NFL Futures Friday: Justin Herbert to Win MVP

Real-life football is fast approaching, with the preseason beginning next week and training camps in full swing. Six Fridays from now, we will be discussing NFL Futures bets after watching the Rams take on the Bills in Los Angeles in the first game of the season. I’ll be attending the Chargers’ training camp some time in the next couple of weeks, and I’m headed there to watch the quarterback I think is set for an MVP-caliber season – Justin Herbert.

Stupendous Start to Herbert’s Career

The start of the former Oregon quarterback’s career has been prolific. In 2020, Herbert threw for 31 touchdowns, the most of any rookie quarterback in NFL history. He also threw for 4,336 yards, becoming just the fourth rookie to eclipse the 4,000-yard mark in NFL history. He was a shoo-in for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

In his second season, he only improved, and now he has the most passing yards (9,350) and touchdowns (77) through his first two seasons of any passer in history. Herbert is also the first quarterback in NFL history with 30+ passing touchdowns through the first two seasons of his career. However, he hasn’t been in the MVP conversation yet as the Chargers are just 15-17 in his starts through two seasons.

Predictably, Herbert’s unsustainable third-down passing and passing under pressure metrics from 2020 regressed last season. However, he still ranked second in the league in passing yards (5,014), third in touchdowns (38), third in overall QBR (65.6), and first in EPA (120.3).

PFF had Herbert as their fourth-highest graded quarterback, and he took care of the ball at an elite rate. PFF tracked him with just a 1.6% turnover-worthy play rate, the lowest among all quarterbacks with at least 175 dropbacks. Herbert also ranked first in the NFL in completion percentage on passes of 20+ yards downfield, which made it all the more frustrating that the offense didn’t unleash the deep ball nearly enough.

Offense Needs to Avoid Third Downs

One of the most interesting aspects of the early portion of Justin Herbert’s career has been his offense’s unwillingness to push the ball downfield. While the offensive line had the league’s fifth-lowest sack rate last season, and Herbert has an elite arm, he ranked 36th in the NFL with 6.5 air yards per pass attempt through the game’s first three quarters.

That metric was even worse over the final stretch of the season. From Week 15 to 18, Herbert averaged 5.7 air yards per attempt, ranking 28th among starters, and almost 25% of his early down passes were behind the line of scrimmage, per Sharp Football. It’s no coincidence that the Chargers lost three of their final four games and missed the playoffs as a result.

This issue reared its ugly head in 2020 as well with Anthony Lynn as the coach, and there was hope that the introduction of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi would resolve it. However, Lombardi’s previous experience with the overwhelmingly conservative Drew Brees has likely skewed his offensive play-calling preferences to the detriment of Herbert.

The Chargers had 223 total third-down plays last year, the second-most in the NFL, despite ranking first in the league in EPA from passing offense. Lombardi has to let Herbert air it out more often on early downs to avoid third-down plays this season, and Herbert absolutely has the arm to make the most of more downfield chances.

Defensive Improvements on the Way

The defense was already set for significant positive regression this season. In 2020, the Chargers ranked seventh in third down defensive efficiency per Sharp Football, which fell to 31st last year. In 2021, they ranked 20th in red-zone defensive efficiency and fell to 31st last season. Those volatile metrics were already slated to regress positively, but that’s even more true given the injection of talent on the defensive side of the ball.

A significant issue for the defense last year was their inability to defend against the run. The Chargers ranked as the third-worst run defense by DVOA and allowed the second-highest EPA per run. Part of that was due to head coach Brandon Staley’s “funnel defense” approach, but there is still significant room for improvement in that system. The Chargers added Sebastian Joseph-Day, who Staley previously coached with the Rams, and Austin Johnson to fix those issues.

The Chargers also wasted no time this offseason in shoring up their mediocre secondary with J.C. Jackson, whose 25 interceptions through his first four seasons are the most in the NFL since at least 1980. Joining him is elite pass-rusher Khalil Mack, who will form arguably the best pass-rush tandem in the NFL with Joey Bosa if both can stay healthy. Finally, the Chargers added slot corner Bryce Callahan and wily veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

Chargers Set for Playoff Push

Why do we care about defensive improvements in an article about the MVP award? The Most Valuable Player in the NFL is, more often than not, awarded to a player on one of the best teams in the league record-wise. I believe the Chargers have every chance to fall into that category this season, thanks primarily to a massive improvement on defense.

The Chargers currently have a win total of 10 games, the fifth-highest in the AFC, and have somewhere around -160 odds to make the playoffs, depending on your sportsbook. Those results would already represent a massive improvement from their success over the last two seasons, and it’s easy to see why the oddsmakers are bullish on this team.

In addition to the upward trajectory of Herbert and elite talent on both sides of the ball, the Chargers ranked 25th in fumble luck and 27th in field goal luck last year per Sharp Football. Both metrics can and should positively regress significantly this season. Even without external improvement, there are a handful of crucial regression statistics to bank on for this team.

If you’re wondering about the schedule, the Chargers have the 13th-most challenging slate based on opponents’ projected win totals. However, they have the easiest schedule through Week 9 this season. The AFC West will be a bloodbath, but the Chiefs (toughest) and Raiders (third-toughest) have an even more difficult schedule.

Justin Herbert is on his way to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and the team’s management has done an excellent job of rounding out the talent on this roster while he’s still on his rookie contract. He’s well supported by an elite skill position group, an excellent offensive line, and a defense that is set for a giant leap. I’m bullish on the Chargers overall this season, but my favorite bet is on the transcendent quarterback Herbert getting his first MVP award at +1000 odds.