What Justin Herbert has to do at the Senior Bowl to make 'Justin vs. Tua' a one-sided debate

MOBILE, Ala. – After converting third-and-17 at Texas, slaying Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa and turning the College Football Playoff into a Mardi Gras warm-up, it’s only natural to concede that Joe Burrow will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

The defining quarterback debate of the 2020 draft revolves around who’ll follow Burrow as the second quarterback selected. While it won’t live on in draft lore like Manning vs. Leaf or Luck vs. RG3, the choice between Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is just as compelling.

The debate of Justin vs. Tua centers on two candidates who are wildly disparate in physical attributes, system and circumstance. And it will result in a team in the top 10 making a significant decision and financial investment that could alter the course of their franchise. At least five of the first nine teams picking this April have significant interest in taking a quarterback, so it’s arguably the biggest tension hanging over this upcoming draft.

The case for the wildly accomplished Tagovailoa can be made only after his medicals clear up, which renders projections difficult at this point. The case for Herbert will be made this week at the Senior Bowl, where he’s playing for the Bengals’ coaching staff and hoping to cement himself in the Top 10.

“The fact that he’s coming to Mobile to compete says a lot about him as a competitor,” said former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum, who works as an analyst for ESPN. “He has a chance to answer some of the questions about his intangibles and leadership.”

Herbert’s decision to attend the Senior Bowl this week came with more potential risk than upside. Physically, there’s little question that Herbert comes from NFL archetype central casting. He’s 6-foot-6 with a thick 238-pound build, almost like an agile power forward playing behind center. But the fact that Herbert is here is an acknowledgement that lingering skepticism exists about his uneven production and quiet personality.

NFL scouts would like to see Oregon's Justin Herbert assert himself as an alpha leader this week at the Senior Bowl. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
NFL scouts would like to see Oregon's Justin Herbert assert himself as an alpha leader this week at the Senior Bowl. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

There are two main things Herbert has to prove in Mobile this week that can help cement him as the No. 2 quarterback taken in the draft. The first is his ability to demonstrate leadership and some embers of an alpha personality. Herbert is reserved by nature, unfailingly polite and not organically comfortable as the center of attention. Those aren’t necessarily deal-breaking traits for NFL teams, but to be selected that high means Herbert would be the face of a franchise. That comes with an understanding that there will be microphones shoved in your face daily, and a certain minimum of moxie and connection with teammates is required beyond leading by example.

How does someone who isn’t a natural leader display leadership and bond with teammates amid a one-week shotgun marriage?

“Great question,” Herbert said, one of a handful he complimented throughout his interviews. “You kind of have to force yourself to become uncomfortable. You have to put yourself in positions that aren't normal for you, and I think this past year I've done a great job with that — speaking up when they need someone to speak up.”

How naturally withdrawn is Herbert? Texas Tech offensive coordinator David Yost coached him as a freshman at Oregon and said he had as different a personality as anyone he’s been around in coaching. Yost enjoyed Herbert’s company and said they went to Chipotle a few years after that 2016 season when Yost was in town recruiting, and that Herbert had clearly become more outgoing. But Yost summed up Herbert’s withdrawn nature this way.

“He’d rather shake his head yes or no than actually say it,” Yost said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s not the norm.”

He balanced that observation by saying that Herbert’s natural talent provided a charisma and connectedness, and when Herbert enters games he brings an energy and belief because his teammates recognize his ability.

“He didn’t do anything to promote himself or say anything,” Yost said. “But guys were coming to me the first summer he was there saying, ‘This guy can really play.’ He had this natural talent that everyone knew how good he was.”

The second thing Herbert needs to show this week in Mobile will be how his game translates to the NFL. There’s little question about the physical skills Herbert possesses, as he’s the most impressive “on the hoof” prospect in the quarterback class. He has the strongest arm of any of the potential first-round quarterbacks, much stronger than Burrow. “I think he’s got all the skills,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly told Yahoo Sports. “He’s as good of looking quarterback as you’re going to see in person.”

Herbert’s production in college didn’t always match his skills. He was beset by drops his junior season when he completed 59.4 percent of his passes. He improved his senior year (66.8 percent), but there were still bedeviling performances like his clunker in a 31-28 loss to Arizona State, when he threw two interceptions and looked lost at times.

Tua Tagovailoa's medicals still need to clear up, but his stock could rise if Justin Herbert has a bad week in Mobile. (Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports)
Tua Tagovailoa's medicals still need to clear up, but his stock could rise if Justin Herbert has a bad week in Mobile. (Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports)

Herbert finished the year with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he certainly didn’t hurt himself as a prospect. But there’s still a sense that Oregon didn’t tease all the production out of him, even after it won the Pac-12 and authored a stirring victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. “It was a great decision, and looking back we accomplished everything that we wanted to,” Herbert said.

The case for Herbert, from many scouts, suggests Oregon could have maximized and developed him more. Scouts say that Oregon essentially ran the same offense that Nick Saban ran at Alabama before Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian opened it up with spread concepts. That means it’s defiant in the run game, conservative in the pass game and so concerned with max protecting that it often left Herbert with few checkdowns and safety valves. Hence the low completion percentages and lack of chunk passing plays.

The NFL evaluators who are skeptical of Herbert say that he should have done more at Oregon. Those who are bullish on him point to Oregon’s distinct talent deficit at wide receiver and pedestrian tailbacks to show that he’s been doing it alone.

“The offense didn’t showcase him well,” said a scout, who echoed the sentiments of many of his colleagues. “He didn’t have any wide receivers, and the running backs are just guys. I commend him.”

The scout went on to make an interesting argument for Herbert. He said that he believes Burrow has an edge in anticipation and getting the ball out faster, and that Tua has a better feel. But he wonders what Herbert’s numbers could have been like if he’d thrown to the outlandish collection of talent that both Burrow and Tagovailoa did.

“I think Tua is more instinctive than Herbert,” the scout said. “But you be hard-pressed to take a 6-1 [non-athletic] guy over strong armed 6-foot-6 athlete. Herbert gets killed by scouts. But you put him on Bama or LSU, would we still be having this discussion?”

There’s a lingering sense in the NFL that part of the intrigue by Herbert is that in terms of footwork and development, there’s still a high ceiling. “I think he’s got the talent, and the ability he has is raw,” said a veteran NFL coach. “The guys who are quarterback developers and offensive people look at him as a lump of clay that we can do something with.”

How that clay forms this week goes a long way in forging the 2020 NFL draft.

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