Being the top quarterback in the NFL draft would be a dream come true for many people, but Justin Herbert seems to already be living his dream in Eugene. The University of Oregon quarterback announced on Wednesday that he would return to school to play his senior season for the Ducks rather than enter the 2019 NFL draft, where initial, pre-combine, and pro day rankings indicated that he had a strong chance to be the first quarterback selected.
Despite Herbert’s mock draft hype, his decision tracks when considering his family ties to the school. Herbert grew up 1 mile from Oregon’s football complex; his grandfather played for the Ducks; the QB was attending Oregon games with his family’s season tickets long before he was starring in Oregon’s games; and Herbert’s brother Patrick, a four-star tight end recruit, will play for the Ducks next season.
“I pinch myself every day just realizing where I’m at,” Herbert told The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman in May. “If my 10-year-old self knew where I was at, [he’d] be so excited right now.”
Despite his personal motivations, though, Herbert will be second-guessed on this decision if his 2020 draft stock doesn’t wind up matching what his 2019 standing seemed likely to be. He’ll go from having a real shot at being the top quarterback selected from the relatively weak 2019 quarterback pool to the uncertainty of 2020, when he’ll be in a far more crowded field at the position. Like presidential candidates, quarterbacks don’t need to be good to be drafted high as much as they need to be better than their competition.
Herbert stood out in this class because he was the tallest in the field, both literally — he is 6-foot-6 — and figuratively. Herbert might not be considered an elite prospect if he were grouped with last year’s quarterback class of Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson, but he is one of the most tantalizing in a meh 2019 group that includes West Virginia’s Will Grier, Missouri’s Drew Lock, and, if they declare, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma’s Heisman winner, Kyler Murray. Conversely, the 2020 quarterback class includes numerous passers who’d rate as the top prospect in many other years, highlighted by Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Washington’s Jacob Eason (a Georgia transfer), and the present and future of quarterbacking, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who will all be draft eligible after next season.
NFL teams pay rookies based on where they’re selected in the draft, so falling down the board could prove costly for Herbert. Mayfield and Darnold, both picked in the top three in 2018, signed deals for more than $30 million guaranteed. Allen and Rosen signed deals guaranteed for $21.2 million and $17.6 million, respectively, after being selected seventh and 10th overall. Jackson, who was taken with the final pick of the first round, signed a deal worth $7.6 million guaranteed. Falling to the second round could mean less than $5 million guaranteed.
The question for Herbert is whether he can maintain his standing as a top prospect despite the talent around the rest of the country in next year’s class. He has physical tools (“Herbert is tall” is the new “Baker is short”) but his junior-year numbers won’t impress too many fans. Among FBS quarterbacks this season, Herbert is tied for 63rd in completion percentage (59.6), tied for 30th in yards per attempt (8.0), tied for 12th in passing touchdowns (28), and is 31st in quarterback rating (147.8). Other than touchdowns, all of those numbers declined from Herbert’s sophomore season, and they all lag far behind Haskins, Grier, and Murray.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said on NFL Live on Wednesday that Herbert made the right decision to return to school because he regressed statistically and on tape this year, though Kiper still had Herbert ranked sixth overall and first among quarterbacks on his big board before Herbert’s announcement — seemingly a product of the weakness of the 2019 QB class.
“He didn’t play his best football this year, and I think by going back, with the offensive line and the skill talent around him, his brother coming in as a recruit at tight end, I think it’s all set up, as it was for Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, going back for another year can a lot of times benefit you dramatically,” Kiper said. “And I think for Justin Herbert, it’s a very wise decision.”
Obviously, no two cases are the same; careers (and lives) are about far more than salaries and signing bonuses, and many people would not trade a year of college for any amount of money. For every Manning or Luck, however, there’s a touted prospect who returned to school only to see his stock fall. USC quarterback Matt Barkley was considered a top-10 pick in the 2012 draft, alongside Robert Griffin III and Luck. Instead of declaring, he returned to USC. “I was all about USC growing up,” Barkley told The Associated Press in December 2011. “I just think there’s more to the college game, with the students and the alumni. I love everything about it. … I do feel loved here.”
Despite being in a far weaker quarterback class in 2013, Barkley fell to the fourth round amid concerns about a disappointing senior season and questions about his arm strength that arose late in his senior year. The one-time top recruit and draft prospect has started seven NFL games in four years, and most recently made a surprise appearance for the Bills that led everyone to briefly reminisce on “what the hell happened to Matt Barkley?”
Washington quarterback Jake Locker, meanwhile, was projected to be perhaps the top quarterback selected in the 2010 draft after taking over a Huskies team that went 0–12 in 2008 and leading them to a 5–7 campaign in 2009. Locker, who hailed from Ferndale, Washington, stayed to help continue to turn around the program, becoming a local icon in the process and leading the team to a 7–6 record in 2010 and their first bowl appearance in eight years before going eighth overall to Tennessee in 2011.
Eighth overall wasn’t exactly a huge slide for Locker, but he missed out on a massive payday by going back to school. Locker returned to Washington despite knowing that the NFL and NFLPA would institute a new salary structure after 2010 that limited rookie wages. Sam Bradford ended up going first overall in 2010 and signed a six-year, $78 million contract. The following year, Cam Newton was taken first and signed a five-year, $22.5 million deal. Locker signed a four-year deal worth $12.6 million and started 23 games in four seasons, but never signed a second contract. He says that he left football with no regrets.
And of course there’s Matt Leinart, who had it all in college: a Heisman Trophy, a national championship in [REDACTED], and one of the best running backs in college football history playing alongside him. Projected to be the no. 1 overall pick in 2005, Leinart returned for his fifth season in 2005 (the only class he took was ballroom dancing). He ended up being drafted by the Cardinals 10th overall in 2006, which was considered an embarrassing draft-day slide in the pre–Brady Quinn world. Still, Leinart doesn’t think it was a mistake.
“I loved going back to school and I loved being in college,” Leinart said last year when discussing USC QB Sam Darnold’s pending decision to enter the NFL draft. “I have no regrets to this day, but every situation is different.”
Herbert’s situation is certainly different from his predecessors, considering the opportunity to play football with his brother less than five minutes from where they grew up. Returning for his senior season and inserting himself into a loaded QB draft class may hurt Herbert’s eventual draft position, but if he understands the risks, there’s nothing wrong with opting to be a big duck in a small pond for one more year — especially when that pond is in his backyard.