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Justin Herbert's Return to Oregon May Not Be as Big of a Risk as It Seems

Oregon's now sky-high expectations for 2019 and Herbert's draft stock for 2020 all depend on a developmental process that the Ducks quarterback himself admits is ongoing.

During an October visit to Eugene, I interviewed Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert with an eye on fleshing out what he told me in a feature story that would get published during the run-up to the next NFL draft. At the time, the 6'6", 233-pound Herbert was the college QB most coveted at the NFL level, but there were already whispers that Herbert might return for his senior season.

My main takeaway was that Herbert was more surprised than anyone that he was being considered by many to be the top quarterback in the 2019 draft. A biology major who sat out most of the Quarterback Industrial Complex camp circuit while at Eugene’s Sheldon High, Herbert still seemed to be getting used to the idea that he was one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He hadn’t ever viewed himself as being an elite talent (even though he definitely is) and he was later than his coaches and teammates in realizing how high his ceiling was. At that time—nine days before the Ducks upset Washington—Herbert said he was still working on becoming a better leader for the offense. He said vocal leadership wasn’t necessarily natural to him, but he’d begun to feel more comfortable with the realization that the team was looking to him to lead.

He didn’t sound like a guy who would absolutely jump to the NFL, even if he was going to be the first quarterback off the board. The fact that Herbert’s younger brother Patrick was headed to Oregon in 2019 to play tight end only added another layer to his decision.

Wednesday, Herbert put all the speculation to rest by announcing he would play for the Ducks in 2019.

“The University of Oregon has been a special place to me for as long as I can remember. Words will never be able to express my feelings of gratitude toward the people that have built and maintain our program,” Herbert said in a statement released on the football program’s Twitter account. “What I have come to realize, though, is that nothing could pull me away from the opportunities that we have in front of us. As we prepare for our bowl game, I would like to ensure that there are no distractions outside of this game. My commitment to my teammates, our coaches, Duck fans, and the University of Oregon has never been stronger. I’ll be returning to the University of Oregon for my senior year. Go Ducks!”

The Ducks face Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl* on Monday. Presumably, Oregon players had a good idea Herbert was returning. But this news plus the expected return of freshman left tackle Penei Sewell—who hasn’t played since suffering a high ankle sprain against Washington—should boost an offense that struggled against better opponents following the Washington win. 

*If you win the Redbox Bowl, do you celebrate by bingeing The Meg, Smallfoot and the first Deadpool (because it was the only thing left in the box and you had a rent-two-get-one-for-50-cents coupon)? 

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This also makes the Pac-12 North even more interesting next season. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal has been trying to remake the Ducks as a team that can hang with Washington and Stanford at the line of scrimmage while still being fast enough on the outside to run with the likes of Washington State. Oregon redshirted four freshman offensive linemen with the hope that a new interior core led by Sewell could help make the Ducks’ offense as versatile as the one run by former Cristobal employer Alabama. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason is expected to take over as the starter at reigning North champ Washington. Mike Leach always seems to find a quarterback at Washington State. K.J. Costello has one more year at Stanford, and the Cardinal still have former five-star recruit Davis Mills, who might finally be fully healthy as a redshirt sophomore.

Oregon likely will get buzz as the favorite in the division and the conference for 2019, but whether those predictions come true will depend on the development of Herbert, who has completed 221 of 371 passes for 2,985 yards with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. Herbert’s eight yards per pass attempt is good but not great, and his 59.6 completion percentage should be higher.

Herbert is taking a risk by returning. This is viewed as a relatively weak quarterback class, and Herbert’s measurables alone would have made him one of the first quarterbacks off the board. The ultimate Pac-12 cautionary tale is former USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who returned for his senior season in 2012 and went from projected first-rounder to actual fourth-rounder. But it’s difficult to judge whether Barkley actually would have been a first-rounder if he’d come out after the 2011 season. Would he have remained as coveted through the pre-draft process?

A good comparison for Herbert—right down to the path from obscurity to draft buzz—might be former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen. Allen could have left Wyoming after the 2016 season and been drafted, but returning for 2017 probably drove up Allen’s draft position even though he had a statistically worse season as a redshirt junior than he did as a redshirt sophomore. Allen went No. 7 to Buffalo and is currently the Bills’ starter. Like Allen, Herbert has a rocket arm and is probably a good enough athlete to play in the NFL at another position. The difference is Herbert is already a more accomplished college quarterback than Allen was following his third year out of high school.

The Herbert news probably was welcomed by Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Missouri’s Drew Lock. Those two probably will duke it out between January and April for the right to be the first quarterback selected. Haskins has yet to announce that he’ll turn pro after the Buckeyes face Washington in the Rose Bowl, but Ohio State’s pursuit of potential Georgia transfer Justin Fields suggests the Buckeyes are preparing for life without Haskins, who might have wound up the first QB selected even if Herbert had turned pro.

The market for a quarterback at the top of the draft may not be as hot as it was in 2018, when four quarterbacks went in the top 10. The teams at the top of the 2019 draft seem fairly set at quarterback. The Giants (No. 6) should be in the market for a QB. So will the Buccaneers (at No. 7, No. 8 or No. 9) if they move on from 2015 No. 1 pick Jameis Winston. The Jaguars, who also have a 5–10 record and will pick in that range, also seem to be in need of a quarterback. (Though Blake Bortles is starting their regular-season finale.)

The needs at the top of the draft may also have entered into Herbert’s thinking. Even though the 2020 QB class could be deeper, there may be more teams at the top of the draft needing quarterbacks—which could drive up Herbert’s draft position. So while Herbert is taking a financial risk by returning to school, it may not be as big of a risk as it seems. And if he develops in the way he hopes, it may wind up making him money in the long run.