Examining The Fit: Los Angeles QB Justin Herbert

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The name of the game in player evaluation is identifying traits and skills that will translate to the pros; in this case, the NFL. When we watch quarterbacks, we talk about arm strength, field vision, pocket management and, of course, accuracy. 

Those skills translate into prototypes: toolsy quarterbacks with big arms and fearless throws, point-guard passers with pop-gun arms or scramble-first QBs who only win outside of structure. And those prototypes fit into scheme fits, where offensive systems can take imperfect quarterbacks and maximize their strengths, hide their deficiencies and generate success.

We've talked about how good Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, Jordan Love and Jacob Eason are. Now, we have to reorient the conversation, not just on what they do well, but how what they do well fits into what they'll be asked to do at the next level.

This will be the second examination of team fits for these top quarterbacks using the information offered by The Draft Network’s Contextualized Quarterbacking portfolios. Here, we'll look at how Herbert fits with his new team, the Chargers.

Examining The Scheme

The scheme in Los Angeles is currently unclear, which could benefit Herbert and allow things to be tailored to him.

The Chargers entered 2019 with NFL mainstay Ken Whisenhunt as their offensive coordinator, a position he’s held for the past three seasons. Whisenhunt has a West-Coast background and likes the quick game with high-percentage throws, but is one of those coordinators who has been variable across the course of his career. Given the depreciation of veteran quarterback Philip Rivers' arm over the years, the Chargers had a more limited passing attack that focused on the quick game and traditional West-Coast concepts. They ran a bevy of different concepts with running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler and generally lacked an identity as a rushing team.

Whisenhunt was fired last season following a Week 8 win against the Bears after the offense had been struggling for weeks to generate any juice. Quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen replaced Whisenhunt but didn't necessarily change the offense that much; it's impossible to do in the middle of the season. Los Angeles ran from under center and went no-huddle more often but essentially retained its target depth and concepts.

Entering 2020, we know that head coach Anthony Lynn wants to move towards a Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan style West-Coast offense that puts the quarterback under center and utilizes deep play action off of wide zone concepts — Lynn first started working for Mike Shanahan with the Broncos in 2000.

This could be extremely beneficial to Herbert as a passer and galvanize his development. A common comparison for Herbert has been Ryan Tannehill, who is in the midst of a career resurgence in Tennessee largely due to his role as a play-action artist buttressed by a strong running game. Herbert has the arm strength to stretch the field vertically and challenge intermediate and deep coverage with velocity, but he wasn't afforded that opportunity at Oregon. There only 16% of his chartable passing attempts went 20-plus yards down the field, which is tied for lowest in the 2020 class with Tagavailoa.

Oregon’s offense greatly limited Herbert's opportunity to read downfield and work through progressions, though Herbert was about average in his attempt share going beyond his first read (16.4%) given his ability to extend the play and create outside of structure. If Herbert does have limitations as a processor then he may struggle with the level reads common in the McVay/Shanahan system; accordingly, the scheme might lean more so towards the systems used in Buffalo and Tennessee, where West Coast concepts are still employed but fewer players are put into the route concepts and reads are simplified downfield.

Examining The Weapons

Any conversation about the Chargers' future on offense must begin with their offensive line, where starting left tackle was woefully neglected in the 2020 NFL draft and free-agency period. Los Angeles acquired Bryan Bulaga in free agency to start on the right side but traded Russell Okung for Trai Turner; the Chargers are now staring down the barrel of a Sam Tevi and Trey Pipkins training camp battle to protect Herbert's blindside.

Herbert has plus mobility and quality size. He should theoretically survive pressure well. Unfortunately, that's not the case. On pressures generated by a failure from his offensive line, Herbert was sacked on a whopping 26.4% while only scrambling 20.8% of the time and escaping on another 5.7% of pressures. Essentially, he was as likely to get sacked as he was to get away and either throw or tuck and run. As a passer against pressure, Herbert was near average in his accuracy and placement scores, which models his overall accuracy and placement relative to the class.

The primary concern in Los Angeles should accordingly be the left tackle position, and with free agents like Jason Peters still floating on the market, it's a wonder why the Chargers haven't locked it down with even a middling veteran option considering Herbert's pressure response issues will only be exacerbated by NFL speed.

The primary pass-catchers for Los Angeles are Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. There's nobody in the who that Allen wouldn’t work for given the routes that he's able to execute, but it is worth noting that Herbert does not project well to timing-based routes; his drops are often inconsistent and misplaced and he doesn't have a great sense for underneath windows, although his screaming ball velocity helps him here. Allen's ability to generate separation on third-down slants may not be maximized by a passer with only modest placement and poor timing like Herbert. Given the Chargers project to using a heavy amount of under center snaps, which was almost nonexistent in Oregon, the timing concerns glare ever brighter.

Williams, on the other hand, represents the sort of pass-catcher Herbert's playstyle begged for and never received in four seasons with Oregon. He’s big-bodied, above the rim, a downfield threat and trustworthy. Herbert projects as a high-ceiling deep-ball passer, largely because of the distance he can reach, and Williams is a solid deep-ball catcher because of his ability to track, box out, adjust and win in contested situations. Herbert will likely grow to rely on Williams as a safety-valve option, especially if he sees man-to-man coverage on the outside and takes it early as a pre-snap read to alleviate his post-snap processing responsibilities.

Herbert generated a lot of offense behind the line of scrimmage at Oregon with only Washington State’s Anthony Gordon attempting more passes without any target depth. If Los Angeles hopes to replicate some of Herbert's core concepts from college — which Steichen has said he'd like to — then tag Day 3 draft pick Joe Reed as a sneaky volume target. Reed is a wide receiver with a running back’s body who thrived on underneath, schemed touches at Virginia. He brings a yards-after-catch presence that nobody on the thin Chargers depth chart matches.

Tight end Hunter Henry and Ekeler were both big parts of the passing offense under Whisenhunt and figure to remain so in the marriage of Herbert and Steichen. Running backs tend to be low-target players in the McVay/Shanahan offense, so Ekeler's route distribution is a bit unclear. But Herbert showed great chemistry and placement with Oregon tight end Jacob Breeland on intermediate seams and crossers off of play action. Henry figures to remain a high-air-yards tight end under Herbert, which has historically been his greatest mode of production.

Examining The Fit

It's not a perfect match between the team, Steichen and Herbert. Herbert must take a run-pass-option heavy, pistol or shotgun, count-the-numbers offensive approach in Oregon and quickly translate it into a more complex, post-snap offense in Los Angeles. It will task him with putting his back to the defense, reading levels and spacing and making timing throws across the middle with good drop footwork. That's a tough row to hoe.

The bright signs are a deep, play-action shot oriented offense should unlock Herbert's arm and create a high percentage of explosive plays; getting Herbert out of the pocket should keep the offense on schedule by giving him the freedom to run and he doesn't have to start, given the presence of veteran passer Tyrod Taylor. Herbert is going to take time, and there will likely be some give and take between him, the offense and the coaching staff’s current vision for the team; continuing to pour resources into the offensive weaponry over the 2021 offseason will only help Herbert, who should really start getting a report card in Year 2 at the earliest.

For more “Examining The Fit,” see Miami's Tagovailoa.