AJ McCarron has earned the dreaded "game manager" label from skeptics clouded by his modest individual statistics and stellar supporting cast, but NFL evaluators closely studying the Alabama star should see a future starter with the tools to shine at the next level.
Now, I know my assessment of McCarron's game runs counter to the popular opinion that a franchise quarterback exhibits excellence as a passer in all aspects (arm talent and range), but offensive coaches will quickly point to judgment and accuracy as the most important part of playing the position. This is an opinion voiced by veteran NFL coaches, and it is one of the tenets that I learned from Mike Holmgren during my time working as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks.
Holmgren would frequently tell the scouting staff to place a greater emphasis on intangible traits like football intelligence, confidence, leadership ability and mental toughness over physical attributes like arm strength. He believed a quarterback with average arm talent could succeed in the NFL, if he was an outstanding decision maker in the pocket and delivered accurate throws to receivers on the move. Holmgren would also point out that a quarterback must have the supporting cast around him to succeed, regardless of his individual talent.
Based on those experiences with Holmgren, I'm a firm believer that McCarron will be a productive starter in the NFL. He possesses enough of the physical traits to succeed as a pro, while exhibiting all of the intangibles offensive coaches value at the position. McCarron makes sound decisions with the ball (he sports an impressive 68-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his career) and wisely utilizes his available weapons on the perimeter. Now I know playing a "connect the dots" style from the pocket doesn't wow observers looking for a quarterback to make "hero" throws consistently, but the top quarterbacks in the NFL understand how to manage the game in every aspect.
Looking at McCarron play against LSU, he continued to showcase his exceptional management skills as a quarterback. The Alabama star connected on 14 of 20 passes for 179 yards with three touchdowns. While those numbers don't necessarily jump off the stat sheet, the fact that he made a handful of critical throws stood out to me. For instance, McCarron drilled a deep slant to O.J. Howard on a 52-yard touchdown pass that changed the momentum of the game. The throw was on-target and in a spot where the freshman pass catcher could run through the reception point on the way to a remarkable catch-and-run score. Most importantly, it was the proper read against a blitz designed to disrupt McCarron's rhythm in the pocket. In fact, McCarron handled the blitz effectively all night by completing 9 of 13 passes with three touchdowns against five or more rushers. This has been one of the strengths of his game, with 13 of his 19 touchdown passes this season coming against the blitz.
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In addition to thriving against the blitz, McCarron managed the game superbly from the line of scrimmage. He handled the Alabama's "check with me" run game brilliantly by routinely directing running plays away from the strength. As a result, the Crimson Tide rushed for 193 yards, with the majority of those yards coming in the second half when Alabama committed to pound the rock at the heart of the LSU defense.
Of course, passing-game enthusiasts fail to appreciate McCarron's contributions to the running game, but savvy offensive coordinators will respect his ability to read defensive fronts and make the appropriate run/pass checks based on the look. With most NFL offenses built around the quarterback making the adjustments at the line, McCarron's experience and effectiveness in a pro-style scheme will make him better prepared for the pro game than some of his counterparts.
Nick Saban has already stated on record that McCarron is "the best quarterback in the country" based on his ability to win simply by doing whatever needs to be done over the course of the game. Although that premise doesn't fit the criteria of some observers and scouts, the fact that elite NFL quarterbacks combine impressive arm talent with superb management skills could make McCarron a late riser up draft boards when the coaches and scouts start honing in on quarterbacks with key winning traits.