Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has been one of the more difficult prospects to evaluate going into the 2014 NFL draft. While there are no sure things no matter what, scouts, coaches, and general managers like to have as much information as possible on hand. If the draft is gambling, the entire goal of the off-season is to sway the odds on the bet. McCarron, who decided to skip the final chance to showcase himself in game conditions at the Senior Bowl, has quite a few variables to consider.
McCarron has a number of physical positives in his favor. He has decent size at 6’3″ and 220 pounds. His upper body mechanics are sound. He has good pocket awareness and seems to slide around well. He also put up great statistics, finishing second in the 2013 Heisman voting. The stats are where examining McCarron begins to get tricky.
Many people wonder why NFL teams do not give a lot of great college players a fair shake. The simplistic answer to that question is that they are essentially two different games. Professional football is played exponentially faster than college ball, from the play clock to the speed of everyone on the field. The result is what is essentially a smaller field, as players can cover more ground. That is why scouts go crazy over prospects with big arms like Blake Bortles. There is less space for everyone to work with, so those who can take advantage of it with great speed or better throwing arms are look upon more favorably.
AJ McCarron’s predecessor at Alabama was Greg McElroy, who put up equally impressive statistics in college while also winning a National Championship. McElroy was a seventh round pick of the New York Jets, and after a few years as a third stringer he retired in March at 25 years old. Now, that does not mean McCarron is resigned to the same fate. It does mean that all of his statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. Alabama has had good receivers, incredible offensive line play, and some of the best coaching in NCAA football, all of which help a quarterback’s numbers.
The key, and the most difficult part of evaluating McCarron, is trying to isolate his skills from his surroundings. The Senior Bowl would have been interesting, allowing everyone to see how he would fair with a new cast around him. The other way this is accomplished is looking at the process of McCarron’s throws, rather than the results shown in his stat lines. This, along with his combine measures and throws, demonstrates the bigger picture of him as a prospect.
What is left is a lot of very average physical traits. McCarron floats balls thrown towards the sidelines. His deep ball can be well placed but he does not drive them especially well. While he fairs well in the pocket, he has only average athleticism and will not be any threat to run. His throws often have too much airtime, which could make him turnover prone at the NFL level. He does, however, have good timing and touch to help make up for it.
Where McCarron does receive a lot of praise is his intangibles, which are a somewhat problematic thing to include in draft evaluations when considered vaguely. Things like ability to read a defense and work ethic need to be sifted out from the more ambiguous things like leadership and winning attitude. Draft prospects are typically 20-23 year olds, and deducting points from one of them for immaturity is a mistake, provided their issues are not major. Even greats like Dan Marino and Peyton Manning had their share of off the field problems. With that said, McCarron did play in a pro-style offense at Alabama, having to read progressions through his receivers before making throws. That does not necessarily mean he is a smarter prospect than someone like Derek Carr, but it does put McCarron ahead of the learning curve for now.
McCarron’s draft value depends on where he is taken. He does not present a high-upside player, so taking him in the first fifty picks would be a mistake. In the third or fourth round he could be a valuable choice for a team that wants to sit him behind a starter and allow him to learn improve. It is not out of the question that his arm strength could get better with better mechanics and NFL strength training, now that football will be his full-time job. It is also possible to get by with average or worse physical ability, but it is much harder and certainly requires a lot of football knowledge before the player would be ready for the field. Someone may become enamored with him, overbid and go after McCarron in the high second round, but he should be off the board between the third and fourth round.
Commentary by Brian Moore