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Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 18: Oregon QB Justin Herbert

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Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports
Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports

18. Oregon QB Justin Herbert

6-foot-6, 236 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.05 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Herbert possesses ideal arm strength, athleticism and character for the position, but does he have the keen instincts and temperament to be great?

The skinny: A 3-star Rivals recruit, the Eugene, Oregon-bred Herbert was being chased by the likes of Nevada, Eastern Washington, Montana State, Northern Arizona and Portland State before committing to the hometown Ducks.

Despite the tepid recruiting, and even after he chose to play high school baseball and pass up early enrollment at Oregon, Herbert proved he belonged in the Pac-12 right away. He became the Ducks’ first true freshman to start at quarterback since 1983, making seven starts and throwing for six TDs on the road at Cal in his second career start. Herbert finished his freshman season throwing for 1,936 yards with 19 TDs and only four interceptions.

Herbert started eight games in 2017, missing five in the middle of the season with a broken collarbone. But he was named the team’s offensive MVP, throwing for 1,983 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions, completing 67 percent of his passes.

In 2018, Herbert started all 13 games and was named honorable mention All-Pac-12. He threw for 3,151 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions, seeing his completion percentage fall to 59.4.

As a senior in 2019, Herbert threw for 3,471 yards, 32 TDs and six INTs, completing 66.8 percent of his passes in 14 starts. He also ran for five TDs in his final season, including three in the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin to cap off his career.

Herbert, who turned 22 in March, was a standout at the Senior Bowl, both during the week of practice and during the game when he was named MVP. He also attended the NFL scouting combine and put up excellent testing numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.68 seconds), vertical jump (35 1/2 inches), broad jump (123 inches) and 3-cone drill (7.06 seconds).

Upside: Checks just about every box for arm talent, size, athleticism and intelligence. Great athlete for the position. Rare to see physical specimens this impressive — including long arms and big hands to handle the bigger NFL ball (and in cold weather).

Strong pocket mover. Feels pressure, slides away from it and can deliver passes in a fluid motion. Escapes trouble nicely and can scramble effectively against man defense (see Rose Bowl vs. Wisconsin). Also effective on the zone-read series and is a threat to pick up first downs with regularity (33 runs of 10 or more yards and 13 rushing TDs in his career).

Throws equally well outside the numbers to his left and right. Can spray it to almost any part of the field. Above-average to very good NFL-caliber arm strength and can generate RPMs with a quick, easy motion.

Does some high-level QB stuff well. Sells predetermined reads well with pump fakes and eye manipulation. Willing to take nickel and dime profits all day. Recognizes easy mismatches for short, safe gains consistently well. Good touch and placement on fades and back-shoulder throws, even down the seam.

This throw against Colorado over the head of speedy coverage LB Davion Taylor shows Herbert making a quick decision about the matchup he liked and putting the ball in a spot against the defender’s leverage:

This is a great timing throw with placement down the seam.
This is a great timing throw with placement down the seam.

Great when kept clean. Completed 71.4 percent of his passes and had 28-4 TD-INT in those situations. (Pro Football Focus has seen a direct correlation between clean-pocket passing prowess in college and NFL success, with the idea being: If a QB isn’t great in ideal conditions, how are they going to be great in the NFL?)

Outstanding on play-action. Sells the fake well and resets his eyes downfield quickly. Completed 69.5 percent of those passes, averaged 10.1 yards per attempt and had 16-2 TD-INT ratio.

Shows he can work through progressions. Here’s a great example of Herbert resetting his eyes and feet when his hot read is double-teamed, finding Juwan Johnson with a great deep touch pass after seeing Johnson beat his man in single coverage against Utah in the Pac-12 title game:

This is beautiful delivery and touch from Herbert, stinging a great defense.
This is beautiful delivery and touch from Herbert, stinging a great defense.

And this one is for good measure: A flea flicker against Arizona on which Herbert takes the time to look off the safety the other direction and throw a dime across the field:

Herbert even takes the time to look off the safety on the flea flicker.
Herbert even takes the time to look off the safety on the flea flicker.

Oregon coaching staffs were conservative offensively, especially early in 2019. Opted to show short often and play safe with leads by running the ball. Rarely let Herbert open it up and didn’t really ask him to throw to win late.

Operated in spread offense with pro concepts. Had great Senior Bowl week and looked comfortable dropping and reading from center in small sample. Good caretaker — seldom makes truly poor decisions throwing and keeps the ball out of harm’s way. Only 23 INTs on 1,301 career attempts — puny INT rate of 1.76 percent.

Humble and even-keeled. Very smart, reliable and accountable. Possesses terrific personal character. Almost certainly won’t be a bad look as the face of a franchise. Career record of 29-13. Named Academic All-American of the Year in 2019. Former Oregon coach Willie Taggart compared Herbert's intelligence and arm talent to Andrew Luck, whom Taggart coached at Stanford.

Downside: Progress difficult to measure since 2017. He took a step back in 2018 and never topped his sophomore performance thereafter. Leaves you wanting more as his traits and physical ability don’t consistently match his output. Something is just missing in the complete picture given his skills.

Decision-making when pressured is highly inconsistent. Made more successful freelance plays in 2019 but still tends to break down when there’s pressure. Doesn’t always get great lower-body drive in his throws — too many arm throws off his back foot. Those issues tend to come up when pressure is higher. Needs to step into his throws and drive the ball better.

Even on short completions, his lack of precision can limit yards-after-catch potential. Misses some layups. Aims short passes instead of throwing. This was evident during combine throwing session when he flicked several “dart throws” instead of confidently delivering those passes.

Accuracy should be better. Appeared much more comfortable attacking man coverage vs. zone in general. Took six penalties last season after only one in his first three seasons — mostly intentional grounding and delay of game calls. Can hold onto the ball too long. sSlow processor at times and gets indecisive. Completed only 52.8 percent of his passes where he held the ball 2.5 seconds or more.

On this brutal coverage sack late in the third quarter of an eventual loss to Arizona State, Herbert needs to burn the ball when his first and second reads are covered. Instead, he holds onto it for nearly seven seconds and is taken down for a drive-killing sack:

Herbert just holds onto the ball far too long on this coverage sack.
Herbert just holds onto the ball far too long on this coverage sack.

Has some injuries that NFL teams needed clarity on — broken femur in high school (which required screws), broken clavicle (non-throwing) in 2017. Shotgun- and pistol-heavy experience — very few snaps from center in college. Might lack the alpha personality needed at QB.

Best-suited destination: He profiles as a high-floor talent and long-time starter even if he might need a few years to grow into a leadership role. Talent-wise, he’s got everything a team wants in a QB but could need to develop early on better pocket sense early and have things be kept fairly elementary in the beginning stages.

Among the teams that could be interested: the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and — should things fall apart with Joe Burrow — the Cincinnati Bengals.

Did you know: Herbert’s tie to Oregon goes beyond geography. Both of his grandfathers went to the school, and his late grandfather Rich Schwab — who died in 2018 — was a wide receiver for the Ducks in the early 1960s.

The Herberts went to many games at Autzen Stadium when Justin grew up. And some say one of the reasons why Justin didn’t declare for the 2019 draft was that he wanted to spend a year playing with his little brother, Patrick, a tight end who was a freshman last year.

Not all of the family were Ducks. Their father, Mark, played football and track at Montana, and older brother, Mitchell, played wide receiver at Montana State.

They said it: “He’s not exactly the shrinking violet, you know? The question is what kind of leader he’ll be. The reports from the school were great about him being well-liked and respected by the team, and how he grew out of his shell, but my sense is he really had to grow into that role, and he was at a school in his backyard for four years.

“That’s what you have to decide — and how important that is to your team. He might be good for some teams, bad for others. How that plays in [an NFL locker room] is a different deal. Does he hold the star receiver — the team diva — accountable?

“Figuring out that, and just whether he can clean up some of the accuracy issues, is going to be 90 percent of his eval because the traits are obviously there.”

— AFC national scout

Player comp: The best we come up with do: Ryan Tannehill’s physical gifts combined with Eli Manning’s temperament and demeanor.

Expected draft range: Top 10

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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