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NFL Draft

Is Chargers QB Justin Herbert Who We Thought He Was?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 1, 2020
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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert wasn't supposed to be here. Part of the appeal of Herbert being selected No. 6 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft was that he'd be able to simmer and develop behind a veteran quarterback in Tyrod Taylor—alleviating all pressure for the young signal-caller to commandeer the Chargers offense early on. The football gods had other plans.

Not dissimilar to Herbert's freshman season at Oregon, where he was cast into the starting lineup after starting the season as the Ducks' second-string quarterback as a true freshman, Herbert has been unceremoniously thrust into the deep end and charged with either sinking or swimming. A freak accident featuring Taylor and the Chargers' team doctor led to a punctured lung for the veteran quarterback and it has been all Herbert in the two games since.

How has it gone thus far? On the surface, it seems to be going well enough. Even though the Chargers are 0-2 with Herbert at the helm, the team came within a hook and lateral last Sunday and a fourth-quarter defensive stop in Week 2 from being 2-0. Herbert has, statistically, helped the Chargers move the ball—he's produced two consecutive 300-plus yard passing performances and completed nearly 70% of his pass attempts to this point.

But the surface doesn't really tell the story, much like it didn't tell the story of Herbert the NFL Draft prospect, either.

Herbert the draft prospect was a tantalizing talent that left evaluators polarized on what his ceiling and floor would be in the pros. With prototypical size, freakish athleticism, and a cannon for an arm, Herbert checked all the stereotypical boxes of a first-round quarterback. And, sure enough, the Chargers called his name at No. 6 overall. But the book on Herbert expressed just as many concerns about his intrinsic feel for the game and his leadership style as it did support for his athletic exploits. The 2020 NFL Draft profile on Herbert from the TDN Scouting Staff echoed as such:

"Justin Herbert has all of the physical tools to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL, particularly for a vertical passing offense. Herbert presents as a player with consistency issues on timing throws and troublesome lapses under pressure. Ball security is another issue, so Herbert will need to be aided by high level interior OL play to protect him from consistent duress. If everything clicks, he's a top tier talent. But the wrong situation could be nuclear." - Kyle Crabbs, The Draft Network
"Herbert possesses all of the requisite traits in order to turn into a franchise QB, but fit will be essential for him. Adaptation to certain concepts and even calling a play from the huddle will be areas that he has to get used to. Opinions will be mixed on his laid back demeanor, but for now, more sense of urgency and outspokenness would helps team project him with becoming a reliable leader. Herbert has already been banged up quite a bit throughout his career. Protecting him at all costs will be vital. Otherwise, his body may begin to break down at an early age. If all things fall in Herbert’s favor he could quickly turn into a potential franchise QB. If not, he could be searching for another team during his second contract and looking to relight the flame that once made him an intriguing prospect." - Jordan Reid, The Draft Network
"Every physical gift desirable in a quarterback prospect is baked into Justin Herbert. His peaks are incredibly exciting and his starting point for his NFL career is at a good place given his improvements from 2018 to 2019. While Herbert is a bit rough around the edges and needs to get better in several critical areas, he represents a high upside chance at dynamic NFL starting quarterback. The infrastructure around Herbert will be critical to his success and development, but he’s a chance worth taking given his physical skill set and progress to this point. It will be important for his NFL offense to include timing and spacing concepts in addition to RPOs to keep him on schedule while sprinkling in more progression concepts." - Joe Marino, The Draft Network

Common themes among Herbert's assessment include references to the "tools" while acknowledging "fit" as a critical X-factor for his development as a player. And considering no one would have guessed Herbert, walking into to Chargers camp behind Taylor, would be in this position by the beginning of Week 4, it is difficult to gauge just exactly how good the "fit" is to accommodate Herbert's "tools" to this point in time. But we'll try.

The Chargers have largely operated touchdown or check down for Justin Herbert to this point in time—which may be what Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn was referring to ahead of Week 3 when he stated that the Chargers had “a lot (they) didn’t get done with Justin on the field."

“He’s a backup for a reason. It’s not like we won the damn game ... we lost. Last time I checked," said Lynn to the Chargers media.

And upon further review, Lynn isn't wrong, but he's also selling his quarterback short to some degree as well. The Chargers are in the ultimate conflict with their young quarterback and his inexperience versus the efficiency and limitations of their veteran signal caller in Taylor. The Chargers' offense under Herbert has seen just 24 passing attempts stretched beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in Herbert's first two starts. Both of his passing touchdowns and both of his interceptions have come on such attempts (he's 14-of-24 overall beyond 10 yards of the LOS). With an average snap to release of 2.62s, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats, only nine NFL quarterbacks offer a quicker trigger than Herbert and only five NFL quarterbacks average fewer air yards per completion than Herbert's 4.7 per completion.

Again, we're operating from touchdown or check down with a whole lot of check downs and, in Week 3's case, stick routes underneath.

But at the very least, Herbert's cannon arm opens up more areas of the field to attack than what Taylor would be willing to try at this point in his long-tenured NFL career. The book on Taylor is clear at this point: he takes care of the football to a fault, often not willing to test coverage or throw into windows in the name of ball security. With Herbert at the helm, you also get quarterback play that is too often content to drop it underneath to his backs (running back Austin Ekeler was targeted 11 times in Week 3 against the Panthers), but then he'll flash a throw like this dagger into middle of the field open coverage in a "must-have" scenario late in the game against Carolina.

Wow! The Panthers were persistent in playing Cover 3 for much of the game and building a picket fence on the B-level of the defense to congest Herbert's reads—which often prompted him to work his check downs to the backs and occasionally come back late to crossers underneath and try to slot them in off schedule. But here, against quarters, Herbert is forced by the game situation to slot the throw and, lo and behold, it is a beauty.

Based on the early returns of Herbert's first 82 career pass attempts, the early returns suggest the Chargers are going to have to work around the rookie handcuffs. But these are the same kinds of throws Herbert made at Oregon that caused NFL draft pundits to pause and say "yeah, but..."

Perhaps what is most encouraging to this point with Herbert is the pocket mobility. He's always had the flash plays that make your eyeballs bulge. But one common theme in pre-draft assessments of Herbert was that he was too rigid and unnatural sliding in the pocket to evade pass-rushers. Yes, Panthers second-year standout Brian Burns gave Herbert fits at times in Week 3, but again, his flashes come in bunches. And you'd be hard-pressed to find reps at Oregon in which Herbert slides in the pocket and resets like he did on that gorgeous dime to Allen against Carolina. Or here again on a negated big play due to offensive pass interference (a toss that also showed good awareness to identify the deep defender had his back turned to the quarterback, freeing Herbert up to take this shot down the field in the first place).

This is successful pocket management. It didn't happen frequently enough against Carolina but the flashes here early on indicate there's a developing feel for how to fade pressure off the edge, even more so than what anyone would have anticipated based on his years of starting experience with the Ducks. Will it ever become a true strength of Herbert's game? If it does, watch out, because all of the other capabilities are there to provide Herbert with plenty of NFL success as a starting quarterback.

In summary, Herbert's early play is much like his timeline to getting on the field in general. It's not there yet, but it is also ahead of schedule.

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