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Is The Infamous Sophomore Slump A Legitimate Possibility For Justin Herbert?

After nailing the 2021 NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Chargers received their fair share of hype. Even being pegged as a dark horse Super Bowl team. Now, the attention of the media has shifted towards their quarterback, Justin Herbert. Everyone from Peter Schrager to Mike Greenberg has pegged him as their pick for the 2022 NFL Most Valuable Player. After breaking nearly every rookie passing record and finishing in the top 15 overall in most categories, that hype is well deserved.

However, there are those who are advising caution with the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Some have cited his success against pressure and third-down efficiency as areas that are likely to regress, and therefore point to the infamous sophomore slump. Obviously, we would all love for Herbert’s development to continue on a linear path, but that’s not always the case. Player development is much more like a roller coaster than it is a gradual climb. 

That being said, I’ve always felt like that narrative has been overstated. After doing some research into quarterbacks of the past, I am confident in saying that there is no reason to believe that will be the case for Herbert – at least for how I view this topic.

I will dive into all of that, and reasonable expectations for Herbert heading into his second season.

First, some qualifiers. To me, players like Dwayne Haskins, Josh Rosen, Tim Tebow, or Johnny Manziel do not qualify for a “slump” when they weren’t even on active rosters heading into their third seasons. The same goes for players like Sam Bradford, or Blaine Gabbert who missed a fair amount of games in their first two seasons due to injury. Others like Patrick Mahomes, Colin Kaepernick, or Nick Foles also don’t qualify since they either sat their entire rookie season or were only part-time starters. The only players being considered for this exercise are those who started the majority of their rookie and sophomore seasons aka long-term starters. 

My first thought while researching for this topic was to begin with other Rookie of the Year winning quarterbacks in the last twenty years. This list includes Kyler Murray (2019), Dak Prescott (2016), Robert Griffin III (2012), Cam Newton (2011), Bradford (2010), Matt Ryan (2008), Vince Young (2006), and Ben Roethlisberger (2004). 

There are two players in particular from this list that stand out to me when trying to project what Herbert’s second season will look like. The first is the most recent in Murray, and the second is Prescott. These two players embody the opposite ends of the slump or leap conversation.

As the number one overall pick coming out of Oklahoma, Murray justifiably had sky-high expectations. Statistically, he has lived up to the billing so far. As a rookie, he completed 349 of his 542 pass attempts (64.4%) for 3,722 yards, 20 touchdowns (3.7%), and 12 interceptions (2.2%). He averaged 6.9 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 87.4. He also added 544 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

Heading into year two, the Cardinals did two things right for Murray: they solved their big need and went and traded for DeAndre Hopkins, and they added more to his plate particularly as a runner. He rewarded them with a stellar season where he increased his completion percentage by three points, threw for 200 more yards, six more touchdowns, and increased his passer rating by seven points. He then added an absurd 819 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. By all measures of the quarterback position, he took a sizeable leap forward in his development. 

Prescott, on the other hand, comes on the opposite side of the expectations spectrum. He was a fourth-round draft pick and wasn’t supposed to play much, if at all, as a rookie. His situation was a little similar to Herbert’s in that regard. Ultimately he was able to play at a highly productive level as a rookie. He completed 311 of his 459 pass attempts (67%) for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns (5.0%), and 4 interceptions (0.9%). He averaged 8.0 yards per attempt and had a 104.9 passer rating. He also added in 282 yards, and six touchdowns rushing.

The combination of Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott seemed to be an electric duo that was poised to lead the Cowboys back to their glory days. 

However, Elliott struggled with some injuries the following season and missed seven games. Their offensive line had their own injury struggles, most notably Tyron Smith. As a result, the Cowboys had too much on Prescott’s plate and he struggled to live up to his rookie season. His statistics as a passer decreased across the board and worst of all might be his passer rating which fell from 104.9 as a rookie to 86.6 as a sophomore. 

The sophomore slump was not real for Murray, because he took steps in his own development and the Cardinals did their part by adding to his arsenal. The Cardinals have again added to his arsenal by adding Rodney Hudson via trade, A.J. Green via free agency, and Rondale Moore via the draft. They know they’ve got to win now, and they’ve added the necessary pieces around Murray in order to do so.

It was, however, very real for Prescott. I would argue that Prescott’s case was more about the erosion of the supporting cast around him more so than it was about Prescott. He’s overcome some physical limitations to be where he is today, but removing the best players around him even for a short time was obviously detrimental to his development early on.

These two cases are relevant to Herbert because the Chargers have done their part by adding to Herbert’s arsenal, at least on paper. Herbert’s elite production while under pressure might not be sustainable but by adding Corey Linsley, Matt Feiler, Oday Aboushi, Rashawn Slater, and Brenden Jaimes the Chargers have theoretically ensured that he will be under pressure less frequently, which is obviously a good thing. They also added Josh Palmer in the draft and Jared Cook via free agency to give Herbert some more weapons.

As a rookie, he has already experienced the kind of erosion from the supporting cast around him that Prescott did. Trai Turner, Bryan Bulaga, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Virgil Green, and Hunter Henry all missed games for the Chargers last season. Despite the revolving door on the right side of the offensive line, an anemic rushing attack, and his top four targets missing games throughout the season, Herbert was still able to produce at a historic level. Not to mention the legendary circumstances surrounding his first start. It is clear that he handled adversity as well as humanly possible as a rookie. None of that would have been possible if he weren’t a truly special player, which is why I don’t buy into the sophomore slump being a legitimate possibility for him.

There are other examples of players who regressed in their second seasons as starters. Griffin III had a similar regression as Prescott, but he tore his ACL in their playoff game as a rookie and clearly struggled with that recovery process. Ryan was less efficient as a sophomore but produced more touchdowns. Outside of the Rookie of the Year winners, the most notable slump occurred with Baker Mayfield. His production as a passer was down across the board but it has become blatantly obvious that his struggles were more about the coaching he was receiving courtesy of the worst coaching hire in recent memory. Similar to Prescott, Mayfield was able to bounce back this past season after the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski. Generally speaking, the players who encountered a slump either struggled with injuries (their own or to those around them) or were subject to really poor coaching. 

The wide majority of quarterbacks who have played heavily as rookies improved during their sophomore season. Even players who really struggled in their first seasons such as Sam Darnold, Blake Bortles, Mitch Trubisky, Jared Goff, and Teddy Bridgewater experienced sophomore leaps of some level. Believe it or not, Bortles threw 35 touchdowns in his second year. Darnold, Trubisky, and Goff all managed to take a leap despite going through coaching changes after their rookie seasons. The trick for the Chargers in that regard will be ensuring that what happened to those three in their third year does not happen to Herbert. 

Obviously, Herbert did not struggle as a rookie so he is not in this category, but it is important to note that in general most of the quarterbacks who play a lot as rookies do improve in their second season.

I suppose where you land on expectations for Herbert’s second season likely depends on what you would define as a slump. If the Chargers follow the Andrew Luck model and take some volume off of his plate with the goal of increasing efficiency, is that going to be classified as a slump? In his second season, Luck had 57 fewer pass attempts (essentially three fewer per game), 552 fewer passing yards, and experienced a slight regression in yards per attempt. However, his completion percentage increased by nearly six points and his passer rating increased by 11 points. His touchdown percentage increased slightly, and his interception percentage decreased. If anything, I would say a similar increase in efficiency for Herbert would be a very successful second-year season, even if it meant throwing for fewer yards. 

There is obviously a lot of unknown surrounding the Chargers’ new offensive scheme, but the coaches and several of the players have said that it will be at least somewhat similar to what the Chargers were running under the previous regime. What we do know is that Staley and Joe Lombardi are going to take bits and pieces from the various offenses they’ve been a part of in their coaching careers. Overall, it will be heavily influenced by Sean Payton and the Shanahans – which is where the similarities of what the previous regime was running stems from.

Brandon Staley smirked about how well Herbert has been picking up the offense so far, which makes sense given how intelligent he is and that they are actually having a legitimate offense. 

Given the recent history of past quarterbacks in this category, and everything that the Chargers have done this offseason, I see no reason to believe that Herbert will hit a sophomore slump. I think it is reasonable to expect him to make a sizable leap forward in his development and production.

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Confidently picking him as my lead MVP candidate, however, is tough for me to get behind. DraftKings currently has him with the ninth-best odds to win the award, and that feels right to me. Not just because he himself would have to take a monumental leap towards a 5,000-yard passing and 50 total touchdown kind of season, but the Chargers would have to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders. 

Ultimately, if he were to hover around 4,500 yards passing, 40 total touchdowns, and increase his efficiency numbers, I would call that a highly successful sophomore season.

Let me know what you are predicting for Herbert this upcoming season, in the comments below, or hit us up on Twitter!

Photo Credit: Bolts From The Blue – B/R predicts Justin Herbert’s 2021 passing stats

Steven Haglund

Author Steven Haglund

Hello LA Football fans! I am so stoked to be joining the LAFB team and get some high-quality content headed your way. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve been a Chargers fan since I was 10 years old when we traveled to San Diego and attended my first NFL game. I saw LaDainian Tomlinson score early in the first quarter and have been hooked ever since! I am also a contributing writer for Bolt Beat and the host of the Guilty As Charged Podcast. Bolt Up!

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • That Guy says:

    Pretty sure Tony Romo was the QB in the “Did Dez catch it?” game in 2015.

  • thomaspc147 says:

    very good article, Steven. Mixed feelings on ‘sophomore slumps’ – how much do his #’s have to fall to be considered a slump? With an improved O-Line expect better #’s from the running game as well as better protection. I’ve always believed balance is key for offensive success leading to better time of possession. Expecting Herbert to be blitzed more so getting rid of the ball quickly will be key. I can see his #’s going down a bit but giving our defense time off the field will lead to 4 or 5 more wins. Everything from a more balanced offense to a healthy defense to a better kicking game and improved special teams point to Bolt fans being happy in 2021.

  • That Guy says:

    No problem It’s a good article otherwise giving some context to the “sophomore slump” in recent NFL history.

    Lots of reasons to be excited for Herbert year 2, unfortunately my experience as a Chargers fan has taught me is that we really just got to wait and see how things shake out on the field.

    The focused effort on improving the o-line and special teams is encouraging to see.

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