It’s easy to forget that Justin Herbert’s ascent to 2020 NFL offensive rookie of the year almost didn’t happen. Ex-head coach Anthony Lynn was dead-set on starting veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and Herbert may not have gotten a shot to take over if not for the Chargers medical staff accidentally puncturing Taylor’s lung prior to Week 2.
Herbert went on to finish 10th in fantasy points per game (22.7) and first in PFF passing grade under pressure (75.4). Despite the rookie's tremendous success, the team failed to win close contests, finishing 7-9 and losing seven one-score games.
Lynn was fired and replaced with former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Stanley, whose first move as head coach was to hire former Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi. This offense will be built around the strengths of its second-year quarterback, which bodes well for the fantasy value of the entire offense.
2021 Team Preview
Lombardi’s influence on the offense starts with building upon last year's success. Under 2020 offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, L.A. ranked 13th in neutral game script pass-play rate (60%) and fifth in passing attempts per game (43.1). During Lombardi’s stint as the Lions offensive coordinator in 2015, Detroit ranked third in neutral game script pass-play rate (66%) and sixth in passing attempts per game (42).
There is going to be more emphasis on the passing game, but it won’t necessarily come at the expense of the running game considering the overall number of plays the team is expected to run. The Chargers led the NFL in plays per game (70.4) last season. Lombardi’s Saints ranked fifth in plays per game (65) from 2016-2020.
The offensive line has also been entirely revamped after finishing 30th in PFF pass-blocking grade (54.5) and 32nd in run-blocking (46.5) last season. The unit is currently PFF’s 18th-ranked offensive line thanks to the additions of center Corey Linsley, guard Matt Feiler and first-round rookie tackle Rashawn Slater.
The upgrades upfront cannot be overstated, as Herbert will need better protection to avoid a sophomore slump. Banking on the Chargers quarterback to repeat last year's passer rating under pressure (99.4) is not a good bet, considering that rating was higher than his mark from a clean pocket (97.7), which is the more stable metric year to year.
Herbert won’t be required to make nearly as many off-script throws as he did last season with better protection, so he'll have a chance to build off what was a stellar rookie campaign. He’ll be tasked to work more within the infrastructure of the play design, making high-end fantasy production more likely.
Lombardi also wants to leverage more of Herbert’s athleticism and arm talent, which is great news for those investing in Herbert.
Expect Herbert’s deep-ball rate to drastically increase from 2020 (11.3%, 24th) and look for him to add more value with his legs. He established a decent rushing floor last year, compiling 234 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns on 55 carries.
The second-year passer has a solid foundation to repeat as a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2021, and his future success will undoubtedly create a positive trickle-down effect on his diverse supporting cast of playmakers.