The Fantasy Case Against Justin Herbert: Sophomore Slump or Surge?

With a new coaching staff, can Chargers QB Justin Herbert pick up where he left off on the field and for fantasy fans?
Author:
Publish date:

The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.

Case in point: In 2019, Lamar Jackson went absolutely bananas with over 415 fantasy points. Had he not been held out of a meaningless Week 17 game, he would have broken the record for the most points scored by a quarterback in a season. Jackson was so good that it seemed like a forgone conclusion that he'd be just as good again in 2020. Those of you who sunk a high-round pick on him found out different.

Jackson threw for 10 fewer touchdowns, rushed for 199 fewer yards, and averaged 5.5 fewer fantasy points per game. He failed to score more than 18 points five times in his first 10 games and needed a late-season, five-game surge to finish in the top 10.

The point being is that no one saw this coming because Jackson was so good in 2019. So that leads me to this series, aptly named "The Fantasy Case Against…" where I'll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in prior seasons.

We'll start with Justin Herbert.

2020 Season

justin-herbert-chargers

Herbert was nothing short of spectacular as a rookie quarterback, throwing for 4,336 yards with 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. He also rushed for an additional 234 yards and five touchdowns, and he did all of this in just 15 games. In all, Herbert ranked ninth in points among quarterbacks while averaging 22.2 points per contest. 

Herbert became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes in a single season. In addition, his 31 touchdown passes are the most for a rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era. He also broke Carson Wentz's rookie record of 379 completions. What's more, Herbert set the rookie record for the most games with at least 300 passing yards (8), the most games with multiple touchdown passes (10), and the most games with at least three touchdown passes (6).

Did You Know?

Herbert was great for much of the season, but his numbers did fall down the stretch. In Weeks 2-11, he scored the fourth-most fantasy points among quarterbacks while putting up an average of 24.3 points a game. Over his final five games of the fantasy season (Weeks 12-16), however, Herbert was the QB18 while averaging a modest 16.2 points a game. He scored 33 points in the regular-season finale against the Chiefs, but it was a meaningless game where Kansas City rested its starters ahead of the playoffs.

Historical Trends

Herbert ranked second among quarterbacks in NFL history with 332.8 fantasy points as a rookie. Cam Newton is the only first-year field general to have more (2011 – 370.3). The following season, Newton averaged three fewer fantasy points a game. He was still good, but he did experience some regression. Herbert's three-point decline in points would put him at around 19 points per game, which is good but not an elite number. By comparison, Kirk Cousins averaged 19.1 fantasy points per game this past season.

The rookie quarterback with the third-most fantasy points in a single season is Robert Griffin III (2012 – 317.5). However, he injured his knee in the 2012 playoffs and was never the same. Dak Prescott is fourth (2016 – 286.9) among rookies, and he experienced a near two-point per game decline as a sophomore. Kyler Murray is fifth and the lone field general in the top five who saw his numbers rise in Year 2. 

Among the next five top rookie quarterbacks based on fantasy points, only one (Andrew Luck) averaged more points as a sophomore—and it was only one point more. The other four, Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, Baker Mayfield, and Gardner Minshew (not a misprint), averaged fewer fantasy points per game than their rookie numbers.

Coaching Changes

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley

New head coach Brandon Staley comes from a defensive background, so let's focus on what new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will bring to the table in Los Angeles. He learned from coach Sean Payton and worked with fantasy superstar Drew Brees as the QB coach in New Orleans (2009-2013, 2016-2020), though his first stint as an offensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions (2014-2015) didn't work out very well. 

QB Matthew Stafford averaged fewer than 16 fantasy points per game under Lombardi, and that was with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate both in the prime of their respective careers. What's more, Stafford saw his fantasy points-per-game total decline with Lombardi at the helm and then increase when the Lions let him loose in 2015.

On the flip side, let's also remember that the league now has a full season of tape on Herbert. As a result, he will not surprise anyone, and opposing defenses could be better equipped to limit his success and potentially cause a statistical decline.

Verdict

I'm not going to die on the "Herbert will be a 2021 bust" hill. The kid showed some real flashes of brilliance, and I still have him ranked among my top-10 quarterbacks. Still, a sophomore slump under Lombardi is clearly within the range of outcomes, in part because Herbert set the statistical bar so high as a rookie. So I'm drafting Herbert with the thought that he won't be better this season than he was as a rookie, and I'll also be drafting a second quarterback (something I don't do with an "elite" signal-caller) in case the regression monster takes a big bite out of Herbert's stats and value this season.


The Fantasy Case Against ...


MORE ARTICLES FROM MICHAEL FABIANO

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!