrow's voice becomes more influential

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CINCINNATI -- A few different types of quarterbacks tend to make headlines around NFL free agency.

The former first-round pick looking for a fresh start; a veteran angling to make one more Super Bowl push; a placeholder for a team searching for a long-term answer.

The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t draft Joe Burrow to fill any of those roles. They wanted him to become a franchise quarterback.

That moniker now carries a double meaning for Burrow as the Bengals approach free agency. The third-year player fresh off a Super Bowl appearance isn’t just someone who the team is building around. When it’s time to evaluate incoming players, Burrow’s voice carries a significant amount of weight.

“He’s a huge part of what we do,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said on March 1 at the NFL scouting combine. “This is certainly a quarterback-driven league and we want to make sure we are all aligned there.”

The synergy between Burrow and the franchise was evident during his rookie year in 2020, with the Bengals opting to run many empty formations similar to what Burrow used during his record-breaking senior season at LSU.

Then, with the fifth pick in the 2021 draft, they selected wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Burrow’s teammate during his two-year run at LSU. Taylor said when the Bengals consulted Burrow about taking Chase, they were looking for any red flags before they reunited a pass-catch combination that produced more than 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in college.

Burrow said he didn’t tell Cincinnati executive Duke Tobin and the rest of the front office that the team must draft Chase. The team simply kept Burrow in the loop, offering a line of communication he said quarterbacks around the league value.

“I don't need to feel like I made the decision,” Burrow said in February. “You could go with my opinion or go without my opinion. Doesn't matter to me as long as I feel like I'm involved in the process, and I think the organization did a great job of that.”

When the Bengals were evaluating prospects and Burrow was doing rehab work from the left knee injury that ended his rookie season, Burrow said Tobin asked him to watch certain players and sought Burrow’s opinion.

During the scouting combine, Tobin said making sure opinions from trustworthy people are valued -- including his starting quarterback -- has been something he’s done throughout his tenure as Cincinnati’s director of player personnel.

“It seems to be a topic around the league a little bit,” Tobin told ESPN. “It’s not a new thing with me.”

Sometimes, Burrow’s input is more tangible. He attended the recruiting dinner at a local steakhouse that helped the Bengals land free-agent right tackle Riley Reiff.

Burrow could double as a recruiter and primary attraction as the Bengals enter free agency this week. Cincinnati will be conservative about how much it budgets for the 2022 rookie class and practice squad, but the Bengals, who have $35 million in salary-cap space, will have the necessary capital to improve the roster around Burrow. That includes an offensive line that ranked 30th in pass block win rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.

“This league is about quarterbacks and when you have one, you’ve got to support him the best way you can,” Tobin said at the combine.

Even before Monday's legal tampering period -- which marks the unofficial start of free agency -- teams have been scrambling to find quarterbacks they feel good about.

The Denver Broncos traded for Russell Wilson. The Indianapolis Colts sent Carson Wentz to Washington. The Green Bay Packers still have Aaron Rodgers.

In Cincinnati, Burrow made history by reaching the Super Bowl in his second season, the fastest of any quarterback taken No. 1 overall. Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who has been with the franchise since 2003 and witnessed the quarterback runs of Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, said Burrow instills the most confidence for a sustained run of success.

“Everybody would feel that Joe is the best of them all,” Simmons said at the combine. "I think he’s shown that in the wins and losses and his ability to keep us -- and ultimately make plays -- in these close games.”

Burrow's on-field command was evident during Cincinnati's playoff run. In the AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, Burrow's helmet communication went out, leaving him to call his own plays until he could get a new one. Taylor later said it was something the team wants Burrow to do more as he gains experience.

That level of influence extends to off-field matters, too.

“You want his opinion,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told ESPN. “You want him to take ownership of all of it. You want him to take ownership of the franchise at the end of the day. And I think you always want him involved in the process of it. We want his input on all the things that go on.”

That doesn’t mean Burrow will have final input on anything that happens this offseason. But it’s clear his opinion matters as Cincinnati tries to make it back to the Super Bowl.

“If you’re built like he is, that’s what you want,” Callahan said. “You want to be able to have input and say and opinions on everything that’s happening because it’s your team.”