A NFL career awaits Oregon's ultra-talented junior quarterback Justin Herbert. The question is, how long will that career have to wait?
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior with the powerful right arm and sneaky fast wheels is already being talked about as a potential top target for NFL teams wallowing at or near the bottom of the league and in need of a quarterback.
The New York Giants (1-6), Oakland Raiders (1-6), Arizona Cardinals (1-6), Denver Broncos (3-4) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4) appear to be the teams that most likely could be in the market for a new quarterback and in a position to pounce on Herbert at some point in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Raiders, of course, would only be interested if coach Jon Gruden decides to move on from Derek Carr. And why wouldn't he? The Raiders have already dealt away two of their best players from the past few years, linebacker Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper. Gruden has a 10-year deal that affords him the opportunity to take his time rebuilding the roster to his liking.
Carr, quite productive in his first four seasons, is having his worst year under Gruden. Some reports indicate that the Raiders have soured on Carr. However, NFLNetwork's Ian Rapoport has reported that Carr will not be dealt. Gruden has been notoriously hard on young quarterbacks so it makes more sense that he would stick with Carr rather that start over with a rookie.
In the end, none of the above could matter in regards to Herbert. Justin Herbert fits the profile of one that would return to college despite being projected to be a first-round pick. Just like Stanford's Andrew Luck did in 2011, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota in 2014, Herbert could very well decide that the NFL can wait for his services.
According to Herbert, the NFL isn't on his radar.
"I haven't thought three seconds about it," he said. "I haven't even talked to my parents about it, and it hasn't crossed my mind at all. I know that coach (Mario) Cristobal and I, and the team, we made a decision to not talk about it or think about it. I'm not quite sure what was reported but I haven't really spent any time on it at all."
--- Not just a football player ---
Keep in mind that Herbert is not one for hyperbole.
Granted, the lure of the NFL and the riches that come with it are tough to resist. But Herbert is not your typical athlete easily seduced by the glitz, glamour and fortune of professional sports.
He is extremely academically driven and hopes to become a doctor. He grew up a Ducks fan, living in Eugene, Ore., about the equivalent of a few touchdown drives away from Autzen Stadium. Herbert loves the college life and his teammates. If he stays, he would get to be teammates with his brother, four-star tight end Patrick Herbert who has committed to Oregon's 2019 classn. Plus, Justin is very much like Mariota in terms of temperament. Mariota elected to remain in school following his redshirt sophomore season in order to mature as a person before taking on the rigors of the NFL. Herbert could very well choose the same path. Although, according to UO coaches, he has grown immensely over the past two seasons, it was only a year ago that former Oregon coach Willie Taggart worried publicly about Herbert's maturity. During his freshman season, Herbert took losing and making mistakes so personal that they sometimes drove him to tears on the sideline. Don't mistake that for weakness, however. His emotions stem from a competitive fire that burns deep and drives him to succeed and not let him teammates down.
Still, he needed time to outgrow that phase and has done so. Yet and still, that doesn't mean he is fully ready make the leap. Finally, it would take a minor miracle at this point for Oregon to capture the Pac-12 Conference title. Should Herbert leave following this season, he would have done so without ever winning much of anything. He would become Oregon's first first multi-year starting quarterback to not win the conference since Dennis Dixon in 2006 and 2007, and he only failed because a knee injury ended his season early.
According to his teammates, Herbert is destined to remain in Eugene for another season.
"When I asked him during this off-season when the talks started happening, I asked him are you going to come back and he said 'yeah, I’m coming back',” junior wide receiver Brenden Schooler said.
Sophomore receiver Jaylon Redd said that he would not be shocked to see his quarterback stay because of his commitment to education and desire to work in the medical field. Herbert, majoring in biology, could work on his masters degree if he stayed another year.
Herbert’s go-to receiver, Dillon Mitchell, has been referring to Herbert as "the No. 1 NFL pick" throughout the season, added that Herbert would have “a lot going for him” if he decided to return for his senior season.
--- A NFL Scout's Perspective ---
NFL scouts have fallen hard for Herbert. Eugene’s small, eight-gate airport has welcomed in an abundance of scouts, including 13 in attendance when Herbert led the Ducks to a 27-24 upset victory over rival Washington.
His pocket presence, arm strength and accuracy, paired with an ability to hurt opponents with his legs, are some of the reasons he’s become a hot commodity. Many rank Herbert as one of the best draft-eligible quarterbacks in the 2019 draft class.
NFLDraftScout.com has Herbert rated as the No. 3 quarterback prospect
and No. 21 overall. However, Ryan Wilson of NFLDraftScout.com
has Herbert going No. 1 to the New York Giants in his latest 2019 Mock Draft while Chris Trapasso has him going No. 8 to Denver. NBCSportsWashington.com
has Herbert going No. 18 to Denver in its latest mock draft.
All that said, mock drafts should always be viewed as being for entertainment purposes, especially six months out from the actual draft.
According to one NFL scout, speaking anonymously, Herbert certainly has a chance to become the most coveted quarterback in the 2019 draft class. However, the scout said, Herbert is hardly a finished product and would benefit greatly from returning for his senior season.
“He certainly has the physical tools and traits to be a top pick, certainly,” the scout said. “But being the top pick doesn’t certify you.”
The scout went on to explain that while Herbert has shown flashes that should excite fans, scouts and draft experts, he also displays flaws that reveal a still very raw talent despite his 22 starts.
“I just think he needs to get more experience and learn to pay his position further,” he said.
The scout compared Herbert to Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who returned to Wyoming for his senior season in order to polish his game. Allen also returned to a much lesser team than the one he had played for as a junior. That didn’t help him statistically, but according to the scout, Allen grew as a leader and as a player while going through the adversity that comes with playing for a lesser talented team.
Plays like the touchdown pass Herbert threw to Redd in the left corner of the end zone while rolling to his left are eye-popping and prove that he can make big throws. However, the scout, who says he has watched in person or on video just about every game Herbert has played, has noticed entire halves of football in which Herbert played just, “okay.”
More playing time and experience could fix Herbert's flaws, according to the scout. It could all click for Herbert by the end of this season, or he might need another year.
The scout would like to see Herbert display better overall pocket presence. The ability to step up and stay more consistently, rather than step up and run. His reads and ability to locate receivers needs work. At times, his accuracy, especially on deep passes, is lacking due to flawed overall balance and mechanics.
“He has to pull all of this together,” the scout said.
That all said, there is one major trait the scout says he has been very impressed with.
“I think even at this stage since he’s played at Oregon, one thing I think he has as a real positive is that he’s made people around him better,” the scout said. “He is a very hard-worker, tremendous person but his effort and attitude on the field is what you want. He plays hard and he’s a competitor.”
The scout said that Mariota was more polished and better mechanically when he came out in 2014 after his redshirt junior season. Again, that extra year played a factor.
--- Prolific Duck becomes leader ---
Herbert's statistics speak for themselves. His streak of 22 straight games with a touchdown pass is now the longest in the nation. He has thrown 205 consecutive passes without an interception in Pac-12 road games and is the fastest player in program history to 4,000 and 5,000 passing yards. His impressive season stats (131-for-212, 1883 yards, 61.8 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, 5 interceptions) don’t adequately display the area of his game that has improved the most this season. According to UO co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, Herbert has become the toughest player mentally on the field.
"He’s taken a leadership role and (improved on) small things that help us win like carrying out fakes," Arroyo said. "That stuff goes unseen in the box score but has given him a chance to escalate his game."
Arroyo, a former quarterbacks coach and interim offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay, gave insight into how he believes Herbert’s skills will translate in the NFL.
"He's got a skillset that's pretty special, pretty rare," Arroyo said. "Having been there and been through those drafts, he's got a skillset that is going to be comparable to as good as anybody. We are going to cross that bridge when we get there.”
Herbert is loved by his teammates, who describe him using numerous superlatives. When asked to finish the sentence, “Justin Herbert, most likely to…” UO senior running back Tony Brooks-James said: “Throw a touchdown pass, be our president, do whatever Justin Herbert wants. Anything he puts his mind to.”
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal has repeatedly called Herbert a “field general” who understands the run game like a coordinator does. The offense relies heavily on Herbert’s advanced knowledge of protections and the running game. He’s able to quickly get the offense into the right play, based on shifting defensive looks.
“He seems to get better and better as the moments get bigger,” Cristobal said. “He is driven. He hungers for that… He won’t allow himself to flinch.”
--- Not always clutch in close games ---
The NFL scouting process involves dissecting prospects to the point of looking for something, anything to mark in the cons column.
A legitimate negative is that although Herbert has been great in blowout wins he has very rarely risen up in clutch moments to lead his team to victory in close games. For what it's worth, Herbert is 3-5 as the starting quarterback in games decided by 10 points or less.
But, to be fair, Herbert typically has performed well statistically in such games. In the eight games in question, Herbert completed 192 of 280 passes (68.6 percent) for 2,189 yards and 21 touchdown passes with just five interceptions.
As a freshman in 2016, Herbert led the Ducks on a game-winning touchdown drive to upset No. 12 Utah. But he failed to close out a win at California when he threw an interception in overtime and he couldn't prevent Oregon's offense from falling to pieces in the second half at Oregon State in the Civil War. The Ducks led the Beavers 21-14 in the third quarter before the rains came and the Ducks lost 34-24.
In 2017 at Arizona State, he had two chances in the fourth quarter to lead the Ducks to a game-winning field goal before losing 37-35. In the Las Vegas Bowl, he managed to put up just 14 offensive points in a 38-28 loss to underdog Boise State.
This season, he led the Ducks on a clutch drive in the fourth quarter to go on Stanford up 31-21 at home before the defense and a late fumble by a redshirts freshman running back allowed the Cardinal to send the game into overtime. There, Herbert failed to put one touchdown on the board and the Ducks lost 38-31.
Herbert got the job done in the second half and in overtime against Washington helping the Ducks win 31-28 over the favored Huskies.
However, with a shot at the Pac-12 title hanging in the balance, he couldn't prevent the Ducks from falling behind 27-0 at Washington State before ultimately losing 34-20. Granted, Herbert did lead a strong second half charge but it was too little too late.
Quarterbacks often receive too much praise for a team's success and too much blame for its failures. However, in the NFL where most games are close (last year's Super Bowl champion Eagles won nine games by 10 points or fewer) a quarterback that can perform well in the clutch is a must. Herbert's resume is lacking in that area.
The scout said that Herbert's play in tight situations would be evaluated by NFL teams. How quarterbacks perform while behind matters. But, all factors surrounding any quarterback are also taken into account. Herbert's record in such games wouldn't be a deal breaker.
Whenever Herbert decides to turn professional, whichever team covets him enough to make him their top target, and despite all of the warts scouts will uncover - imaginary or otherwise - Herbert will soon become the face of a NFL franchise. But not until he is good and ready.