August 8, 2022

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Justin Herbert’s Excellent Second Season

4 min read
Justin Herbert's Excellent Second Season

NFL Week 15 – Justin Herbert had an excellent rookie year in 2020. Herbert ranked eighth in the NFL with 861 passing DYAR last season. It was the sixth-best passing DYAR total ever put up by a rookie.

This preseason, the conventional wisdom said that the Chargers would be major contenders in part because Herbert would take a second-year leap. In many of my preseason appearances, I instead suggested that you fade the Chargers because Herbert was not likely to take that leap. The problem? Most second-year quarterbacks take a leap because they sucked as rookies. The best rookie quarterbacks, on average, do not actually improve in their second season because they were already pretty good to begin with.

Well, I was wrong and Herbert has gotten better this year. He’s not challenging the greatest seasons in NFL history or anything like that, but Herbert is going into tonight’s game against the Chiefs currently fourth in the league with 999 passing DYAR. He has higher passing DYAR and DVOA than Patrick Mahomes this year, and not just because of interceptions: Herbert’s 11 interceptions almost match the 12 Mahomes has thrown.

If we prorate Herbert’s numbers to 17 games, he would finish the season fifth all-time in passing DYAR by a second-year quarterback, and sixth overall. (He’s got rushing value this year, but he’s no Lamar Jackson.) Here are the top second-year seasons by quarterbacks since 1983. I’m leaving off the specific rushing stats for space, just including rushing DYAR.

Top Second-Year QB Seasons by DYAR, 1983-2021
Player Year Team Pass
Rk DVOA Pass Yds TD INT C% NY/P Run
D.Marino 1984 MIA 2437 1 53.0% 579 4961 48 17 64.2% 8.57 -36 2401
P.Mahomes 2018 KC 2031 1 39.9% 607 4910 50 11 66.4% 8.09 39 2070
P.Manning 1999 IND 1581 2 34.0% 548 4021 26 14 62.3% 7.34 32 1613
D.Culpepper 2000 MIN 1352 3 30.1% 512 3734 33 16 62.8% 7.29 209 1561
L.Jackson 2019 BAL 1261 5 34.9% 422 3021 36 6 66.4% 7.16 273 1534
J.Herbert* 2021 LAC 1307 4 17.2% 693 4765 39 14 67.2% 6.88 135 1442
B.Esiason 1985 CIN 1089 5 25.3% 469 3124 27 12 58.2% 6.66 44 1133
J.Goff 2017 LAR 1125 6 24.0% 500 3619 28 7 62.6% 7.24 -6 1120
C.Wentz 2017 PHI 1047 8 23.8% 471 3100 33 7 60.5% 6.58 52 1099
N.Foles 2013 PHI 1011 5 35.6% 347 2690 27 2 64.4% 7.75 72 1084
B.Kosar 1986 CLE1 1044 5 17.8% 571 3564 17 9 58.5% 6.24 -17 1027
T.Eason 1984 NE 956 5 18.1% 493 2800 23 7 60.2% 5.68 27 983
B.Roethlisberger 2005 PIT 885 7 35.8% 292 2249 17 9 62.7% 7.70 38 922
*Prorated to 17 games

Do note that Herbert’s passing DVOA is the lowest of the quarterbacks on that list. Part of the reason Herbert has so much value this year is that he throws the ball so darn much.

You may remember from the first part of the season that Herbert’s success early on was fueled by very good efficiency on third and fourth downs. We postulated at the time that this could not continue. Guess what: It has continued! From Week 1-7, Herbert’s passing DVOA on third and fourth down ranked fourth in the league behind Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray, and Dak Prescott. Since Week 8, Herbert’s passing DVOA on third and fourth down ranks fourth in the league behind Murray (in limited time), Tom Brady, and Jimmy Garoppolo. Check out Herbert’s splits by down in the early part of the season and then recently:

Justin Herbert Passing DVOA
by Down and Week, 2021
Down Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-14
1st Down -9.9% 6.0%
2nd Down 20.6% 16.4%
3rd/4th Down 44.1% 47.4%

Some other tidbits about tonight’s big game between the Chargers and Chiefs:

  • This game is hugely important in determining who wins the AFC West. In playoff simulations where the Chiefs win this game, they have a 94% chance of winning the AFC West with the Chargers at just 5%. In playoff simulations where the Chargers win this game, they have a 63% chance of winning the AFC West with the Chiefs at 30%.
  • After that period in the middle of the year where they struggled, the Chiefs are up to fifth in the league in passing DVOA since Week 10. But the Chargers are even better, third in passing DVOA since Week 10.
  • The Chargers’ run defense still ranks dead last by DVOA, but they did have a good game-and-a-half until the Giants started gashing them in second-half garbage time last week. The Chargers had -36.3% run defense DVOA against Cincinnati and -24.4% run defense DVOA in the first half against the Giants.
  • The Chargers have strong adjusted line yards against runs to the left but get killed by runs up the middle or around right end. And the Chiefs’ running game is at its best when it runs up the middle.
  • When it comes to pass pressure, this game is strength against strength. On defense, the Chiefs are fourth in pressure rate according to Pro Football Reference, and the Chargers are sixth. On offense, the Chargers have the sixth-lowest pressure rate allowed and the Chiefs are ninth lowest.
  • The Chargers defense ranks 22nd covering tight ends; Travis Kelce had over 100 yards when these teams first played, and Derwin James is questionable and may miss the game with a hamstring injury.
  • Special teams are a colossal mismatch here, with the Chiefs ranked second on the year and the Chargers ranked 31st.
  • In case you aren’t aware, a number of important players will be missing this game. For the Chargers, that’s not just James but also left tackle Rashawn Slater (COVID) and possibly running back Austin Ekeler (questionable, ankle) and cornerback Asante Samuel (questionable, concussion). The Chiefs’ missing persons list begins with defensive tackle Chris Jones (COVID), linebacker Willie Gay (COVID), and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (personal reasons).