The conversation around Oregon's Justin Herbert has to start with arm talent. While it is not his only worthwhile trait, Herbert's absurd arm talent is central to his game and enables him to get away with throws most other quarterbacks would not. It feels short-sighted to say arm talent alone defines any player, but in the case of Herbert, it is not disingenuous.
More so than the depth Herbert can heave the ball down the field, it is his blazing velocity which makes his arm such a weapon. No window is too small for Herbert to rifle a pass into. Tight seam throws, deep corners, posts, and digs can all have a prominent role in a Herbert-led offense because of how his arm allows those throws to be made consistently.
Of course, he can not hit them every time, and the nature of tight windows assumes a defensive back is in position to disrupt the catch point once a wide receiver gets a hand on the ball, but Herbert's ability to even give some of those tight-window plays a chance is a rare talent.
Nevada's defense starts with a one-high shell, then slowly rotates to a two-high shell just before the snap. Once the ball is snapped, the defensive front moves around, sending the boundary linebacker and cornerback as blitzers while dropping the field linebacker into coverage to be the "pole runner" in their Tampa-2 coverage. Herbert sees the middle safety bailing over the left hash and knows he has split-field coverage. He quickly turns to his tight end running down the right hash and rifles in a ball that soars just over the linebacker's reach while still flying flat and fast enough to arrive before either safety can close in. That is about as pretty as a shot down the hash can get.
This time, Montana's defense is in Cover-1 with a "rat in the hole" playing underneath. Generally speaking, Montana is clearly inferior in talent to Oregon, but on this particular play, Montana's defense holds up very well in coverage. Every defender maintains tight coverage, and the deep safety does well to stay inside of Oregon's No. 3 receiver (the innermost wide receiver from the trips side) to help out his teammate. The tight coverage meant nothing to Herbert. After seeing the deep safety trot back and stay over the top of No. 3, Herbert moves on to the No. 2 (middle receiver) and pulls the trigger as fast as he can. The defensive back over the No. 2 has excellent tight coverage, but Herbert places the ball just outside of the cornerback's reach while still giving his receiver a chance to leap for the ball. The wide receiver gets two hands on the ball and brings it into his chest for a moment, but ultimately drops it before he can complete the process. While this throw went down as an incompletion, Herbert's stunning velocity and careful placement gave it a slim chance of success that it never should have had based on the quality of the coverage.
Generating arm strength from clean platforms is not the toughest ask in the world, though. Herbert's capacity to whip a pass in with that kind of velocity and control is obviously impressive, but what separates the truly elite arm talents from those who just have strong arms is the ability to throw from imperfect or sudden platforms. Sometimes a pass-rusher is going to be crowding a quarterback's base or sticking his shoulder into the passer's chest as the ball is coming out. The truly elite arm talents find a way to keep that velocity and control even from compromised platforms, and Herbert has proven plenty he can do it.
By the time Herbert moves his eyes back to the corner route on the right side, there is no time or space for him to step up in the pocket. Herbert doesn't even have the time to reset laterally in the pocket if he wants to. The ball has to come out as soon as his eyes arrive on that receiver, and it has to come out from whatever position in which Herbert is already standing. Herbert does not panic, though, and trusts both that he made the right read and that he can get the ball out comfortably despite being hurried. From this compromised position, Herbert does an excellent job of loading all of his power onto his back leg and uncorking through his back hip, allowing his torso to swing around one central point of motion. The adjustment makes it easy for Herbert's arm to come through from a stable release point. Unfortunately, Oregon's receiver again fails to haul the ball in, but Herbert summons about 90% of his potential arm strength from an awkward platform and delivers a beautifully placed ball to give this play a shot.
In a similar vein, Herbert's arm talent allows him to more freely place the ball away from defenders. Herbert has a veteran-like understanding of where to put a throw relative to a defender's leverage and has the arm talent to always make it work. For example, if a safety in match-quarters coverage is flying downhill to cover a 10-yard square-in, Herbert has the intuition to place the ball down low to give the receiver a chance to dive for it before the safety can. It can look inaccurate at first, but because the ball actually could not be fit anywhere else, it is an accurate throw despite the receiver needing to make an adjustment. Deshaun Watson at Clemson is the best college quarterback I have ever seen at understanding this concept, but Herbert is not very far off.
Here is a fairly basic example of throwing away from defenders. One of Oregon's receivers is running a deep cross from right to left on a play-action concept. After finishing his dropback, Herbert snaps his eyes to the deep cross and takes inventory of surrounding defenders. Herbert realizes the outside cornerback to the left is playing on the sideline, so leading the receiver to the sideline is out of the question. Herbert leaves the ball on the receiver's back shoulder and forces him to turn around for the ball, but doing so turns the receiver's body into a shield against the defender.
Now this is a more extreme example. Again, Oregon is running a deep cross from right to left, this time for what appears to be a Y-cross concept. As Herbert is dropping back, he sees one of Stanford's safeties (Malik Antoine, 3) has dropped down into a hook/curl area just outside the left hash. If Antoine were to gain any depth from that position, he would be able to defend a route going over his head, which is exactly where Oregon's crossing receiver was headed. Rather than lead the receiver to that area, though, Herbert guns the ball inside so as to not put the ball anywhere near where Antoine could float up and get to it. The receiver has to make a hell of an effort to bring this one in, but all things considered, it is fair to say Herbert understood what he was doing by not leading the receiver across the field.
As far as arm talent and accuracy, Herbert checks the boxes with flying colors. Herbert's raw arm strength is as good as any; his accuracy, while not necessarily elite, is comfortably above average. Where some of the inconsistencies in Herbert's game begin to show is when comparing his play on-schedule versus off-schedule. If a route concept goes according to plan relative to the expected coverage, Herbert does well to execute and get the ball out on time. However, if Herbert comes across a well-disguised coverage or is forced off his spot, he tends to lose sight of the structure of the play and stare down his initial read for too long. Thankfully, most of those plays do not turn into forced throws and potential turnovers, but they do end up as wasted opportunities.
For instance, here is a clip of Herbert versus Colorado in which he is able to breeze through his progressions and throw from a clean pocket. Herbert reads out the dagger combination to the left side first. After ruling out the post route due to the deep safety, Herbert moves onto the dig route. The dig eventually comes open, but at the time when Herbert would have needed to throw it "on-schedule," Colorado had a curl/flat defender sitting low on the left hash who could have floated up to help defend the dig. Herbert was in the right to move on. At that point, between his pre-snap and post-snap read, Herbert likely has a good idea that Colorado only has three underneath defenders. Herbert takes that information and moves to the back side of the concept, where he finds a receiver on a curl route who got snapped off after the receiver sold the linebacker on a crossing route over the middle. When plays run fairly smoothly the way they do here, Herbert tends to make the most of the opportunity.
When Herbert is forced to hurry things up before he has fully decided on his target, though, things break down for him. On this play, Herbert opens with his eyes locked on the crosser. After Herbert's first bounce at the top of his drop, even before he is forced to move, he should have an idea of whether he is going to throw the crosser or not. He should be deciding to look elsewhere as soon as he slides up. Herbert has the option to check down to the flat, which is the safer option, or extend the play by pulling his eyes to the back side toward the dig route from the left outside receiver. Given the pressure he just moved away from, the quick throw to the flat was likely Herbert's best option, especially since he was already looking that way to begin with.
Instead, Herbert keeps his eyes on the deep cross after he slides up even though that option should already be off the list by that point. He then takes off as a runner because the extra time he spent peeking at the crosser burned up all the time he had left before the play broke completely. As mentioned before, it is somewhat encouraging that these plays seldom turn into risky passes, but Herbert too often skips out on opportunities by losing sight of the bigger picture once a play breaks down.
Overall, Herbert's processing is not bad. Herbert does fairly well to cycle through his progressions, find the right man, and play relatively on time. While he does not necessarily process in a way that should blow anyone away, he at least meets the baseline for a functional NFL starter even if some of his off-schedule play can be shoddy. Furthermore, Herbert is exceptional at protecting the ball while still being active and aggressive enough to keep an offense moving. Herbert finished his college career with a mere 1.77% interception rate as a four-year starter.
Between elite athletic tools, baseline processing, above-average accuracy, and a keen sense of how to walk the line between caution and aggression, Herbert checks all of the boxes for a first-round pick. Herbert is far from perfect, and could stand to speed up his process a tick, but it is not easy to find quarterbacks who are functional-to-good in as many areas as Herbert is.
In many ways, Herbert resembles Ryan Tannehill, who we all saw struggle to break out under poor coaching in Miami before blossoming with excellent coaching and surroundings in Tennessee during the 2019 season. We should not expect Herbert to be 2019 Tannehill out of the gate or even in the long run, but Tannehill has long been a functional starter with high peaks and stretches of very good play. If Herbert can get better coaching than Tannehill did during the Joe Philbin era in Miami, he should be able to solidify himself as a capable NFL starter.