Justin Herbert was all set to be the top overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. He had all the hype in a relatively weak quarterback class and could have already been an NFL starter at this point if he chose to be. Instead, Herbert decided to go back to school for another year, hoping to bring the Oregon Ducks their first national championship.
While the season did not go entirely as planned—Oregon inevitably missed the College Football Playoff—he did bring a PAC-12 title and Rose Bowl win to Autzen in his final two college games.
Now Herbert is finally headed to the NFL draft. He got an extra year to develop at the expense of sacrificing his chance at becoming the first overall pick. But if it made him an overall better football player, then spending another year in college could be worth it to the quarterback.
So was it?
Herbert was statistically one of the better quarterbacks in the country, but he was not particularly dominant on the stat sheet. He did not lead the PAC 12 in any major passing categories. The PAC 12 is the worst of the Power 5 conferences, and it is not filled with much quarterback talent. Still, though, Herbert played well for Oregon and did lead them to some glory during his career in the Pacific Northwest.
The Oregon quarterback’s athleticism and arm strength is what has really drawn scouts to him over the past few years. Herbert has one of the strongest arms in the draft class, and at 6-foot-6, he has the physical profile NFL teams love.
Relative Athletic Scores are provided by our own Kent Lee Platte at RelativeAthleticScores.com
His physical tools show up on film. The ball explodes off of Herbert’s arm. He can fire off high-velocity rockets to receivers anywhere on the field. Herbert puts a lot of mustard on the ball and can get the ball where it needs to be.
This is a trait a lot of fans may overlook. While many think of arm strength as the ability to throw the ball very far, what may be more important is being able to throw the ball short distances very fast. Every second the ball is in the air is a second a defender has to close in on the intended receiver—or the ball itself—to make a play. Herbert was most effective in the Duck’s quick passing game, and his fast ball velocity is why.
His athleticism shows up when he uses his feet. Herbert can make plays with his feet in the read-option. He also can bail out of the pocket and scramble for huge gains when the defense does not account for him in coverage.
Unfortunately, Herbert is not confident in his ability to scramble. He occasionally hesitates and takes too long to commit to running. He just stutters and dances around a bit before taking off. This puts him in a weird place where his body is not set to pass, but he also is not making any progress running the ball either. He is just standing there not doing anything.
This happens often to Herbert when he is under pressure. He panics and shuts down. Despite his athleticism, the Duck’s quarterback seems to not have faith in himself at times.
The quarterback has bad mechanics as well. The bottom half of his body will often lock up as he attempts to throw. He does not step into his throws or properly shift his hips. Herbert’s arm is strong enough that he can still get the ball downfield still, but he often drives the ball too low, or into the ground. This makes under throwing passes a common problem for Herbert despite how much strength he is actually putting on the ball.
His mechanical problems get even worse when he is forced to throw on the run. Oregon liked to use Herbert’s athleticism by rolling him out of the pocket and forcing him to make throws on the run. This is usually a good strategy. It cuts the field in half and gives a younger quarterback easier reads and creates an easier decision for him. It also can really stress one side of the defense, especially if they are in zone coverage.
Herbert fails to make a lot of his throws on the run, though. His mechanical flaws are even more obvious, his ball placement is often off, and, once again, he is often under throwing his intended target.
One of the reasons the Duck’s continue to roll him out despite his struggles is his poor decision making. He makes a lot of mistakes while reading defenses and will often throw the ball right into defenders. Herbert also has a knack to place balls in a spot where his receivers have to fight a defensive back for the ball instead of leading them into a place where they will be open.
In the end, Herbert is not the can’t-miss prospect that he was billed to be in 2019... but he does seem pretty familiar.
The best pro comparison I can think of for Herbert is Matthew Stafford. A player who—coming out of college—had a huge arm and no idea how to control it. All of the physical tools to succeed, but not nearly refined enough to maximize their use. Herbert will likely be a terrible quarterback for whatever team drafts him in year one, but if he figures things out, then he has potential to become an elite talent—just like Stafford did in 2011 after rough 2009 and 2010 seasons.
If Herbert lands on a team that is willing to give him time to work out the kinks in his game and also has the necessary coaching staff to help him improve, he can succeed. Unfortunately, we are in an era where letting quarterback’s develop seems to be a thing of the past. Josh Rosen was notably traded after one bad season with a terrible team around him. Many have speculated that Washington may already may try to move on from Dwayne Haskins after only one year.
The set rookie contracts have created a situation where teams feel like they need to win within a year or so to maximize the cheap rookie deals their quarterbacks are on. Herbert might not be ready to play at a high level until year three. At that point, he will be about halfway through his deal, and the team may already think about moving on.
Whatever team drafts Herbert needs to be willing to wait for him to develop. He will not be ready year one, and that should be okay. He is not a very good player right now, but he has a chance to be in the right situation.
Herbert will certainly be picked in the first round, potentially even at third overall if Detroit trades back. He gets a Day 2 grade from me, though, as he certainly will not make much of a year one impact.