Hunkered down on a stool the other day in front of a locker stall at NovaCare, Nate Herbig was polite. Clearly uncomfortable, but polite.
Herbig’s focus was on last weekend’s Eagles rookie camp, and then next week’s OTAs, on following the path to winning a roster spot as an undrafted rookie guard. The reporter standing in front of Herbig wanted to discuss how Herbig got there, how he ended up at one of those portable stalls in the middle of the locker room that tend to be the domain of the undrafted and the easily replaced.
A year ago, Herbig was coming off his sophomore season at Stanford, in which he’d been chosen first-team All-Pac-12. His plan was to take another step forward as a junior, declare for the NFL draft, then wait for a phone call on draft weekend, as one of the top guards available, a 6-4, 334-pound road grader with a solid resume.
Those things did not happen, except for the part about declaring for the draft. Herbig was dogged by injuries, playing on a Stanford offensive line that was dogged by injuries, and when he played, he was less of a force than he had been previously.
The NFL Scouting Combine was a disaster, Herbig’s 5.41-second 40 going down as the slowest run by any of the 260 participants, including quarterbacks – slower than everyone except the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, whose 6.00 would have put him almost on Herbig’s heels. The other athletic drills were no less embarrassing – 24-inch vertical jump, 8.15-second three-cone drill, 5.04 20-yard shuttle. Herbig’s only good number was 29 reps on the bench press.
“You can’t look back on your decisions,” Herbig said, when asked if he wished he’d stayed another year at Stanford. “Any decision, it is what it is. Just make the most of it at this point.”
This year, 103 underclassmen entered the draft. Herbig was one of 30 who weren’t drafted. Why does he think that happened?
“I’m not too sure. I just know that I wasn’t good enough at this point, for a team to take me, so I just need to get better,” he said. “I’ve never been a combine guy. I’m a football player.”
Sitting through draft weekend without hearing his name called “definitely hurt a little bit,” said Herbig, a Hawaii native whose Stanford nickname was “Big Island.”
Stanford coach David Shaw said he thought Herbig’s combine performance might have been the result of spending part of the offseason in injury rehab, and of concentrating on adding strength and bulk over agility.
Of course, going undrafted doesn’t mean you can’t have a solid NFL career. Herbig only needs to look to the back of the locker room and the stall of nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters for confirmation of that. And in Herbig’s case, it meant he could choose where he went. It certainly seems possible that he can make the team or at least the practice squad as a guard; the Eagles haven’t drafted one of those with a first- or second-day pick since they took Isaac Seumalo in 2016’s third round. Before that, it was all-time bust Danny Watkins in the first round in 2011.
“I think Nate chose a really good place,” Shaw said this week. Shaw noted that Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland is lauded for developing players, and that “schematically, [the Eagles’ offense] is not exactly like us, but there are similarities," enough of them that a Stanford player coming here ought to be able to “play fast and truly show what you have.”
Underclassmen entering the draft is an issue in college football. Shaw said he believes the NFL does a good job of polling scouts and giving players a realistic idea of what to expect, but the NFL isn’t the only entity providing advice. Alabama coach Nick Saban made headlines last month when he opined that players who leave early and aren’t high draft picks are being used by agents eager to make money off them and NFL teams who want to get players with upside at a cheap price.
“I’m going to choose my words wisely,” Shaw said, when asked his view. “Nick Saban made a comment and had a big blowback from a lot of people. ... There is a trend to come out earlier. I think there are a lot of voices around athletics, a lot of voices from TV and media people, a lot of voices from agents, to say come out early, to try to get to a second contract earlier, prolong your career by getting in earlier.
“For me, it should be an educated guess. … The trick is to look at it and say, ‘Do I believe I can raise that significantly by coming back another year? And at the same time, can I become a better player?’
“I think if Nate was completely healthy, if he’d played at the level he did the year before, if not a little bit better, yeah, it’s a no-brainer.”
But Shaw said Herbig’s “mentality was, he was ready to go,” and Shaw did not criticize the decision.
Shaw said that draft pedigree or not, Herbig can help the Eagles.
“He sure loves football. Absolutely loves it. Is passionate about it. He works at it. He’s very, very bright and understands things conceptually, as well as schematically,” Shaw said. “And expects a lot of himself, is very confident. He has the ability to not just make a team but be a guy who sticks around for a long time.
“I think his ceiling is very high. When he’s healthy, he’s got a chance to be an every-down kind of a guy that’s a physical run blocker and a very good pass protector.”
Herbig has at least two locker-room allies: second-round wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and undrafted linebacker Joey Alfieri, his teammates at Stanford. Arcega-Whiteside is one of Herbig’s closest friends; Herbig texted the wideout as soon as Herbig signed with the Eagles.
“Passionate guy. He was that guy, that if you did something wrong, he was going to call you out. If he did something wrong, he doesn’t mind getting coached up,” Arcega-Whiteside said last week.
Arcega-Whiteside said the combine numbers didn’t match what he saw playing alongside the big guard.
“He was just a physical guy. You can see it on tape; there’s guys on the ground every time he puts hands on ‘em. On top of that, I don’t know why the 40 was what it was, but he gets out and pulls and he’s running,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “He’s the quickest 300-pounder I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s not about straight-line speed. Laterally, he can move quickly.”
Herbig said that whatever the reason was for 32 teams passing him over in the draft, it doesn’t matter now.