Every year, the NFL Draft provides a new case study for the pure, unbridled subjectivity of player evaluation. In the 2020 NFL Draft, Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert is the prime paradigm.
After his standout performance at the 2020 Senior Bowl, scouts are going back to the tape, to see what they might have missed, or if they missed anything at all. Herbert is regarded as having more upside than Joe Burrow and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and more security than Jordan Love. The Cincinnati Bengals have alluded interest in other signal-caller candidates such as himself, and yet, some are skeptical of the Eugene native, and what his NFL future truly holds.
Draft evaluation is a coinciding process of evaluating both a prospect’s current state, and projecting potential future states that a prospect might assume, based on traits and situational factors. Sometimes, these supplementary analyses exist symbiotically. But in other cases, they clash, so much so that they almost cannot coexist.
To some, Herbert is a future NFL Draft bust. The prospect who looks the part, and plays the part, but doesn’t have “it”. To others, he has everything he needs, and in the right situation, he could be the best quarterback from the illustrious 2020 class.
In this sea of information, evaluators embark on a relentless search for the truth. What does Herbert’s future hold? But if there’s one thing an evaluator must remember, it’s this: That truth doesn’t exist yet. Draft evaluation is a complex game of simple probabilities, and for Herbert, a prospect with enthralling crests and troubling troughs, there is no possibility worth overlooking.
Justin Herbert’s NFL Draft profile
Herbert is a polarizing NFL Draft prospect, and his tape does well to validate the opinions of both his supporters and detractors, with little prejudice. Each game is littered with mind-boggling physical feats, as well as proportionate structural collapses and mental inconsistencies.
The first thing that stands out when watching Herbert is his amalgamation of physical traits. He has astounding athleticism for a 6-foot-6, 225-pound quarterback, and while he doesn’t indulge in that athleticism as much as other quarterbacks, it allows him to be a threat on the ground, as well as in the pocket, where he does well to evade imminent pressure and keep his eyes downfield while navigating lanes.
Herbert’s arm is just as, if not more impressive, than his athletic ability. His ability to generate explosive velocity with an eased, loose throwing motion is nearly unrivaled in the class. His release is a bit winding and not as compact as one would like, but he compensates with a torrid throw every time. He’s fairly consistent with RAC placement in the short ranges, and he can deliver lasers down the field, especially up the seam.
These are the traits that make Herbert’s NFL Draft profile so exciting. However, on top of this foundation, there is uncertainty. Herbert tries to force a lot of passes with his arm, which leads to some bad misses. His instinct favors velocity over touch, and in effect, he doesn’t get enough air under the ball at times. Herbert also sails a lot of balls in the intermediate and deep ranges, as he doesn’t quite know how to reel in his arm strength yet. Herbert shows some incredible flashes of touch on his throws, so he can do it, but he’s not consistent in his current state.
Herbert’s forced throws also hint at another issue: the Ducks’ passer is fairly raw, mentally. Herbert shows little consistency with anticipatory throws, and while he offers some flashes of smoothness with progression work and coinciding pocket manipulation, those instances are few and far between. It sometimes seems like Herbert doesn’t always have an actionable understanding of what he’s looking at in real-time, as he can lock on to receivers, abandon the process of the play, and rely on his physical traits instead.
When uninterrupted, Herbert knows how to square his shoulders and hips to generate torque, and he generally has fluid mechanics. But under pressure, his lower-body mechanics can fracture, which can cause him to throw off his back foot, deflating passes and resulting in precision variance. Herbert also has some trouble with situational leading as a passer; his throws, while timely due to their velocity, can shrink a receiver’s window, as opposed to widening it. Herbert has the traits to make a receiver’s job easier, but when used recklessly, they can have the inverse effect.
Herbert sometimes showcases the toughness to stand in the pocket and deliver amidst contact, and he has the sheer arm strength to fit the ball into the breadbasket while fading backward. But the inconsistency of it all is almost overwhelming, and it forces even the most fervent Herbert proponents to second guess themselves.
Precision versus Projection
In the case of Justin Herbert, there is a fierce battle at stake amongst NFL Draft evaluators, between the precision of an evaluation of his current state, and the projection of what he might become in the NFL, with traits that exist at the extremities of the physical spectrum. How can one explain how inconsistent Herbert is, while also championing the idea of his limitless potential?
In a field where answers are all that matters, sometimes it doesn’t feel right when we don’t have one. But the case of Herbert is genuinely a subjective matter. And in an NFL where prospects with coexisting elite traits and flaws are increasingly accepted and schemed to, Herbert could be the right prospect at the right time.
Herbert has the physical traits to produce out of structure and withstand the adversity at the NFL level, but he lacks the comfort level, the improvisational skills, and the polish. He has the physical profile to transcend nearly all at his position, but how much should he be penalized for his unstable foundation or his lack of tangible development?
Herbert’s smart; he was a tutor and a teaching assistant as a biology major at Oregon. And his offensive coaching staff was a detriment to his development, as they ran an offense that didn’t play to Herbert’s strengths, and they didn’t put him in the best position to succeed. Herbert didn’t have a Joe Brady like the 2019 Heisman winner, and if he did, this conversation could have been very different, or null and void entirely.
But Herbert’s college career is finished, no longer prone to such speculation, and that is the reality that NFL Draft evaluators must grapple with when deciding just how revolutionary, or retro-productive, Herbert can be at the next level. Is it unreasonable to assume that he’ll find the fit he needs to see out his elite potential? Is it too short-sighted to suggest that his developmental curve is stagnating, before it’s even begun to take shape? All the evidence is there. But for Herbert, and those who wait impatiently, with pens and notebooks in hand, the questions are only beginning.
If you’re waiting for answers, you’ll have to wait a little bit longer. And if you’re clinging to answers – preconceived notions of a reality not yet realized – then you may have to venture across the dividing line.