A year from now, Alabama Crimson Tide senior quarterback A.J. McCarron will have likely been drafted and in the beginning stages of his first NFL season.
Whether that will be as a potential starter, backup or quarterback of the future is unknown; however, as is the case regarding most of today's top college football players, it's never too early to take a look at how much NFL potential each player already possesses.
After all, McCarron now finds himself entering his third straight season as the Crimson Tide's starting signal-caller and a player that has already developed quite a national following and name for himself.
Winning back-to-back national championships will do that for you, as will being the lucky guy who gets to be dating former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb—ESPN commentator Brent Musburger's favorite piece of "eye candy."
Clearly life has been good to McCarron recently, but that's not to say he doesn't already have his share of doubters.
Pundits of McCarron cite him as more of a "game manager" and player who excels more from the stellar talent and coaching staff he has around him, rather than the true individual skills and quality talent it takes to become an upper-echelon NFL quarterback.
Needless to say, his current NFL draft stock is a long way from coming into focus, but that doesn't mean it’s necessarily too early to start considering his NFL potential.
Recently, Bleacher Report's lead NFL draft writer Matt Miller has been chronicling an excellent series on "How Scouts Break Down NFL Prospects" by position.
Here, we will use his piece on breaking down NFL quarterback prospects as our backdrop in configuring how McCarron stacks up—using what Miller believes are the eight most important criteria when evaluating quarterback's for the NFL (accuracy, vision, leadership and poise, arm strength, pocket presence, anticipation, mechanics and size).
In the aforementioned article courtesy of Miller, he states accuracy as something "you either have or you don't" and considers it to be "the single-most important aspect to being able to play the position at a high level."
Sentiments I also agree with, accuracy is generally a quality that can't necessarily be coached and can only be improved so much over the course of one's career.
Luckily for McCarron, this is typically an area he already excels in.
In the video above, we see McCarron drop a beautiful ball with touch, arc and accuracy where only his man can get it. In scouting lingo, this is called "dropping the ball in a basket" or "throwing to a spot or area."
Notice how he also places the football away from the defender and over the correct shoulder. This is the type of NFL throw evaluators want and love to see and one of the aspects that makes McCarron such a good passer from within the pocket.
Now let's take a look at what also makes him a quality passer outside the pocket.
Same game, only difference now is we see McCarron working outside the pocket.
Here, he's rolling to his right out of a play-action fake, before rifling a pass to the sidelines on a 10-yard out. An NFL-caliber throw for sure, McCarron's pinpoint accuracy, ball placement and velocity is spot on, and far too much to handle for the defender despite being in otherwise perfect position.
Surely the receiver deserves some credit for hauling in a difficult pass that requires superb hand-eye coordination, but this is exactly the type of throw we are referring to when we say "there's no defense for a perfectly thrown ball."
Now let's take a look at a play that's not so good.
In the clip above, McCarron does a poor job of setting his feet and stepping into his throw. This poor mechanical display is the epitome of how everything starts from the ground up, as good footwork provides the platform and foundation for which a quarterback is able to consistently make these types of throws.
By failing to play on the balls of his feet and throwing off his back foot, McCarron ever so slightly increases the angle of his arm, thus causing the pass to sail high and almost be intercepted.
This is the same type of bad habit that dogged Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford this past season, and it is something he needs to work on diligently as a quarterback who doesn't necessarily possess the level of arm strength it takes to play with sloppy mechanics.
Generally speaking, a quarterback's vision is believed to be his ability to scan the field and find the open receiver post-snap. It ties in his ability to read the defense and see the entire field, but limiting it to the decisions he makes once he already has the ball in his hands does not effectively tell us all we need to know.
To be a great quarterback with excellent vision it also takes a deep understanding and overall football knowledge of how to make pre-snap reads and adjustments.
This skill generally comes with experience, but it is also a quality that requires a great deal of conceptual awareness. Meaning, how well you're able to see how the small parts come together to fit into the whole.
It's the same type of skill required of architects and designers when asked to take a project from the beginning stages of conception to the finishing touches of completion.
Below paints a perfect picture of what it means to see the whole picture and get it to your "hot read" by analyzing the defensive alignment before the ball has even been snapped.
The video below, on the other hand, deals more with what McCarron is able to do once the ball has already been snapped and his initial read is no longer available.
Here, he does an excellent job of keeping the play alive by improvising and ever so slightly drifting backward to buy himself more time.
On the surface, this play seems to be more of a broken play gone incredibly well; however, by keeping his eyes downfield and allowing his receivers the extra time to get open, McCarron effectively makes this play happen seemingly by way of his vision and mental awareness to never give up on it.
Leadership and Poise
It goes without saying that McCarron has played and performed admirably in some rather high-profile games. He won both of the BCS National Championships he's played in, while sporting a solid 24-2 overall record as a starter in the unforgiving conference that is the "battle-tested" SEC.
With that also being said, the argument then becomes how much has he really had to do?
Surely there have been big moments in McCarron's career, but evaluators want to know if he really has what it takes to carry a team and make plays, rather than relying on the superb talent he always has always had around him.
In 2013, evaluators will be looking to see if he has that "it" factor to carry his team when things aren't going quite right—that willpower to step up and make plays when nothing seems to be going your way, because, to this point, those occasions have been few and far between.
The clip below, however, is one such example of McCarron's ability to step up and deliver in the clutch. Firing a pass in between defenders, in what became the game-winning drive against a talented defense in rival LSU.
Overall, McCarron isn't the type of quarterback who will wow you with a whole lot of natural arm talent. Instead, he is a player who uses leverage and torque generated from his lower body to drive his passes through and into his intended target.
As you will see in the column and video example on anticipation, McCarron's natural propensity to spin the ball with favorable RPMs doesn't come all that naturally. All the more reason why he needs to be mechanically sound in his fundamentals, which we will see is one of his strongest categories overall.
Outside of sheer velocity, however, McCarron does throw a nice deep ball.
As you can see in the video below, not only does he posses the capability to chuck the ball 50 yards downfield, but he's also doing it while under a heavy amount of interior pressure. Which is perhaps a better example of his poise in the pocket, and something we find ourselves discussing next.
Pocket Presence and Escapability
It's likely that one will never mistake McCarron for a scrambling quarterback or the next coming of Ryan Tannehill or Aaron Rodgers. That's not his game. However, much like McCarron's arm, his feet do just enough to get the job done.
Against Texas A&M, he took on what was perhaps the most pressure he has ever seen or faced in a game while at Alabama. Providing some rare glimpses and examples of McCarron's "internal clock" and ability to escape the pocket once his protection breaks down.
Like the final play straight out of the movie Friday Night Lights, McCarron's desperate scramble to reach the end zone in the clip above falls just short. However, that's not before showing us that he does have some natural ability and capacity to improvise with his legs when given the opportunity.
Next, however, is this play, which brings about questions regarding his natural affinity as a true pocket passer.
It goes without saying that McCarron largely benefited from great protection he received from what was perhaps one of the best offensive line units to ever play major college football—sporting the likes of Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones.
Just one of things that, as Matt Miller pointed out in his article from last November—"Breaking Down A.J. McCarron's NFL Potential, Draft Stock"—makes it so hard to get a "true read on McCarron's pocket presence."
McCarron wasn't often pressured and asked to extend and create on his own, and while he does show the ability to know when to pull it down and run, the clip above does raise questions about his ability to feel and escape backside pressure.
Which is just one of the things that makes the not-so-fleet-footed Tom Brady one of the best ever at feeling and escaping pressure coming off the edge.
Anticipation is one of those rare quarterback qualities you're either initially good at or you're not. However, unlike accuracy, anticipation and timing is definitely something that can be developed over time with proper coaching and experience.
Take for instance Colin Kaepernick.
Coming out of Nevada, many questioned his ability to read a defense and throw to an area before his receiver made his break. Former Boise State player and current Detroit Lions quarterback Kellen Moore, on the other hand, possessed rare anticipation and timing skills coming out of college.
What’s the biggest difference between the two of them? A whole lot of arm talent and ball velocity. Plus, Kaepernick has now developed the ability to anticipate and have a better feel and understanding for when and where his receivers will become open.
However, now turning the attention back to McCarron, the clip below is a nice example of what is typically referred to as a "timing route." With a safety converging over the top, he places his confidence in his arm to fit it between two safeties in an area that requires pinpoint accuracy, guts and trust.
Never mind the fact that he doesn't possess the rocket arm of a Kaepernick, McCarron's arm talent lies somewhere between above average and good. Which is plenty good enough when you're able to speed up your decision-making process and throw with anticipation, rhythm and timing.
Part of what makes McCarron such an accurate passer in the short-to-intermediate passing game starts with his mechanics. As it was discussed earlier, a quarterback's mechanics starts and ends with his footwork.
Ideally, I'm looking for a quarterback who uses his feet to align his head and shoulders into position to make an accurate throw. McCarron does this nearly flawlessly, as evidenced by this video below, which provides an excellent aerial view of his overall throwing motion.
Here, we see McCarron utilize excellent footwork, balance and patience, while holding the ball high and tight to his chest to properly step into and finish through with a smooth overhand delivery. Nearly a flawless example of what it we mean by a quarterback who is considered "mechanically sound."
As we have seen more and more over the past few years, size isn't always the best indicator of future NFL success. It's been quite the opposite in fact. Quarterbacks with limited size and height, such as Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, have shredded the conventional wisdom behind the argument that taller quarterbacks are better.
Better off? Yes. Better players? Well, that depends on your context.
There's no doubting the fact that taller quarterbacks have a competitive advantage in having an increased line of vision. However, this one quality hardly makes up for the previous seven we have already discussed.
According to the University of Alabama's official website, he currently checks in at a healthy 6'4", 214 pounds. Well above average in terms of height, McCarron will likely need to add a few pounds onto his lanky frame before he can be considered "NFL ready."
Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to know he can basically check off this column as a quarterback who already possesses NFL size.
McCarron is the type of quarterback who has a lot going for him but whose ceiling appears to be somewhat limited.
With a slightly average to above-average NFL arm and legs, he must rely on his mechanics, accuracy and football IQ to speed up and make up for some of the physical deficiencies that limit his NFL potential.
This is not to say McCarron cannot become a quality NFL quarterback in due time; however, evaluators will want to see how much his arm strength has improved since the end of last year, as well as his ability to make plays and create something out of nothing.
Too many times in the past, McCarron has benefited from big leads and stellar talent around him, and not often have we gotten the opportunity to see how he reacts and responds to adversity and/or pressure.
Nonetheless, McCarron's accuracy, vision, mechanics, size and production are all positive characteristics to build upon. His 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio from last year, and 291 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, points to a player who consistently makes good decisions, protects the football and avoids beating himself.
In ending, McCarron has proved he can keep his team in games and help it win consistently, but the question now becomes, does he have what it takes to lift a team single-handedly?
That's the question we're all left wondering for 71 more days.
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