Quarterback is the most important position in team sports, and while it is possible to win in the NFL without a top-flight signal-caller, having an elite player at the position covers a multitude of sins. Just look at what the Kansas City Chiefs showed in 2019 and the Tom Brady-led Patriots showed many times before them.
As such, there is an understandable appetite for the position in the early part of the draft, as a quarterback has been chosen with the first-overall pick in all but one draft since 2015 and with the second-overall pick in all but two drafts during that time.
The first round of the 2020 draft includes two surefire choices for teams at the quarterback position in Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. We’ve rarely seen a quarterback with the kind of projections that Burrow has in our college-to-pro system, and Tagovailoa, despite some questions regarding his health and the strength of his support at Alabama, passes the test as well. And then there’s Justin Herbert.
Herbert played significant snaps during all four years of his tenure at Oregon, from 555 snaps as a freshman to 928 as a senior. He was very impressive early given his youth, earning a 77.0 overall passing grade as a freshman and a 91.1 as a sophomore. Things stagnated, though, starting with his junior season, where he averaged just 7.7 yards per pass attempt (after 9.6 as a sophomore). His teammates did drop 33 passes (and another 32 during his senior season), but the quarterback was still less accurate than Tyler Huntley, Burrow, Anthony Gordon, Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and Kevin Davidson in his draft class, despite facing pressure on less than a fourth of his dropbacks and with 108 (24.9%) of his passes occurring behind the line of scrimmage in 2019.
The one stat that would terrify me if I'm considering draft Justin Herbert or Jordan Love is this…
% of uncatchably off-target throws targeting when an OPEN receiver 5-18 yards downfield in 2019:
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) April 13, 2020
In our seminal wins above average model, Herbert was not a standout in his senior year at Oregon, earning just 0.36, which was far less than Burrow (2.9) and Tua (0.47), even though Tua played basically half as many snaps as Herbert.
Given all of the information above, it’s tough to make a case that Herbert is a first-round caliber quarterback. But before we make such a firm conclusion, we take a look at our college-to-pro system — which uses our play-by-play grading, adjusts for opponent-level and scheme-level contexts, and projects a player’s first five years in the NFL. As expected, Herbert projects as a below-average passer in the NFL both from the perspective of yards per attempt and completion percentage:
[Editor’s Note: PFF’s new college-to-pro projection system is powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]