Should Justin Herbert Sit Or Start? What Does History Tell Us?

Chargers Draft Decade
Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert. Photo Credit: Az Skies Photography | Under Creative Commons License

First, History Tells Us He Will Start

As this unusual 2020 NFL season rolls around, the Chargers find themselves in a situation that is not uncommon for NFL teams. They drafted a quarterback in the first round that they hope to be their franchise quarterback for the future—in this case, Justin Herbert, the 6 foot 6, 236-pound quarterback out of Oregon taken with the sixth overall pick. They also have a veteran QB on the roster that has competed with the rookie for the starting job during training camp—in this case, Tyrod Taylor, entering his ninth year in the league, second with the Chargers. Taylor has been a backup for the majority of his career.

College players, no matter how good they are, face a huge learning curve when transitioning to the NFL. This is especially true for the quarterback, the most important and probably most complex position in the sport. So, the belief goes, why not have a veteran play out your first-round QB’s rookie year? The rookie will stay on the bench as long as possible until he is truly ready to start. That way, he is able to learn the sport from the veteran instead of facing the pressure of having to start right away. After all, Patrick Mahomes sat for a year while Alex Smith started, and Aaron Rodgers sat for three whole years while Brett Favre finished up his Packers career. Both are on a Hall of Fame track. So why would a team do anything else?

Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn has already announced that veteran Tyrod Taylor will start the season, although he hasn’t given us a timeline for how long this will last. But despite what happened with Rodgers and Mahomes, and despite what conventional wisdom might say, you ought to take the word of Lynn—or any coach that intends to start his veteran QB over the rookie—with a grain of salt. Because the reality of today’s NFL is that if a Quarterback is drafted in the first round, odds are that he’s going to see the field during his rookie year, and he’s going to do so sooner rather than later… no matter what the coach says.

First, let’s talk about Rodgers and Mahomes because these are the examples that everyone points to. But despite their success in playing out the “redshirt” model, these two QB’s are actually exceptions to the rule when it comes to sitting after being drafted high. They are not the norm.

Aaron Rodgers was drafted to the Packers in 2005. That was fifteen years ago. It was a different era for the NFL. I bring this up because yes, back then, it was more common for rookie first-round QBs to sit. But it doesn’t happen in today’s NFL. Secondly, Rodgers wasn’t sitting behind just anyone; he was sitting behind a future Hall of Famer in Brett Favre. It makes sense that they weren’t going to push Favre out the door until it made sense.

As for Mahomes, yes this was more recent. Mahomes was drafted in 2017, and he sat on the bench while Alex Smith started all season—including during a playoff game. Mahomes’s sole appearance was during a meaningless week 17 matchup. But this was also an unusual situation. For starters, Mahomes, despite going in the first round, was widely viewed as a project who was very raw and needed work (Rodgers in 2005 was not dissimilar; McCarthy had to do a lot of work to clean up his weird Jeff Tedford mechanics.) But more importantly, the Chiefs were coming off of 3 playoff appearances in 4 years, two of which came in the previous two years. This is a different situation than most first-round QBs enter, as most teams picking in the first round were not very good the year before and have less to lose by playing a rookie. It’s also worth mentioning that Alex Smith had a career-best year in 2017, and had he played worse than he did, he likely is benched for Mahomes sooner. (Despite the playoff appearance, Mahomes still would replace Smith at starter the following year.)

So yes, Mahomes and Rodgers both sat, and both went on to be great. But they were both in unusual situations, and there’s a reason they are the only two QBs mentioned when this topic comes up. If we look at the other QBs drafted in recent history, we see that “redshirting” is simply not a thing in the NFL—no matter what the coach says at the start of the season.

Let’s take a look at recent first-round QBs starting in 2010, just because it’s a nice round number and marks the beginning of the decade. Sam Bradford was taken first overall and started right away. He had a nice rookie year and won rookie of the year before a mix of coaching changes, injuries, and lack of development derailed his NFL career. 

Tim Tebow was drafted in the first round that year by Josh McDaniels and sat most of his rookie year before taking over for Kyle Orton after the bye week in 2011. He led the Broncos to the playoffs, beat the Steelers, then was replaced by Peyton Manning in the offseason. He is now out of the league, and everything about his career is so unbelievably fluky and unique that he’s hardly worth using as a data point.

2011 is instructive. Cam Newton was drafted first overall, started right away, and had an impressive rookie season, despite coming from a radically different offense at Auburn.

Jake Locker sat most of his rookie year but occasionally came in to relieve Matt Hasselbeck during days where he struggled. Locker didn’t develop into an effective starting QB in his three years as a Titan and eventually retired due to injury concerns.

Blaine Gabbert started the season on the bench for Luke McCown, but took over in week 2 and held onto the job all year.

Christian Ponder started the season on the bench while McNabb started, but took over during a week 6 blowout and held on the rest of the season.

2012 is an easy one. Luck, Griffin, Tannehill, and Weeden all started right away. The same can be said for E.J. Manuel in 2013.

In 2014, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley insisted that Blake Bortles would sit during the entirety of his rookie year while Chad Henne started. Bortles took over for Henne in week 3 and started the rest of the year. For the Browns, Brian Hoyer hung onto the starting job longer than most people expected, but Johnny Manziel eventually took over. And over on the Vikings, Matt Cassel started for two and a half games until Teddy Bridgewater took over for the year.

In 2015, Winston and Mariota started right away. In 2016, Case Keenum started half the season for the Rams before Jared Goff took over. Carson Wentz was going to sit behind Sam Bradford, but when Bradford wanted out, Wentz just went on to start the whole season. Paxton Lynch sat because he wasn’t ready. He turned out to never be ready, and he’s unsigned right now.

In 2017, Mike Glennon started for the Bears but only made it through 4 games before Trubisky took over. We know about Mahomes. Over on the Texans, Tom Savage was named the starter and only made it through a half before Deshaun Watson took over.

In 2018, Hugh Jackson insisted that Tyrod Taylor would start for the Browns, despite drafting Baker Mayfield No 1 overall. Mayfield took over for an injured Taylor in Week 3 and hung onto the job for the rest of the year. Jackson was fired midseason, and Mayfield played spectacularly. It was clear he should have started from the beginning.

Sam Darnold started for the Jets from week 1. Nathan Peterman started over Josh Allen for the Bills, and we all know how that went. Peterman was benched midway through the first game and never got it back.

On the Cardinals, Josh Rosen took over for Sam Bradford in Week 3 and started all year.

On the Ravens, Lamar Jackson took over for Joe Flacco after the bye and led the Ravens to the playoffs.

In 2019, Daniel Jones took over for Eli Manning in Week 3 and started most of the season outside of a couple of weeks when he was hurt. Kyler Murray started from Week 1. Dwayne Haskins started during week 9 in Washington after seeing some occasional early action in place of Case Keenum.

And that brings us to 2020. Burrow is starting, and Tua likely starts if not for the pandemic offseason. It’s highly unlikely he doesn’t start eventually, as Ryan Fitzpatrick only tends to play well as a backup. The Packers are trying to recreate the Favre/Rodgers situation with Jordan Love, so he’ll sit, but that is an unusual move and one that was highly criticized. And then there’s our friend Justin Herbert here in LA.

I just named you 30 first-round QBs from 2010 to 2019. The only ones that didn’t eventually start during their rookie year were Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Paxton Lynch, and Patrick Mahomes. 3 out of 4 of those QBs are now out of the league. That leaves 27 QBs who eventually became starters their rookie year, despite almost all of them starting the season on the depth chart behind a veteran. Some of them started midway through the season or after a bye week. Most of them started within the first few weeks.

So why does this keep happening? The answer is simple. A first-round pick is a tremendous resource for an organization to invest in a player, and when that player is expected to be the future of the franchise, there’s simply too much pressure on the organization to play him as soon as possible. It does not make sense for that player to sit on the bench.

Back in the day, there was a much bigger gap between the college game and the NFL. There was also more patience for QBs to take time to develop in the pros. But today, it’s a “now” league. Most college players come to the NFL as soon as they are eligible, and most of them have been playing football since they were in middle school. Meanwhile, most NFL coaches are pretty much year to year when it comes to job security. There’s not a lot of time to figure things out, and when you have a young guy that an organization has put resources into that has the potential to be the future of your franchise, it generally doesn’t make sense to sit him for a veteran.

The other part of that pressure comes from the allure of a young, unknown player. Rookies may be good, they may be bad, or they may be a mix. But they have the potential to be as good as we can imagine them to be. On the other hand, most of these veteran QBs that start the season in place of rookies are a known commodity. They tend to be journeymen and fairly low ceiling players who are past their prime. Combine that with the fact that they usually are playing for not very good teams (otherwise, those teams wouldn’t have drafted a QB so high), and these vets are unlikely to elevate team play in a way that justifies them starting.

Tyrod Taylor is no different in this case. He’s a ninth-year player that is on his fourth team who has spent most of his career as a backup. He’s an average player, and nothing more. We know who he is as a QB: He’ll avoid turnovers, make plays with his legs, and he throws a nice fade ball. He’s not going to pull the trigger or play with sufficient anticipation when it comes to the intermediate and deeper routes, and he’s not going to give you a great passing game in the middle of the field. He’s a game manager, essentially the run-first version of Alex Smith.

Is Justin Herbert ready to play? Probably not. As I said, no player that comes from college is truly ready to play in the NFL, although of course, some are more ready than others. But regardless, how on earth do you learn to play in the NFL without actually playing in the NFL? I’m highly skeptical of the notion that someone can become a radically different player simply by learning off the field. Yes, it can help, but playing at game speed is an entirely different beast, and it’s something you can only adjust to by actually experiencing it.

When going through QBs drafted since the 2010s, there were a lot of players that didn’t make it in the NFL. This is likely because for the last decade and a half up until about 2017, we were on a historic dry spell of successful drafted QBs. Yet, I’m sure there will be those who suggest that if some of those players had sat, they would have had more success in the NFL. But the reality is, if a QB wasn’t truly ready to start and didn’t have success eventually, he likely never would have been ready, regardless of how long he sat. Don’t get me wrong, scheme and team skill can be largely influential in whether young QBs have success. But there’s close to no evidence that QBs who don’t sit would have been more successful if they had, and vice versa.

There were a lot of QBs on that list who started early and went on to play well: Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Andrew Luck among them. Most of those QBs had good rookie years, but it’s still possible to develop even if you truly aren’t ready as a rookie. Remember, the Giants started Kurt Warner in 2004 and he went 5-4 before he was benched for Eli Manning. Manning had a horrendous rookie year and there was clearly no reason to bench Warner. But Manning was the future, and the organization wanted him in there. Despite his awful rookie season, he went on to win two Super Bowls.

And just like starting right away doesn’t ensure you’ll be bad, sitting sure as hell doesn’t ensure that you’ll be good. Two recent Denver QBs illustrate this point: Paxton Lynch was drafted in the first round but never won the starting job. For two straight years, he lost the competition for starter to a seventh-rounder in Trevor Siemian. He eventually was released. That’s why when you hear that certain QBs “aren’t ready” to start, you should be skeptical that they are good enough to play in the NFL if they don’t start eventually. Paxton Lynch wasn’t “not ready”, he just wasn’t good.

And what about Brock Osweiler? He was drafted in Denver in 2012 (2nd Round), and we were told that they would repeat the Aaron Rodgers formula. Have a guy sit behind a legend, learn the position, then eventually take over and be ready to play. Osweiler sat behind Peyton for 4 years, but he sure didn’t do a lot of learning. By the time Peyton left, Denver chose to play the aforementioned seventh-rounder Siemian over Osweiler, and Osweiler signed a giant contract in Houston which proved to be a dud. Despite going to the playoffs, Osweiler sucked, and Houston drafted Watson a year later. Four years of sitting behind Peyton Manning certainly didn’t help Osweiler become “ready”…

In a similar sense, how certain can we be that sitting made Rodgers and Mahomes into the QBs they are today? Rodgers and Favre had a notoriously icy relationship back in Green Bay, and it’s highly unlikely that Favre was busy tutoring the guy that eventually would take his job. Today, Rodgers is an all-time great, and Mahomes is on the path to being an all-time great.

How can we be so certain that QBs that are that good gained all of that talent from sitting on the bench? Isn’t it more likely that these guys were simply great players from the start, that, for whatever reason, were overlooked in the draft? When your ceiling is that high, I’m skeptical that both Rodgers and Mahomes wouldn’t have been able to replicate some level of their success had they been drafted elsewhere and started right away. And to be clear, I’m not saying sitting didn’t help these guys. I’m sure it did. What I’m saying is, it’s highly unlikely that it was the determinative factor in the kind of QBs that they became.

I’ve given you a lot to chew on here, but the bottom line is this: QBs drafted in the first round don’t sit for a full season anymore. It’s a myth. It doesn’t happen. So despite what Anthony Lynn says, I would expect Justin Herbert to supplant Tyrod Taylor for the starting QB position by the end of the year. It simply makes too much sense not to happen.

– Cary Krongard, LAFB College Football Contributor

Now For The Pro-Sit Side

Before the season began, Anthony Lynn named Tyrod Taylor the starter for the 2020 season. This announcement sparked a debate between myself and a fellow LAFB writer on whether Justin Herbert will see the field at all as a starter during the 2020 season.

My colleague’s stance for Justin Herbert is he’s a first-round draft pick, and because he’s a first-round draft pick he will see the field as a starter by mid-season 2020. His basic argument is that, given history as his reference, that all first-round draft picks see the field as a starter their first year in the league.

The stance I have taken is that Justin Herbert will not see the field as a starter this season and that Anthony Lynn has enough faith in Tyrod Taylor to rely on him as the Chargers starter for the whole 2020 campaign. Also that Herbert is not ready to be a starter in the NFL yet, and that sitting a year behind a proven veteran will only benefit him going forward as an NFL quarterback.

There have been 56 first-round starting quarterbacks in the NFL so far during the modern era (Modern era being from 2000 to Present). The current 2020 draft class is not part of the current 56-man list as they have not played an NFL down yet. Looking at the list, 31 are still active on current NFL rosters, and 25 are listed as retired. Among the active players, 20 are starters, 8 are backups, and 5 are current Free Agents. Among the retired players, 1 is a potential Hall of Farmer, 2 would be considered top tier players, 5 would be looked at as career journeymen and 17 would be considered a bust. Lastly, between active and retired players, 9 sat their first season in the league.

Proving my case that not every first-round draft pick starts, or takes over as a starter in their first year. The nine sat behind a quarterback that already had their teams’ trust or were Hall of Fame quarterbacks already going into that pick’s rookie season. This doesn’t mean that by sitting, Herbert will be a Hall of Famer, blow our socks off, or even be a bust when he finally starts.

If we look at the nine who sat, 1 is a definite Hall of Famer (Aaron Rogers), 1 is a potential Hall of Famer and current Super Bowl champion (Patrick Mahomes), 1 could be considered a career journeyman (Chad Pennington) and 6 would be considered a bust (Kyle Boller, J.P. Losman, Matt Leinart, and Johnny Manziel).

My argument is that sitting your first season can actually be beneficial to a first-year rookie. Not all rookies are the same and each team must evaluate and access them on an individual basis. Sometimes talent does not always mean you have the mental fortitude to be a true starter.

A study done in 2018 looked at quarterbacks from 1996-2015. This study actually leans towards having rookies start their first season. Looking at the percentage of games played, 16 games averaged a win rate of 7.0 percent, less than 16 games was 3.8 percent, and four games or less found an average of a 2.2 win percentage.

What the study also stated and what is also my point is that every NFL team is different, as every rookie is different and how a team handles that rookie does not always follow the average of the league. In Herbert’s case, there is a capable quarterback in Tyrod Taylor that the Chargers feel will deliver a successful 2020 season. Taylor, who is a little better than your average journeyman quarterback, does possess skills and experience that Herbert can definitely learn from. This takes away the pressure on the Chargers or on Herbert to be a starter his rookie season.

Herbert was drafted with the knowledge of a learning curve coming into the league. Herbert played in a shotgun system his entire college career, and switching to a system where he would have to go under center can be a huge learning curve. The Chargers, after the departure of Philip Rivers, adjusted their offensive scheme to fit the talent of Tyrod Taylor. Herbert is considered a mobile quarterback, but he still is not as mobile as Taylor. Herbert does possess a powerful arm and good accuracy which is a big plus for the future franchise starter.

If everything goes the way Anthony Lynn has planned, the Chargers will hopefully see the playoffs this season under Taylor, and along the way, Herbert will gain some valuable experience that will help him in becoming a successful quarterback as their future franchise quarterback. If Herbert can be that one-off quarterback that can go against the average, he could find himself on that list with Aaron Rogers, Philip Rivers, and Patrick Mahomes as first-rounders who sat their rookie seasons and were able to still pull-out successful NFL careers.

– Daniel Fuselier, Chargers Contributor

Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert. Photo Credit: Az Skies Photography | Under Creative Commons License

Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert. Photo Credit: Az Skies Photography | Under Creative Commons License