Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron is one of the most successful quarterbacks in college football history, a Heisman Trophy runner-up and three-time national champion.
However, McCarron's also been hit with the dreaded "game manager" label. Sure, he won a lot of games, the critics say, but that had more to do with loaded Crimson Tide teams than McCarron's ability as a quarterback.
This week's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., offered a chance for McCarron to dispel some doubts, just as Fresno State's Derek Carr is reportedly doing.
Instead, McCarron chose not to attend, and much like Geno Smith a year ago, it's a decision McCarron may come to regret.
McCarron told Randy Kennedy of AL.com the reasoning behind his decision shortly after it was announced he would skip the game.
I really appreciate being invited to play in the Senior Bowl. It is quite an honor and something I've dreamed about while growing up in the Mobile area. However, at this time, I'm putting all of my focus and energy into preparing for the NFL Combine, pro day and the rest of the pre-draft evaluation process. Therefore, I won't be taking part in the Senior Bowl.
However, reports recently surfaced claiming that McCarron's camp didn't see anything to gain from the 6'4", 214-pounder participating in the Senior Bowl.
My sources say AJ McCarron chose not to play in the Senior Bowl (not b/c of the inj) b/c he thinks he's a top 20 pick— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) January 17, 2014
The criticisms came soon after, although it must be said that NFL Draft Bible's Ralph Mancini raised a very interesting point.
Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller wrote that McCarron had plenty to gain by attending the Senior Bowl, and more than a little to lose by deciding to bow out:
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has officially hired an agent, and they've announced that he will skip the Senior Bowl. Barring a legitimate injury, McCarron is doing himself harm with this decision.
I've said in the past that it's each player's decision whether or not to compete in an all-star game. There are risks for those who play and risks for those who decide not to. Geno Smith skipped the game last year, and it was speculated that he could have helped his draft stock in the week of practices and the game. However, Smith was also a "consensus" first-round pick at this time last year.
I've spoken to people close to McCarron, and they tell me that he's being told to act like the top quarterback in this draft. The top quarterback doesn't play in the Senior Bowl if he's eligible.
This strategy may backfire, but McCarron's agents reportedly believe this is the best course of action to promote their player to NFL teams.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network echoed those sentiments. Well, except for the assertion by McCarron's agents that their client is a top-tier prospect.
Mayock, who doesn't project McCarron as a first-round pick, told Mike Huguenin of NFL.com the Senior Bowl was a chance for McCarron to "put [his] stamp on being the best senior quarterback in the country and [show] you're a first-round pick. Why are you not here? Somebody's going to take advantage of that, and you're going to not be happy with it."
That gap between assessments of McCarron isn't exactly rare.
Supporters point to McCarron's poise and success as a starter for the Crimson Tide and his laundry list of achievements while in Tuscaloosa.
As Albert Breer of NFL.com reported, at least one AFC scouting director looks at McCarron and sees a young Tom Brady:
Good size, outstanding touch on all throws, can make all the throws but only has average arm strength. Average running ability but very good feet and movement in the pocket to avoid sacks. Outstanding progression-read quarterback, makes throws to his second and third reads consistently. Doesn't turn the ball over. Winner. Mentally tough. Has the moxie and cockiness most great QBs have. Very similar to Tom Brady in stature, athletic ability, arm strength, touch and the most important category -- wins.
In fact, back in December, Breer predicted that McCarron could be the first quarterback taken:
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
Then came back-to-back losses, including a dismal showing in a shocking Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
McCarron still has supporters, but Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage recently told NFL AM (via Chase Goodbread of NFL.com) that the general consensus is that McCarron will have to wait until at least Day 2 to hear his name called in May:
Within the state of Alabama, most think he's in the top five picks. Outside of Alabama, you hear people say he may not even be a fourth- or fifth-rounder. I think the answer is somewhere in between. I think if you asked all 32 teams right now on a bell curve, there'd be two or three teams who would have him potentially as a high second-round, maybe even late first-round pick, then there would be two or three teams that would have him in the fourth or fifth round, that are not that impressed with his arm strength, what have you. The vast majority of scouts I have spoken to see him as a second- or third-round pick.
That's where the Senior Bowl could have helped. The game and practices that precede it exist solely so players like McCarron can showcase their wares for NFL scouts.
There's no better way to alleviate concerns about arm strength than to start zipping passes downfield and hitting receivers in stride.
Rubbing salt in the proverbial wound, none of the quarterbacks in Mobile (save Carr) have really stood out in practices, although Adam Hoge of CBS Sports thinks one may have leap-frogged McCarron in the QB pecking order:
after seeing what I saw from the quarterbacks in Mobile, I think it was a mistake for the Alabama quarterback not to be there. I’m confident that McCarron would have stood out as the second-best quarterback at the Senior Bowl, behind only Fresno State’s Derek Carr, who is looking like an early to mid first-round pick. Instead, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo has commanded most of the attention from scouts and media and established himself as the second-best quarterback talent in Mobile.
Remember, if McCarron had accepted his invite, Garoppolo wouldn’t have even been at the Senior Bowl.
In my opinion, Garoppolo has passed McCarron on the quarterback depth chart and if NFL teams agree, that will cost the Alabama quarterback money.
A new wrinkle was added to the story on Tuesday. According to Kennedy, McCarron pulled out of the Senior Bowl on the advice of Alabama team doctors:
It's always been a dream of mine to play in the Senior Bowl in my hometown. But my body was banged up during the year. I wanted to push through it and finish out the year for my teammates. When it came time to decide, I asked the advice of our team doctors, who are some of the best in the country. They said I should stay out of the game and get my body back to 100 percent healthy.
Granted, McCarron nursed a litany of injuries as a senior. Toe, shoulder, hamstring. You name it, he had it, and he played through them all.
It's understandable that he might want to rest up in preparation for the combine and his pro day.
Is A.J. McCarron worthy of a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft?
However, if that was the case, why not say so from the beginning, thus avoiding the criticism in the first place? Not to mention the perception that McCarron "ducked" the game for fear of not performing well.
Fair or not, that perception exists now, and this latest news isn't going to change that.
All is hardly lost, of course. There's still a lot of time between now and May. The NFL Scouting Combine, Alabama's pro day and private workouts will all give McCarron a chance to erase any doubts about his ability to succeed in the NFL.
With that said though, those sit-downs will now include questions about McCarron's decision not to play in the Senior Bowl.
As his draft stock continues to fall, it's hard to view that decision now as anything but a mistake.