After taking a month to review the 2013 NFL Draft, it is already time to look ahead to the 2014 class. In fairness, I will do my best to focus on senior prospects for the next few months and move to juniors/redshirt sophomores when the time is right. I am only taking pre-season evaluation notes for now, focusing on where prospects win and where improvements can be made. Therefore, treat these posts like rough drafts and not final opinions.
Notes for Clemson QB Tajh Boyd
Notes for San Jose State QB David Fales
Notes for LSU QB Zach Mettenberger
Notes for Miami (FL) QB Stephen Morris
Notes for Georgia QB Aaron Murray
Notes for Fresno State QB Derek Carr
Notes for UNC QB Bryn Renner
Notes for Cornell QB Jeff Mathews
Notes for Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas
Not only has Alabama won back to back national championships, but Nick Saban and company have produced nine prospects drafted during the first and second days in that span. However, the recent trend shows many of those same prospects do not enter the next level of competition unscathed. Along with excellent offensive line play, a power running game, and a physical defense, the Crimson Tide has had consistently reliable quarterback play. Albeit unspectacular.
As always, my first observation will always focus on pocket awareness, movement, and success. A.J. McCarron consistently displays the presence to step up when feeling edge pressure, a baseline trait for NFL quarterbacks. I was pleasantly surprised by McCarron’s composure and ability to handle tight situations. When working past his first read, McCarron avoided pass rushers by escaping laterally, vertically, or out the back door. He certainly isn’t perfect in this department, as McCarron does struggle to sense backside pressure and tends to tuck and run whenever he is forced to move towards the line of scrimmage.
The Crimson Tide passer won’t crumble in a closing pocket, and that is a big plus. Sure, there are times where McCarron falls off his back foot, leading to passes with considerably less than ideal velocity, but the majority of these targets are checkdowns along the sideline. More worrisome is McCarron’s tendency to open up his left shoulder while failing to stride through his throws once moved off his initial spot. The senior struggles to generate juice, and this lack of technique prevents him from reaching his maximum velocity.
McCarron is predictable. That helps his offensive coaches call plays, but also allows defenses to plan and react accordingly. There are outliers, but the majority of plays ended in four ways: Flare completion of two to five yards on first read, outside breaking touch pass on first read, checkdown with inconsistent accuracy when forced to move off initial spot in the pocket, or tuck and run when channeled upfield in the pocket with forward momentum.
There are instances of downfield and vertical passing, but they rely on touch, timing, and coverage matchups. I did not see McCarron test downfield windows against zone coverage. Instead, the Alabama passer converted vertical shots when his outside receiver faced man coverage, putting plenty of air under the throw, allowing the target to create separation with speed. There were a few instances when his lack of arm forced that same receiver to stop his stride, missing an easy touchdown. These vertical shots were scarce and never (in the games I watched) occurred when McCarron was forced to move off his initial spot.
McCarron is obviously a touch passer who relies on placement, so things go wrong if one of those skills is lacking on a single throw. Deflections and interceptions are the direct results of a poor attempt. He does not have the velocity to compensate for deficiencies in other areas.
There’s something to be said for a game manager. McCarron relies on rhythm, timing, and placement more than other prospects, but behind a stout offensive line it leads to success. In fact, McCarron helps himself by showing above average composure in the pocket to buy time and hit the checkdown. That is a big positive in my book. However, in these situations he will only hurt defenses downfield if the coverage is broken. The lack of velocity limits his ability to elevate the talent around him. Placement and touch have taken McCarron far, but I do not think he can be an irreplaceable starter at the next level. I would want him on my roster as a backup quarterback who could be a spot starter on occasion.
Where He Wins
What you see is what you get. McCarron would carry out the orders of his play caller, targeting the necessary first read with touch and precision. He can hit a second read or checkdown thanks to pocket movement, but is limited once moved off his plant foot. Experience from center and in the gun helps.
Areas Of Improvement
What you see is what you get. I firmly believe the talent around McCarron elevated him, but he deserves credit for lifting his game accordingly. How can he shed the “game manager” label? That is tough to say, but he will be forced to work behind a less experienced offensive line this season. Let’s hope he shows improved downfield playmaking ability by converting risks on second and third options. If the offensive line allows it.