Herbert Starts His Bid

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert negotiates the bags under the watchful eye of Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert negotiates the bags under the watchful eye of Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.

MOBILE, Ala. - While they name steaks for Joe Burrow in Cincinnati's five-star restaurants, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is trying to cook up enough this week at the Senior Bowl to be regarded as filet mignon by the time the top of the NFL Draft rolls around.

All indications are that Burrow has the early leg up in this top pick thing. He's about as rare as it gets when it comes to that ever elusive mix of makeup and production.

But Herbert has turned up the flame in an effort to show his leadership matches his enormous talent and prodigious numbers, starting by successfully winning a spot with the Bengals coaches holding the No. 1 pick rather than with the Lions and their No. 3 pick that doesn't figure to be used on Matthew Stafford's successor but on defense. That streak of competitiveness caught the Bengals' eye right away.

The Bengals have spent the week assuring people they have made no calls on No. 1, they have yet to sit down and discuss it and are merely in the early evaluation stages. Herbert is trying to make it close at the top and that starts this week, continues next month at the scouting combine, and the month after that in Eugene at his pro day.

And it sounds like it's been a good start. He towers over media scrums at 6-6 and he hides his 237 pounds well. But his lithe moves over the bags and his rip-it-big-arm are very much on display.

"I think it's just a great opportunity to be here to play football," said Herbert, when asked if he preferred playing for the South. "I've been so honored to be here, to get better, throw the football around and do the things I love."

Herbert won't bite on the questions. Is this an audition for No. 1?

"I think everything is an audition," Herbert said.

Does a big week put him in the mix at No. 1?

"I don't know. That's for them to decide," Herbert said. "I'm here to compete and have fun. It's for the experience. Not many people get to play football out here."

Sit in on two different media interviews with Herbert this week and he's hitting all the marks, saying all the right things. He wants to be transparent. He wants to be genuine. He wants to lead and learn. He's resetting formations in walk-throughs. The kid won the academic Heisman and he sounds like it.

But he's also trying to show he's not all about brains. If Burrow is a hail fellow well met not adverse to brandishing a national championship cigar, Herbert is trying to show he's not the guy that's going to read the fire code.

And Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan likes what he sees from the guy's intangibles.

"I like the way he carries himself. He has a good way with guys. He's having fun," Callahan said after Wednesday's practice. "He's a mild-mannered personality, but I think people always get mild-mannered personalities confused with poor leadership. I think that's inaccurate. He's a little bit reserved, but I think he loves playing football. He's got a lot of passion for it. He's got plenty of juice that you want from the quarterback."

Callahan took note of Herbert racing down the field the other day high-fiving into the end zone. Herbert has been quite candid about getting more comfortable with his mates. How he's not known as a screaming Alpha.

"You kind of have to force yourself to become uncomfortable. Put yourself in positions that aren't normal to you," Herbert said. "I think this past year I've done a great job speaking up when they needed someone to speak up. If you ask the guys, they'll tell you the same thing. The coaches will tell you the same thing. I was really pleased the way I developed this season."

At first glance, Herbert might give Bengals fans the heebie jeebies. He's represented by David Dunn, the guy whom handed the Bengals "The Mobile Manifesto," the last time they were coaching this game nine years ago when he conveyed Carson Palmer's trade-me-or-retire me threat. And 21 years ago they took an Oregon quarterback with the third pick in Akili Smith and he made just 17 starts.

But the Bengals, who have never considered agents when drafting players, still deal amicably with Dunn and, unlike Smith, Herbert is the antithesis of the one-year wonder. He did it for four years and 43 games with 95 touchdowns on a sizzling 8.2 yards per attempt.

"I thought Justin had a good day yesterday," said Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin of the first day of practice. "He threw the ball pretty well. He is an impressive person to be around, very bright, he's got a lot of physical characteristics that you want, and he's played a lot of college football. He has a lot of versatility. It's fun to get to work with him."

Callahan loves that athleticism, particularly on his footwork. He thinks it's quite impressive that during the first two practices there hasn't been a bad snap under center and considering that Herbert has been saying he hasn't taken a snap under center since second grade playing for his dad, that's rather remarkable.

"That's a testament to him," Callahan said. "It's not an easy thing for him to do just for a guy his size when you're under center. But he's been efficient under center. He's responded to coaching. He's evolved. We haven't had to correct him more than once. He's had an impressive two days."

But that's not by accident. Herbert may have been the first quarterback drafted if he came out last year. But he said he knew what wanted to work on (those intangibles, overall game) and he did. Knowing he'd be under center more than occasional down here, he worked on it the last couple of weeks and it shows.

"Very, very talented. Really smart," Callahan said. "He's done a great job digesting information, taking it from the meeting room to the field and executing what we're asking him to do."

The journey for the menu has begun.