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Chargers’ Justin Herbert is a polarizing QB. Here’s what the film tells us

Retired lineman (and Oregon alum) Geoff Schwartz examines Justin Herbert’s strengths and weaknesses to figure out who the QB can be in the NFL.

A photo of NFL QB prospect Justin Herbert throwing a pass at Oregon, superimposed on a white background with blue lines and gray dots
Justin Herbert is one of the top QB prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft class.

Justin Herbert was drafted by the Los Angeles Chargers with the No. 6 pick. Before the draft, Geoff Schwartz broke down Herbert’s film to gauge his future in the NFL.

One of the most polarizing players in the 2020 NFL Draft is Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. You will find some analysts, like Gil Brandt, who grade him as one of the better players in the draft, and others who grade him in the low 20s. Some would draft him in the top five, and others would prefer waiting until the second round. None of these opinions are correct and none are wrong. Herbert can be any of these and I’ll explain why.

Disclaimer for those who don’t know: I went to Oregon. I’m a huge Oregon fan. I hope every player from Oregon is awesome in the NFL. I’ve watched every snap of the past three seasons with Herbert under center, and I’ve watched each game film at least once from last season. I’m qualified to discuss Herbert and what he can be in the NFL.

It’s easy to start with his intangibles. Herbert is built like he was made in a factory. He’s 6’6, 236 pounds, and runs a 4.68-second 40-yard dash. He’s got a cannon of an arm and he’s been durable in college. Herbert is a 4.0 student and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the academic Heisman.

Even though he’s not a yeller or screamer, people around the program who coached or played with him rave about his leadership abilities and toughness. I tried my best to get someone to give me any nugget of negativity about his personality and I couldn’t.

Before we look at his on-field performance, it’s important to point out something that’s hard to ignore when watching his film. Oregon’s offense was not built around Herbert’s strengths. It was designed around a stellar offensive line, short throws, and the occasional play-action pass. Herbert was not allowed to use his legs until the final two games of the season. It felt as though he was asked to just not screw it up until he needed to bail out the team.

Unlike Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow, Herbert had almost no pro talent around him in college. That does not excuse his poor throws at times, but his wide receivers weren’t often open or, maybe more importantly, open when the scheme called for it. They also dropped 100 passes the last two seasons.

As any scouting report will tell you, Herbert is plenty accurate enough. He is also a player who will show flashes of brilliance, but then let it all go by missing an opportunity to let it fly.

Let’s take closer look at Herbert’s film to get a better idea of what kind of quarterback prospect he is.

5 of Herbert’s best attributes on the field

I’ve picked out a few highlights to show you what Herbert does well and where his strengths lie.

1. Arm strength

This throw is awesome. It’s exactly why NFL coaches love Herbert. He rifles this throw into a tight window — and it’s dropped. Because of course.

2. Throwing on the run

When Herbert doesn’t have time to think, mostly when he’s on the run and/or escaping pressure, the ball can scream out of his hand.

3. Throwing under pressure

People vary on this idea of Herbert under pressure, but I’ve seen a good amount of positive throws in these situations. Here he’s got a limited amount of time to throw with someone around his legs. Not only does Herbert make an accurate throw, but it’s a difficult one across the field from the far hashmark. It’s impressive.

4. Designed shot plays

This rarely happens in the Ducks’ offense, but when they do scheme up specific shot plays where Herbert needs to move a safety, he can do it. And he nails it.

5. Athleticism

It appeared Herbert was not allowed to run until the second to last game of the season, against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship. He looked like a different player against Utah and then against Wisconsin in the bowl game. He willed Oregon to win against Wisconsin, scoring three touchdowns with his legs, including the 30-yard game winner below:

4 of Herbert’s biggest flaws (and one that needs to be debunked)

Now come the issues, and there are plenty.

1. Anticipation/Instincts

This is the biggest concern by far. There are numerous examples where Herbert doesn’t pull the trigger when he should or his instincts kick in too late.

This one sticks out to me because it’s against Auburn in Week 1, a game Oregon should have won. There is a clear window here where Herbert needs to let it loose. He’s got the arm strength to let it fly.

There are more of these, and they can be glaring when it’s clear he sees a WR open but doesn’t pull the trigger right away.

2. Flat-out misses

Herbert just misses on a ton of throws. Here’s a good example from the Washington State game. The WR just sits in the zone and Herbert overshoots him. There’s nothing more to say. It’s not a good throw. Herbert needs to have more touch on some of these throws. Again, you can find many of these in the film.

3. Locks on to one read and doesn’t come off

There are times when Herbert locks on to a route before the snap, and he’s throwing there, even if someone else is open. Is this coaching? Is it Herbert? This is what scouts will need to find out.

4. Footwork issues

I don’t have film for this, so I will rely on Greg Cosell’s scouting report. He’s the best in the business and does a fantastic job of talking about all Herbert’s issues.

Even without film, it’s clear to see Herbert’s long frame sometimes leads to poor footwork in the pocket.

I see people say Herbert doesn’t step up in big games. While there’s some evidence to show that earlier in his career, he came up huge against Utah in the Pac-12 title game and against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl when Herbert was finally allowed to use his complete skillset. He was not allowed to run the football until those weeks.

It would be hard for a quarterback to be told to play his game when he’s not allowed to play his full game.

What’s the verdict on Herbert?

So here’s my deal with Herbert. It would be unwise if I just shouted about how he’s going to be a success in the NFL because he’s an Oregon Duck. I can’t overlook his flaws, and you can argue some of them outweigh the positive. The goal of any player is consistency. At the quarterback position, you need to elevate the talent around you.

But what if you’re not allowed to do that? That leaves questions about whether some of the weaknesses in his game are associated to that.

Are Herbert’s anticipation issues related to him not being confident in his abilities because the offense didn’t ask him to be confident in his play? Is he hesitant to throw the ball because his wide receivers take too long to get open?

Or is this just who Herbert is — an imperfect quarterback who will not improve in the NFL?

That idea is the biggest problem I have with how people discuss him. Herbert was a three-star high school recruit with only one offer from a Power 5 school, Oregon. He’s played for three coaches and three offenses. He has already improved as a quarterback, including leadership and command of the offense every year he’s been at Oregon.

When he was finally allowed to be himself, late in the season, it was clear he was a better player and played with more confidence.

Just like most quarterbacks, the coaching staff who drafts Herbert will shape him. Herbert needs a staff who will tell him “You’re the guy. Be the guy.” We saw in the Senior Bowl, which is admittedly a tiny sample size, that when he was asked to be more “the guy” and played with better players, he did look improved.

Maybe it’s my green-and-yellow glasses, or speaking with Oregon’s coaching staff, or seeing all the positives on film, or that I think he’s not even close to a finished product.

I choose to believe Herbert can overcome his flaws with better players and scheme around him. I believe Herbert has the potential to be a star in the NFL. I’ll be rooting for him.