Justin Herbert was obviously a physically-gifted quarterback prospect coming out of Oregon. He had the height, the arm strength, the athleticism. Those traits were all very clearly NFL-caliber.
Combine them with strong statistical production in college and a Campbell Trophy (also known as "the academic Heisman"), and you had the quarterback who we deemed the "perfect" fit for Bill Belichick's team in this year's draft class.
The Patriots had no shot at him, though. He went sixth to the Chargers. But even after landing in the top 10, he was by no means expected to be a surefire franchise quarterback, according to experts.
There were questions about Herbert's ability to lead. There were questions about how well he'd translate to the league because of the offense he ran with the Ducks. All he's done in the last three months is quickly put any of those questions to rest as he's compiled a season-long performance that will in all likelihood make him the league's Rookie of the Year. Despite playing for a team that has figured out a way to lose seven of their nine one-score games this season, Herbert ranks inside the top-10 in 2020 in a number of quarterbacking categories. He's ninth in yards, seventh in touchdowns, 10th in rating, eighth in Pro Football Focus' deep passer rating on passes thrown 20 yards or more down the field, and first in rating when under pressure. He's 11th in yards per attempt.
"He’s impressive," Bill Belichick said of Herbert this week. "Very talented player. Tall. Sees things well. Has a good arm. Can certainly make all the throws. He’s athletic. Can escape the pocket. Smart.
"They do a number of things at the line of scrimmage – you’ve seen him check plays, audible against pressure, change plays against check-with-me type situations. So, it looks like he’s going to be a good quarterback for a long time. A lot to work with, and I know he’s a smart, hard-working kid that likes football and I’m sure he will continue to get better, as he has this year throughout the course of the season. He’s improved from the early games that I’ve watched, and like I said, has a lot of good skill players to work with . . . So, yeah, he’s a good player." As it turns out, Herbert is just another in a long line of young passers who've entered the league and figured things out relatively quickly.
Not all of them have the kind of rookie-year success that Herbert and two of his draft classmates Joe Burrow and (to a lesser extent) Tua Tagovailoa have experienced. But since 2017, most of the first-rounders taken to be the faces of their respective franchises have to this point made good on their team's investments.
Of the 15 first-round quarterbacks taken in the last three years, one has yet to play (Jordan Love) and one hasn't played much (Tagovailoa). But eight look like "hits," while five really can't yet be included in that category (Mitch Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins). Two of the "hits" are among the best four quarterbacks in the league right now (Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson) and two have MVPs to their names (Mahomes, Lamar Jackson).
And even in that five-player list of "misses" there are a couple (Darnold, Jones) who some believe still have the chance to develop into sought-after starters as they age and find themselves in different situations. In a Patriots Talk Podcast this week, former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel said that Josh Rosen should be included in a category with those two as unproven but still having potential.
Belichick explained earlier this week that even for the success we've seen from rookie quarterbacks, the best of the league's young passers are the ones who've improved quickly and carried their offenses in their second or third years.
Watson and Mahomes would fall into that category. Josh Allen would certainly fall into that category.
"I think we have seen that with a number of the young quarterbacks here that have performed well throughout the league in the last three or four years," Belichick explained. "That they’ve gotten better." Devin McCourty has seen this trend -- where young quarterbacks come in and show off their talents quickly -- first-hand over the course of his 11 NFL seasons.
"I remember first getting into the league and everyone talked about how much of a gap it would be for quarterbacks coming in because of how the style of the NFL was different than the style in college," he said on Patriots Wednesday. "Back when I first got in, 2010, there weren't many conversations about RPOs and all these different things. I think now you see our game has a lot more similarities to the college game so I think these quarterbacks come in more ready because some of the things we do now in the NFL are things they've done in college and they've done it at a high level.
"These guys have thrown for 500, 600 yards in games, being able to pick defenses apart. They come into the league and they're seeing some of the things they saw in college. I think overall, guys are working hard. They're getting ready to go, and you can see the difference. You're playing against guys in their first, second or third year and they're putting up career numbers. They're doing things that you watched the greats do.
"I think it's a credit to coaches and the league being able to adapt and then obviously a ton of credit goes to the player. The player is getting ready to go, putting a lot on their plate to come out here and play at a high level. You can't take that away from them."
Of those eight first-round "hits," of course, six were taken inside the top 10 of their respective draft classes. If you're wondering what's next for the Patriots at that position, and you're wondering what they're going to do since it looks like they'll be picking later than that, it looks like there have been worse years to be in need of a quarterback and drafting outside the top 10. Right now, at least. Four are already considered locks for the first round (Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson and North Dakota State's Trey Lance) and two more (Alabama's Mac Jones and Florida's Kyle Trask, two Heisman favorites) have been steady risers.
Will the quarterback available to the Patriots in the spring be a top-10 guy off the bat like Herbert? Maybe not.
But given the success rates of young quarterbacks in today's NFL, and given the changing game that allows them to succeed so quickly, there's an easy argument to be made that it'd be worth Belichick rolling the dice on one.