With the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Joe Burrow, quarterback out of Louisiana State University.
With the fifth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Miami Dolphins selected Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback out of the University of Alabama.
Then, with the sixth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Chargers selected the best quarterback of this year’s draft class.
Justin Herbert, quarterback out of the University of Oregon.
It may seem like an overreaction, given the fact that Herbert has played in just three games at the time of this writing, Burrow has started four for the Bengals, and Tagovailoa hasn’t taken a snap in the NFL.
But, when looking at Herbert’s play through his first few games in the powder blue, it’s tough to think that he was the third quarterback taken and sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, considering he may have been the best player on the board when it started.
Many believed that, if Herbert had forgone his senior season at Oregon and decided to head to the NFL early, he could’ve been the first quarterback selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Instead, he made the decision to return to college for his senior year, and left teams to pick from the likes of Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins, Daniel Jones, Drew Lock, Gardner Minshew and more.
It was a gutsy decision, allowing teams to pick up their quarterbacks of the future and test the waters a year later, risking a spot as a backup in the process.
Instead, Herbert wound up in the perfect scenario in Los Angeles, with the chance to learn from then-starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor throughout a training camp that included zero preseason games.
Unfortunately, the circumstances in 2020 led to a lack of opportunities to get real, in-game reps. No preseason games for any battle for the starting job. Just sit back, learn from a veteran, and wait for your time to shine if you’re Herbert.
While Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn likely had a different timeline in mind for Herbert, a freak incident accelerated things to a point that no one could’ve possibly expected.
After just one game under center, a punctured lung after a failed pain-killing injection to Taylor’s cracked ribs ahead of the team’s Week 2 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs left him in the hospital that Sunday night.
Just a few minutes before one of the team’s biggest games of the year against a divisional rival and the reigning Super Bowl champions, Herbert was told by Lynn that he would be stepping in to make his first start as an NFL quarterback.
“I think he thought I was joking,” Lynn said. “I had to tell him a couple times, ‘No, seriously, you’re the starting quarterback.’ Once he realized he was the guy, he was fine.”
And fine he was, looking like a multi-year veteran under center while going up against a former NFL MVP in Patrick Mahomes.
He threw for 311 yards and a touchdown, ran in a touchdown of his own, and completed 66.7 percent of his 33 pass attempts. He kept the Chargers in it, and the now-undefeated Chiefs even needed overtime to take down the rookie quarterback.
“Just being out there, going against the defending Super Bowl champs, it was a really special moment,” Herbert said a few days after the game. “To be able to share it with those guys was really great.”
A week later, Herbert somehow looked even better, going 35-for-49 through the air with 330 yards and another touchdown pass. His 71.4 percent completion rate wasn’t enough to give the Chargers the win, however, as the team fell to the Carolina Panthers 21-16.
It didn’t get any easier for Herbert’s third start, as his Chargers went up against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time: Buccaneers QB Tom Brady.
Herbert didn’t falter under the pressure of playing against a quarterback he looked up to, completing a whopping 80 percent of his passes while going 20-for-25 with 290 yards and three touchdown passes.
He gave his team a 17-point lead, but the Chargers’ injury-riddled secondary couldn’t stop Brady and the Bucs’ offense, giving up five touchdown passes in the process.
Despite the 0-3 record through his first three career starts, Herbert showed exactly why he should be the team’s starting quarterback, and caught the attention of his head coach, as well.
After Lynn had initially stated that Herbert would fall back in line behind Taylor once the former starter was healthy, he made the decision on October 8 to name Herbert the team’s guy under center moving forward.
“He got thrown in the fire. I thought he handled the situation well and I want to see more of him,” Lynn said when announcing the news. “It’s not going to be a situation where he’s looking over his shoulder. He’s our starting quarterback. He makes a bad play, he has a bad game, he’s our quarterback.”
The expectations that come with that sort of opportunity would be enough to crumble a young quarterback’s dreams early on in his career, but not Herbert. He has taken it in stride, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Over the past couple months, I’ve kind of realized that there’s nothing else that I’d rather be doing,” Herbert said. “Playing football for the Chargers is something that I’ve dreamed about. If I got out there and do everything right, study, work hard. Good things will happen. It’s just a great opportunity to be here and I’m just so excited to be here.”
And, as if all of the pressure off the field wasn’t enough, Herbert has proved that he can handle it on the field, too. Despite being “thrown in the fire,” per Lynn’s words, Herbert has been able to deliver strikes when actually under fire in an in-game situation.
In fact, when he’s been throwing while under pressure from opposing defenses, Herbert ranks first in yards, third in completion percentage, and fifth in passer rating.
He’s dropped dimes in tight spots, and shown off his arm with multiple deep balls, including a beautiful pass against the Buccaneers for a 53-yard touchdown and a fadeaway toss for a 72-yard touchdown.
“I told Anthony after the game – I said, ‘You’ve got a great one,'” Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said. “For rookies to make plays like that, you know they’re special.”
While it’s easy to look at the statistics and Herbert’s abilities on film through his first three games in the NFL, Lynn cited the Oregon alum’s poise and leadership both on and off the field as a major reason for the move.
“I like the way he’s managed the huddle,” Lynn said. “I like the way his teammates have responded to him. He is a leader in his own way. It’s the total package for me. It wasn’t just the big arm in the games. It’s the total package.”
The “total package” is the perfect way to look at it, especially if you’re comparing Herbert’s situation to the likes of Burrow with the Bengals, or Tagovailoa with the Dolphins.
Burrow doesn’t have the same talent surrounding him in Cincinnati as Herbert has in Los Angeles. An injury-prone A.J. Green and a rookie WR in Clemson alum Tee Higgins can’t compare to the stardom that Chargers wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams provide, let alone other Chargers players like tight end Hunter Henry and rookie running back Joshua Kelley.
Tagovailoa has yet to make a start for the Dolphins, and if/when he does, he will have to rely on DeVante Parker and Preston Williams to get open, along with a rotation of running backs that includes Myles Gaskin and Matt Brieda.
Even without Chargers’ star safety Derwin James, who is out for the season, Los Angeles’ defense is better than the Bengals’, and could make a run at the Dolphins’ talented defensive core if they went up against each other on paper.
No matter what, the Chargers have one player that neither the Bengals or Dolphins are able to put out on the field: Justin Herbert.
He has shown his talent on the field, and his intangible attributes off of it. He has shown he belongs in the NFL, and, more importantly belongs in Los Angeles with the Chargers.
And, if he lives up to the expectations that coaches, fans, and even he has for himself, the sky is the limit for the 22-year-old.
“He impressed from the very beginning,” Lynn said. “This young man is going to continue to get better and I know we can win with him. I believe that.”