It was clear the ex-Oregon standout had spent time studying the limited playbook, working on his command at the line of scrimmage while looking to make a strong impression, especially with the Bengals, who had the first pick in the draft.
Unfortunately for him, Herbert’s competition was one of the most impressive college quarterbacks of all-time: LSU’s Joe Burrow, the one-time transfer who had a record-breaking season, won the Heisman and led the Tigers to a national title.
When the time came to choose, Cincinnati drafted Burrow No. 1 overall. Herbert went sixth to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“We felt like Joe was the perfect fit,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor told ESPN. “We knew that Justin was going to be a tremendous quarterback and you’d be lucky to have him. But for us, it was just about Joe and what he brought to the table. And we decided to go with him.”
Burrow has been the cornerstone of the Bengals’ multi-year rebuilding process that now has the team at 7-4 and in position to secure its first playoff berth since 2015. After suffering a season-ending knee injury 11 weeks into his rookie season, he has rebounded in 2021 by completing 69.3% of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and ranks 15th in the NFL in Total QBR.
Herbert was named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, and has been impressive again this season, completing 66% of his passes for 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while posting an NFL-best 65.8 Total QBR for the 6-5 Chargers.
Sunday’s game between the Bengals and the Chargers (1 p.m. ET on CBS) serves as a chance for Cincinnati to revisit one of the biggest decisions in franchise history. In a battle of two of the league’s most promising young quarterbacks, Burrow will face off against Herbert for the first time in their careers. But for Cincinnati, there’s no second-guessing its choice.
Following a two-win season in 2019, Cincinnati had its crack at a franchise quarterback in the April draft. Four players in that draft are starters — Burrow, Herbert, the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts.
Herbert and Hurts participated in the 2020 Senior Bowl, which became an audition for a few Bengals -- linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, and offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji -- who were in Mobile, Ala. that week.
In an interview at the event, Herbert said the conversation with the Bengals revolved mostly around basic offensive schematics and Cincinnati’s offense. Herbert also said he thought highly of Cincinnati’s offensive personnel, even before the arrival of wide receivers Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase (who opted out of 2020), who were drafted in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Nearly two years later, Taylor still remembers being impressed with Herbert’s skill set -- his athleticism, arm and football knowledge stood out in addition to being able to execute Oregon’s offense.
“I wouldn’t say there were a lot of question marks on, ‘Oh, if you take this guy…,’ Taylor told ESPN. “You felt like he was a clear, early first-round pick and he’s going to make somebody really happy.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cincinnati was able to see Herbert throw in-person but not Burrow. However, they had watched enough from Burrow’s college tape that they didn’t need an in-person evaluation.
“We didn’t see Joe Burrow throw live but we sure as heck saw every throw he’s ever made in his life on tape,” Taylor said earlier this week. “The information was just overwhelming that this needs to be the No. 1 pick.”
Not only has Burrow led Cincinnati’s offense, but he has made a significant impact as a leader on a roster that has been upgraded the past two offseasons.
“He’s our young leader,” Awuzie said. “He’s the guy who makes this thing go. He gives us a chance in every game.”
Added Bengals safety Jessie Bates: “I thought Joey B was the No. 1 pick, for sure. I mean, he won the national championship for a reason. It’s Joey B or nothing for me over here.”
Herbert and Burrow have both put their respective teams in contention to make the postseason. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Bengals and the Chargers greater than a 50% chance of making the playoffs.
But for Burrow, Sunday’s game won’t be a measuring stick against one of the other quarterbacks in his draft class or proving that the Bengals made the right choice.
"I'm trying to prove myself everyday whether I was the No. 1 pick or a sixth-round pick or a third-round pick,” Burrow said. “It doesn't matter to me. I'm out here trying to prove myself to my coaches and teammates and to the world every single day.”