Outlining Justin Herbert’s Path To The 2021 NFL MVP

Daniel Wade
Justin Herbert throwing a laser.

Outlining Justin Herbert‘s Path To The 2021 NFL MVP

From the moment that Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert decided to enter the 2020 NFL Draft, he has been doubted. His leadership was questioned vehemently and he was labeled the next big draft bust before ever playing a snap. Then he stepped on the field, and many draft experts started to fear that they may have been way off in their analysis. 

Herbert got a surprise start against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, went toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes, and never looked back. The former Oregon Duck turned in arguably the best rookie season we have ever seen from a quarterback. He set rookie records for most passing touchdowns (31), total touchdowns (36), 300-yard passing games (8), and completions (396). If Jalen Guyton didn’t drop a deep ball in Week 17, he would have had the most passing yards for a rookie as well. 

The season after franchise icon Philip Rivers left the organization, Herbert came in and set franchise records. Herbert surpassed Rivers, and every other former Chargers quarterback, in total touchdowns in his first season. Herbert did have ten interceptions, but Rivers had ten or more passes picked off in 13 of his 15 seasons as a starter. I love Rivers, but Herbert’s trajectory is on a different planet. 

Now entering his second season the Chargers signal-caller is a legitimate MVP candidate. According to the betonline.ag sportsbook, Herbert is tied with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray for the eighth-best odds to win the award. This spot has fluctuated and just a week ago he had the fifth-best odds. Mahomes is still the prohibitive favorite, but Vegas is showing a lot of respect for the second-year quarterback. 

Herbert has the talent to be a league MVP but what kind of numbers would he have to put up to bring home the gold? He would have to have an insane season. 

One thing that he has going for him is that the 2021 MVP will most likely be a quarterback. The award has gone to a quarterback eight straight seasons and 13 out of the last 14 years. I don’t expect that to change this year. 

Recent players to win the award in the NFL have raised the bar of what it takes to win it. The past five winners have averaged 40.8 passing touchdowns and 43.2 total touchdowns. Herbert had 36 total touchdowns which were great, but still quite a ways from what it would take. 

The past three league MVPs have set an even more ridiculous standard. Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, and Mahomes combined for 146 total touchdowns over the last three years. That is an average of 48.7 touchdowns per season. Those numbers are insane. Quarterbacks have only accounted for more than 48 touchdowns five times in NFL history, and we’ve seen two in the past three seasons. 

The one parallel you could draw with Herbert is that both Jackson and Mahomes won the award in their second season. However, it’s’ also fair to say that they were also on better teams – Super Bowl contending teams.As good as Herbert could be this upcoming season, he won’t win the 2021 MVP unless the Chargers win more games. Technically it is an individual award, but it never goes to a player on a losing team. Over the past five seasons, the MVPs teams have averaged 12.4 wins per year. The numbers are skewed now a bit with a 17-game regular season. It’s safe to say that the Chargers will likely have to get 12 wins and be an upper-tier AFC team for Herbert to have a shot. 

Herbert has the offensive firepower to put up the stats needed to win MVP. The health of star players like Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler will be paramount. Mike Williams and Jared Cook will have to have productive seasons as key parts of the offense. Young receivers Tyron Johnson and Josh Palmer could have impact roles as well.

For the Chargers to be a better team in 2021 they must be better at protecting the quarterback and finding a successful rushing attack. Those were two things Herbert wasn’t afforded in 2020. 

Last season only the Falcons and the Steelers ran the ball less efficiently than the Chargers. The team averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and still had the ninth-most rushing attempts in the league. Part of the issue was that Ekeler missed six games, but the issues ran deeper than that. A lot of the struggles were due to the Chargers having one of the NFL’s worst run-blocking offensive lines. 

This hurt Herbert because it set him up with a ton of very long second and third downs. According to NBC NFL analyst Warren Sharp, the Chargers averaged 7.9 yards-to-go on second downs. That is awful. This also caused them to be in way too many third-down situations where Herbert had to bail the offense out. 

Herbert was also under a ton of pressure as a rookie. The 2020 Chargers offensive line surrendered 196 pressures and allowed pressure on 28.7% of quarterback dropbacks. Those numbers ranked second and third-worst in the NFL respectively. The Chargers have made major upgrades on the line and those stats should be dramatically better in 2021. They will have to be for Herbert to be the MVP. As much as the team’s success will play a part in a potential MVP run, Herbert will also have to be better than he was in 2020. A big part of improving from last season will be looking at the games that caused him to struggle the most. Some of the games that stand out were against the Patriots, Dolphins, and Bills. 

In those games, Herbert averaged 237.3 passing yards and combined for four total touchdowns and four interceptions. All of those teams used disguises or exotic blitzes to make Herbert uncomfortable. They limited his explosive plays holding him to just 5.2 yards per attempt. That is an area that he will need to improve to make a leap in year two. The good news is there is reason to believe that he will. 

New Chargers head coach Brandon Staley is one of the NFL’s best at disguising his defenses. In his lone season as a defensive coordinator, he showed great creativity to get the most out of the Los Angeles Rams defense. Now Staley gets a chance to help coach Herbert and teach him how defenses will try to deceive him. The best way to improve in this area is with experience, but maybe Staley can expedite the process.

It will also be crucial for new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Shane Day to continue his development. Although the Chargers offense was frustrating at times, Herbert did many things well and the former coaching staff deserves some credit. He cannot afford to take a step back, so these coaches must build around a great foundation already put in place. 

Many things will have to fall into place for Herbert to win MVP, but it is possible. Herbert is already the most talented quarterback to ever play for the franchise, and if he can fully realize his potential the sky is the limit. With his rocket arm, maybe his ceiling is closer to the moon. There is still work to be done, but I believe Herbert is on the verge of another historic season. 

Justin Herbert throwing a laser. Via NFLonCBS