Justin Herbert is the real deal. As a rookie he showed excellent vision and elite downfield accuracy. He escaped pressure and kept plays alive. He trusted his receivers and put the ball in spots where only they could make a play. If I was starting a franchise and could have any quarterback, Herbert would be in the discussion for 2nd choice if Mahomes was taken. That’s how good he is.
The Chargers were right around league average offensively (17th) but would have finished 14th if you exclude Week 1 before Herbert took over. These modest numbers were weighed down by poor offensive line play and a few rough performances in which Herbert’s rookie growing pains were on display. True rookies usually struggle when forced into the starting role right away. Some of the league’s best quarterbacks showed marked improvement over their first three years as they grew accustomed to NFL speed and defenses.
Passing Improvement, Years 1-3
|Player||Year 1 YPA||Year 2 YPA||Year 3 YPA||Year 1 TD/INT Ratio||Year 2 TD/INT Ratio||Year 3 TD/INT Ratio|
The defenses that caused Herbert trouble in 2020 were not surprisingly orchestrated by the smartest defensive coaches. The Chargers’ worst offensive performance by Adjusted Rating (-1.69) came against New England, who have famously excelled against rookie quarterbacks under Bill Belichick by using exotic disguised blitzes that confuse inexperienced players. This was the defensive scheme that famously made Sam Darnold “see ghosts” as a rookie. The Chargers also underperformed against Miami (-0.79) and Denver (-0.47), both teams with excellent defensive coaching and creative schemes but some talent gaps (including injuries). By contrast, they performed relatively well against Tampa Bay (+0.12) and New Orleans (+0.31), who were loaded with defensive talent. The best way to stop Herbert as a rookie was to confuse him and abuse the offensive line to get pressure that caught him off guard.
*Omitted Week 1 (Tyrod Taylor game) and Week 17 (KC rested its starters)
Herbert handled pressure really well for a rookie. Nevertheless, teams that exerted pressure had a better chance at stopping the Chargers. This chart shows the Chargers’ offensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long pressure rate. Herbert typically did not struggle against any teams in the bottom half of pressure rate and had all of his bad games against teams that could pressure. Getting up to NFL speed was at least challenging behind a porous offensive line.
If you didn’t watch Herbert and just looked at his average depth of target, you might conclude that he wasn’t an aggressive downfield passer. His ADOT (7.4) was below the league average. But I watched every snap and he was one of the most aggressive passers in the league. For some context, only three teams had a higher concentration of passes to running backs than Justin Herbert. These teams had much lower ADOTs because running back targets have very little depth.
J. Herbert ADOT Context
|% Throws to RBs||ADOT|
Because he was constantly under pressure, Herbert employed a steady combination of short dump offs, screens, intermediate throws, and deep shots. In other words, he mixed it up and played in context. When they needed a big play, he went for it. When they didn’t, he was happy to work the offense through his best weapons. As a result, the Chargers were well above average converting third downs, particularly through the air.
Third Down Conversions
|3rd Down Conversions||99||2nd|
|Passing 1st Downs||226||6th|
|3rd Down Conversion %||44.2%||9th|
And while many teams show a significant decline in offensive production when their best receiver is unavailable, Herbert played well regardless of his weapons. Late in the season he played several games without Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry but saw little drop off in performance. He spread the ball around arguably better than any quarterback in the NFL. Six different players had around 400 or more receiving yards on the Chargers (Allen, Mike Williams, Henry, Jaylen Guyton, Ekeler, and Tyron Johnson). No other NFL team came close to this level of distribution.
But if Herbert was so good, why did the Chargers finish 7-9? That’s a valid question with a complex answer. They lost three different games in which I think they outplayed their opponent. They also went toe-to-toe with Kansas City and New Orleans, losing both games in overtime due to field goal kicking. They missed a potential game-winning 50-yarder against the Saints and lost to the Chiefs on a 58-yarder by Butker. They also suffered injuries on both sides of the ball and blew several leads. These types of losses usually indicate bad coaching or bad quarterback play in the clutch.
So the Chargers fired Anthony Lynn and hired Brandon Staley, fresh off a strong performance coaching a dominant Rams defense. Staley is saying all the right things about building the offense around Herbert’s strengths. Meanwhile, Herbert and the Chargers won their last 4 games in 2020, including three on game-winning drives orchestrated by Herbert. He doesn’t just put up numbers. He can score with the game on the line. If the new coaching staff can bring a culture of winning, this offense should keep them in any game. And if they improve their offensive line play even a little bit, they could be a very good offense.
Despite suffering several key injuries, the Chargers’ 12th-ranked defense put together a solid season against tough competition in 2020. They faced a formidable set of opposing quarterbacks, including Mahomes, Brady, Brees, Josh Allen, Burrow, and Matt Ryan. And of those six quarterbacks, only Tom Brady had an above-average game against the Chargers.
They primarily exerted pressure with their front four and sat back in a frustrating Cover-3 scheme that made it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to pick up chunk plays. They employed an NFL-low 16.3% blitz rate yet typically performed better against teams that preferred to pass.
This chart shows the Chargers’ defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s tendency to run. With the exception of a bad game against Tampa Bay, every below-average defensive performance by the Chargers came against teams in the top half of the NFL in run rate (LV, NYJ, DEN, and MIA). And in that outlier against Tampa Bay, Chris Harris and Melvin Ingram had both just been placed on the IR.
The Chargers succeeded against passing teams by taking away the big play. They allowed the 6th-fewest 20+ yard passing plays on the season and held several big-name quarterbacks to subpar passing games. They crowded the defensive backfield and stayed home, making it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to pick them apart. This style did lead to several good rushing performances by opposing quarterbacks with the ability to scramble, who took what the defense gave them:
Scrambling QBs v. LAC
|QB||Pass Yds Avg.||Pass Yds v. LAC||Rush Yds Avg.||Rush Yds. v. LAC|
But these rushing tendencies did not typically lead to success. The Chargers defense performed well overall in each of these games (+0.86 v. CIN, +0.45 v. KC, and +0.38 v. BUF). Mahomes, Allen, and Burrow are all at their best when passing. By comparison, teams with quarterbacks who preferred to release the ball quickly instead of scrambling (TB and MIA) performed better against the Chargers.
Despite playing fairly well overall, the Chargers defense had a bad habit of crumbling with the lead. In Week 2, the Chiefs only had 6 points late in the 3rd quarter but scored on their last 4 drives to win in overtime. In Week 4, they blew a 24-7 lead against Tampa Bay by allowing them to score on each of their last 5 drives. In Week 5, they blew a 10 point second half lead against New Orleans by letting them score on 4 of their last 5 drives. And in Week 8, they blew a 24-3 lead against Denver by allowing touchdowns on 4 of their last 5 drives. Losing four of their first seven games in this fashion really deflated them as a team.
They will need to perform better defensively with a lead in 2021 to make the playoffs. They have the talent, and hopefully Brandon Staley will bring the attitude and scheme to get the best out of this defense. Based on some offseason comments they may pivot away from the Cover-3 and into a press man base defense. This may help them hold the lead better. With some key players returning from injury, if they tighten up just a little bit, they could be a force on both sides of the ball.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Chargers are underrated heading into the offseason. Despite dealing with injuries, subpar coaching, and a rookie quarterback’s growing pains, their 7-9 record did not reflect the team’s quality in 2020 as they lost several games they easily could have won.
- Justin Herbert fits the mold of an elite quarterback. Expect him to improve on his stellar 2020 campaign as he becomes more comfortable with NFL speed and defenses and studies film in the offseason to learn how to anticipate pressure.
- Due to Herbert’s ability to spread the ball around, do not overreact to individual skill player injuries.
- Although new Head Coach Brandon Staley implemented a different scheme with the Rams, he has stated he will tailor his defensive scheme to the Chargers’ personnel. Neither the Chargers nor the Rams had a particularly high blitz rate in 2020, but if they switch to press man coverage the defense might look quite different.
- With upside on offense and defense and potentially a new culture, look to capitalize early by betting on the Chargers before the public catches on to their potential.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Justin Herbert is legit and should be taken confidently as a stud quarterback. He provides passing and rushing production and will likely improve in 2021 given his style of play. Consider him as early as the #3 quarterback off the board, depending on scoring format.
- Herbert’s tendency to spread the ball around caps each player’s individual ceiling. However, his willingness to pass to running backs boosts the value of those running backs, particularly in PPR leagues.
- Depending on how the new defense looks, consider betting the Over on quarterback rushing yards and the Under on passing yards when an adept scrambling quarterback plays the Chargers.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 15, the Chargers were 3.5-point underdogs on the road against Las Vegas. The angle was fairly simple: the Raiders did not implement a particularly difficult defensive scheme and did pressure quarterbacks, meaning Herbert would thrive. On the other side, the Raiders’ passing game was built on big plays that the Chargers would be able to limit. All the Chargers needed to do was keep it close with the better quarterback on their side. And I graded the Chargers as the superior team outright. The odds of a Raiders blowout against a strong team were extremely low. I put 4 Units on LAC +3.5 and the Chargers ended up winning in overtime.