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Eager: Justin Herbert's rookie year was impressive, but the odds are against a repeat in 2021

Jan 3, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The National Football League is one of the most compelling sandboxes for prediction. Teams and players surprise and disappoint us, and whether they do so depends on the time horizon considered (see Wentz, Carson). Correct predictions elicit victory laps, while false ones humble.

Well, a player who humbled me some this season was former Oregon quarterback and current Los Angeles Charger Justin Herbert, who took home the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award over Minnesota‘s Justin Jefferson after setting an NFL record for the most touchdown passes in a season by a first-year player.

Herbert was tied with Matthew Stafford for the 13th-highest-graded passer in football (78.6) and tied for ninth with 31 big-time throws. After starting his career 0-4 as a starter, Herbert won his final four starts to finish the year with a 6-8 record.

The Chargers, after 14 years of borderline Hall of Fame play from Philip Rivers, appear to have picked up right where they left off with Herbert, who, unlike Rivers, started from almost the very beginning after a Chargers-like mishap by the medical staff in Week 2 thrust him into the starting lineup. It seems like a foregone conclusion that Herbert is going to continue to grow into the position, putting a talented Los Angeles team in contention for an AFC West division they haven’t won since 2009.

Not so fast. While Herbert’s 2020 season was very good by rookie standards and should have all Chargers fans encouraged for the future, there are some canaries in the coal mine of his data set that give me a bit of pause, especially considering how much the market is buying into them (they are currently 30/1 to win the Super Bowl on DraftKings, and Herbert himself is 18/1 to win the MVP). Here is a collection of the reasons.

This isn’t the first time Herbert started well in new circumstances

Indeed, Herbert was considered a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick at points during his career at Oregon, but things actually got worse after his second year in Eugene, with PFF grades of 76.6 and 82.7 in his final two years (his freshman and sophomore campaigns saw him post 77.2 and 90.5 grades, respectively).

After averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt in his first two seasons, he fell to 7.9 yards per pass attempt in his final two years. He did deal with a coordinator change during that time (between his first and second year), but he will be in Los Angeles, as well, which brings me to my next point.

Justin Herbert: PFF GRADES and rank IN COLLEGE (2016-2019; rank among FBS QBs)

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