On some level, one would think Alabama's AJ McCarron has very little left to prove as a quarterback. After all, he's one of the most successful signal-callers in college football history, owner of three BCS National Championship rings.
However, as the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine approaches, the reverse actually holds true. McCarron has to prove that he's more than just a product of a great team, that he's capable of leading an NFL team to the same sort of success he experienced in Tuscaloosa.
In short, McCarron has as much riding on the combine as any player making the trip to Indianapolis—if not more.
A Proven Winner
To say that McCarron's career at Alabama was successful is something of an understatement akin to calling the Marianas trench a wet ditch.
The three-year starter is one of only seven quarterbacks in history to win back-to-back national championships. He's the only player in the BCS era to do so.
With that said, those Crimson Tide teams were built around running the ball and a stifling defense, and that's reflected in McCarron's stats at Alabama.
Mind you, this isn't to say that all McCarron did at Alabama was turn around and hand the ball off. Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes called McCarron "an efficient, intelligent and accurate passer" who "appears to be able to read defenses, generally makes good decisions and effectively limits turnovers."
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com also believes McCarron has all the necessary tools to be an effective starting quarterback in the pros:
I'm a firm believer that McCarron will be a productive starter in the NFL. He possesses enough of the physical traits to succeed as a pro, while exhibiting all of the intangibles offensive coaches value at the position.
McCarron makes sound decisions with the ball (he sports an impressive 68-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his career) and wisely utilizes his available weapons on the perimeter.
Now I know playing a "connect the dots" style from the pocket doesn't wow observers looking for a quarterback to make "hero" throws consistently, but the top quarterbacks in the NFL understand how to manage the game in every aspect.
However, even while praising McCarron, Brooks brings up the biggest knock on the 6'3", 220-pounder.
Simply put, McCarron doesn't have a "wow" arm. Lownes called McCarron's arm strength "average," while Alex Sibo of Last Word on Sports wrote McCarron "has an NFL arm, but does not throw lasers, and will probably be in the bottom half of league QBs in terms of arm strength."
McCarron also isn't especially fleet of foot. He's not a statue by any stretch, but on the rare occasions where things did break down in the pocket for McCarron at Alabama, Matthew Fairburn of SB Nation's Big Cat Country saw an issue:
When the pocket did get messy, McCarron struggled to sense or avoid the rush and his mechanics suffered as a result. The amount of time he had to work with on a lot of his more impressive throws in college makes it difficult to project just how well he'll adjust to playing in the NFL.
However, for all his perceived warts, one scout told Albert Breer of NFL.com he sees a comparison between McCarron and a current NFL starter:
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.
That's high praise indeed.
A Difference of Opinion
That same college scouting director told Breer he saw McCarron as a "solid first-rounder who has a chance to be the first QB off the board," back in November. Another AFC scout added, "I'd draft him in the latter part of the first. He's better than some of the guys who went in the first -- (Christian) Ponder, (Jake) Locker, (Blaine) Gabbert."
That appears to be the optimistic end of McCarron's draft stock.
|Site/Ranker||QB Rank||OVR Rank||Proj. Round|
|Matt Miller/Bleacher Report||7||101||4th|
|Rob Rang/CBS Sports||6||89||3rd|
|Eric Galko/Optimum Scouting||8||N/A*||3rd|
|Charlie Campbell/Walter Football||7||126||4th|
Optimum Scouting excludes QBs from overall rankings
The general consensus seems to be that McCarron is either just inside or just outside the top five available players at his position. Most draftniks have him pegged as a third- or fourth-round selection.
That jibes pretty closely with what Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage the NFL.com College Football 24/7 podcast (h/t NFL.com's Chase Goodbread) back in January:
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.
Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller presented a scenario that lands somewhere in the middle of that range:
@AlbertBreer If you can get Jadeveon Clowney and then, say, Zach Mettenberger or AJ McCarron in Houston you feel pretty good.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 14, 2014
The uncertainty only grows given the position McCarron plays. The NFL draft is littered with "reaches" at quarterback, including all three of the players whom scouts mentioned earlier.
Granted, those players were relative busts, but just because they were doesn't mean McCarron will be not does it mean that NFL teams will be frightened away by those failures.
The need for a quarterback is a powerful motivator.
A Lot Left to Prove
Generally speaking, when there's a wide variance in opinion between scouts on a player, workouts such as the combine become that much more important for that player.
The wide range of viewpoints creates plenty of room to move up (or down) draft boards.
As McCarron told ESPN Radio's "SVP and Rusillo," he's aware there's a lot on the line in Indianapolis, especially after McCarron opted to skip January's Senior Bowl:
I think I'll surprise a lot of people. I think a lot of people don't think I'm that athletic, so that's one of the things I want to go out and surprise and show them I'm athletic. ... (But) the biggest thing is to key on my mechanics and make those a little better, a little more crisp.
That decision to pass on passing in Mobile was panned in many circles. McCarron said he's just adding that to a fire already stoked by the "game-manager" label and his exclusion from the "elite" quarterback tier:
I definitely feel disrespected, but I think that helps me play my game to the best of my ability when I go out every Saturday, playing with a chip on my shoulder, and I'll definitely take (that) over to training right now when it comes to the combine and pro day. When I get a chance to show everybody what I'm capable of, I will.
In many respects, McCarron is the reverse of what we've come to expect from prospects at his position. Scouts will gush about a player's arm or rave about his legs, all the while wondering how that player will perform when the pressure ratchets up about five notches.
Can AJ McCarron be an effective NFL starter?
Well, AJ McCarron spent the last three years as the starting quarterback for the best team in college football in the best conference in college football. Two of those three seasons ended with him raising a championship trophy.
Poise under pressure is a valuable commodity all its own, and if McCarron can show scouts his physical skills are in any way comparable to the cool he showed at Alabama, then look out.
Because as I said, the need for a quarterback is a powerful motivator.