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Justin Herbert Has Made the Leap. How Much Further Can He Go?

After yet another epic performance on Sunday against Cleveland, the Chargers QB is rapidly rising up the NFL rankings at his position. But where is his ceiling? And how much of a gap is there between him and the league’s greats?

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The first time Justin Herbert made NFL analysts look foolish for doubting him as a draft prospect came in his third NFL start.

It was the first quarter of a Week 4 game in Tampa, and the Chargers had the ball near midfield. Herbert took the snap from under center, carried out a play-action fake, and finished his drop at the Bucs’ 36-yard line. He eyed his first option, Keenan Allen, running a double move to the quarterback’s left. Covered. Next, Herbert’s eyes darted toward the middle of the field, where Tyron Johnson was running a deep post. But the rush was starting to close in. Bucs defensive end William Gholston had powered his way through the line and was bearing down on Herbert. But the rookie wasn’t bothered—he calmly leaned back, cocked his arm, and launched the football into orbit.

Seeing the pass heading his way, Johnson started to slow at about the 9-yard line, but he soon realized the ball was still flying. The Chargers receiver quickly course-corrected, accelerating into the catch, and it landed in his arms at the 4-yard line, a good 60 yards downfield from where Herbert stood. The accuracy, the velocity, the distance—it was a truly awesome throw. Just watch it for yourself:

Pretty good, huh? Former NFL quarterback John Beck thought so, too. The 40-year-old, who trains quarterbacks for the 3DQB training academy in Southern California and has served as Herbert’s personal QB coach since 2020, picked that pass when I asked him about the best throw he had seen his client make.

“People do not realize how amazing of a throw that was,” Beck said over the phone. “To his left, sliding left, taking a hit, and I mean just unloading that ball. It just jumped out of his hand. I remember watching it and just thinking, my goodness. Quarterbacks in the league are aware of what everybody’s doing. They’re well aware of the great throws that happen each week. I know the other quarterbacks in the league saw that and are aware of the throws Justin is making.”

This season, each new week seems to bring another jaw-dropping throw from Herbert. Just for fun, here’s a 153-second video of him making difficult throws look ridiculously easy.

Herbert kept the highlight reel plays coming on Sunday in a wild 47-42 win over the Browns that pushed the Chargers to 4-1 and the top of the AFC West. He finished the game 26-of-43 for 398 yards and five total touchdowns—but even that stat line doesn’t fully explain what we saw. Cleveland led for most of the second half, and the Chargers had to convert a gauntlet of fourth-down plays to stay in the game. But it never felt like Herbert was going to lose. Each time his team needed a play, the second-year pro made it.

Los Angeles has now won against two of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, including a road victory over the Chiefs. For former Jets and Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum, that win over Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 3 was proof that Herbert isn’t far off from the consensus best quarterback in the game. “He just outplayed Patrick,” Tannenbaum said. “That game was not a fluke. We can bullshit all we want, and it’s still Patrick’s division, but … he just went into Arrowhead and outplayed Mahomes.”

Herbert has plenty to accomplish before he catches the 2018 MVP in the eyes of the football world. But in Year 2, he’s taken his game to a level that few around the league expected. At this point last year, Herbert had just been named the Chargers’ starter and was still viewed as a raw prospect who needed time to develop into a viable starter. Now we’re wondering whether he’ll eventually challenge the most talented quarterback this league has ever seen. How has Herbert made that leap? And how much further can he go?

Tannenbaum has long been an admirer of Herbert’s game, going back to Tannenbaum’s time leading the Dolphins front office from 2015 to 2018. He personally scouted the Oregon prospect for two years and at one point even traveled to Utah to see him play.

“The first thing that just jumped out to me was, ‘He’s a big man,’” Tannenbaum said earlier this month. “He was like a young Ben Roethlisberger. Physically, he has exactly what you wanted. And he was a really smart guy. He could process information.”

Tannenbaum left the Dolphins front office at the end of 2018, so he didn’t get a chance to draft Herbert. But as an analyst for ESPN that spring, he told anyone who would listen what he thought of the Oregon QB. During the run-up to that draft, Tannenbaum says he was “screaming from the mountaintops” that Herbert, and not Joe Burrow, was the best player in the class … and that it wasn’t even close.

“I was really surprised Cincinnati wouldn’t take the bigger, stronger, more durable player, and they would take somebody like Joe Burrow, who had one year of production,” he said. “That made no sense to me. Herbert is just a better player. He was coming out, he still is, and he will be in 10 years.”

That doesn’t sound like too hot of a take in 2021, but it was last year. Burrow was coming off the most prolific season in college football history—his 60 passing touchdowns and 6,039 total yards were both single-season FBS records—and he’d done it in a pro-style system that required him to see the game like an NFL quarterback. He was seen as a no-brainer no. 1 pick, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa locked in right behind him.

What Tannenbaum saw in Herbert, though, was a player who had everything you’d want in a quarterback. As close as you’ll get to a “perfect prospect,” in Tannenbaum’s words. “He was the biggest, strongest, fastest. He was the smartest,” Tannenbaum says. “His character was impeccable. He was the most competitive. ... Every single test that was thrown in front of him, he said, ‘C’mon. Bring it on,’ and he thrived.”

Not all evaluators agreed with Tannenbaum on that last point. Herbert’s competitiveness, or lack thereof, became a big pre-draft talking point. “I see talent. I don’t see fire,” one anonymous scout told The Athletic’s Bob McGinn in March 2020. “[Jared] Goff had the same type of personality. … Quiet, not outgoing. He’s smart but he doesn’t have that aggressive personality.”

It’s true that Herbert is a fairly soft-spoken player, and pre-draft, some took that as a sign of weak leadership. NFL quarterbacks are supposed to take control of a locker room, after all, and Herbert didn’t come across as a guy who could do that.

“At times he can be a little quiet. At times he can be a little introverted,” Beck admits. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe there’s some people who thought in the evaluation process that their quarterback needed to be a certain way. I’m sure that those people … wonder what they [were] thinking now.”

Herbert’s personality wasn’t the only factor in him being the third quarterback off the board in 2020. There were also some on-field concerns with his game. The most common criticism focused on Herbert’s timing and how it affected his accuracy. In college, Herbert always seemed to be a beat or two late on his throws, which led to poor decisions and off-target passes. J.T. O’Sullivan, a former NFL quarterback turned high school football coach who does film breakdowns on his YouTube channel, The QB School, found similar issues when reviewing Herbert’s tape before the 2020 draft.

“I always just try to stick to the tape and talk about what I’m seeing rather than speculating,” O’Sullivan says. And “I remember there being some timing issues that led to some inconsistent accuracy. But that hasn’t been a problem for him on Sundays, obviously.”

No, it hasn’t. But Herbert’s mechanics did cause some problems at Oregon. Beck says the Ducks coaching staff was more concerned with their young quarterback playing with a clear head rather than overcoaching his mechanics. Ideal footwork was seen as a luxury rather than a necessity, and getting Herbert prepared for Sundays wasn’t their biggest priority. They were trying to win games—and having their ultra-talented quarterback play loose was the best way to do it.

“[Oregon] had footwork that they had set up within their system, but it was more of a frame of reference,” Beck said. “There weren’t nailed-down specifics … the coaches knew how talented he was, and they didn’t want him to get hung up on those throws. It was always, ‘Just let it go, Justin. Go get the next one. It’ll be fine.’ But he had a desire to know why he wasn’t making those throws.”

That was the focus of Herbert’s pre-draft training sessions with Beck—largely because there just wasn’t a whole lot else to work on. “Sometimes we get guys before the draft, and they know they need to add some velocity to their throw, they know they need to drive the ball to certain parts of the field better or throw off-platform a little better,” Beck says. “Justin didn’t have any of those things. He knew there were throws throughout his collegiate career that he needed to make, and he wanted to know why he wasn’t making them.”

Beck says they ultimately determined that Herbert’s timing was off between his lower and upper body. Herbert’s upper half was opening up too quickly, which threw his passes off line. It wasn’t an overly complicated fix—the key was adjusting Herbert’s drops so they synched up with the routes he was throwing—and by the time the tentpole events of the draft cycle rolled around, Herbert was consistently making the throws he let get away during his time at Oregon.

“His ability to complete passes and put the ball exactly where it needs to be is freaky,” says O’Sullivan, who spent the better part of a decade in the NFL. “It’s bordering on something that I’ve never seen. … It seems like they’re coming damn near every week. And I think that’s why he has kind of leap-frogged some guys to get to the top tier. His ability to consistently make those throws ... it’s so impressive.”

Herbert’s tape has some analysts ready to put him in the elite tier of NFL passers, and rightfully so. But before the Cleveland game, his statistical production hadn’t quite matched the eye test. He ranked a good-not-great 10th in expected points added (EPA) per play, per RBSDM.com. And he ranked 11th in QBR and tied for 17th in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A). Those underwhelming numbers got a boost after Sunday—but his disconcerting lack of production on early downs continued even on his monster day. Herbert’s 0.04 EPA per play on first and second downs ranks 25th in the league, but on third down, he jumps up to 0.44 EPA per play, which ranks sixth.

The large gap in those splits is easy to explain. So far this season, the Chargers have had difficulty turning accurate passes into completions. Among quarterbacks with at least 40 early-down passing attempts, Herbert has the biggest gap between his on-target throw rate (84.3 percent) and his completion percentage (68.4 percent). He is putting the ball where it needs to be. It’s just not being caught. And while some of the responsibility for that chasm falls on the Chargers receivers, a good chunk should also be attributed to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.

Lombardi, who came over from the Saints this year, asks a lot of his players. His system calls for a lot of tough throws to the perimeter, and a lot of tough catches along the sidelines. (The Chargers are tied for the third-most “contested catch” targets in the league, per Pro Football Focus.) Sure, Lombardi is incorporating his fair share of play-action passes, which have been a cheat code for most offenses. But for the Chargers, those plays have mostly attacked the sidelines rather than the middle of the field, which requires longer throws that are more difficult to connect on. Per Sports Info Solutions, no quarterback has attempted more play-action passes aimed outside the numbers than Herbert has this season. And the strategy isn’t working: Herbert ranks 28th in ANY/A on play-action passes this season.

Herbert’s success on third down, though, has been impressive enough to make up for some of his coordinator’s shortcomings. That down is the most challenging for NFL quarterbacks—yet that’s when he’s shone the most. “On [early] downs, you usually know what [the defense’s] personnel will be and you know what their base coverages are,” O’Sullivan says. “When you get into third down, it’s like a game within a game. You’re always going to get the exotic pressures and the exotic coverages on third down. I used to have coaches who called it Star Wars. You don’t know what the hell is coming at you, or from where.”

Because of the big gap between Herbert’s performance on third and first and second downs, some have wondered whether he is due for regression. That tends to happen with quarterbacks who overperform on third down over a small sample. But Herbert had success on those downs even in his rookie year—going back to the start of the 2020 season, Herbert ranks fifth in third down success rate, and he’s managed to get even better in his second season.

Despite his less-than-ideal offensive conditions, Herbert has kept the Chargers passing game rolling this season, and his play under duress has been the key factor. Herbert appears to be preternaturally gifted under pressure. For a second consecutive season, he has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at handling heat in the pocket, ranking fourth in EPA on pressured dropbacks, according to Sports Info Solutions.

How a quarterback responds to pressure typically tells you a lot about their approach. Fantasy football analyst Adam Harstad quantifies this using three statistics: yards per attempt, sack rate, and interception rate. Harstad’s theory is that quarterbacks make certain trade-offs when dealing with pressure. Some avoid danger by throwing checkdowns, which drag down their yards per attempt average. Others will hold the ball until a receiver gets open, which leads to a higher sack rate. And there are some who will just throw it downfield in order to avoid a sack, which might lead to a higher interception rate.

Herbert is different. Since the start of 2020, Herbert ranks seventh in sack rate and eighth in interception rate among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 50 passes under pressure. He also ranks fourth in both EPA and on-target throw rate on those plays. There isn’t another quarterback in the league who ranks in the top 10 in all of those categories. Not even Mahomes.

The 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year is capable of solving potential problems in an instant—and that shows up in his film. As soon as a free rusher pops up, Herbert reacts, and typically finds somewhere to go with the ball.

“When you watch him play, he has Tom Brady’s microprocessor [and] a young Ben Roethlisberger’s size,” Tannenbaum says. “Ben was such a pain in the ass to play against because he was just so hard to tackle. It was so frustrating. You could get free runners at Ben and he just physically manhandled you. And with Tom, he just beat you with his mind. I think Herbert has a chance to be a combination of those guys.”

Beck has a similar theory, pointing out that Herbert’s meticulous preparation and attention to detail, combined with his supernatural ability, makes him uniquely suited to deal with high-pressure situations.

“The way that his mind works, he’s going to be very good at setting up things in a specific place and then being able to retrieve those things when called upon,” Beck said. “If you were setting up a library, and you wanted certain books in one location, other books in another location, when you needed to retrieve a certain style of book, he would know exactly where to go. He’s just very good in that way, and I think that when you combine that with his athleticism ... it’s just a combination of all those things that separates Justin.”

In today’s NFL, with quarterbacks rewriting record books every season thanks to rule changes and schematic innovations, it can be difficult to separate the passers who are a product of their offensive systems and those who could thrive in any situation. But Herbert’s play under pressure and on third down is why it’s so easy to call it with him. The Chargers aren’t doing him any favors with their play-calling or scheme—and yet he is thriving. He’s clearly a franchise quarterback; the question is whether or not he’s already in the NFL’s elite tier.

For Tannenbaum, the only other young quarterback in Herbert’s class is Mahomes, who obviously has a few years on his AFC West rival. And when asked about quarterbacks who were drafted in the past two years, Tannenbaum says there isn’t anyone close.

“Trevor Lawrence has the ability to get there, but there’s a question about how he’s going to deal with adversity because there’s going to be a lot of it in Jacksonville,” Tannenbaum says. “That remains to be seen. And when you get into Burrow, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones—none of them look like Justin Herbert. They look like the J.V. [by comparison].”

So what’s the difference between Herbert and those other guys? His size and durability. Tannenbaum believes those attributes make Herbert a better bet to be good over the long haul than the other guys in his range.

“If you were a car insurance company, and we were ensuring somebody’s safety, would we want a Chevy Tahoe or would we want a little VW Rabbit?” Tannenbaum asks. “Do you want a little Mini Cooper? You don’t think that thing is going to get bumped and bruised? Or do you want a big Chevy Tahoe … the premier edition? That’s what I want; I want the big Chevy Tahoe for safety.”

Herbert obviously has the physical ability required for true superstardom at the quarterback position. But his mental development will dictate just how big of a star he can become. By all accounts, he’s a hard worker and a quick study, so that should come in due time. O’Sullivan says it typically takes a few years for a quarterback to get a firm grasp on the playbook.

“I’ve always heard that it’s three years,” he says. “A year to learn it, a year to master it, and then a year to make it your own. That’s when you can start to see the composer-like command at the line of scrimmage that most of the top guys have.”

As the Chargers wait for Herbert to take that next step, they’ll get to enjoy the best bargain in sports: A top-tier quarterback playing on a rookie contract. Herbert will make $26.6 million over the life of his four-year rookie deal, according to Spotrac. And his $6.6 million average means Los Angeles will have a lot of money to throw around over the next couple of years. Whether the team puts that money to good use will determine how much Herbert can accomplish; but as long as he’s around, both he and the Chargers have a chance to go a long way.

“This guy wants to be great,” Tannenbaum says. “He’s off to this amazing start—but it’s only going to get better.”

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