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Reviewing the Chargers’ 2020 draft class: Day 1 picks

The most-productive rookies in 2020 were, unsurprisingly, the team’s top picks.

NFL: OCT 04 Chargers at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last week, I looked back on the rookie seasons of the Chargers’ fourth-seventh round picks from the 2020 draft. Those players including running back Joshua Kelley, wide receiver/kick returner Joe Reed, safety Alohi Gilman, and wide receiver K.J. Hill.

For the most part, their seasons were not what some may have expected. Of course it’s not usually expected of late-round picks to have significant impacts, but given the situation and opportunities given to them, it’s fair to say things could have went better. If you want to check that piece out, you can see it here.

Now we move on to the team’s pair of first-round picks: quarterback Justin Herbert and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr.

Let’s get into it.

QB Justin Herbert - Round 1, Pick #6

2020 stats (15 starts): 66.6 completion percentage, 4,336 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 234 rushing yards, five touchdowns

Raise your hand if you expected Herbert to have the rookie season that he did.

Anyone? Maybe a few of the more hyper-optimistic among the group? Well, quit lying. I’m sure there were plenty among the fan base who thought the former Oregon Duck would see some early success in the NFL, but one of them was not me, and I’ll be the first to admit it.

I like Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa ahead of Herbert in the draft. It’s not that I thought Herbert was anything close to “bad”, but I felt that — after consulting the film and doing my due diligence — that the game seemed to come much more naturally to the former two compared to the latter.

But boy were many of us wrong in the end, and I cannot express how glad I am that I was.

Herbert went on to have arguably the greatest individual rookie season by a quarterback in NFL history. He almost rewrote the entire record book and most certainly hit just about every notable rookie passing mark that you could strive for.

Just to name a few of the records he broke in 2020:

  • Most passing touchdowns by a rookie: 31
  • Most total touchdowns by a rookie: 36
  • Most games with 300 yards passing: 8
  • Most completions: 396

On top of these records, Herbert was also named to the PFWA’s All-Rookie Team, being honored as their Offensive and overall Rookie of the Year in the NFL.

Herbert’s first start in the NFL was well-documented and will likely be one of the most infamous facts about his career by the time everything is said and done. I mean, how could anyone forget that his 2020 season almost didn’t happen. In fact, if former head coach Anthony Lynn actually got his way, Herbert may not have seen the field at all as a rookie. But due to an absolute freak-accident just minutes before kickoff against the Chiefs, Herbert was thrust into the huddle and the rest is history.

Despite the magnificent play by Herbert throughout the rest of the season, the Chargers still went 6-9, although they did end the year on a four-game win streak.

There was a very unfortunate theme across the majority of the team’s losses in 2020 and that theme was excruciatingly bad special teams play and defensive collapses in the second half of games. If you notice, none of these have anything to do with Herbert’s play. It’s a huge bummer that his rookie season will always have these negatives associated with it, but if he’s able to continue this meteoric rise to the top tier of the quarterback position, all of the bad lingering around his rookie season will slowly fade into irrelevancy.

Lastly, when we look back on Herbert’s first season in the NFL, we will remember his incredible poise, his rocket-launcher arm, and his rock-steady consistency in the face of adversity.

Behind a bad offense line, Herbert came through in the clutch over and over again. Big-time throws became fairly regular. In fact, one of the main things new head coach Brandon Staley said he admires the most about Herbert is his performance during two-minute situations. When the Chargers needed to get down the field with minimal time on the clock, Herbert always came through.

As of this very moment, Herbert’s future is as bright as anyone’s in the NFL. He has a new head coach, but that doesn’t mean there will be a lack of continuity in the offense. In his introductory press conference, Staley said the goal will be not to force the quarterback into an already-established system. The plan heading into 2021 is to build the offense around Herbert and what he does best, which is throwing the ball deep, utilizing his mobility/size, and attacking the middle of the field. This is the dream for both the fan base and Herbie.

LB Kenneth Murray - Round 1, Pick #23

2020 stats (16 starts): 107 total tackles, five tackles-for-loss, one sack, three pass breakups

The Chargers shocked the fan base when they traded their second and third-round picks in 2020 to move up on day one of the draft to select Murray with the 23rd-overall selection. It was mostly a surprise due to the team still needing help along the offensive line and the Chargers already having decent linebackers in Drue Tranquill, Kyzir White, and Denzel Perryman.

Following the pick, Lynn and Telesco both shared the sentiment that they valued Murray’s intensity, athleticism, and leadership qualities so much that they knew they had to make a move for the former Oklahoma Sooner.

Despite the long history of unfortunate injury luck, both Murray and Herbert started every game they played in during their rookie seasons. Murray even got the honor of wearing the green dot as the play-caller of the defense, although he did lose it and then gain it back by the end of the season.

In the season finale against the Chiefs, Murray recorded his 106th and 107th total tackle on the year, breaking the franchise’s rookie mark set by Derwin James (105) during the 2018 season. The history he made was obviously overshadowed by his fellow first-round teammate, but it’s still something to take note of. Murray didn’t exactly “wow” the NFL with his performance this year and it has led many to wonder if he wasn’t even used properly in the first place. Regardless, Murray stayed healthy all year — again, rare for promising Chargers players expected to have big roles — and showed that he could not only handle the role, but progress and develop within it.

Murray wasn’t too capable in coverage to begin the season despite having true side-to-sideline range. He rarely ever covered more than a running back coming out of the backfield while at Oklahoma and it unfortunately showed. By the second half of the season, Murray got better at limiting yards after the catch but his percentage of receptions allowed per target still remained fairly high. According to Pro Football Reference, Murray allowed 83 percent of the targets his way to be completed.

Now, under a new defensive-minded head coach in 2021 and beyond, Murray could find himself in a new role. It remains to be seen if he’ll remain as a true-and-tried MIKE linebacker. His ferocity and explosiveness could be huge up around the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker in five-man fronts while still allowing him the ability to drop into coverage in necessary.

For what it’s worth, don’t lock yourself into this idea that Staley’s defense is going toe either be a simple 3-4 pr 4-3 front. The NFL moves players around, disguises fronts, and does all kinds of things on a down-by-down basis and I think we’ll find ourselves talking in circles if we feel compelled to label the defense as one or the other. The defense is likely going to be extremely multiple and vary wildly on any given play. Let the defensive mastermind do his thing and have some faith he’ll find the best place to utilize Murray, Derwin James, and the other superstars on that side of the ball.