Justin Herbert grew up close enough to the University of Oregon’s stadium that he could walk to games. He often went with his grandfather, who was a receiver for the team in the 1960s, and the entire Herbert family was obsessed with Ducks football. But it didn’t occur to Justin that he would be good enough to play there until he was offered a spot on the team by then-coach Mark Helfrich. Even after he got the offer, Herbert did not envision stardom.
“I never thought I’d play,” Justin Herbert told USA Today in August. “I thought junior or senior year I’d see mop-up time, and that’s all I ever wanted to do, was just to play for Oregon.”
Now Herbert can dream a little bigger than mop-up time. The Chargers drafted the Oregon quarterback no. 6 on Thursday night, giving the reins to their franchise to the reigning Rose Bowl champion.
Herbert is a towering quarterback at 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds. He has the speed to make plays as a runner and an arm so strong that his passes wear out his receivers’ gloves and hurt their hands. Over his last two collegiate seasons, he tossed 61 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions, and in January he led Oregon to a Rose Bowl win. But while Herbert’s size and arm are NFL-caliber, there are doubts about whether he processes what’s happening on the field quickly enough to flourish in the fast-paced pros. He’s been compared to Buffalo’s Josh Allen because his highlights are filled with stunning athleticism that make your eyes go wide, but he also makes a lot of mental mistakes that make your eyelids snap shut. Adding to that perception is that Oregon’s offense was designed less for Herbert to win games and more for him to not make mistakes. Herbert sometimes stares down receivers until they are open, and one of the downsides of being 6-foot-6 is that it’s easy for defenders to notice where he’s looking and jump the route. In his defense, he didn’t have the NFL talent around him like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or LSU’s Joe Burrow, who each played with two first-round-caliber receivers last season. But that will change now.
Herbert will be throwing to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, tight end Hunter Henry, and running back Austin Ekeler, which is about as talented a skill group as a quarterback could hope for from a team picking in the top six. Whereas Herbert’s receivers had the dropsies for his final two seasons at Oregon, he’ll work with sure-handed pass catchers in the NFL. But as he gets an upgrade at pass catcher, he’ll get the inverse on his offensive line. At Oregon, Herbert had an excellent line that was a major strength of the team. Meanwhile, the Chargers had one of the worst lines in the NFL last season, with Pro Football Focus grading their pass blocking as the second worst in football after the Dolphins. The Chargers traded for Panthers guard Trai Turner and signed tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency to help, but Herbert will have to use his mobility behind what will likely remain a group with holes. There were rumblings that the team was comfortable giving the starting job to backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but Taylor may serve the same role he did in Cleveland with Baker Mayfield in 2018 as the starter who everyone understands will eventually be benched.
Herbert is a classic example of the high-upside prospect with physical tools but questionable decision-making, but L.A. believes those issues are fixable. Even Herbert himself was not selling himself as a surefire starter earlier this year. He was refreshingly honest at the NFL combine when asked about whether he was good enough to succeed in the NFL. “I’ve never played a down in the NFL,” Herbert told reporters. “I couldn’t tell you what the speed of the game is like. I’ve watched as much as I could and I feel confident with my abilities, but I’ve never played in the NFL before, so to give you an answer whether I could play right now, I don’t think that would be in my best interest.”
Herbert threw for 19 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight games as a true freshman and went on to be the team’s starter for his final three seasons, logging 43 appearances in four years. He was expected to enter the 2019 NFL draft and potentially be the no. 1 pick, but decided to return to school to play with his brother, who was a freshman tight end on the team last year.
One of the quibbles teams had with Herbert during the predraft process was his personality. Herbert is quiet. Scouts have extrapolated that as a sign he is not a natural leader, or not confident, or not an alpha male (welcome to the NFL). When Herbert was an underclassman at Oregon, he reversed the direction of a play rather than tell senior running back Royce Freeman he was lined up on the wrong side of the field.
“He’s always pretty quiet until he’s got something to say,” his brother Patrick told The Ringer in January. “Then he’ll make sure you know what he’s trying to get across.”
Luckily for Herbert, the crowds in L.A. will be quiet too. While fans in stadiums may not be a thing this season, the Chargers will eventually move to SoFi Stadium, which will seat more than 70,000 fans. Considering the Chargers had trouble filling a 27,000-seat soccer stadium in Carson, California, they may have fewer fans than Herbert played for in Oregon’s 54,000-capacity Autzen Stadium, the stadium that he grew up walking to for games as a kid. He’ll soon learn he can’t walk anywhere in Los Angeles, especially to stadiums.