J.J. McCarthy’s ability to transcend Michigan situation holds key to NFL Draft stock

As the 2024 NFL Draft approaches, one quarterback is certainly seeing his stock rise.

Michigan passer J.J. McCarthy.

Fresh off a national title, and with his former head coach sitting with the fifth-overall selection to help boost his stock a bit, McCarthy is currently in the mix for one of the top picks in the draft. Perhaps even as high as the Washington Commanders with the second-overall selection.

But as with most things when it comes to the NFL Draft, there are a lot of grey areas.

Look through any scouting report on McCarthy — Dane Brugler’s annual “The Beast” might be a good place to start — and you see certain question marks. Question marks that can perhaps be boiled down to this simple question:

Can he transcend?

In some ways, the discussion around McCarthy is a distant cousin of a discussion that surfaced last season, with Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. Albeit a discussion with much different stakes. “A two-year starter at Michigan, McCarthy was the point guard of former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s pro-style spread offense that relied on a power-run attack and shifts/motions to create favorable matchups in the passing game,” writes Brugler. “ … [O]nly 795 career dropbacks in college and played in an offense that leaned on the run game.

“Overall, McCarthy’s evaluation feels incomplete … “

Like Bennett, McCarthy was surrounded by talent, including one of the best defenses in college football and a stout running game. Spinning through his film and you see many examples of his first or second reads being schemed open. So the question becomes, can McCarthy excel in the NFL when things get tougher, when the initial reads are taken away, and the athletes on the other side of the ball are better?

As you spin through his film, you find examples to lead you to the conclusion that he can.

Let’s start with this play from Michigan’s season-opening win over East Carolina.

The Wolverines face a 3rd and 9 in the red zone, and McCarthy aligns in the shotgun with Michigan in a 2×2 set. The Pirates show a little pressure pre-snap, with a pair of linebackers aligned in the A-Gaps in blitz posture.

With a pair of safeties aligned deep, McCarthy might be expecting two-deep coverage, with some pressure coming his way. As the play begins he gets his eyes to the dig route coming from the right, an understandable thought given how the dig route will break in front of those two defenders.

However, the Pirates give him a problem he needs to solve in a hurry.

Instead of those linebackers blitzing, they drop into coverage, with one of the linebackers running right into the path of the dig route McCarthy wants to throw to. Making things worse, he suddenly faces some pressure, as the Pirates run a twist game up front.

Watch as he solves this problem with some creativity:

McCarthy evades the pressure and climbs the pocket, while keeping his eyes downfield. Instead of targeting the dig route — and throwing into the teeth of the coverage — he gets his eyes to a secondary option while avoiding pressure, creating a touchdown.

The next example comes on this play from Michigan’s win over Nebraska:

This is another red zone play, a fairly straight-forward read for the quarterback that gets complicated by immediate pressure. Michigan runs four verticals out of a 3×1 set, and with Nebraska dropping into Cover 3, if McCarthy gets to operate from a clean pocket he will simply move the post safety towards one of the inside vertical routes, and throw the other.

However, the left side of the offensive line gives up immediate pressure, and McCarthy is forced into “fight-or-flight” mode right after the snap. He is able to escape and extend, eventually finding a receiver in the end zone for the touchdown.

Again, this is an example of McCarthy forced off-script, and creating a big play.

Here is another example, from Michigan’s win over their in-state rivals. With the Wolverines facing a 1st and 10 just outside the red zone, McCarthy first looks to his left on this crossing concept out of a 3×1 alignment. But as he is looking left, the protection on the right side of the Michigan offensive line begins to crack.

Why? Because another twist game from Michigan State has generated a free runner, a Spartan looking to put McCarthy in the hospital. But the Wolverines passer feels that pressure, and is able to extend, and escape, once more:

McCarthy avoids the free runner and, critically, keeps his eyes downfield looking for an option. He finds one in the scramble drill, and you have another Wolverines’ touchdown.

Now these are just three examples, and examples from early-season wins. Can McCarthy do this on bigger stages and in bigger moments?

After all, the NFL is filled with those.

Let’s fast-forward to later in the season.

For a Michigan quarterback, perhaps nothing is bigger than the annual regular season finale. A game so big it has a simple nickname.

“The Game.”

2nd and 5 against Ohio State in a game with everything on the line. McCarthy, working off of play-action, gets his eyes to the left side where Roman Wilson is running a dig route. That is where McCarthy wants to go initially but once again pressure, this time off the edges, forces him to adjust.

The Michigan quarterback pulls the football down, flushes to the right, and makes another incredible throw in a scramble-drill situation:

Of course, the ability to create in scramble drill situations is just one part of the ability to transcend situations as a quarterback. As noted in Brugler’s evaluation and elsewhere, there is a lingering question of what McCarthy can do when forced to get beyond that first or second read from the pocket itself.

The film is not filled with examples, but there are some.

Take this play against the Spartans. With the Wolverines facing a 3rd and 10 late in the first half, Michigan dials up a variant of Y-Cross. McCarthy first peeks at the go route along the left side of hte field, before getting his eyes on the crossing route from Wilson.

But that go route is covered well, and the crosser from Wilson is bracketed by the cornerback and one of the safeties.

No matter, as McCarthy gets to his third read, the backside dig route:

Getting to the backside dig route is a critical part of playing quarterback in the NFL today. With so many teams keeping two safeties deep, and being able to take away the frontside concepts, quarterbacks who can find that backside dig route can find success in the NFL.

As McCarthy did on that play. With his first two reads taken away, he gets to the third and moves the chains.

Perhaps my favorite example of McCarthy solving a post-snap riddle is this play against Indiana:

This is another 3rd and 10 situation, with the Wolverines in a 2×2 set against the Hoosiers. Before the snap Indiana shows a two-deep safety alignment, and McCarthy might be thinking Cover 4 as a result, or maybe even Cover 0, given the pressure look the Hoosiers are showing up front. Because of this he opens to the left side of the formation, where the two receivers to that side are running a switch “Sticks” concept. The receivers switch off the line, and check up right at the first down markers … or sticks.

There is just one problem with that read. Instead of bringing pressure and playing Cover 0, or even Cover 4, the Hoosiers spin into Cover 3, rush just four, and drop some of the defenders McCarthy was expecting would blitz into throwing lanes.

In a flash, he gets his eyes to the right and throws the corner route on a backside “Smash” concept. He fits the throw to the corner route in between the underneath curl/flat defender, and the deep outside defender, and the Wolverines move the chains.

Again, these are just a few examples, but they illustrate how when asked, McCarthy can solve problems when his first options are taken away from him, whether with his mind, his arm, his athleticism, or a combination thereof.

Thankfully, betting the franchise on some isolated examples is not a decision I have to make. I get to discuss the pros and cons of each prospect and then sit back and fire off some takes from the cheap seats.

For the NFL teams at the top of a draft, they have to make their decision with the fate of a franchise — and their jobs — hanging in the balance.

Still, from working through McCarthy’s film there are signs that he can indeed transcend his surroundings. Of course, the easier life is for him as a rookie quarterback, the better. Like perhaps every rookie passer in this draft, the landing spot and talent around him may ultimately tell his NFL story.

Still if he needs to, he can solve problems with his traits, transcending those surroundings.

He just might need to do a lot more of it at the next level.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top