By Brentley Weissman
When you draft a quarterback in the first round, you are investing the future of your franchise in that player, and hope he is the one who can lead your team for the next decade-plus. Drafting a quarterback high is one of the biggest and most important tasks GMs are faced with, and depending on the player’s success, jobs could be lost. Rarely do we see rookie quarterbacks come in and play well right away, and it is almost unheard of for a rookie quarterback to play like a star in their first year of their career. Well, for Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, he has not only made the choice of selecting him sixth overall look like a great pick, but Herbert is playing as well as we have ever seen from a rookie signal-caller.
What makes Herbert’s early success even more impressive is the fact that he wasn’t even supposed to be in the starting lineup. The Chargers' coaching staff wanted to take it slow with their young gunslinger and have him sit behind veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Well the football gods had other plans. Just before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs, a freak accident took place as the Chargers medical staff punctured Taylor’s lung during a routine injection for pain, thus thrusting Herbert into the starting lineup just minutes before kickoff. Herbert hasn’t looked back since.
What happened to Taylor is a shame, as this was supposed to be his year to show the league what he can do as a full-time NFL starter, but it's safe to say that the Chargers are happy that Herbert is now under center. Herbert has looked like a future Pro Bowler in his first season and has completed 124 of his 184 passes (67.3%) for 1,542 yards and 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Herbert has also been a factor with his legs and has gained 121 yards on 25 carries for another two touchdowns.
As a passer, Herbert has shown that the pre-draft notions of him being “robotic” and “not being able to get off his first read” and, my personal favorite, “struggles under pressure” to be completely inaccurate. Herbert has routinely shown the ability to create and make plays out of structure and has shown an advanced mastery of the Chargers offense in a short amount of time. What I have been most impressed with, however, is his ability to hang in the pocket when he knows he is about to take a big hit, and just deliver a strike down field with accuracy to hit the receiver in stride. Any quarterback can hit a deep shot with time in the pocket, but the ones who can do it with defenders literally in their face are the ones who are truly special.
Even with all of Herbert’s individual success, the wins haven’t followed. Herbert lost his first four games as a starter, but he put his team in a position to win each and every contest he's played in. Herbert finally got his first win in Week 7 as the Chargers beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in a shootout 39-29. Herbert had perhaps his best game of the year in the contest, putting the team on his back in the third quarter with the team down 21-16. Herbert threw two touchdown passes and ran for another touchdown in the quarter to take the lead at 36-29.
With the Chargers expected to return key starters along their offensive line with right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Trai Turner soon to be healthy, the team is set up nicely to string some wins together against the likes of the Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins, and Jets. The Chargers could find themselves in a position to compete for a wild-card spot if Herbert keeps playing this well, and it is abundantly clear that the Bolts have found their franchise quarterback.
Moving forward, the Chargers' front office must prioritize surrounding Herbert with talent so he can continue to ascend and reach his sky-high potential. Below are some ways the team can help ensure Herbert stays on track for what looks to be a stellar career.
Address the Offensive Line
The Chargers need to find capable offensive lineman to protect their young stud quarterback. Herbert has been under duress for many of his drop backs this season, and while he has had tremendous success throwing under pressure, eventually those defenders will get home and Herbert will start to take some hits. As it stands, the Chargers can upgrade the entire left side of their offensive line and will most likely be in the market for a new starting center as Mike Pouncey has suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries. Additionally, offseason acquisitions Bulaga and Turner have both been out with injuries for most of this season, so just adding depth to this unit will go a long way in case the injury bug continues to linger. I expect the Chargers to target offensive line early and often in the 2021 NFL Draft, and luckily for them, this upcoming offensive line class is a talented bunch.
Establish the Running Game
Head coach Anthony Lynn is a former NFL running back and is widely considered to be a running game guru, so it is a little surprising that the Chargers haven’t found consistent success on the ground so far in 2020. Now, obviously injuries and poor offensive line play have played a major factor in that, but when your quarterback leads your team in rushing as Herbert did in Week 7 versus the Jaguars, that is definitely a cause for concern.
A young quarterback's best friend is a strong running game, as it brings more defenders into the box leaving you with more one-on-one opportunities on the outside for your receivers. Additionally, one of Herbert’s strengths is passing off of play-action, and play-action is really only effective when defenses have to respect your ability to run. Again, injuries have played a major factor here, and I expect the Chargers to improve in this area when stud runner Austin Ekeler returns from injury, but I personally wouldn’t mind seeing the Chargers bring in some competition for Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson in the offseason to ensure their ground attack is a strength.
Add Another Playmaker
Now this one may be a bit of a stretch as Herbert is already surrounded by elite playmakers such as Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry, but in my opinion, it is never a bad thing to have an abundance of playmakers at a young quarterback’s disposal. Both Williams and Henry have dealt with injuries early in their careers and so it's important to have talented playmakers behind them to step in if an injury does occur. As it stands, Jalen Guyton is the team’s third receiver, and while he and Herbert have connected on a few big plays this season, I believe the team can find a more talented and well-rounded option and have Guyton in more of a No. 4 role. I’d love to see the team target a playmaker who has the deep speed to beat defenses over the top, but also has the size and body control to win in contested situations. I believe taking a page out of the Kansas City Chiefs playbook and surrounding your young star quarterback with playmakers would set up the Chargers offense for success for years to come.
The Chargers have one of the best general managers in all of football in Tom Telesco, and an experienced scouting staff, so I don’t need to tell them how to improve their football team. I fully expect them to build around Herbert and put this team in a position to win for the foreseeable future. As football fans we can just sit back and relax, and watch Herbert play each Sunday and enjoy seeing a young quarterback make his name in the league.