Heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, there was a general consensus about former Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. It held that while Herbert had immense talent, he likely was not yet ready to be an NFL starter, and would thus need to sit on the bench and learn for a while before taking over under center for whichever team drafted him. The Los Angeles Chargers planned to let Herbert do exactly that ... until starter Tyrod Taylor suffered a fluke injury while receiving a pain-killing injection prior to the team's Week 2 game.
So, Herbert got his first career start in the second week of his NFL career, and in a game where he did not actually prepare to be the starter. All he did was complete 22 of 33 passes for 311 yards, one touchdown, and one interception (while taking on an additional score on the ground), keeping his team in contention with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in the process. The Chargers didn't commit to him as the rest-of-season starter right away, but his play over the next several weeks left them essentially no choice but to do so. And he has kept the good times rolling ever since.
While the Chargers have just a 2-7 record in games he's started, that mark far undersells the job Herbert has done during his rookie season. He's completed 238 of 350 passes (68 percent) for 2,699 yards (7.7 per attempt), 22 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 104.7 passer rating.
He ranks 14th in the league in QBR, seventh in Football Outsiders' DVOA, seventh in EPA per pass attempt, eighth in EPA per rush attempt (he's totaled 187 yards, 16 first downs, and three touchdowns on his 39 rush attempts), and sixth in passing success rate. He has better-than-average marks in every rate statistic tracked by Pro-Football-Reference, and he is on pace to set rookie records for completions, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, while falling ever-so-slightly short in passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt.
In other words, Herbert's numbers indicate that he is actually pretty damn Ready To Be An NFL Starter. A look at his film confirms the same.
The first thing that stands out about Herbert is his sheer size. He stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 236 pounds, and he looks every bit of it on the field. While prototypical size and build does not a good quarterback make, it certainly helps to have it. The second thing that stands out is his incredible arm strength. Herbert easily fires the ball to any and all areas of the field, which perhaps helps explain his 4.3 percent completion percentage over expectation, per NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, the third-best mark among qualified quarterbacks. (Only Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins rank ahead of him, out of the 38 qualifiers.) The third thing that stands out is his mobility. Herbert moves around in a way that simply should not be possible for a player of his size, and it affords him the ability to create and make throws that many others can't.
The combination of these three traits allow Herbert to excel on the most difficult types of throws. His 118.3 passer rating on throws between the sideline and the numbers, per Pro Football Focus and Tru media, ranks sixth in the NFL. His 108.5 passer rating on throws on the move from outside the pocket ranks seventh. And according to PFF, 12.9 percent of his pass attempts have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That figure ranks 12th among the 27 signal-callers who have thrown at least 20 such passes, while his 101.2 passer rating on those throws ranks ninth among the same group. His 10 touchdown tosses on those throws, meanwhile, ranks second behind only Wilson's 11.
He can throw the deep ball any way you draw it up: from the top of a straight dropback, after a hitch or two to let his man get downfield, off play-action, over the middle, up the sideline, between the corner and safety, over the top of everyone, to the short side, to the wide wise, while standing tall in the pocket, while leaning back off his back foot. ... Anything you ask him to do, he can do it.
Even more impressively, Herbert has looked incredible maneuvering within and outside of the pocket, creating new platforms for himself to throw the ball to his receivers. It's just very unusual for a player to show this type of ability at this early stage of his career. He can step up to avoid the edge rush or escape to the outside when the pocket collapses up the middle. He can do both on the same play. And he keeps his eyes down the field so that if and and when Keenan Allen or Mike Williams or Jalen Guyton pops open, he's ready to deliver the ball while on the move. At least at this early moment, none of it appears to rattle him in the slightest.
The thing that intrigues me most when watching Herbert, though, is the almost absurd amount of his trust he appears to have in his pass-catchers. It makes sense on a certain level because Allen is perhaps the league's best route runner (and President of the Always Open Club), Williams is a contested-catch marvel, Guyton has incredible speed, and each of his tight ends (Hunter Henry, Virgil Green, Donald Parham) stands at least 6-foot-5 and weighs at least 237 pounds. It's a crew of receivers that puts Herbert in very good position to succeed, and he takes full advantage of their physical gifts.
Herbert is incredibly willing to throw the ball up in the air for each of them, and trust that they will come down with it despite the presence of defenders in close quarters or closing in. But he's not just putting it up for grabs; these throws are well-placed and usually in a location where either his guy will catch it or nobody will. These types of risks typically result in higher turnover rates, but for Herbert, that hasn't happened just yet.
Of course, Herbert is only nine games into his career, and his team is only 2-7 despite his fantastic form. There's plenty of room for him to grow (and for his team to better capitalize on said growth, no matter in which form it comes), but also room to regress as the league gets more familiar with his skill set and tendencies.
Some of the things that make him such a terrific young player will never go away, like his size. Others, like his understanding of how to manipulate defenses, should improve as he gets deeper into his career, while still others, like his arm strength and mobility, will likely atrophy with age. The key is being able to keep the balance intact, so that when one dips, the other is there to pick up the slack -- and to make up for his supporting talent eventually aging or pricing out of the picture. Being able to put things together so quickly is an encouraging sign for both him and the Chargers, though, and there's a long way to go before they have to worry about any sort of age-related drop-off.