Alabama's AJ McCarron is one of the most successful quarterbacks in college football, but he may not find the same success in the NFL.
With only one game remaining in his career at Alabama, AJ McCarron is set to go down in history as one of the most successful collegiate quarterbacks of all time, but that does not necessarily mean he should be an early-round selection in the 2014 NFL draft.
There is a growing faction of anonymous NFL scouts, media draft analysts and fans hyping McCarron to be a top prospect, and it all starts with his success at Alabama.
McCarron is the only starting quarterback to lead a team to back-to-back national championships in the BCS era. He is one of the winningest quarterbacks ever in college football, with a 36-3 career record as a starter for the Crimson Tide. He has thrown 75 career touchdowns with only 13 interceptions, and has completed nearly 67 percent of his career passing attempts.
At least some NFL scouts like what they see in the redshirt senior signal-caller, according to NFL Network’s Albert Breer:
I'll also say this about AJ McCarron -- Enough people like him to where I think he has a shot to be the first quarterback taken.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 2, 2013
For an NFL.com article, Breer talked to one NFL team’s college scouting director who said McCarron is “very similar” to future Pro Football Hall of Famer and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, while an area scout told Breer he would draft McCarron in the “latter part of the first (round).”
Breer also wrote, however, that “in some circles, McCarron is seen as a third-round type.” As scouts throughout the NFL have increased opportunities to watch McCarron both in person (potentially at the Senior Bowl) and on tape, it may be the latter circles who have a more accurate evaluation of the well-known winner.
While McCarron has been the right man for the job at Alabama, considering the Crimson Tide’s success with him under center, that team success has had more to do with the wealth of talent around him than it has with McCarron himself.
That surrounding talent has helped mask some of the flaws in McCarron’s game while enabling him to take advantage of its strengths.
McCarron will enter the NFL draft with as much proven success and experience as any quarterback in the class, but he lacks the physical attributes of most of the top signal-callers headed to the league.
Why McCarron is Being Hyped as a Top Draft Pick
McCarron’s game doesn’t fit the first-round projections, but there are positives we can point to in order to explain why he is receiving that hype from some NFL personnel.
The aforementioned success and production is the most obvious reason, but NFL executives won’t be making their draft decisions based on collegiate results.
That said, it is McCarron’s fundamentals that have made him as successful as he has been at Alabama.
As evidenced by his better-than-5:1 TD-INT ratio, McCarron is a smart decision-maker who rarely commits costly turnovers.
McCarron is mechanically sound. He has clean footwork in his dropbacks and maneuvers the pocket well, though he does not always step into his throws when he should. He has a fluid throwing motion and release that work plenty well for a quarterback listed at 6’4” on Alabama’s official athletics website.
Patience is one key to McCarron’s success. He allows plays to develop and frequently finds open receivers, even if his first read is not open. He is also an effective thrower on the run, which enables him to extend plays outside the pocket, giving receivers more time to get open and often making throws shorter.
McCarron has very good short to intermediate passing accuracy. He rarely misses receivers to the point of a pass being uncatchable inside of 15 yards, and he excels at finding receivers out of their breaks on quick timing routes.
All of those traits have made McCarron successful at Alabama and could enable him to be a successful NFL starting quarterback. What he lacks in other areas, however, should keep him out of the top tier or two of quarterback prospects in this year’s draft class.
Why McCarron’s Game May Not Translate to NFL Excellence
While it is certainly a positive for McCarron to be defined by his wins and championships, some scouts and media draft analysts will tell you that if the primary trait used to describe a quarterback prospect is that he is a “winner”—which the aforementioned college scouting director told Breer is McCarron’s “most important category”—he probably isn’t that good of a prospect.
One area where McCarron is comparable to Brady is that neither quarterback meets the modern NFL prototypes for arm strength and athleticism.
Brady’s limited arm strength has never been a problem for him, however, because he has truly exceptional touch as a downfield passer, especially on deep balls. The same should not be said for McCarron, who is likely to be very limited as a deep passer in the NFL.
McCarron has shown the ability to hit passes as far as 45-50 yards downfield, but when he does attempt to throw the ball deep, his need to drive the ball is noticeable in that it loses velocity and touch. As a result, he frequently overthrows or underthrows his deep passes, which can often lead to missing even receivers who are wide open.
The following example from earlier this year against LSU shows how his lack of deep touch can cost him a golden big-play opportunity. That actually happened on multiple occasions in this year’s game against the Tigers, but his missed deep ball on a flea-flicker was his most egregious miss:
While a flea-flicker may be a trick play, it had been set up to perfection on this play. McCarron had plenty of room and time in the pocket to stand and deliver a deep ball, while wide receiver Kenny Bell burned the LSU secondary for a throw expected to be pitch-and-catch in the NFL.
But as McCarron had to strain to heave the ball to a receiver who would be approximately 50 yards downfield, he overthrew Bell by a good three to four yards, and his lack of touch cost his team six points.
McCarron demonstrates solid zip on his throws inside of 20 yards, but one benefit of playing on an offense that almost always has a talent disparity above the opposing defense is that he has rarely had to throw the ball into tight windows.
Most of his passing success has come from finding receivers after they have broken open; at the next level, he needs to be able to throw receivers open and fight the ball between tight coverages. This is where his ability to put consistent velocity on the ball and throw the ball with downfield touch will be challenged, and his subpar arm strength make both of those tasks more challenging.
While McCarron is a more mobile athlete than Brady as far as scrambling is concerned, he is not going to present a dual threat as a runner.
On the few occasions where McCarron has made big plays as a runner, it has been to take advantage of the defense vacating a big running lane. He does not have the speed or agility to make NFL defenders miss in the open field, nor the strength to run through tackles. As a result, he should be viewed as strictly a pocket passer, though his ability to throw on the run remains a positive.
As a pocket passer with limited physical tools, his game could easily become predictable to NFL defenses if he does not consistently do a good job spreading the ball already and taking full advantage of his team’s playbook. Fortunately, his years of experience in a pro-style offense under Alabama coach Nick Saban have prepared him well for the mental aspect of his transition to the NFL.
There are multiple tendencies in McCarron’s game, however, that defenses will read into and pick up on if he does not improve upon them.
He stares down his intended targets more often than he should, which can cause the open passing lanes he has taken advantage of frequently to close quickly. Additionally, he has consistently appeared more comfortable throwing to his right than to his left, especially out of play action, which could cause NFL defenses to shift their pressure and attempt to force him to beat them throwing to his left.
Speaking of pressure, one more capacity in which McCarron needs to improve is in his ability to get the ball out of the pocket as rushes come toward him.
Playing behind an often-dominant offensive line, McCarron frequently holds the ball in the pocket for as long as four or five seconds before moving outside of the pocket or throwing the ball. That is an opportunity he will rarely have at the next level. If he does not become quicker to react to rushes and make plays happen under pressure, he will be seen getting sacked and throwing the ball away often against NFL defenses.
Projecting McCarron into the NFL Draft and Beyond
It may be more clear for NFL teams to know what they are getting out of McCarron than they do out of any other quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft class. This is both a positive and a negative for him, so it could either help or hurt his draft stock.
An NFL team considering drafting McCarron should feel confident they are getting an established leader whose intelligence and experience should enable him to pick up an offense quickly. It would seem it is that confidence, at least from the quotes provided by Breer in his article, is what has some NFL scouts considering McCarron as one of the draft’s top quarterback prospects.
McCarron’s floor may be as high as any other quarterback in the 2014 draft class, but his ceiling is lower than most of the other top prospects, considering both his limited physical tools and his limited development as a passer over the course of his junior and senior seasons.
McCarron’s game epitomizes that of a game manager. He has not been and is unlikely to be a quarterback who is going to make mistakes that lose games for his team. But in order to make big plays, he has been and is likely to continue to be reliant on the talent around him to create those plays by getting significantly open and getting yards after the catch.
His game-winning drive in Alabama’s 2012 game against LSU was a prime example of him being a game manager, both in a positive and negative sense, as can be seen in the following video courtesy of Draft Breakdown:
In a game where McCarron really struggled as a passer, he stepped up and led his team on a touchdown drive when it was necessary to win the game. That said, his two longest downfield completions were both inside of 15 yards against loose coverage, and the game-winning big play was created by then-freshman running back T.J. Yeldon off of a screen pass.
If McCarron can continue to be a successful game manager at the next level, he can find success and win games with an NFL team.
Developing into a Brady-level quarterback would be the best-case scenario for McCarron, but his more realistic potential lies somewhere in the realm of NFL starting quarterbacks such as Alex Smith, Matt Schaub and/or Andy Dalton. While he could be good enough to win games and lead a team to the playoffs, he is unlikely to be a transcendent talent at the position.
Finding the next Smith, Schaub or Dalton may be good enough for some teams to make at least a short-term upgrade at the quarterback position, but it is not the type of quarterback a team should be looking for as its franchise signal-caller on a first-round pick. A team looking to make that commitment should spend more time evaluating passers such as Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, all of whom have more physical potential and demonstrated playmaking prowess.
What round should AJ McCarron be drafted in?
As a third- or fourth-round pick, however, McCarron could be a great choice. Teams do not typically commit to quarterbacks drafted in the middle rounds as immediate or long-term starters, but in the right situations, quarterbacks drafted there are often able to compete for immediate playing time.
Given his experience and proven success, McCarron is one of the prime candidates to succeed as a rookie quarterback in 2014, even though his long-term potential is not as high as his peers who are more highly rated prospects.
An NFL team just might end up with a successful starting quarterback and a tremendous value if it can land McCarron in the middle rounds. Just ask the Seattle Seahawks or Philadelphia Eagles, neither of whom were necessarily looking for a starter when they drafted Russell Wilson and Nick Foles respectively in the third round of the 2012 draft, but have now seen them emerge as not only starters but franchise quarterbacks.
That said, Wilson and Foles both brought more physical upside to the table as draft prospects, whereas McCarron is a more “safe” pick than either of them were.
McCarron could be a low-risk, high-reward mid-round selection, but if a team invests a high draft pick in McCarron, the results might be more likely to fall toward the Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder end of the scale than toward that of Cam Newton or Andrew Luck.
Teams who could successfully draft McCarron as a priority backup or starting quarterback competition include the St. Louis Rams, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
All videos courtesy of Draft Breakdown unless otherwise noted. All screenshots were taken by the author with illustrations added firsthand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.