Chargers' Justin Herbert continues to make case for hefty extension

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The milestones keep piling up.

Justin Herbert: Fastest to reach 1,000 career completions (38 games).

Justin Herbert: Most completions -- 1,062 -- through the first three seasons of a career, passing former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

Justin Herbert: 20 career games with 300-plus passing yards, the most by any player in his first three seasons.

Next for Justin Herbert: 90 touchdowns through his first three seasons -- he needs one more to join Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the only players in history to reach that mark.

"I haven't been paying any attention to that," Herbert said. "The most important thing is how we are doing as a team and what we can get better at collectively."

The 24-year-old is eligible for a contract extension at season's end that the Los Angeles Chargers will likely attempt to expedite as they stare down a blockbuster quarterback market. Joe Burrow, the 2020 No. 1 pick who led the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance last season, fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa, who has the Dolphins on pace for their first postseason appearance since 2016, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, a 2020 second-round pick whose team is atop the NFC standings, and quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has made three playoff appearances over the last four seasons, will all be in the mix for extensions.

"For [Herbert] the number has to be $50 million [per year] and higher," Mike Tannenbaum, ESPN's front office insider and former NFL executive, said.

"He's a generational talent. I think he's going to be the Peyton Manning of the next generation."

But a season that opened with sky-high expectations for the Chargers is teetering on the brink. The Bolts are 6-6 -- still in search of a victory over a team with a winning record -- and at risk of missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season as they sit outside the top seven teams in the AFC, all of which will advance.

Every game is seemingly a must-win to realize their potential on paper, including a matchup against the Miami Dolphins (8-4) on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC).

"That's part of football," Herbert said. "Every week that you're going into, you're going to try and win that game."

The sixth-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Herbert is in the third season of his rookie deal, with a fourth year remaining and a fifth-year option that the Chargers will undoubtedly exercise.

Herbert resembles a quarterback built in a lab. He's every bit of the listed 6-foot-6, and he reported this with noticeably more defined muscle, which he credited to "getting after it" in the weight room -- bulking up to 245 pounds, nearly a 10-pound increase from 2021. And, to accompany his physical tools, his NFL acumen is improving.

"He's a special arm talent," Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "He throws some passes that I don't think anyone can throw in this league, and that includes myself. He has a cannon for an arm, you watch -- I watch on film every week because we play similar opponents -- there's some throws that you just kind of shake your head because they are just that special."

Last season, Herbert's total quarterback rating (70.9) ranked him among the best in the NFL, third to future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers (74.1) and Tom Brady (73.1), and just ahead of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Matthew Stafford. Herbert's 38 touchdown passes ranked third in the NFL, while his 5,014 passing yards ranked second.

Herbert hasn't played as consistently in Year 3, especially after suffering a fracture to rib cartilage in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, when he was crunched between pass-rushers Frank Clark and George Karlaftis.

He's also been forced to adjust to an offense ravaged by injuries.

The Chargers placed Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater on injured reserve after he tore a left biceps tendon in Week 3. Wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have dealt with nagging injuries that have limited their availability to a total of only 46 plays on the field together out of a possible 811 snaps -- meaning the offense has featured their top-two pass-catchers on 5.7% of their plays this season. And recently, Herbert has played behind a backup center and left and right tackle.

"It has been more challenging with all of the different pieces," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "When you get in a situation like that, you can push too hard and turn the ball over. I think, for the most part, he has protected it well. I think, maybe, some of the opportunities to make the big plays just haven't been there for him, and he's just trying to play smart. I'm not worried about his regression."

Herbert has passed for 3,339 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Over the last three games, he's been sacked 14 times, far exceeding any other point of his career.

"There are times where I could get back to the line of scrimmage, where I have gone down before the line of scrimmage and that counts as a sack," Herbert said. "The offensive line has done a great job of protecting me all of the time and getting me enough time to get the ball out. I feel like (offensive line) coach (Brendan) Nugent and Joe Lombardi have done a great job of getting a protection plan together."

The offensive line ranks 21st in pass block win rate, sustaining their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer 56.9% of the time. Herbert is averaging 2.87 seconds to throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Although Herbert's season could be considered less stellar than his sophomore campaign, teammates and coaches said they've seen growth.

"Being able to see defenses, understanding what he's looking at, getting to the read that he wants to get to for that defense and keeping the offense alive," Allen said when asked where Herbert's improved.

Allen, who played seven seasons with Philip Rivers and has made five Pro Bowl appearances, grinned as he spoke about the velocity Herbert throws with -- something that's taken some getting used to and some finessing from Herbert.

"It's tough," Allen said of catching high-velocity passes. "The first year was tough, this year is way slower, and like I said, I think he's just understanding the defense more, understanding how he can throw the passes, understanding when to throw the passes and just not playing all arm."

Second-year wide receiver Joshua Palmer, said it has been the mental side of the game where he's seen Herbert take strides.

"Small things like small adjustments within the playcall or checking certain plays," Palmer said.

Despite some uneven stretches -- the Chargers score an average of 11.6 points in the second quarter of games this season but rank 25th or worse in the other three quarters -- Herbert recently proved once again he can provide the spark that could prove critical for the Chargers down the stretch.

After throwing late-game interceptions in back-to-back losses against the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, he came through against the Arizona Cardinals.

With the game and season at stake, Herbert masterfully put together a seven-play, 38-yard go-ahead drive that he capped with a game-winning two-point play to claim a 25-24 victory.

"What I told the team was the two weeks prior, a two-minute drive, it didn't go down for him," head coach Brandon Staley said after the game. "That's what it's like when you're a quarterback in the NFL, you're not going to make every two-minute drive. But the thing he has going for him is that our entire organization believes he's going to make it, so he brought us back ... we wouldn't have won without him."

The fourth-quarter comeback was the 10th of Herbert's career, tying him for the most by any player since the start of the 2020 season. It was also his 12th career game-winning drive, the second-most by any quarterback since 2020.

A key play -- with 25 seconds remaining in that drive in Arizona -- demonstrated Herbert's growing knowledge. He killed a play to audible into another that resulted in running back Austin Ekeler catching a short pass for a 10-yard gain to set up his 1-yard go-ahead score.

"His head is straight, and he's seeing it," Staley said.

Lombardi intimated Herbert has taken more ownership of the offense, demonstrated by his growing comfort level.

"There is knowing what to do and then having the confidence to be like, 'Oh yeah, I know and I am going to do it.' He's a little bit of a perfectionist, so sometimes it's like, 'I don't want to do the wrong thing,'" he said. "I just think that confidence of him, just like, 'Hey, I got this and I know exactly how to handle it. This is my car. It's not Joe's car. It's not the coach's car. This is my car and I am driving it the way I want to.'"

"I'd like to think we are able to do that," Herbert said when asked if he was taking greater ownership of the offense. "I think, as a group, we have come a long way, and we are getting a lot better."

And as Herbert continues to build his case for a market-shattering extension, the Chargers have a ways to go to prove they're a postseason contender.