The 2013 NFL draft class is shaping up, and from the outside looking in, this class appears to be weaker than any in recent memory at the most important position in football: quarterback.
Will the quarterback of college football's best-stocked program find his place in the NFL?
A.J. McCarron has won a national championship. He's been a Heisman Trophy candidate. But how does his NFL future look? Until this writing, McCarron hasn't been looked at on my big board as a potential 2013 prospect due to his status as a junior, but in a weak year of quarterbacks, could McCarron be tempted to head to the NFL?
Before a future as a professional can be considered, just how does McCarron project at the next level?
McCarron is not a running quarterback. He's a slightly above-average prospect in terms of mobility—showing the footwork to slide horizontally in the pocket and also to step up. What McCarron lacks in foot speed he makes up for with good balance in the pocket and a smooth gait.
For the most part, McCarron was on the money in two of the three games viewed (Michigan and LSU). Against Texas A&M, his accuracy was a different story.
McCarron fell into a habit of delivering high over the middle. More than anything, this came from his not stepping into throws. Just like a pitcher throwing back to first base, quarterbacks must step into their throws—ideally, their toes are pointing at the target when their back foot swings through the throw. McCarron gets lazy at times and throws flat-footed, resulting in high throws.
Largely, there was a lot to like here. McCarron shows good accuracy outside the hashes deeper than 10 yards—a bit of a lost art in today's screen-dominated passing games. McCarron's ability to deliver the ball accurately is much better outside than inside, but the makings of an NFL arm are here.
ARM STRENGTH: 7.5/10
When looking at arm strength, I'm judging two things: the ability to throw the football far and the ability to throw the football fast. NFL teams want to see more velocity than depth when it comes to arm strength. Furthermore, being able to launch a football 70 yards means nothing if it takes too long to get there or isn't delivered accurately.
How does McCarron grade out?
In terms of velocity, McCarron looks sharp when he takes time to step into throws. He doesn't have a strong enough arm to throw with velocity off his back foot (a la Jay Cutler). McCarron is more like a light Eli Manning in that if he sets up and uses his body to torque the pass, he can throw hard and fast. Mechanics are the key here more than his actual arm.
Through three games, there wasn't a throw that McCarron couldn't make when his mechanics were sharp. He has the physical arm strength to work in any NFL scheme—be it a short, timing-based offense or a vertical set—but his ideal pro scheme would rely more on intermediate, quick passes rather than a true vertical offense.
McCarron had thrown 19 touchdowns this season without an interception prior to meeting Texas A&M, and even then, his first intercepted pass was a catchable ball. Those stats are impressive, but to be frank, they don't matter.
McCarron's decision-making won't be judged by his TD/INT ratio; it's judged by watching film and seeing what throws he decides to make and which he passes on. This is becoming harder to do in an age where college quarterbacks are often given pre-snap reads from the sideline, but one nice thing about the Alabama system it is a low-profile NFL scheme. He's making the reads and calls on the field.
There are times when McCarron tries to do too much, especially in the rare instances when Alabama is trailing. In the video above, he's forcing a throw into triple coverage—and while the accuracy of the throw was good, the decision was not. This is what NFL scouts don't want to see.
There's a bit of Peyton Manning in the way McCarron moves and throws. He's not on the same level as Manning, but you can see similarities in their movements. McCarron, like both Manning boys, has a tendency to bounce in the pocket when going through his progressions.
NFL coaches may want to change this—some do, others don't—but it has a very Manning-like quality to it.
McCarron's actual throwing motion has a nice, crisp, over-the-top motion to it. There's no wasted movement or hitches in his delivery. Clean and clear, just like you'd draw it up on paper.
When evaluating quarterback mechanics, I'm generally looking for three things: footwork, delivery and the shoulder-to-eyes coordination. You want all three to line up when the ball is being delivered, and McCarron does this very well. He's a natural thrower with textbook mechanics.
POCKET PRESENCE: 7.0/10
Pocket presence should look good when four of your five starting offensive linemen look like future first-rounders in the NFL. From left to right, Alabama has three players ranked in my Top 32, one redshirt freshman who was a 5-star prospect by Rivals and then at right guard a 3-star prospect who has built himself into a workhorse run-blocker. Not bad.
It's tough to get a true read on McCarron's pocket presence because he's so rarely pressured in the pocket. Against both Texas A&M and LSU, there were few times when McCarron was truly pressured. His pocket presence will be lauded by pundits, but that's more a hat-tip to his offensive line than to anything McCarron does on his own.
I did notice several times in each game that McCarron has a good ability to step up in the pocket, and from there, he can scramble to pick up several yards. He's not an open-field runner, but moving enough to find passing windows and knowing when to run are traits he possesses.
McCarron is incredibly patient in the pocket, but that false sense of security could come from the massive offensive line in front of him. How McCarron would look behind, for example, the Arizona Cardinals offensive line is a different story.
NFL COMPARISON: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
ROUND PROJECTION: 2013 NFL draft, Third Round
The term "system quarterback" has become overused, but in the case of McCarron, it actually applies. How?
McCarron is a flawless quarterback when it comes to mechanics, but rarely is he asked to put the team on his back and make plays. Thanks to an amazing offensive line, two game-breaking running backs and a stout defense, McCarron has to do little more than manage the game for the Crimson Tide.
Does that make him a bad quarterback? Not at all, but it does make him a tough quarterback to evaluate based on performance.
McCarron's mechanics get a passing grade, but you don't see the poise of Andrew Luck, the big-play ability of Robert Griffin III or even the outstanding athletic potential of Ryan Tannehill. McCarron looks and moves like an NFL quarterback, but he hasn't made NFL quarterback plays yet.
The best course of action for McCarron would be returning to Alabama for his senior season, where he'll have another season to develop under NFL-level coaches while continuing to build his resume as a leader and as a quarterback who can make plays outside the system.