AJ McCarron: Best Fits and Pro Projections for Former Alabama QB

Matt Bowen NFL National Lead WriterMarch 4, 2014

Dave Martin/AP Images

Throughout the draft process, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen will break down some of the key prospects in the 2014 class. Today he looks at Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.


Pro-Style Skill Set

McCarron (6’3”, 220 lbs) is accurate with the football in the short-to-intermediate route tree, and he has enough arm strength to produce at the NFL level. Plus, he understands pro concepts from his time at Alabama, where he showed the ability to work through his reads from under center. 

There are questions on McCarron's ability to consistently throw outside-breaking cuts (comeback, out, deep-7), and he will put too much air under the deep ball at times.

That does show up in his game tape when looking at the ability to place the ball on the upfield shoulder (with velocity) on routes that break outside of the numbers (plus three yards from the bottom of the numbers).

Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron (10) signals at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

However, I’ve watched McCarron make plays down the field while also stepping up, setting his feet and delivering the ball on a rope when targeting inside-breaking cuts (dig, skinny post), the back-shoulder fade or the intermediate curl.

As an athlete, McCarron isn’t going to draw comparisons to Johnny Manziel. But studying his footwork, he has enough mobility to slide versus pressure, climb the pocket or work to the edge where he can make throws on the move. Think of the boot game here, or sprint/dash concepts. Pro-style stuff that applies to every playbook in the NFL. 

McCarron isn't in the discussion with the top-tier quarterback prospects (Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel) in the 2014 class. However, the Alabama product is well-coached, ready to run a pro system and has the SEC tape to back up his overall game. 


Combine Workout

Forget the 40-yard-dash time with McCarron (4.94); he isn’t going to win games for you running the read-option. Instead, focus on the change-of-direction drills, acceleration tests and the workout in Indianapolis that apply to his skill set as a quarterback.

McCarron’s times in the short shuttle (4.34) and three-cone drill (7.18) are decent numbers at the quarterback position. There’s the quick footwork and lateral movement I talked about above that transitions to the game tape.

During the throwing drills on the field, McCarron looked confident taking his drops and delivering the ball in the uncomfortable environment of the combine. And after electing not to play in the Senior Bowl, I felt that McCarron made the right decision to throw in Indianapolis. He put in a solid workout in front of league scouts and NFL decision-makers. 


Development at the NFL Level

Based off his college tape, there are going to be multiple opinions on McCarron, his ability to develop under pro coaching and where he projects in the NFL. 

For example, versus Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game, McCarron lit up the Irish Cover 2 shell, worked the middle of the field and quickly found the checkdown option from a clean pocket. That allowed the quarterback to comfortably cycle through his progressions and produce big numbers on his way to another title.

On the flip side, McCarron had a rough night versus Oklahoma this past January in the Sugar Bowl. The quarterback was consistently flushed from the pocket (forcing him to drop his eye level at times), and he turned the ball over behind an offensive line that was exposed by the Sooners. 

Looking at the deep post/crosser that was intercepted, McCarron failed to move the free safety out of the middle of the field and forced the ball into coverage. He was also late to get the ball out versus a nickel-pressure down in New Orleans—allowing the corner to sit/drive on the hitch for an interception.

However, taking into account his entire body of work at Alabama versus SEC competition, McCarron drove the bus for championship-caliber football teams and has the core qualities of a pro-style quarterback. 


West Coast Fit

As I did last week with Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, I always look at how a prospect’s skill set will transition to the NFL based on scheme. Where do they fit, and what system can utilize their talents to produce pro-level production?

With McCarron, I look at the West Coast route tree/concepts you would find in Andy Reid or Marc Trestman's playbooks. Think of the three-step concepts, the intermediate 12- to 15-yard inside-breaking routes (with the ball thrown between the numbers and the hash), plus the deep shots off play action.

Here are some quick examples from the All-22 coaches tape…


Tare Route

NFL Game Rewind

The “tare’’ route is a core West Coast concept. Clear out the cornerback on the 9-route (fade) and work the stick combination with the backside slant. Here, the Chiefs align Jamaal Charles in a “chowed” split (outside leg of the tackle) and work the stick-out/flat with No. 2 running the slant from the open side.



NFL Game Rewind

Run from a trips alignment, the Smash-Divide gives the quarterback multiple reads on different levels.

With the Bears in their 12/Ace personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) out of a Unit Slot formation, quarterback Jay Cutler can target the underneath smash (5-yard square-in) or work the deep middle-of-the-field safety with the tight end seam and the 7-route (corner) from the slot (Brandon Marshall).


Yankee Route

NFL Game Rewind

A deep crossing route paired with a hard “dino” stem (receiver works to the post, breaks back to the corner).

With the Cowboys playing Cover 2, quarterback Alex Smith will read the depth of the cornerback to target the deep crosser (set the bait with the flat route) or work the safety’s leverage if he overplays the “dino” stem.



NFL Game Rewind

This looks like a high school concept, but the “2122” (2=slant, 1=flat) is one of the more common three-step routes in a West Coast playbook versus both man (Cover 1) and zone schemes (Cover 2, Cover 3).



NFL Game Rewind

The Hi-Lo concept isn’t scheme-specific to West Coast offenses (shows up across the league), but it is still one of the top combinations you have to prep for in the three- to five-step passing game. A two-level read that allows the quarterback to attack the defense inside of the numbers.


Overall Grade

Could McCarron be pushed up to the top of the second round or even into the late first given the demand at the position? That’s possible, as quarterbacks tend to rise up the board.

However, I see the quarterback carrying an early third-round grade at this point of the draft process. 

McCarron should fall into that second tier of prospects at the position (Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger, etc.). And if he can develop within the right scheme, McCarron has the ability to transition into a starter at the NFL level. 


Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.