By Russ Lande
While Johnny Manziel is the most debated and polarizing prospect in the 2014 NFL draft, saying that opinions on AJ McCarron are unified would be way off. I've consulted numerous NFL sources and some view him as the best SEC quarterback this year, while others say he lacks frontline talent and is not worthy of being drafted until the late rounds. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, and my goal is to explain why opinions are split and what the future holds for McCarron.
Although he looks thin, McCarron consistently displays strength pulling free from grab sack attempts and checked in at just more than 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds at the combine -- both good and bad. NFL teams prefer quarterbacks who are tall and have good bulk to withstand punishment and make strong throws with defenders grabbing them. You can't look at McCarron and say "once he adds 15 or 20 pounds his arm strength will improve" as he does not have a wispy physique. Whether he has the necessary arm strength to make all NFL throws is a legit question.
I evaluated six games from McCarron's final season at Alabama and see that he is clearly comfortable in the pocket and will not rush or make bad decisions if it starts to collapse. He goes through his progressions smoothly without locking onto his primary receiver and displays poise in the pocket. He will throw the ball away to avoid a sack. He will also dump the ball off to a check-off receiver/back if he goes through his progressions and no one is open. At times he is too quick to do this and drives stall. In the six games I charted, he converted only 51.9 percent of "key downs," (third and fourth downs of 10 yards or less) where he dropped back to pass. It was evident that he has been taught to not force passes into bad spots and made very few big errors -- a positive -- but he could be too risk averse; I never saw him take a real gamble.
With good hands, McCarron is able to handle off-target shotgun snaps without ruining the timing of the play. Teams that run a lot of quick-hitting slants and similar routes will need to watch closely to see how quick and efficient he is at catching shotgun snap, turning his body and making fast, accurate throws to lead his receiver. Outside of those quick-hitting throws and deep, raindrop-type throws, his accuracy is inconsistent because of bad footwork and mechanics. When he keeps his knees bent, steps into the pass and is aggressive with his throwing motion and follow-through, he can make every NFL throw. However, NFL passers rarely have a clean pocket to stride into and often McCarron does not stride into his passes, rather he throws with both feet on the same yard line and falls away from the target.
These bad habits hinder his arm strength, which is evident on all passes 15-plus yards downfield and to receivers aligned wide on quick passes behind the line of scrimmage. For a quarterback who has not shown a frontline NFL arm, it is also a big concern that he is a "patter" and has a deliberate slight windup, which both allow defenders to break and close in on his passes. Although McCarron will pull free from potential sacks at times, in the games I evaluated he was sacked on more than six percent of passing plays, higher than all the top quarterbacks I have evaluated except for Zach Mettenberger of LSU.
I expected to see a more technically sound quarterback whose footwork and upper body mechanics were tight and compact. Unfortunately, his bad footwork and deliberate throwing motion accentuate his lack of arm strength. Keep in mind the list of quarterbacks who were unable to improve their arm strength and failed in the NFL is long. Recent examples include Greg McElroy, Tim Rattay, Colt Brennan, Graham Harrell, Mike Kafka and John Beck. In the end, I would certainly draft McCarron, but not until Day 3. I think he is more likely to make it as a backup than a starter despite his intangibles.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.