This week, it’s the turn of Alex Lewis to apply the snorkel and oxygen tank as he takes a deep dive out West. Here, he looks at a quarterback and wide receiver who could quickly become the face of their respective franchises.
Justin Herbert – Repayment of Faith
When Justin Herbert announced last year that he was going to be entering the 2020 NFL draft, the general consensus was that he was going to be a first round pick, and a high one at that. What was not quite so clear was exactly the floor and ceiling of the Oregon alum, and whether or not the weaknesses that he showed on tape were could be easily fixed, let alone quickly sorted at the pro level.
However, following another sensational performance (in what was ultimately another tough loss for the LA Chargers against the Saints), it is becoming abundantly clear that the decision to name Herbert the official starter for the Chargers in mid-week was absolutely the correct decision (sorry Tyrod).
During Herbert’s last year as an Oregon Duck, he passed for over 3,400 yards, with a touchdown to interception ratio of 32-5, good enough for a passer rating of 158.7. He also added four more scores with his feet. Great, right? Well yes, and no.
Despite the stat line, its important to note that Herbert completed 23.2% of his passes on screen plays, a quantity that no NFL quarterback has even come close to. Only Kyler Murray’s rookie year came within 5% of that mark.
When he did start attacking downfield, his coaching team used lots of fake screens and double moves to get the defences moving around so that Herbert had big windows to make his deep-ball throws into. Naturally, it got scouts and GMs alike wondering whether Herbert had the accuracy and instincts to read defences and make pinpoint deep-ball throws without the need for scheme help.
However, Herbert has already shown some of the big splash plays that scouts wanted to see on tape at Oregon, including a 62-yard touchdown throw to Tyron Johnson against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers which, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, is the second-longest completion in the last two seasons of NFL football.
He then continued his impressive pace in the loss the New Orleans Saints, adding another 20+ air yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams, who Herbert is building quite a rapport with. It was one of four passing touchdowns on Monday Night Football – something no rookie has ever done.
Then, with just nine seconds on the clock, Herbert completed a sensational 29-yard pass to Williams down the sideline with two defenders in coverage, to set up a game-winning field goal attempt that was eventually missed.
The pass, with safety Marcus Williams and cornerback Marshon Lattimore both less than a yard away, had just a 21.6% completion probability, per Next Gen Stats, and once again put some serious doubts in the minds of those who claimed Herbert didn’t have the accuracy and touch to make the big-time deep throws.
Equally as impressive in the Chargers narrow OT loss was the general poise and toughness shown by the rookie in just his fourth start. The Saints pressured Herbert on 37.8% of his drop-backs on MNF, the Saints’ highest pressure rate on the season, and forced the former Oregon man to make many off-platform, out-of-pocket throws, including a 17-yard dart to Keenan Allen for the first score of the game, a throw with just a 29.9% probability of completion.
All in all, it has been an impressive start for Herbert, who was only named starter in mid-week. He repaid Anthony Lynn’s trust in him with a gritty MNF performance, against a tough team, and deserved far more than an overtime loss.
DK Metcalf – Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t
The basic premise of what DK Metcalf brings to the NFL table is fairly simple to understand. He has a 6’4” frame, more muscle mass than Venice Beach, a 4.4 40 and a vertical leap that makes him dangerous in and around airports.
What many NFL GMs didn’t seem to realise when they let Metcalf fall all the way to the 64th overall pick was that he also brings a desire to physically dominate every single other player on the field. He also has a pair of hands so safe that Russell Wilson is willing to entrust his MVP run in them.
Before the 2019 draft, several points of interest arose in the general ‘pick or don’t pick’ conversation that surrounded the Ole Miss receiver. One was a photo of him that would put mid-70’s Arnold Schwarzenegger to shame, the other was a 7.38 second three-cone drill time.
In the NFL takeaway that went up yesterday, I spoke about how most teams made the mistake of failing to draft Metcalf because of some injury concerns and the idea that he wouldn’t be able to run a diverse enough route tree to break down coverage. I’m here to assure you, however, that DK Metcalf has far more to offer than a go route and a hulking physique.
In his rookie season, Metcalf posted 900 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns in the regular season, before an emphatic pair of play-off games that saw him add another 219 yards and a score, averaging 19.9 yards per catch against the Eagles and Packers.
Into 2020 and, despite some mistakes that can still be expected of a player only in his 19th NFL game (like the early celebration shocker against the Cowboys in Week 3), Metcalf has continued to become Wilson’s most trusted target on the outside when all the chips are down.
In a zoom call with reporters last Thursday, the MVP hopeful quarterback even spoke about what he is seeing from Metcalf, day in and day out: “He’s the best in the world at what he does,” Wilson said. “He’s continued to evolve into one of the best receivers in the game. Not to be shy about it, I think he is one of the top receivers in the game. He can do it all – he can run by you, he can jump over you, he can get physical with you.”
He’s not wrong.
In addition to his outstanding straight line speed, Metcalf has a 40.5″ vertical jump and even put up 25 reps on the bench press at the Combine, as he continues to push the narrative that he isn’t entirely human. So how do you stop the reincarnation of Megatron? (I’m not sure whether to compare him to Calvin Johnson or the Transformer, so let’s go with both.)
The Vikings struggled mightily with this specific issue on Sunday night, as Metcalf once again put up a huge 93 yards and two touchdowns, including one with just seconds to go for a last-gasp 27-26 win over Minnesota. In the game, Metcalf took advantage of the fear that he could beat them over the top, as the Vikings gave him more than five yards of cushion to work with on 67.6% of his snaps, according to Next Gen Stats.
For Metcalf, the impact of all those dominating, over-the-top throws and impressive deep grabs has been for teams to let him take whatever he likes underneath, as long as he doesn’t crush them over the top. Before a ball had even been thrown against the Vikings on Sunday, Metcalf ranked first against single coverage in the NFL with 336 yards, including that huge 54-yard touchdown against reigning Defensive POTY Stephon Gilmore in Week 2.
In totality, the answer to stopping Metcalf has yet to become apparent without the need for a small army of men. But what is clear is that as his trust with Wilson continues to develop, the task for defensive backs might continue to get harder and harder.