INDIANAPOLIS — Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is, generally speaking, considered to be a finished product.
He's logged 42 career starts under center for the Ducks and seemingly has yet to really shake free the questions that have lingered over his game since he was a young, budding, true sophomore standout in 2017.
Those who will question Herbert's upside as a pro quarterback will be quick to reference the glass ceiling that Herbert has been pressed against for two consecutive seasons. Admittedly, Herbert hasn't skyrocketed to the top of the quarterback class in meteoric fashion like one might have hoped based on his physical tools. But to fully grasp Herbert, it's necessary to understand that 42 starts might not necessarily be the best barometer for his development and growth.
As both a quarterback and as a person.
Herbert's path to college football superstardom and potential NFL glory doesn't follow the path typically seen of top prospects. Most top quarterback prospects fit into one of two buckets: they're either prodigies (like Trevor Lawrence, Andrew Luck and John Elway) or scrappy underdogs, forged by adversity and a burning will and desire to overcome the odds (like Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow).
Herbert is neither. College football didn't really seem like it was in the cards for Herbert until October of his senior season. He broke his femur in September 2014 and missed the vast majority of his junior year, playing in only three and a half games before a few screws in his leg ended a potential breakout season.
Entering his senior year, Herbert was a 3-star recruit — the 26th rated "Pro Style" quarterback recruit in the country. Some of the names sitting in front of him?
With little tape to work off of, Herbert's senior season started with scholarship offers from Nevada, Northern Arizona, Portland State and Montana State.
That's it. That's the entire list.
His under-the-radar recruiting process may have had a domino effect on some of the same questions that have plagued Herbert all throughout his college career and have threatened to do the same throughout his pre-draft process. Herbert never attended quarterback summits or worked with private coaches — instead preferring the friendly confines of summer workouts with his high school teammates. That unassuming personality flies in the face of what everyone seems to want in their quarterback: an alpha personality that grips the room and commands to be in the center of the spotlight.
It's never come naturally to Herbert, which he openly and candidly admitted Tuesday during his 2020 NFL Scouting Combine press availability.
"When I showed up [to Oregon], I was shy — didn't want to step on anyone's toes and the quarterback can't be that," Herbert said. "To be a successful team, you have to have a quarterback that's himself. He's gonna be genuine and real and he needs to demand his offense from the team what he needs to get out of them."
The introspective approach echoes what the scouting report will tell you on Herbert, the person. He's smart as hell.
When Herbert decided to tell his family that he was bound for Oregon, his father recalls a sense of surprise, because he had initially expected Herbert was staying local to enroll in the biology program, not to play quarterback for the Ducks. All the intelligence in the world won't necessarily prepare you for the live-action of playing quarterback in the national spotlight. Nor will it brace you for stepping outside of your shell, but Herbert's embraced that challenge with a little help from his recent experiences and his supporting cast in Eugene, Oregon.
One example? His offensive coordinator, Marcus Arroyo, bought him a book before the 2019 season titled "Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. The book, in layman's terms, explores the dynamics of introverted personalities versus their extrovert counterparts and understanding how the personalities can best mesh and compliment one another.
It's a scary proposition, given that the last quarterback to face some of the same questions in the name of "leadership concerns" was UCLA's Josh Rosen — who flopped so badly in Arizona that he was flipped after one season to the Miami Dolphins and promptly failed to win the starting job for the rebuilding Dolphins in 2019.
But even Rosen was dogged with more smoke regarding his "likability," commitment to football and his ability to lead — all of which seem to have materialized in an inability to commandeer two separate NFL offenses while being exposed to seven offensive coordinators in five seasons of college and professional football. The closer we get to the 2020 NFL Draft, the more enthusiasm we seem to hear surrounding Herbert, his evolving leadership and his ability to fulfill the role of "franchise quarterback" successfully. One AFC executive indicated this week that Herbert is more talented than the presumptive first-overall selection, Joe Burrow — at least from a physical perspective, he is. The whispers from South Florida last week indicated that the Dolphins might just be receptive to standing pat at No. 5 and drafting Herbert in favor of trading up for Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa — depending on the cost, they should at the very least consider it.
Herbert received rave reviews for his work in Mobile, Alabama — a development that should hardly be considered a surprise considering the nature of the all-star event. A recent report from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler went as far as to suggest that the apprehension from NFL teams has been eliminated by Herbert's effort in answering the bell as a leader this offseason.
On Tuesday, Herbert referenced the Senior Bowl specifically as a prime opportunity to make steps forward as a leader and quarterback by stepping outside of his comfort zone and being more vocal but also by taking snaps under center and committing to trying to advance his footwork and pass sets.
That might feel like an obvious step, but for the quiet young man who first stepped onto campus in Eugene four years ago, no venture outside of the comfort zone should be overlooked or under-appreciated.
"I've done a better job of being vocal, stepping up, and stepping out of my comfort zone to get better," Herbert said. "Coach [Willie] Taggart, coach [Mario] Cristobal, and coach Arroyo, these are three guys that have had a huge influence on me over these past three years and have really done a good job of forcing myself to be uncomfortable.”
Which brings us back to that book.
"Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it," Cain writes. "If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they’re difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you’re done.”
The shifting narratives and changes in Herbert's perception throughout NFL circles is an indication that the effort he has put forth (and the effort of his coaches) has paid dividends and — just as importantly — Herbert has found the calling he was meant to answer in life.
Over four and a half years, Herbert went from a recruiting afterthought and potentially an aspiring doctor to one of the most coveted quarterback prospects in the country — he just happened to do it while learning on the job for 42 games at Oregon.
The program’s coaches deserve credit for their ability to coax a more assertive Herbert both into the huddle and locker room. But Herbert's coaching staff didn't necessarily check every possible box in prepping him for life in the NFL.
He never took snaps under center before this offseason. He's called upon a lot of footwork reps to develop his pass drops from a traditional alignment. Is it a killer to his draft status? Absolutely not.
The NFL game is changing and evolving at a pretty sudden rate and "pro style" quarterback prospects who consistently work under center are becoming a fun novelty and cliche more than anything else.
But it's still a change and something Herbert will need to familiarize himself with. But if he's been able to shake off the stigma of a quiet introvert and come into his own as a leader, what's a few pass drops and footwork drills? Herbert has invoked game tape of several prominent pro passers in hopes of style portions of his game after those who have come before him.
- Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan: footwork and play action mannerisms
- New England Patriots' Tom Brady: throwing mechanics (noted the lead, left shoulder and hips)
Pair all of these small developments with the style of Oregon's offensive attack and it's easy to stack up layers on top of layers that could bog anyone down.
But they haven't bogged Herbert down. He endured his best collegiate season in 2019 despite some subpar play on the line of scrimmage (everyone to the right of guard Shane Lemieux), losing his safety blanket (tight end Jacob Breeland) for the year in mid-October, a slew of drops from his receivers and an uninspiring passing structure that often leaned too much on the screen game and quick passing.
Simultaneously, Herbert budded as a leader and helped steer the Ducks to their first Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl victory since 2014.
The odd reality of Herbert is this: He's a late bloomer. It's not often we can say that about a quarterback with 42 career starts for a national powerhouse program, especially when he throws for nearly 500 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona State as a true freshman in 2016.
But here we are.
Herbert, after an unassuming start to his football career, now knows who he is — as a football player and as a person.
"I'm a different person to be honest. And I think the kid that showed up at the University of Oregon isn't me anymore," Herbert said. "And you know, there's aspects of my game that are changed. I've become more vocal. I've become more outgoing and there are things that you have to do to be a quarterback in the way that a quarterback carries himself."
Herbert is not perfect on the field. He's not the archetype of a modern NFL franchise quarterback in how he carries himself in the locker room, either. But he's himself. And that's enough.