Chargers pay Justin Herbert $262.5 million, now the pressure's really on

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- One by one, Los Angeles Chargers players, and even owner Dean Spanos, drove past a small contingent of reporters and cameras to enter a gated parking lot at the team headquarters to report for the season Tuesday morning.

But not quarterback Justin Herbert.

In a sleek, dark sports car, Herbert stopped well short of the gate to flip a U-turn. The fourth-year quarterback opted instead to park elsewhere and enter the building as discreetly as possible, where no outsiders were waiting.

It's typical Herbert fashion to duck the spotlight as he attempts to remain under the radar, blending in with his teammates.

However, after agreeing to a five-year extension worth $262.5 million later in the afternoon, it's nearly certain Herbert won't be able to escape the attention much longer.

Now the highest-paid player in NFL history, surpassing quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson, who signed $255 and $260 million extensions earlier this offseason, respectively, all eyes will be on Herbert. He must prove after a record payday that he can turn eye-popping statistics into a significant playoff run and lead a stacked Chargers roster to a Super Bowl.

"If I know one thing, our players, front office, coaches, we believe in him 100%," general manager Tom Telesco said at the end of last season.

From the outset of the negotiating process, which began shortly after the 2022 season ended with a wild-card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chargers have expressed confidence that Herbert possesses the abilities to earn a massive deal.

"He's a perfectionist and how much he does in preparation for his job," Telesco said. "What I've been around, all the great quarterbacks have that, as far as what they do in the building to prepare for the next opponent and the amount of work into it. Then, combine that with his physical ability. We're extremely lucky to have him."

Telesco and the Chargers are betting Herbert can take their organization to heights seen only once -- a Super Bowl appearance in 1995, which the Chargers lost to the San Francisco 49ers -- in the franchise's 64 years of existence.

"The major takeaway is that Justin Herbert is going to be our quarterback," coach Brandon Staley said confidently at the NFL's annual meetings in March after acknowledging that negotiations were underway. "We're so excited that he's leading our franchise."

In three seasons, Herbert, 25, has dominated the league's stats and records.

The record for most passing yards through a player's first three NFL seasons? That belongs to Herbert with 14,089.

The only player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in each of his first three seasons? Herbert.

Joining Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning as the only other quarterback to pass for 25 touchdowns in each of his first three NFL seasons? Yes, it's Herbert.

And it's Herbert, the sixth overall pick in 2020 from Oregon, who left little doubt at the conclusion of the offseason program that, with or without an extension, he would be ready to report to training camp to prepare for the season.

"The role of the quarterback is to be out there for his team and do everything that he can to put that team in a position to win," said Herbert, who is 25-24 in 49 career starts.

"If you're a player in the huddle and you're looking at Justin Herbert, there's no fear in his eyes, there's no flinch," Telesco said. "That's what great leaders have."

Last season, despite playing through fractured ribs during an early portion of the schedule and suffering a left shoulder injury in Week 17 that required postseason surgery, Herbert propelled the injury-plagued Chargers to their first playoff appearance since 2018.

Now, with Herbert's deal in place, the Chargers are fully committed to running it back, deeper into the postseason.

They've onboarded former Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who began during the offseason program installing an explosive offense that exploits Herbert's arm strength and stretches defenses -- something the Bolts failed to do under previous coordinator Joe Lombardi.

They returned veteran receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on restructured deals, then used their first-round pick on TCU standout receiver Quentin Johnston. The Chargers ensured the return of running back Austin Ekeler, the NFL's defending touchdown leader, by adding $1.75 million in incentives to his contract, and they committed to Herbert's protection in re-signing in free agency right tackle Trey Pipkins III to bookend Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater.

Defensively, the Chargers restructured the contracts of edge rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack to ensure each of their returns, plus added veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks to solidify a unit that also features star safety Derwin James Jr.

Now, with all of the tools and his contract in place, it's up to Herbert to own the spotlight and drive the Chargers to a destination they've visited only once before, the Super Bowl.