The underclassmen are dominating the quarterback talk leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft. Everyone wants to talk about Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel.
Only one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL Draft was down in Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl. Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr is the clear-cut top senior quarterback in this draft, but he seems to be having some trouble breaking into the perceived top tier among draft media types.
That's not to say NFL teams don't view Carr differently. He's definitely in the picture to be drafted in the first round and could easily be one of the first three quarterbacks off the board.
In terms of physical ability, Carr has everything a team could ask for in a franchise quarterback. So what's holding him back?
Arm strength and accuracy
Carr has the best arm talent of any quarterback in this 2014 NFL Draft. That may seem like a strong statement, but he proved it time and time again throughout the last two seasons. Even when his mechanics fail him, Carr can put the ball in any spot on the field with velocity, timing and accuracy. Additionally, Carr has exceptional touch and accuracy on his deep passes.
Comparing Carr to Matthew Stafford or Jay Cutler is not a stretch in this department. Regardless of his arm slot, footwork or the spot on the field he's throwing to, Carr can put the appropriate velocity on the ball. He's also an accurate passer in most areas of the field. Think about the throws that are important for an NFL quarterback to make: vertical routes, throws to the sidelines and throws into tight windows.
There are times when Carr's accuracy fails him, but we'll touch on that later.
Carr was destined to be a smart quarterback. He spent his childhood watching the every move of his brother David Carr, who was on the fast track to becoming an NFL quarterback. Jeff Tedford is a close family friend of the Carrs as well. Since he could pick up a football, Carr was absorbing information about the game. It shows up on the field.
Rarely does Carr force a ball into coverage or make a careless decision with the football. That's not to say he's not an aggressive passer, because he is. He's just smarter about it than most quarterbacks. It's tough to totally gauge his decision-making because of the offense he played in, which required him to throw a ton of screens and short passes. However, it is a positive sign that Carr isn't stubborn about his arm.
The football intelligence Carr has accumulated over the years translates to his ability to read the field and make pre-snap judgments on what the defense is trying to do. For the most part, Fresno State's offense called for vertical passes and screens. There wasn't a ton of in-between. Carr also spent most of the time lined up in the shotgun formation. Reading defenses while dropping back is a bit of a different process. That learning curve shouldn't be steep for Carr, though, based on the habits he's shown in college.
Unfortunately, it's tough to get enough of a feel for how Carr reads defenses because of his offense. He was asked to make relatively simple reads that won't necessarily translate to the NFL.
And here's where we start getting into some of the negatives to Carr's game. His mechanics, particularly in his lower body, are inconsistent at best. He often throws off of his back foot and doesn't transfer his weight properly when throwing the ball. He also lets his throwing mechanics be affected by pressure in the pocket, whether it's rushing his throw and not paying attention to his arm slot or not taking the time to focus on proper lower body mechanics. Carr's biggest problems tend to come with pass rushers in his face, and that leads us to the other issue with Carr ...
It's tough to deny that Carr struggles when faced with pressure in the pocket. Granted, the problem was much worse in 2012 when Carr was a junior. As a junior, Carr was dealing with a hernia injury but played through it. He was tentative with pressure in the pocket and rushed his throws as a result. At times he even appeared rattled with bodies around him, and justifiably so.
Carr made strides in this area as a senior but still has a ways to go. Learning to anticipate pressure would go a long way toward solving Carr's problem. He doesn't have a natural feel for the rush and struggles to maneuver throughout the pocket when things get hectic. That's not always the easiest thing to learn at the next level, but Carr has the athleticism and natural feel for the game to pull it off. His internal clock may have been a bit screwed up at Fresno State because he was either throwing deep passes or screens. That isn't how he will be operating in the NFL.
Most importantly, Carr needs to learn to make sure his mechanics are not completely ruined by pressure in the pocket. His footwork, and consequently his accuracy, were too often adversely affected by teams bringing the blitz. Look no further than the USC game at the end of his senior season to see the effects pressure had on his game.
All of that being said, Carr is a tough player in the pocket. He's willing to take a hit and has enough athleticism to extend plays and keep his eyes downfield. He just needs to develop a more natural feel for pressure.
Pro Comparison: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Like Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr has a cannon for an arm. However, like Stafford, Carr also deals with issues in his mechanics that tend to hold him back in some key moments during games.
Carr grades out as a first-round pick. The improvement he showed in the pocket as a senior was encouraging. If he continues to improve in that area, he could be a franchise quarterback in the NFL. Rolling the dice on Carr in the late part of the first round would be the proper value for him. There isn't quite as much separating Carr and Blake Bortles as some people may think. Additionally, Carr is a huge plus in the character department. He is the type of person you want leading your franchise on and off the field.