Why ‘soft,’ ‘immature’ Justin Herbert was more prepared for the NFL than draft experts projected

Football (NFL,High School,College )

Joe Burrow was a sure thing. A healthy Tua Tagovailoa was a sure thing. Then there was Justin Herbert.

Herbert was taken sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Chargers out of Oregon, five picks after Burrow and three after Tagovailoa. That came after Herbert put up huge college stats as a thrower for the Ducks, packaged in a 6-6 frame. Yet somehow, there wasn’t the same confidence that Herbert would deliver on his potential as the two QBs taken ahead of him.

Fast forward to October, and Herbert is starting faster than anyone expected. The Chargers had Tyrod Taylor ready to keep the seat warm until Herbert was ready, but a an accidentally punctured lung sent Taylor to the sideline and Herbert into the fire in Week 2. Herbert’s thrown for 931 yards in three games, second-most in NFL history for a rookie quarterback’s first three starts behind Cam Newton, to go with five touchdowns.

L.A. is far from a perfect team, and the Chargers are 0-3 in Herbert’s starts. But less than halfway through his first NFL season, Herbert already looks to have proved the draft doubters wrong.

MORE: What happened to Tyrod Taylor?

What were Justin Herbert’s negative draft traits?

At the NFL Combine, Herbert was honest — he admitted the obvious, that he had never played in the NFL, and spoke about how that meant he can’t know for sure what the speed of the game would be like. ESPN’s Emmanuel Acho didn’t like that.

“Justin Herbert, he could potentially be one of the biggest mistakes of the draft,” Acho said, then continued, “Those are not words you want to hear from your future franchise quarterback. They might’ve been honest, but the draft isn’t the time to be honest. Lie to me.”

The Herbert leadership critcisms appear to stem from former Oregon head coach Willie Taggart, who spoke about wanting a quarterback who did more than throw touchdowns. “Unnamed scouts” wondered about Herbert to Bleacher Report in 2018, suggesting he’s “soft” and “immature” and “quirky.”

The critiques continued in 2019, when Desmond Howard compared Herbert to Joey Harrington. “That’s my concern with the quarterback out there at Oregon, Justin Herbert,” Howard said. “Not sure he can win the locker room like Burrow.”

Unlike with statistics, it’s hard to nail down exactly where scouts or Acho or Howard could really nail down solid opinions on this matter. It’s likely those at Oregon were the only ones who could truly speak to the way Herbert won over locker rooms, and even Taggart had changed his tune later on.

On the field, the questions surrounding Herbert involved his accuracy and what Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer called his “Jekyll-and-Hyde nature.”

Breer quoted one NFC executive saying, “The entire skill set’s there—tall, smart, athletic, can throw, and throw on the run. He’ll miss a few, and you ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ And you think maybe you clean it up, do something with his footwork. But no doubt, he’s a top-five pick.”

Herbert’s completion percentage did take a tumble in his 2018 junior season, when completed 59.4 percent of passes and threw a career-worst eight interceptions. But he righted the ship as a senior, completing 66.8 percent of passes with 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

What did Herbert’s critics ignore?

The ability to make all the throws on the field isn’t everything in a quarterback. But QBs who can’t make all the throws are starting behind the eight ball. Herbert can make all the throws.

Don’t take this paragraph as saying Herbert is the next Patrick Mahomes, but they do have similarities. Mahomes played in a college system that some NFL folks weren’t convinced translated to the pros, just like Herbert. Mahomes could make all the throws (and throws others wouldn’t even consider), just like Herbert. And just like Mahomes, Herbert possess extra athleticism that isn’t the first thing you’d notice on a 6-6 passer with a rocket arm.

In Herbert’s final college start, a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, he didn’t have a great day throwing the ball. But he willed Oregon to the win with three powerful rushing touchdowns. So maybe those same people criticizing Herbert’s leadership should’ve taken a look at another cliche they love to spout, how Herbert was a real “winner.”

This isn’t to say Herbert was an inherently better prospect than Burrow or Tagovailoa. Being third place in a group with those two isn’t a bad spot to be. But the expectation that Herbert would take time to win over a pro locker room and learn a pro system seems foolish given how quickly Herbert has already produced.

How is Herbert already taking the NFL by storm?

In Week 4, Herbert threw a touchdown pass to Tyron Johnson that traveled 62 yards in the air. That’s the second-longest a completion has traveled in the air in the past two seasons, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats service. Talk about being able to make the throws.

 

Herbert hasn’t been shy in his first three starts. He’s averaged 12.1 yards per completion, which ranks ninth in the NFL, sandwiched between MVP contenders Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. Herbert’s predecessor in L.A., Tyrod Taylor, is a dink-and-dunk passer who embraces scrambling. Herbert has totally changed the brand of the Chargers’ offense.

Surrounded by passing-game weapons like Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry and Mike Williams, Herbert is chucking the ball, again and again. It’s led to one interception in each of his first three starts, but the Chargers will take that bad thanks to the overwhelming good that comes when Herbert lets the ball fly. Herbert’s cannon has also unlocked some of the potential of the younger receivers in L.A., Johnson and Jalen Guyton, who both have long touchdown catches from Herbert.

When Herbert dueled Tom Brady in Week 4, he jumped out to a 24-7 lead. He ended up throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Sure, Brady came back to win and show the rookie how it’s done. But Herbert didn’t flinch facing off with the G.O.A.T. Pretty soon, Brady’s generation of quarterbacks will be gone, and Herbert will be contending for his spot near the front of the next generation.

 

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