What History Tells Us: Projecting Justin Herbert’s Fantasy Football Upside

By Alex Kurpeski

 

Over the past decade of professional sports, we have seen the quarterback position evolve in a variety of ways. A position that was once catered to a group of strictly pocket passers has now become so much more, as we have entered an era of mobility that may forever change the way offensive football is played. While there have been some ‘generational’ players that have flopped hard in the NFL following incredible collegiate careers, there have also been some hidden gems that were able to bloom once they landed with a constructive coaching staff in the pros. Basing our analysis on the last decade of QBs drafted into the league (the ones who spent significant time as starters), we have come up with our outlooks for this year’s class of rookie passers based on what recent history has told us. 

 

We have not included the passers from this year’s class who we have deemed to be strictly roster depth picks (James Morgan, Jake Luton, Ben DiNucci, Tommy Stevens, and Nate Stanley) only because we cannot foresee them taking any meaningful snaps anytime soon as projected third-string (or lower) players. While these players are all very talented, their situations are a bit too uncertain for us to project them to produce in the near future. 

 

For context, here are some figures/explanations that we find relevant for this piece:

 

  • A ‘successful’ QB is one who has registered a fantasy relevant campaign (200+ points) or a top-15 fantasy finish (players from 2018-19 draft classes) or has registered three or more top-20 finishes (Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins, etc) and/or been a team’s starter for more than five seasons (Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, etc)
  • A ‘moderately successful’ QB is a more arbitrary measurement, as these are guys who have had success but have either been held back from consistent success (due to injuries typically) or have flamed out of the league following great starts to their careers (RG3, Mitch Trubisky, Blake Bortles, just to name a few)
  • A ‘bust’ is a QB with one of fewer Top-20 finishes, these guys are the easiest to spot (Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, etc)
  • There are a few players who we have yet to judge. Drafted between 2016 and 2019, we have yet to pass judgement on them due to their limited experience starting. Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Jarrett Stidham all fall into this purgatorial category. 
  • QBs who have been traded in their first three seasons have an 87% bust rate, with the only outlier being Brissett
  • 90% of QBs taken out of non-power conference programs since 2010 have been ‘successes’ or ‘moderately successful’, with the only exception being 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch
  • Out of the rookies who have been ‘redshirted’ as rookies (groomed to start), only Patrick Mahomes has been a ‘success’, while 45% of these players have been outright busts
  • 22% of passers who have had a former high level starter as a mentor have been ‘successes’ (Prescott, Mahomes, Jackson, Daniel Jones) while 39% of these players have been busts
  • No ‘busts’ have recorded fantasy relevant campaigns in their first season
  • 45% of eligible players who have recorded below average turnover rates in college have been busts, while only 31% of players who recorded above average turnover rates have busted

So far, we’ve taken a look at Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Today, we look at one of the 2020 draft’s most polarizing prospects, Justin Herbert.

 

herbert2

 

The sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Herbert saw his stock jump up and down with each passing game in 2019, going from ‘future franchise QB’ one week to ‘future XFL bench warmer’ the next. At 6’6, 230 lbs, Herbert fits the mold of the ideal NFL quarterback that scouts have historically loved, while also possessing the athleticism that has become requisite of the position this decade. When it comes to Herbert, most either love him or hate him as a prospect, with both sides having valid reasoning to support their opinions. 

 

We’ve seen Herbert throw a ball 80 yards while wearing workout clothing. While this is an incredible feat of athleticism, we’ve seen similar exploits from others like JaMarcus Russell and Josh Allen, both of whom have struggled with many of the other aspects of playing the quarterback position in the pros. A quick look at Herbert’s stat sheet would lead you to believe that he, unlike many big-armed, big-bodied passers before him, is an extremely accurate passer. In four seasons as the starter for Oregon, Herbert completed 64% of his passes while throwing for 10,541 yards and 95 touchdowns, throwing just 23 interceptions on 1293 attempts (although he did fumble 26 times during his college career). With an adjusted completion rate of 75.4%, even some advanced metrics support this conjecture. 

 

The context of these yards, however, reveals something different. 728 of Herbert’s passing yards in 2019 came on screen passes, the second most of any passer in the nation. By comparison, Herbert’s deep passing yardage totals ranked 35th among qualified players, with only 874 (meanwhile Joe Burrow accounted for 1711 deep passing yards). For a player with such a big time arm, Herbert plays it safe more often than not, a trait that does not bode well for his fantasy prospects.

 

In his final season with the Ducks, Herbert looked quite shaky, completing only 21 big time throws (32nd most in the nation) while offering up 15 turnover worthy plays (55th in the nation). Herbert struggled immensely on intermediate throws as well, completing only 55% of his passes to this part of the field while throwing a pair of interceptions. Perhaps the most concerning metric from Herbert’s final season in Eugene; Herbert ranked 50th in the nation in accuracy percentage on short throws (1-9), a trait that could really hurt him if he needs to checkdown in the NFL. 

 

An added drawback to taking Herbert early in dynasty drafts is the fact that he is expected to sit for an extended period of time behind former Pro Bowler Tyrod Taylor. With the delays to training camps caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, it could take even longer to get Herbert caught up to speed with the Chargers offense, following four years of snaps taken almost exclusively out of shotgun formations. Statistically, PFF has compared Herbert to Ryan Tannehill, a similarly built passer who took a bit to become a truly effective starting quarterback after coming out of college as more of an athlete. Here’s a look at how they stack up with one another:

 

Justin Herbert:

 

  • Overall Passing Grade: 90.0
  • Average Depth of Target: 10.37
  • AIR%: 50.9%
  • Adjusted Completion Rate: 72.3%

 

Ryan Tannehill:

 

  • Overall Passing Grade: 90.1%
  • Average Depth of Target: 9.17%
  • AIR%: 56.6%
  • Adjusted Completion Rate: 73.6%

 

While Herbert tended to throw marginally deeper passes, Tannehill converted his throws at a higher rate, although he only spent about a year and a half as the starter at Texas A&M while Herbert was essentially a four-year starter for the Ducks. Herbert’s athletic profile is his ultimate strength for fantasy, as he has speed and athleticism similar to Daniel Jones and Josh Allen, who both have been very solid fantasy producers thanks to their legs. You wouldn’t call him a scrambler by any means, but Herbert did a lot of damage as a runner during his college career, racking up over 500 rushing yards while scoring 13 touchdowns on the ground. However, if we assume Herbert will be exactly like Tannehill, then the outcome would not be so bad, as the Titans starter has registered one top-ten fantasy finish (2014), and four fantasy relevant campaigns (2013-2015, 2019) while missing large chunks of 2016-2018 with injuries. 

 

There are some serious concerns about Herbert’s ability to transition from Oregon’s Spread look to a more traditional NFL offense, especially after the issues experienced by guys like Marcus Mariota (a much better college player than Herbert), Darron Thomas, and Dennis Dixon. Unlike those three players, Herbert was not an ideal fit for the offense run by the Ducks, as his arm strength was wasted with very few vertical looks in the playbook and an overwhelming amount of horizontal routes run by his receivers, While he will be surrounded by several talented playmakers on the Chargers offense (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, and Hunter Henry all of whom are in the prime of their careers), it will ultimately be Herbert’s responsibility to learn the necessary adjustments. Given the struggles faced by his fellow Pac-12 draftees (only 30% of whom have been ‘successes’), it could get muddy for the former Oregon captain. 

 

As far as we’re concerned, investing in Herbert is the ultimate high risk, high reward pick from this position group, as he has all the tools to become a truly dominant NFL player while also having an uncomfortable amount of red flags sticking out of his ass. 

 

Pro Comparison:

 

Ceiling: Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

josh-allen

A mid-tier QB1 in fantasy, this prospect would hinge on Herbert putting his 4.7 speed to work in the NFL as a runner. Consistency may meander, but the potential for a top-five finish week-to-week makes him an excellent QB1 for your dynasty team. A bit frustrating at times, but generally a reliable source of points, even on turnover heavy days. 

 

Floor: Jake Locker, N/A

jake locker

A failure in the NFL due to accuracy issues. Becomes a cautionary tale for draftniks who fall in love with toolsy passers who peaked during their sophomore seasons. An utter disaster who sets back the Chargers organization even further.

 

Median: Blake Bortles, Los Angeles Rams

blake bortles

A couple of fantasy relevant campaigns mask a player who is far too flawed to be a franchise quarterback. Might be a fine QB2 for your dynasty team, but will ultimately be seen as a disappointment in the NFL. 

Agree or Disagree? Let us know!

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