Justin Herbert 2021 outlook: Flashes from Chargers QB’s rookie year and what he must do to take the next step


An obscure injury to Tyrod Taylor prompted the start of Justin Herbert’s NFL career, then the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft went berserk on secondaries across the league en route to winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. 

Herbert’s colossal arm and deceptive improvisational skill allowed him to flourish behind a shoddy offensive line, and he rose the level of play of some bottom of the roster receivers behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams in what became a strong candidate for the finest season we’ve ever seen from a rookie quarterback. 

With the fate of the Chargers firmly in Herbert’s hands, let’s explore everything about his environment in Los Angeles and pinpoint what he needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback. 

How Herbert has improved since he was a prospect

These positive developments in a quarterback’s game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.

I was higher on Herbert than most. While he was my QB3, I had him as the No. 9 overall prospect in the 2020 class. Here’s what I wrote about Herbert before the draft, straight from my scouting notebook. 

Tall, plus athlete with a rocket for an arm. Won’t be one of the strongest arms in the NFL but in the tier just below that. Couple of wow throws each game. Patient inside the pocket but will run when he needs to and is effective in doing so because of his smoothness and long strides. Full-field reader. Routinely gets through his progressions but not super consistent doing so. Pocket drifting is good. Can be patient there too. Throw-on-run ability is hit or miss. Either or dime or a noticeable miss. Downfield placement is solid too, as is his accuracy to short/intermediate portions of the field. Occasionally locks on to his first target for too long, which leads to hits in pocket or passes getting tipped/picked. Not a polished touch thrower through the levels of the defense.

While much of that write-up showed itself on the field in 2020, Herbert was better against pressure as a rookie in the NFL than I expected. In those situations, Herbert finished with the fourth-highest yards-per-attempt average (7.6) and the best passer rating (99.4) in the NFL. Big-time throws while facing an oncoming defender weren’t totally rare at Oregon but his final season with the Ducks didn’t indicate he’d be that spectacular in pressure situations. 

Supporting cast

Herbert illustrated what it means for a quarterback to elevate those around him in his spectacular rookie season. Second-year undrafted free agent Jalen Guyton averaged more than 18 yards per grab on 28 catches with three touchdowns, including a 72-yarder. Another undrafted free agent from the class of 2019, Tyron Johnson, averaged nearly 20 yards per reception with three more scores on 20 grabs. 

Williams was quietly productive as usual. Nearly 16 yards per snag with five scores. 

Then there’s Allen, who did set a career low in yards per catch (9.9) but did have 100 grabs and eight scores in 14 games. 

The Chargers picked well-rounded but underrated Tennessee wideout Josh Palmer in Round 3. I had a second-round grade on him. Hunter Henry was lost in free agency. Pass-catching specialist Jared Cook was signed to replace him. Altogether, Los Angeles’ group has a star in Allen and a fine collection of depth behind him. And, Austin Ekeler is one of the league’s most dangerous receiving backs. 

Up front, the Chargers proved they were completely aware of how vital it is to upgrade the blocking in front of Herbert after the rookie was pressured on 36.6% of his drop backs in 2020, the 12th-highest rate among 39 quarterback qualifiers. 

Kevlar center Corey Linsley was a top priority in free agency. Matt Feiler was added to lock down the right guard position next to Bryan Bulaga. Then the really big one — left tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round at No. 13 overall. He brings a spectacular blend of power, balance, and technique to the position. 

Los Angeles is distinctly more formidable in the trenches for Herbert’s Year 2. 

Scheme

After beginning his NFL career with then first-time full-time offensive coordinator Steve Steichen, Herbert now gets Joe Lombardi, who called plays with the Lions in 2014 and 2015 and has otherwise been a part of Sean Payton’s staff with the Saints. Offensive coordinator stability is vital for a young quarterback, but making that change doesn’t automatically catalyze a dip in quarterback effectiveness. 

New Orleans’ offense has been predicated on being spread, pass-happy, and frequently utilizing quick throws. However, much of Payton’s scheme was likely tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of Drew Brees’ game, and we know Herbert has a much stronger, more live arm than the retired, all-time great passer. Expect a huge year from Ekeler in the screen game, after the way the Saints utilized their backs as pass-catchers over the past decade-plus.

Improving his weaknesses

It’s not so much about blatant weaknesses Herbert demonstrated in 2020. Because finding flaws in his dazzling debut NFL season is very challenging. The Chargers had the league’s seventh-best Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA with Herbert running the show. 

It’s more about bracing for what history has shown will be a likely regression against pressure, where he flourished as a rookie. Thanks to a recent Pro Football Focus study in which their expansive play-by-play database was mined, we know play under pressure is much more unstable year over year than clean-pocket play. The latter is more predictive. 

And Herbert had the strongest case for the league’s best under-pressure quarterback as a rookie, a fine feat. But when there was no pressure, the former Oregon star was below average, believe it or not. His yards-per-attempt average (7.1) was far below the NFL average of 7.7. His touchdown rate and passer rating were below average, and his interception percentage was a tick above average in those situations. 

In short, Herbert needs to take the next step when the Chargers’ improved offensive line protects him well. Simple as that. Because there’s a good chance he won’t be as ridiculous in pressure situations in 2021. 

Strengthening his strengths

Herbert’s immense arm talent is a key component to how awesome he played while pressured last season. And while it’s somewhat unlikely that we see a 99.4 quarterback rating again, that is not to say we should expect Herbert to be atrocious under pressure in his second NFL season. 

This section needs to be dedicated to Herbert limiting how much he regresses from his stellar under-pressure work as a rookie. That would be equivalent to him “strengthening his strengths” from a season ago. If he can sustain some semblance of his play under pressure to stay in the, say, top 10 range across the board in those situations, the Chargers will be extremely difficult to stop offensively, especially given how they addressed clear weaknesses on the roster. 

Season outlook 

Herbert is so naturally, overwhelmingly talented that I believe he can withstand the expected regression in his under-pressure performance in his second season. I’m not ready to predict him playing as well in those situations as he did as a rookie, but he won’t fall victim to a huge dip in production. 

And I believe he’s ready to take a clear step in clean-pocket situations, which will be much more frequent in 2021 than they were last season. It’ll actually be challenging for him to eclipse his OROY statistics — he threw for more than 4,300 yards with 31 touchdowns to just 10 picks with an almost 67% completion rate. 

But a clear yet not gigantic step in the right direction in the situations when his line protects well, which will almost assuredly occur between 70-80% of the time, will help stabilize Herbert’s overall efficiency as a thrower. 

He was a top half of the league quarterback in 2020. To some, he was fringe top 10. Even bracing for the under-pressure dip likely to occur, because of what should be better decisions and more accuracy in clean-pocket scenarios, Herbert will maintain his standing as one of the most prolific young passers in football. I expect him to have a similar reputation in his second season as he had in Year 1. And the Chargers will return to the playoffs in the AFC. 





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