The NFL is not known for quarterback development. There’s significant pressure for rookies to start immediately and little patience for development. Considering that coaches devote most of their time on game plan and scheme, young pros must spend outside normal business hours to improve the physical, technical, and conceptual elements of their quarterbacking.
These factors generate a sense of desperation from NFL teams to draft quarterbacks early—especially if the prospects possess only a hint of starter talent. The 2020 NFL Draft class has a wealth of skill talent but the quarterbacks remain a tricky group.
There are two legitimate first-round options in Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. They should develop into productive starters and learn as they play. There are 2-3 additional passers in this class who could earn a first-round pick but will need significant adjustments to an NFL scheme for a shot at earning temporary success.
If they develop enough NFL-caliber quarterbacking skills during the next 2-3 years, they could remain starters. If they don’t, opposing defenses will continue exposing their weaknesses until they’re benched. Justin Herbert is one of these promising but incomplete talents.
The profile below is a sample of what you’ll find in the 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio (RSP), available now for download.
Justin Herbert, Oregon (6-6, 236)
Depth of Talent: 78.6 = Rotational Starter/Contributor: Executes at a starter level in a role playing to his strength. The scheme will at least temporarily need more customization for the player. Herbert is on the cusp of a contributor grade, which means he may struggle early with certain responsibilities.
Herbert is getting the draft season notoriety of Carson Wentz and there are a lot of similarities between them as athletes and throwers of the football—good and bad. He’s exactly the type of prospect that teams talk themselves into as an early-round selection. When a player like Herbert doesn’t work out, it’s because they ignored the underpinnings of his game that limit him from achieving his ceiling as a consistent and productive starter.
More so than the prospects in the first tier, Herbert runs the risk of hitting his ceiling early and revealing that he’s a first-round passer and athlete but a reserve-caliber quarterback.
The issues with his game begin with his footwork. Herbert operates in a spread offense with quick throws of short drops of one and three steps. He has smooth feet when using the one-step turn to deliver the screen, RPO, or wide routes.
However, Herbert’s issue is precision. The more Herbert has to move his feet, the more often his stance is too wide to throw any pass with pinpoint accuracy.
He either forces his receivers to work too hard, too often to win the ball or he overshoots his targets. This happens at every range of the field with all types of throws because his feet are too wide before he begins his release and the ball sails.
Wentz also has footwork problems and it’s why the Eagles transitioned Wentz away from snaps under center. He’s had a lot more success with quick setups of one, two, and three steps when it comes to working within structure.
Herbert, like Eason dealt with fumbled snaps. He has allowed shotgun snaps through his hands on more than one occasion, including the red area. He also had some communication issues with his center about the snap count and didn’t expect the ball to arrive.
These problems don’t happen every game, but they happen in enough games and at pivotal times—fourth quarter and the end zone—that it’s a layer to Herbert’s overall evaluation that his game lacks cohesion and reliability for the highest level of football.
If Herbert can improve his drops and setups so his feet aren’t too wide, he’ll unlock his play-action game. Herbert’s play-action fakes are among the best in this quarterback class.
He executes a variety of play fakes, and he’ll sell the details that make the action believable. He’ll drop his head and shoulders through the exchange point to sell the authenticity of the motion. Herbert uses one- and two-handed extensions with the ball and delivers the fake with a believable punch at the exchange point.
Whether Herbert is playing from pistol or shotgun, his fakes are believable and he’ll also sell the bootleg. Herbert likes to bootleg, look-off the defense deep, and return to the shallow crossing route breaking to the opposite side of the field.
His ball security is a problem. He carries the ball low from his chest and loose at his elbow. Although he’ll often use the appropriate arm to carry the ball away from the nearest pursuit when breaking the pocket into the open field, he doesn’t switch the ball as the pursuit angles change and there’s time and space to do so. Because Herbert doesn’t tighten the elbow, backside pursuit—often bigger and strong defenders have the strength or angle to pry or punch the ball free.
Herbert also had too many bad exchanges or miscommunications with the snap. When penetration is close during a zone-read exchange, Herbert messes up the timing and it leads to the ball hitting the ground.
In addition to rushing his ball-handling, Herbert’s carelessness reaches even greater levels when he uses his ball-carrying arm to brace himself against the back of the defender on designed runs. This is sloppy thinking and permeates a lot of his game.
The more precise Herbert can become with his drops, exchanges, ball-carrying, and releases, the better his chances are of fulfilling his potential. He’s a good prospect, but there’s a lot to do before he becomes a steady NFL player.
Herbert has an over-the-shoulder delivery and a three-quarter delivery. He snaps the ball off with a whip-like motion when throwing over his shoulder and there’s enough velocity with the three-quarter and occasional sidearm throws for him to deliver accurately under pressure.
Herbert must practice greater discretion with the three-quarter delivery. He’ll opt for this platform on short zone routes against dropping defenders who can defend the lower trajectory of these targets.
Herbert also underthrows the football when using the three-quarter delivery from an off-platform stance or on the move. He has more success with intermediate routes to the opposite flat against off-coverage or significant zone cushions.
Herbert squares his frame effectively to the target but his stance will be his greatest issue as a passer. When forced to hitch, climb, slide to the side, or adjust his feet without running and resetting, Herbert finishes the movement with his feet too wide and this hurts his accuracy and velocity.
Herbert’s wide stance causes him to spray the ball high or lose velocity on targets that need it. His front leg also has a straight knee during his release that bends inward at the end. With his height and flaws with his release form, he may have difficulty correcting this issue and it means teams will have to live with high throws.
Herbert follows through with his legs during his release, but that awkward straight leg may also contribute to him powering through his release with his arm and that unbalanced motion can lead to accuracy flaws.
Even after his initial setup with his short drops, Herbert’s stance is too wide. This is exacerbated further when throwing the late-perimeter routes—patterns where the quarterback makes a late turn to the sideline by design after baiting the defense elsewhere.
These are the types of throws that require maximum velocity, and Herbert’s technique generates more velocity from his arm than his hips and legs. Since the hips and legs are stronger, Herbert’s velocity can suffer.
Herbert also has a bad habit at the drawback phase of his release. When he’s not sure about targeting a receiver, there’s a slight pause at the end of his drawback and it delays the release motion.
Herbert will begin his throws at the top of a receiver’s stem but if he’s not sure about the coverage, he’ll pause just enough that the ball doesn’t come out on time and forces the receiver to wait on the ball—especially on intermediate routes 15-20 yards downfield. The slow drawback is the product of lacking confidence in what he’s seeing downfield.
This lack of confidence bleeds into his timing that has nothing to do with his release motion. Herbert will wait a beat too long for confirmation that his receiver is breaking open. This happens a lot with opposite hash and downfield throws against man coverage. Herbert must develop greater anticipation or his behaviors will tip off defensive backs and lead to interceptions and stalled drives.
Herbert’s pump fakes are effective. He has a variety of fake types based on range of motion and violence. He leans on an abbreviated fake that’s violent but truncated. He also has a violent two-handed pump with some ball movement, but the greatest emphasis is with the shoulders. Herbert does a good job of looking-off defenders in the direction of the fake.
Cleaning up his release motion, footwork, and developing anticipation will unlock the positive traits of Herbert’s decision-making. This overhaul may prove difficult, but the Eagles had success with minimizing Wentz’s flaws to unlock many of his talents.
The same may be true of Herbert, who manipulates opponents with his body position, shoulder fakes, and eyes. He’ll bait defensive backs with the way he opens his body during his drop. Herbert also turns his head to specific points of the field to set up double moves.
Herbert identifies holes in the zone pre-snap and can exploit them fast with quick passes much like Wentz. He also baits defenders with his eyes to a first read so he can set up the second nearby.
Although Herbert holds the coverage with his eyes, he predetermines screen plays. On the double-screen, Herbert will have a receiver open at the opposite hash with a lot of green space, ahead but he’ll only use the play as a look-off to set up the running back screen that’s tightly covered and stuffed for a loss.
Herbert couldn’t have seen that the running back was covered, but the fact he eschewed a wide-open read for the unknown is a symptom of a quarterback predetermining where he wants to go to the detriment of his team.
Herbert’s confidence as a tight-window thrower is at its best when he delivers vertical routes up the sideline or the seams. He reads the leverage of the defender and the receiver and places the ball in an area where his receiver can win with a mid-air adjustment. Herbert targets these situations aggressively up the seam.
He’s not as adept with routes breaking across the field. He leads receivers into zone defenders with hospital balls rather than placing the ball on target and allowing the receiver to turn his back into the oncoming defenders.
Although Herbert looks to his second and third reads quickly during his scanning of the field, he waits a beat too long to throw the ball. His delay to “make sure,” in the immortal words of Tweety Bird, he saw what he thought he saw, gives the defensive back time to recover and contest the target. This happens a lot with intermediate and vertical routes that should have been completed for big plays.
Defenses can get away with late adjustments pre-snap or early post-snap, because Herbert only notices what he’s in his narrow range of vision. He’ll miss the linebacker dropping or the safety rotating. If he notices the cornerback bailing from tight coverage at the right sideline immediately after the snap, he won’t notice the linebacker buzzing into the flat to undercut the break on a short route.
Man-to-man coverage is easier for Herbert. He’ll show patience against single-high safety looks, working from window -o window to find the open man. But against zone, Herbert has rotated away from open receivers underneath the zone to target a well-covered option.
Technically, Herbert is willing to throw the ball away. However, his willingness shows up most often when he’s in the arms of a defender.
It means Herbert is throwing the ball from difficult platforms or risky positions where the defense can alter the target. This leads to intentional-grounding fouls and interceptions. Herbert tries squeezing the ball into tight areas while throwing from these risky platforms under pressure—especially in the red zone—where the defense has a distinct advantage to make a play on the throwaway.
Considering the underlying decision-making that goes into it, coaches would prefer Herbert take the sack than what he’s doing. And Herbert takes sacks because instead of throwing the ball away earlier, he thinks he can make that one extra cutback, reversal of field, or climb to earn open space.
He’s not a mature field general at this point.
However, NFL teams will like the throws he can make. Herbert has pinpoint short accuracy on-platform as well as moving to his left or right.
When his drops don’t finish with a wide stance, he places the ball with accuracy in the short, intermediate and vertical ranges—up to 40-45 yards. His range for off-platform throws on the move is roughly 40 yards when under pressure and delivering to man-to-man coverage.
Herbert has a good feel for corner routes, seams to the tight end, and slants. When throwing seams to receivers that aren’t as physical, he must get more velocity on the ball so he’s not leading the receiver into the safety. His curls, outs, and comebacks are not as accurate.
Herbert’s vertical game is also promising but problematic. He has the arm and accuracy to deliver a catchable ball at a range of 46 yards.
However, he doesn’t lead his receivers in the direction of their breaks—especially when there’s no defender in the path of the receiver’s break. Too often, Herbert forces his receivers to adjust their breaks back to the ball.
There are inspired moments of elite accuracy. Herbert has delivered pinpoint targets 25-35 yards downfield while under heavy pressure. Unfortunately, once he reaches that range of 40 yards or greater, Herbert’s accuracy is no longer pinpoint and he doesn’t lead receivers to open space.
If he can improve this skill, Herbert’s range as a thrower is 55-60 yards with catchable accuracy but not enough velocity and he forces the receiver to wait on the target. He has viable accuracy to the opposite side of the field in the vertical and deep game but must refine it to pinpoint in quality.
Herbert is better throwing to his right than his left. He has pinpoint accuracy moving to his right at 28-30 yards but he leads receivers too far with short and intermediate targets while on the move to his left.
Herbert’s touch is effective with check-downs as well as intermediate routes.
Herbert also earns the Wentz comparisons for his pocket demeanor. He delivers in the face of contact and buys every second of possible time to locate an open receiver. He trusts his receivers enough to rebound the ball, which means he’ll go vertical with defenders hanging off him.
His size and arm strength also help him deliver opposite field in the intermediate game with pinpoint accuracy and take a hit in the process. He’ll stand-in and hit his receiver 37 yards downfield with catchable accuracy while taking a hit to the chest.
Unfortunately, these plays embolden Herbert to attempt other targets with greater risk—throws across his body with pressure bearing down. And when he occasionally has success with this type of play, Herbert loses all sense of decorum and attempts jump-throws from the opposite hash while under pressure.
These are passes where Herbert sails the ball or the velocity is lacking and the defense can undercut the target. And when Herbert rushes throws, he's off-target.
Herbert must tame this behavior and at the same time improve his incremental movement away from pressure in tight pockets because his flaws with smaller movements may be the reason he prefers the bold plays.
Herbert has success sliding, climbing, and flushing from pressure—often performing two or three of these movements in succession. But against top talent, Herbert’s feet are too slow, unless he’s performing these tasks on the run rather than smaller and controlled steps that support greater accuracy.
He sees when he has to move but he can’t get away from the pursuit unless he runs from one spot to the next. When he tries to use incremental movements that are smaller and more controlled, he’s wrapped and dropped.
Herbert must get rid of the ball faster. As mentioned earlier, he waits until he’s wrapped to try to unload the ball. He must take proactive measures and that includes throwing the ball away faster or breaking the pocket and protecting the ball.
When he escapes pressure with a flush, climb, or slide, he’ll find check-downs as the near and far sides of the field and deliver them accurately. Again, running to avoid pressure yields better results for Herbert at this point but only because the range of outcomes is taking a sack versus a high-risk, high-reward throw.
When he can move forward and reset his feet, Herbert will find the open man working behind zone. The same is true when running to his right or left and resetting to fire the ball down field.
At his best, Herbert buys time and shakes off defenders to get the ball within range of his receiver to draw defensive pass interference fouls. He’s nimble enough to jump away from defenders, reset fast and fire.
Much like Wentz, the longer he avoids pressure, the more likely he can have success with off-platform throws or passes that lack catchable accuracy. Many of these plays that Wentz delivers are considered the essential highlights in his canon. Herbert’s game has potential to be viewed through this lens as well.
When the pressure doesn’t afford him to scramble and buy time inside the pocket, Herbert understands when to break the pocket. He’s not a fluid runner despite having chain-moving speed for a quarterback. So when he delivers a hard pump fake to freeze a defender and break the pocket, he stumbles out of his blocks.
Still, if zone coverage gets pushed deep enough or his receivers have run off-man coverage, Herbert can earn 30-40 yards and beat linebackers up the boundary that are pursuing from the middle of the field. He’s fast enough for a team to use him occasionally for designed runs to the edge when the defense isn’t designed to stop him.
He may have beaten some cornerbacks to the far side of the field in college for short gains—and his burst is good enough to occasionally do the same in the NFL—but don’t count on it as a staple of Herbert’s NFL game. More often than not, Herbert uses his strength to pull through reaches to his frame, break the pocket, and slide to avoid contact after a short gain of 5-7 yards.
Herbert could be a strong match for the Colts in Frank Reich’s system that got the most from Wentz. Philip Rivers could serve as an effective mentor—and give Herbert a year to acclimate. He’s a boom-bust talent with Wentz’s big-play upside and Brock Osweiler’s reactive and mechanically-unsound floor.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: The projected NFL Draft value for Herbert is a first-round pick, and there’s talk he or Jordan Love could go ahead of Tagovailoa. I think that’s crazy, but the NFL has shown its crazy side every year.
Herbert is worth a third-round fantasy pick with a good team fit, but I’m not sure fantasy players are going to let him slide this far if they buy into what the NFL is sold on.