Going into the 2020 NFL Draft, Justin Herbert was something of a controversial prospect. The physical talent was clearly there, but many analysts were concerned with his accuracy and decision-making. There were also those who questioned his leadership qualities and general disposition, although generally, those types of analysis into a player’s personality are unreliable and speculative at the best of times.
Despite those criticisms, legitimate or otherwise, the Los Angeles Chargers selected Herbert with the sixth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft as a replacement for long-time starter Philip Rivers. He started the season on the bench, but after a sudden injury sidelined veteran Tyrod Taylor, Herbert has taken the reins in each of the Chargers’ last four games. Despite not emerging with a victory in any of those starts, he has already begun proving his doubters wrong, putting his team in a position to win against some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
Using OVM to evaluate Herbert’s performance
Justin Herbert’s box score statistics practically leap off the page. In just four starts, he has thrown for 1,195 yards, nine touchdowns, and only three interceptions. That’s better than what some starting quarterbacks have accomplished in five games. However, Herbert’s excellence isn’t limited to traditional statistics. Pro Football Network’s Offensive Value Metric (OVM), which measures how much a player is contributing to their offense’s success, has also cast him in a very positive light so far this season.
Herbert’s overall OVM grade of 29.15 ranks above most of the NFL’s other quarterbacks. That doesn’t necessarily indicate that he is a better player than they are, but it does mean that he provides more value to his offense than they do. Thus far, the most influential factor in Herbert’s success has been his ability to complete passes that he shouldn’t have.
The NFL uses numerous on-field factors to calculate the probability that each pass a quarterback throws will result in a completion. According to their data, Herbert’s completion percentage has been above expectation in every game he has played so far in 2020, ranging from 2.6% higher in Week 3, up to a staggering 13.1% higher in Week 4. For a player whose accuracy was often questioned coming out of college, that is a surprising, and encouraging, display of talent.
Justin Herbert has improved significantly in recent weeks
While Herbert’s overall grade is impressive, examining his play from such a zoomed-out perspective does him something of a disservice, because it fails to take into account how much he has improved during his short time as an NFL starter. After a relatively poor game in Week 3, when he received a grade of 21.08, he followed it up with a pair of stellar performances, with grades of 36.09 and 35.67.
The cause of this dramatic uptick? Herbert threw into tight coverage far more often in the last two weeks than in the first two. In Weeks 2 and 3, he delivered passes into closely contested windows 15.2% and 12.2% of the time, respectively, both slightly below average percentages. However, in his two more recent performances, those numbers increased by a large margin to 20% and 23.5%.
Therefore, while Herbert’s advanced statistics across his four performances look similar in many respects, the circumstances in which he accrued them were significantly more challenging in his two most recent weeks, showing that he can still perform at a high level even when faced with stiff resistance.
The Chargers haven’t won a game yet, but that should change soon
The biggest criticism one could level towards Justin Herbert so far is that he has yet to win a game in the NFL. It is one of the few areas in which fellow rookie Joe Burrow is outperforming him, and Burrow is hampered by an offensive line that seems intent on getting him injured.
However, it is essential to remember that all four of Herbert’s losses were decided by seven points or less, two of them in overtime, including a game against the defending Super Bowl champions. And, as we have already established, Herbert’s play has not been holding his team back from victory.
Fortunately for Herbert and the Chargers, it is rare for such trends to continue indefinitely. While it is true that winning close games is a skill to a certain extent, the difference between victory and defeat in such close contests is often whether the ball bounces your way in critical moments. If the team continues to play well, their luck should turn around sooner or later.
Los Angeles doesn’t play a game next week, but their post-bye matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars seems like the perfect opportunity for Herbert’s first win. The Jaguars also have four losses, but they have looked significantly less impressive than the Chargers have. In fact, they were the team that gave Burrow his first victory in the NFL. We’ll see if Herbert can replicate his fellow rookie’s success in a couple of weeks.
Making the playoffs would be a tall order for the Chargers, but Justin Herbert puts them in the conversation
Despite Herbert’s exciting start to his career, it doesn’t seem likely that his success will translate into a playoff berth for Los Angeles. The team’s poor start put them in a hole, and climbing out of it will be a difficult task. The AFC West is shaping up to be closer than many thought, with the Raiders performing above expectations, and the AFC, in general, is looking very strong this season.
Even with Herbert playing well, picking up enough wins to overtake the division leader or earn a wild card spot won’t be easy. As a result, the Chargers might find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time. However, Herbert has put the team in a position to compete for a spot, which is more than many thought he would be capable of this early in his career. If he can build on the foundation he has already established, he could be a star in Los Angeles for years to come.