Justin Herbert Era Should Begin in 2020 Despite Chargers' Reticence

The Chargers downplayed expectations for quarterback Justin Herbert in Year 1, but the newly minted first-round pick shouldn't spend 2020 holding a clipboard.
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LOS ANGELES -- As a defensive mechanism, NFL teams that select a quarterback in the first round typically downplay their expectations for his rookie season. While the fan base expects the world of the shiny new player right away, virtually all signal-callers enter the league requiring significant instruction and refinement in order to unlock their potential. That process can take years, and most prospects never fully develop. With that in mind, coaches and personnel executives try to reduce the pressure on the newly minted pro.

The Los Angeles Chargers followed that roadmap Thursday after taking Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert with the No. 6 overall pick.

"We're certainly not asking him to be the face of the franchise," Telesco says. "That's not what we would ask him to do. And it's something I wouldn't even have to tell him."

Ostensibly, the Chargers would like to see Herbert spend 2020 developing on the practice field as a backup to veteran Tyrod Taylor rather than force the rookie behind center. Such an approach would allow Herbert to iron out the issues with his throwing mechanics that cause bouts of inaccuracy during his time at Oregon. "There's always competition," Telesco says. "But I think when you look at where we are right now and where everything stands -- I think coach [Anthony Lynn] has said Tyrod's in the driver's seat."

But regardless of Telesco's claims, no general manager worth his salt invests the No. 6 overall pick in a quarterback and doesn't expect that player to take over the franchise in the near future. Since the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement mandated four-year contracts with a fifth-year option for first-round selections in 2011, only one of the 28 signal-callers taken in that range didn't become a starter at some point his rookie year: the Tennessee Titans' Jake Locker. Even Patrick Mahomes, whom the Kansas City Chiefs essentially redshirted after selecting No. 10 overall in 2017, made a start in the regular-season finale later that year.

The days of Philip Rivers or Aaron Rodgers sitting for multiple seasons before ascending to the starting job have ended. Rookie contracts simply do not provide as long of a runway as they did in previous eras, and quality quarterbacks signed to those deals generate too much value to ignore. And while Herbert carries the "raw" label as a prospect, modern signal-callers enter the NFL with astronomically more reps than previous generations due to the rise of passing camps, private QB coaches, and 7-on-7 competitions. If he can become a franchise passer, that talent should manifest at some point this season.

For his part, Herbert didn't shy away from responsibilities that come with his first-round status.

"I wouldn't say it's pressure, I would say it's an incredible opportunity," Herbert says. "It's a chance to do something special. To be given this opportunity, I'm going to do everything I can to make the most of it. I want to be the guy that they want me to be and I want to be the guy that I want to be. I want to be the quarterback, friend, and teammate that I need to be. There's so much that I can improve upon and I'm going to get better. I'm going to do everything I can to be the best quarterback that I can be."

Herbert acknowledges that he needs to fix aspects of his game in order to meet expectations. At Oregon, he rarely took snaps from under center and must now learn the footwork required by those dropbacks. Herbert says he has spent the last three months drilling those skills while also working on his throwing mechanics. "My front shoulder comes loose at times, and that's something I've been fixing up," he says. Herbert can't realistically iron out all those wrinkles during his rookie year.

But whatever Herbert lacks in terms of refinement, he can negate to some degree with his athleticism. The Chargers want to utilize more moving pockets, pistol option, and play-action than they did with Rivers at the controls the previous 14 seasons, and Herbert's ability to make plays on the move cater to that approach. Even if he can't handle the full playbook right now, many of the concepts that he ran at Oregon have exploded in popularity at the NFL level in recent years. The Chiefs, incorporating spread staples into the West Coast offense, brought home the Lombardi Trophy less than three months while the San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl by running more play-action and pre-snap motion than any other team.

"I think that's something we tried to do a lot at Oregon," Herbert says of play-action. "I think, especially in the last couple of games -- the last two games in particular -- we did a good job with that. We definitely didn't win that game the way we wanted to, but we won that game -- the Rose Bowl is tough, and 28-27 is a close game -- by any means we had to. I think play-action is a huge part of any offense."

The Chargers have demonstrated the propensity to mold their scheme to their talent in the past. Herbert, who possesses clear strengths and weaknesses at this point in his development, requires a specialized approach as he expands his repertoire. If the coaching staff sets him up for success with the right play-calling, Herbert could surprise his new employers.

Time will tell whether the Chargers give Herbert the chance to start as a rookie. Until then, they will continue to manage expectations for him.

"He's a rookie player who plays a very high-profile position, I get that," Telesco says. "He's a quarterback. But we also have two quarterbacks right now that we're happy with, so there's no pressure on Justin to walk in on Day 1.

"We expect him to come in, start competing, start learning, and we'll take it from there."

-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH