Coming out of college Justin Herbert was a distant third in everyone’s mind. It was Joe Burrow, Tua and then bringing up the rear, our boy from Oregon. Never mind that he had thrown the 6th most touchdowns in PAC-12 history and the 14th most yards. The fact he played in a perceived weaker conference meant he did not command the same fanfare.
Fast-forward 10 months. Whilst he was receiving his award for Rookie of the Year I felt happy for him, and the NFL. Here was someone who had a shot, with the right team around him, at challenging Mahomes and the Chiefs juggernaut. Even better that he is in the same division.
An Unexpected First Year
When Herbert was drafted by the Chargers I expect that there was an element of project in their thinking. Although taken 6th overall in the Draft he was not seen in the same light as Burrow and Tua. Burrow was a locked in day 1 starter for a franchise that needed all the help it could get. Tua was to be the missing piece for the Dolphins at a position they struggled with ever since Dan Marino.
The Chargers however, indicated they would take it slow. They had Tyrod Taylor, the ultimate bridge Quarterback, and said all along that he would be the starter. Even after his debut, despite the fans clamouring for Herbert to be named the starter, the Chargers brass pushed back. “He’s a backup for a reason” was what Anthony Lynn said, pointing to the fact that there was “a lot [they] didn’t get done with Justin on the field”.
This determination not to put the weight of expectation on Herbert early was one of the best things Lynn did all season. When he did finally come in full time after the Week 4 matchup against the Bucs we all know what happened.
4,336 yards thrown, 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, a further 234 rushing yards with 5 more touchdowns well and truly announced his arrival. The Chargers now need to build around this record setting rookie, it is one of the only chances the rest of us have to not see Patrick Mahomes in every playoff’s for the next 15 years!
The Challenge Ahead
Yes taking a division title from the Chiefs doesn’t automatically eliminate them but it means they have to play at least one more game a year to reach the Championship. The issue is whether the Chargers can be trusted to give Justin Herbert the team he needs. To allow him to realise what appears to be a higher ceiling than we expected.
As I have touched on above, the most immediate challenge facing Herbert and Co is the fact that they have to contend year in year out with the Chiefs. Mahomes and the boys do not appear to have an expiration date on a squad that is extremely well coached and constructed. There are far easier divisions currently in the NFL that the Chargers would have a much easier time in. Imagine Herbert launching those bombs in the NFC East, division titles galore there for the taking. But, alas, it is not to be.
The AFC West appears to be shaping up as quite a challenge for the the next few years. The Broncos are not far away at all and if they land Deshaun Watson in the summer’s biggest sweepstake they immediately become a contender. The Raiders showed last year that they have the quality on their day to beat anyone. On another day they try to lose to the Jets but that is a different story.
It is going to be a very difficult, competitive division for the foreseeable and there is no reason to think that would change. The squads are all relatively young at the positions that matter and unless an injury happens Mahomes is going nowhere. If Watson ends up somewhere else then I roll this back slightly to a two horse race for the crown until the Broncos sort their Quarterback position out, Lock is not the answer.
What Needs To Be Done
The Chargers should use Tampa Bay as a blueprint, as the rest of the NFL should. The Superbowl showed that if you can get to Mahomes, and disrupt his receivers, he can look human. Well…ish. Yes the Chiefs Offensive line will not be that bad all year but it is a start. They don’t have much money and they have needs to fill there.
Whilst Joey Bosa is a beast, Melvin Ingram is past his best and another legitimate pass rusher will allow the Charger’s Defence to get after opposition Quarterbacks. The secondary will also receive a boost this year with a (hopefully) fit Derwin James returning.
Arguably the Chargers have an Offense that can do the job, they could perhaps use a bruiser at Running Back to complement Ekeler, This would force teams to pay more attention to the box opening up the receivers. That said Justin Herbert did not appear to have much of an issue with finding his guys. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are an above average pairing at receiver, that said someone like Jaylen Waddle would be great for them and a lot of fun for Herbert.
What’s needed is an upgraded Offensive line. A tackle is where the smart money is for the 13th pick this year for a reason. Unless they want to trade the pick to the Ravens for Orlando Brown Jr, I could live with that…
A Personal Investment
For many NFL fans there has been speculation regarding Herbert’s cards. Along with Burrow there has been a concerted effort to hoard his rookie cards in the hope that he really is the next Mahomes. For those of you who are not card fans, if you had a few Mahomes rookie cards in great condition and sold them now you would no longer have a mortgage to pay.
It is to those who have gone all in that I would express an element of caution. What will increase his value is winning a Superbowl or two, this is going to be very difficult when the Chiefs stand in your way twice a year. I have no doubt that Justin Herbert himself is good enough to go the distance. I just don’t have the faith in the Chargers to give him the tools required.
Whilst it appears that all he touches turns to gold, he will only be able to do so much himself. The Chiefs have done what the Chargers need to if those savvy investors out there want a mortgage free life.
Back In The Real World
This year for the Chargers has given them and their fans a reason to get excited. They have apparently solved the Quarterback question earlier than expected and this gives them flexibility to build. The squad they can pull together should rival the Chiefs and the AFC if not the NFL as a whole. Do we have the faith in the head office to do this? Possibly not, but who knows, maybe they will surprise us all rather than squander the talent Herbert has. $31m in free cap means they have what they need to make a push now.
Whatever happens I look forward to anyone being able to provide a legitimate challenge to the evolving Chiefs dynasty. Yes it is coming. The number of young, potential superstar, Quarterbacks in the league at the moment is a cause for excitement for fans. I am looking forward to them fighting it out amongst themselves for the title of the next generation’s QB1. Justin Herbert will be right in the thick of that fight that’s for sure.
The less said about his haircut the better……
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