A.J. McCarron is going to leave Alabama as one of the most highly decorated quarterbacks in college football history with back to back National Titles as the Tide compete this year for their right to play for a third. Not only has McCarron been able to lead the Tide offense to back to back championships, he has done it while being incredibly efficient and avoiding turnovers.
McCarron is more of a facilitator than a game breaking quarterback and while he makes some big plays for the Crimson Tide, he is mostly tasked with avoiding turnovers and getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers and allowing them to do the heavy lifting. McCarron’s yards per attempt average is high in no small part due to the amount of yards after the catch their weapons have been able to rack up and while McCarron is the right player to lead the Tide’s offensive machine, he is not a great quarterback prospect as it relates to the NFL. Part of why is such a great quarterback for the Tide is that he is extremely comfortable and happy to be a facilitating quarterback and fulfill his role on the team to help them win games and hope to get to a championship. McCarron seems to be the type of player who would be happy to throw 10 passes per game if that meant they hold the crystal football at the end of the year.
This year, McCarron is getting a larger percentage of the offense and more opportunities to throw the ball, but that extra work load is the same type of passing he has always made. There are just more of them as Alabama looks to take advantage of their extremely talented weapons on the edge while rewarding McCarron for the time he has put in for the Tide.
McCarron needs to get a better feel for the pocket, be able to make throws into tighter windows, and do a better job of locating passes so his receivers can catch passes and continue to pick up yardage after the catch. McCarron brings qualities NFL teams will like including his size, physical ability, and his intangibles as someone who could handle the pressure of Alabama and thrive in it with remarkable poise, but he appears as more of a long term backup at this point and an early third day pick in the NFL Draft based on his career to this point.
Vitals & Build
McCarron is listed at 6’4” 210lbs with a decent but still lean looking build that certainly looks the part. He has decent agility and speed for the position that enables him to make athletic plays with the ball in his hands, but is not going to wow anyone on the track. McCarron appears to have the frame to continue adding a substantial amount of strength and he is probably going to want to end up somewhere around 220-225lbs at the time of the draft.
McCarron’s arm strength is decent but not overwhelming. He can stretch the field and make throws down the field but they tend to have a quite a bit of air under them and he is not often throwing frozen ropes. His arm strength should not hold him back from playing in any offensive scheme in the NFL.
He throws the ball with pretty good zip, but again, it is not something that stands out; another area where McCarron appears to have enough ability to be functional in the NFL, but not a special quality.
Accuracy & Touch
Nick Saban is a defensive coach who looks he feels physical pain when the offense turns over the football. He wants to have every drive in a kick, reduce risk, and trust in his personnel advantage. As a result, the offense is designed to have McCarron throws most of his passes in the flat, outside the hashes, deep passes down the field and some short passes to the tight end in the middle but near the line of scrimmage. He is not asked to make a huge number of throws to the middle of the field in a place where there is likely to be a large concentration of defenders.
McCarron is pretty good at putting the ball on his receivers, but there are times when he will just flat miss them. Usually on timing patterns, McCarron will throw passes that force his targets to stop and adjust too often, but also he will make a misfire that is nowhere near the target.
By virtue of the players he has on his team, McCarron is often throwing to some big passing windows that make it relatively easy to be effective. McCarron is comfortable and pretty consistent when it comes to throwing 15-25 yard touch passes that drop in the bucket to get to his receiver at the sideline or no one on flag or post corner routes. He is really effective at making these low risk, high reward throws that are not likely to be intercepted while giving his talented receivers the ability to make catches at or near the sideline to move the sticks or score. McCarron has shown the ability to throw an extremely catchable ball that is typically where the receiver would like to be making what can be a difficult sideline catch look easy.
McCarron’s deep ball is inconsistent. There are times when he will make great throws that lead his receivers down the field and allow them to keep running with the ball, but too often, his passes tend to be late and fall short causing the receiver to have to slow down or stop running and adjust. These plays tend to stand out as Alabama has such a talented receiving core with a ton of speed to stretch the field and because Alabama’s attack is typically measured and defenses try to clamp down on short plays which open up opportunities down the field. When McCarron misses, he is giving a defender that can be beaten by 5-10 yards a chance to come back and defend the pass, making what should be an easy play look more difficult than it should.
McCarron has the ability to make some nice touch throws, especially on those deep sideline throws where he is able to drop passes into the bucket. He throws a catchable ball and seems able to mix up his touch to maneuver the football to be able to get over the second level of the defense and drop into his receivers, but has been rarely asked to do it to this point, at least in the middle of the field. While he makes some terrific throws near the sideline, the risk is low because as long as he throws it so it goes to his guy or no one, he will be fine. Touch passes in the middle of the field that are over thrown can be picked off by a deep safety, making them far more difficult and pressure filled.
Mechanics & Footwork
McCarron shows pretty good mechanics with an overhand delivery that should not have a problem in terms of getting rid of the ball quickly enough and his arm goes behind his head to make throws. In an ideal world, the ball would not go quite so far back as it can be exposed to pass rushers who want to knock it out, but that is a small issue. His footwork is usually clean and effective. A lot of the credit in this area goes to the offensive line as he has been able to operate in clean pockets which allow him to use good mechanics and be an effective passer consistently, where he deserves credit.
McCarron also looks pretty good rolling out and making passes in how he transfers his weight to get enough strength and zip on the ball to maintain accuracy. He is under control with these passes which enables him to maintain his accuracy on these throws. With a good combination of playing under center and running a lot of play action that has him turn his back to the play, McCarron has good, clean footwork that carries over to shotgun looks.
Perhaps as a result of being spoiled by fantastic protection, McCarron is not terribly comfortable in the pocket and does not have a great feel for pressure. He has taken a large number of sacks from the side and behind as a result of not feeling the pressure. There are also times when McCarron will feel pressure that is not there and scramble up the middle, which actually has him running into sacks as opposed to avoiding them. At times, McCarron will have fantastic protection and almost inexplicably leave it and run into an opponent who takes him down for an easy sack. When the clock goes off in his head, he can act hastily rather than truly feeling and seeing what is going on around him in the pocket.
For the most part, McCarron is able to maneuver the pocket effectively and can step up and make throws when he feels pressure, but he is quick to try to pull down the ball and run with it, perhaps because of his athletic ability or because McCarron trusts that if he runs the ball, there is no chance of him losing it by throwing an interception.
Decision Making & Anticipation
For the most part, McCarron’s decision making is relatively easy as he is often throwing into open passing windows or throwing short, controlled passes that are high percentage completions and low risk in terms of turning over the ball. The Crimson Tide run a lot of play action passes where he turns around and is immediately throwing to his tight end or a pass in the flat.
McCarron will get himself in trouble when he assumes the route is going to be open and throws a pass without really reading what the defender is doing. On a few occasions, this has resulted in having opponents jump routes and make interceptions as he simply takes his drop or executes a roll out or play action, turns and fires the ball without really taking notice of what is going on defensively. Defenses who play Alabama will have defensive backs try to jump routes often which has worked out for them as well as opening up some opportunities for Alabama to make some big plays on double moves.
This is part of the reason that McCarron will look good when it comes to anticipating routes. He is throwing like it is preprogrammed rather than really taking a read of the defense and making a decision or anticipating the route. To McCarron’s credit, he can throw passes to a spot and before his receiver has gotten up on routes, which is most apparent on some of the flag and post corner type routes Alabama will run where McCarron is throwing to a spot rather than a receiver.
When McCarron makes multiple reads or the play breaks down, he is far less comfortable in terms of making decisions and finding the right place to make a throw. He tends to throw passes late, especially down the field and can leave passes short as a result forcing the receiver to stop or even come back to make a catch and allowing the defensive back to make a play on the ball.
McCarron is agile for the position and while he is not someone who is a threat to make huge runs with the ball, he can pick up yardage and move the chains on occasion. He is able to escape the pocket easily and roll out effectively and when he pulls down the ball to run it, he does it with purpose and is able to take advantage of holes in the defense when they are there. At times, he will take some hits that a coach would rather avoid but McCarron generally gets down and slides or gets out of bounds near the sidelines.
McCarron is at his best in a similar type of offense as he has run at Alabama with a focus on running the football and attacking vertically. He can certainly fit on a team that runs more vertical routes but he needs to improve at his timing and location of the football on those types of routes. McCarron might be a better fit in vertical offenses, but it is unlikely anyone is going to take him off of their board on scheme.
McCarron’s game and skill set is similar to that of Matt Cassell. These two players could not have had different paths to the NFL as McCarron is a player who will likely end up in the college football Hall of Fame while Cassell barely played, but both are quarterbacks who are able to function in an offense where they are not being asked to win games. They are facilitators with the ability to start a game or take a stacked team to the playoffs but do not appear to be the guy to carry a team to the Super Bowl. Cassell is a better athlete than McCarron as he is bigger and spent time as a tight end while at USC.
McCarron appears to be a day three prospect that could go on the early part of the day in the fourth or fifth round, but it is possible with more development and continued improvement, he could end up squeaking into the second day of the draft. His biggest move up draft boards could actually come in a post season All-Star game, likely the Senior Bowl, where he will have an opportunity to be a standout quarterback on a level playing field without the absurdly loaded Tide offense around him. McCarron has some attributes that will make him extremely attractive to some NFL teams but he has work to do on his feel for the pocket and taking steps to be a nuanced passer. He has the tools and potential that a team could take him as a backup who might be able to become something more and perhaps a trade asset down the road.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com