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New Chargers QB Justin Herbert’s leadership concerns were an absurd NFL Draft criticism

Justin Herbert has provided plenty of proof that he’s a leader, but draft types love to nitpick.

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NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

New Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert — drafted sixth overall in the first round — was surprisingly honest when asked about his pro readiness at the NFL Combine. Instead of delivering the “I’m the best quarterback in the class” bravado that has become common among prospects, Herbert was realistic about his capabilities.

“I’ve never played a down in the NFL,” the Oregon alum told reporters, via NBC Sports. “I couldn’t tell you what the speed of the game is like. I’ve watched as much as I could and I feel confident with my abilities but I’ve never played in the NFL before, so to give you an answer whether I could play right now, I don’t think that would be in my best interest.”

The Athletic’s Joseph Person tweeted that he appreciated Herbert’s candor, but also pleaded “please don’t make this a thing about lack of confidence.” Too late. ESPN’s Emmanuel Acho did exactly that within 24 hours.

“Those are not words you want to hear from your future franchise quarterback!” Acho said. “They might’ve been honest, but the draft isn’t the time to be honest. Lie to me.”

Perhaps that’s true. An NFL team usually wants to select a quarterback teeming with confidence. Tom Brady famously (probably) told Patriots owner Robert Kraft as a rookie that he was “the best decision this organization has ever made.” Peyton Manning promised Colts general manager Bill Polian a championship if he was the first pick in 1998, and plenty of ass-kickings if he wasn’t.

Herbert could’ve lied and mirrored the conviction of those future Hall of Famers. He’s got good size (6’6, 236 pounds), experience, and possibly more physical talent than any other quarterback in the class — including even LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. However, his play at Oregon left a little to be desired and will likely cause him to be picked behind Burrow and Tagovailoa, a pair of national championship winners.

Talent evaluators can debate whether Herbert is bound for NFL success or doomed to be a bust, but they’re trying too hard to find flaws if they decide Herbert hasn’t shown he can be a leader.

The annual machine that is the NFL Draft has asked certain players to be the same and talk the same as everyone else. Inevitably, that leads to prospects — and more specifically, quarterbacks — getting criticized for falling even a little outside that box.

Is Herbert’s leadership really an issue?

It’s not hard to trace the original source of the Herbert criticism. The culprit is former Oregon head coach Willie Taggart.

Herbert started seven games as a true freshman for the Ducks in 2016 and was the clear favorite to take the reins in 2017 and beyond. Taggart, who was hired in 2017, wasn’t ready to anoint Herbert as his starter, though.

“I’m looking for more than just throwing touchdowns,” Taggart said in April 2017, via NBC Sports. “I’m looking for a guy that can lead this football team. A guy that’s going to rally everybody on this team, not just the offensive guys but defense and everyone. When we can find that guy, that’s when we are going to name a starter.”

It was a direct indictment of Herbert’s leadership skills. It wasn’t exactly unfair. A teammate called him “the shiest dude I’ve ever met” and even Herbert has been quick to admit he took a while to come out of his shell.

“I’m a different person, to be honest,” Herbert said at the NFL Combine. “The kid who showed up at the University of Oregon isn’t me anymore ... I’ve become more vocal and more outgoing and there are things that you have to do to be the quarterback. The way the quarterback carries himself, I think I’ve done a great job of becoming that over the last four years.”

Taggart didn’t take long to walk back his criticisms. Just a few months later — and after two other Oregon quarterbacks transferred out of the program — Taggart spoke glowingly about the overnight transformation of his quarterback.

“He’s been awesome,” Taggart told OregonLive in August 2017. “It seemed like Justin went to bed one night and woke up and said, ‘OK, it’s time to go.’ ... I’m not asking him to get out of himself or who he is, but he do need to speak more. He leads by example but this team needs more than just that from that position.”

In the next three seasons, not a single person around the team had anything negative to say about Herbert’s leadership. Current Oregon coach Mario Cristobal called him the best quarterback he’s ever been around.

“Driven, determined, hungry, off-the-charts smart, can make every throw, can run, can run the entire offense, can manage the run game, can flip protections — he can do it all,” Cristobal told OregonLive. “He really is that kind of a guy. He’s loved by his teammates — everyone just thinks the world of him. He’s a grinder.”

And yet, the narrative lingered.

“I was in Detroit when they drafted Joey Harrington in the first round, similar qualities with great arm strength and skills — but he couldn’t win the locker room,” ESPN analyst Desmond Howard said in November 2019. “That’s my concern with the quarterback out there at Oregon, Justin Herbert. Not sure he can win the locker room like Burrow.”

Scouts told Bleacher Report essentially the same thing in October 2018.

There are also those scouts, who did not want to be named, who say Herbert is “soft” or “immature” or “quirky, not really a leader of men.”

Every piece of evidence indicates the opposite.

At the Senior Bowl — where Herbert earned MVP honors — he drew rave reviews. Coaches thought he was fantastic, receivers cited him as the best leader there, and the Senior Bowl director railed against the notion that it was anything other than genuine.

That continued to be the case at the NFL Combine.

So why are there still so many questions about Herbert’s character? Because of anonymous scout season.

Herbert is just the draft’s latest victim of character critique

Two years ago, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen had to fight a narrative that saw him as entitled, cocky, and disliked by his teammates. Even though other UCLA players said it was ridiculous and Rosen was downright charming in interviews, the label stuck.

Rosen’s career has been a disappointment thus far, with failed stints as the starter for the Cardinals in 2018 and Dolphins in 2019. But teammates backed Rosen’s leadership skills, even as some in the media took every opportunity to portray the quarterback in a negative light.

Before Rosen there was Connor Cook, who was called “selfish” and said to be unpopular among other Michigan State players. Cam Newton was called “very disingenuous” with a “fake smile” in a draft profile, shortly before he was picked first overall by the Panthers in 2011. Marcus Mariota was described as “too nice” before the 2014 NFL Draft.

“Like if you punched him in the stomach, he might apologize to you,” an NFL scout told Sports Illustrated. “I just don’t know if he’s that alpha male that you’re looking for. This kid’s a kind of fly on the wall kind of guy.”

Herbert isn’t even alone this year. Washington’s Jacob Eason has reportedly been “too comfortable” in NFL Combine interviews, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay — whatever that means.

There’s no doubt it takes a certain type of personality to lead a group of men to success in front of a crowd of over 60,000 people. While Herbert did that often at Oregon, it’s the job of NFL scouts to figure out if he’s capable of doing the same in the professional ranks.

But the draft process goes off-the-rails when it dissects the character of any quarterback who’s not a carbon copy of the Brady-Manning archetype — especially when a player like Herbert has provided three years’ worth of evidence that he could be.