Tale of the Tape: Raiders QB Derek Carr

Before the Draft, I work to familiarize myself with most of the players who are considered high-round guys, so that I can have a good idea of each player’s strengths and weaknesses if the Raiders draft him.

Derek Carr was a guy that I had watched prior the draft and who looked to have the necessary skills to be an upper echelon QB. Sure, he had some questions – the biggest of which is how much of his incredible college production was owed to the spread system he operated out of in 2012 and 2013 (he led a pro-style offense in 2011).

In fact, from what I’ve seen, there are 5 main weaknesses attributed to Carr, with varying degrees of solid reasoning. The 5 main criticisms I’ve seen are:

1. Most of his production came in a quick throw, spread-style system in college.

2. Most of his games were against lesser foes because Fresno State is not a big-conference team.

3. He struggles with accuracy when under pressure.

4. He struggled during big games, bringing his ability to excel in NFL under question.

5. He is the brother of David Carr, who didn’t pan out as #1 overall pick (seriously, this is a criticism I’ve seen).

Let’s look at each of these, separately to discuss:

1. Can he perform in a pro-style offense?
I think questions about Carr’s ability to perform in a pro-style offense are valid, if not too worrisome. He has been able to perform well in a pro-style offense in college, already, so those concerns are muted.

Now that he’s been drafted, he appears to be doing fine in camp. He had a few issues fielding snaps from directly under center early on in rookie minicamp, but those have gone away as he’s regaining his skills in doing this.

Carr may prefer shotgun in the NFL but that is not uncommon, with more and more spread-style QBs coming out of college every year. As long as he is functionally able to operate from under center, this should not be a concern and it appears that he will be able to do this.

2. Can he excel against a better level of competition?
Likewise, I understand questioning the talent level he played against – until those questions are answered, they remain valid questions. The key to projecting whether a player will be able to succeed against tougher competition is to determine whether that player made his team better or not?

Carr made the team around him unquestionably better. It’s clear that Fresno St would not have been ranked as they were in 2014 without a talent like Carr’s at QB. When he struggled, the entire team looked bad. When he was on, the team looked almost unstoppable on offense.

This projects well, for Carr. Unlike, say, JaMarcus Russell, Carr was not surrounded by elite talent at most every position. Most of the guys on Fresno State won’t end up playing in the NFL. He was the biggest part of the reason that the team performed so well.

3. Accuracy under pressure
There’s no arguing this one. It’s Carr’s biggest weakness. We’ll discuss this more, below.

4. Struggling in big games
I did not watch every game of his, but I did watch the 2013 Bowl Game versus USC, twice, to really get a sense of why Fresno State looked so poor.

What I found was that Fresno State was beaten at practically every level of the game by USC’s superior talent. USC has long been one of the top recruiting colleges in the country, and the talent level was clear.

Everything starts up front and the USC defensive line made short work of the Fresno St O-line, on most plays. This made options limited for Carr, who had to throw a lot of quick throws, even when the team got behind to USC. He simply didn’t have the time to stand in the pocket and survey the field. He also had to make a lot of throws with a defender in his face, which caused his accuracy to suffer.

Carr didn’t look good, but he wasn’t as putrid as some made him out to be, either. As always, quarterbacks get more praise than they should when the team wins and more criticism than they should when the team loses.

5. He’s David Carr’s brother.
Really? This is a top criticism? Really?

 

I will add one potential weakness that concerns me more than most of the others: his size. Carr’s height, at 6’2” is okay, although not great. More worrisome, he lacks good bulk at only 214 lbs, which is about 10 lbs below what most teams would prefer, on the low end.

Much was made of Manziel and Bridgewater’s size prior to the Draft – there was almost no discussion on Carr, but he is almost exactly the same height/weight as Bridgewater. Carr has a good build, so he will likely be able to add the additional weight, which is good. Until he does, I have questions about his size.

The increased muscle weight will help him absorb the hits that come with being an NFL quarterback. I would bet that the Raiders training staff will have him working on bulking up in 2014, when he isn’t expected to start, so that he is more in line with a more-ideal 225 lbs in 2015.

 

The Tape:
The tape did sustain some of these concerns and it showed the others are less of an issue. We’ll start at with the basics and work forward.

First, Carr has a fantastic arm – it’s really pops off the video when you watch him. It isn’t simply his arm strength, although he had one of the strongest arms in the 2014 Draft, it’s his arm talent. Arm talent is different than arm strength, and Carr has both.

Arm strength is about the distance that a quareterback can throw with velocity. JaMarcus Russell had great arm strength – one of the strongest arms the league has ever seen, actually. But he had poor arm talent.

Arm talent is about controlling passes – changing up the trajectory and velocity of passes to make them more catchable or less easy to defend. An example of a player who had great arm strength but poor arm talent early in his career is Mike Vick, who used to throw lazers (balls that are fast and straight) at his receivers on every play. He lacked the arm talent early in his career to be able to throw deep balls that had good arc and would fall down over the arms of a DB. He failed to be able to slow down the velocity of his passes on shorter throws.

Arm talent is much, much more important than arm strength. Players that are plus in both are in especially high demand.

Carr does have good-if-not-great arm strength. He also possesses good arm talent. Fans will sometimes here that a quarterback can make every play on the field and they will misunderstand what it means. It does not mean that a quarterback has the arm strength simply to get the ball, there. What it means is that the quarterback has the arm strength and talent to get the ball there well.

To illustrate Carr’s ability to make difficult throws, here is a clip from Fresno State vs Utah. In this clip, Carr throws an out route perfectly to the left side of the field. Out routes and corner routes are some of the most difficult throws to make well, because the route itself puts the cornerback between the receiver and the ball, able to defend a poorly thrown pass.

In this clip, note the loft that Carr puts under the ball to drop it down over the cornerback and right to his receiver’s hands. The way this is thrown, the cornerback had no opportunity to make a play on this pass:

Here is a screen capture of right when the ball hits the receiver’s hands:

The ball is coming down at a good angle. The cornerback is nowhere near the ball because the trajectory of the throw is such that he couldn’t get near it. When a ball is thrown with good trajectory, even tall cornerbacks, who are in vogue in the NFL right now, cannot make plays on them because the ball comes in over their bodies.

Quarterbacks who have the arm talent to change the trajectory and velocity (the speed at which it arrives to the receiver) of their pass have a better chance of being successful in the NFL because they are throwing balls that give their receivers the best chance to make the catch.

 

To further illustrate the arm talent that Carr has, here is a clip of him versus New Mexico. In this clip, Carr takes the snap and rolls right a bit before unleashing a fantastic deep ball.

Like the out route previously shown, the ball, here, travels at a great trajectory in the air. It has good loft on it and that allows it to drop down at a difficult-to-defend angle at the end of the pass. In this clip, watch how the receiver, Davonte Adams, is able to position himself but does not have to snag the pass – instead the pass drops down to him, over both of the defenders who are trailing behind him. It’s a truly “wow!” pass by Carr:

It’s may be a bit hard to see the angle on the ball in the video so here is a screen capture of the ball coming down. As you can see, the ball is dropping almost vertically, which makes any play on the ball by a defender next to impossible. It’s a very impressive throw:

 

Now that we have looked at what Carr is good at, let’s talk a bit about his struggles. Carr played at Fresno State, which is not a football powerhouse. Here is the list of teams that appeared on the Bulldogs’ 2013 regular season schedule: Rutgers, Cal Poly, Colorado (this game was cancelled), Boise State, Hawa’ii, Idaho, UNLV, San Diego St, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, and San Jose State. There are no football powerhouses among that group – so questions about the level of competition Carr faced ar valid, as we’ve previously discussed in this piece.

Because the level of competition was lower, Carr did not have to deal with a lot of pressure during the regular season. He set school records and broke 5,000 passing yards in a season in large part because he was able to make his reads and throws in a clean pocket.

That all changed when the Bulldogs played USC in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 21st. Suddenly, the Bulldogs were the team with the talent deficit. USC is one of the best football schools in the country, traditionally, and they boast a talent level that is much deeper than Fresno State.

Suddenly, Carr was being pressured on virtually every snap. Not only did he not have time to survey the field and throw, the teams’ screen passes weren’t working well against the Trojans’ better cornerbacks. The Trojans made WR Davonte Adams their secondary’s primary focus and the Bulldogs didn’t have the depth at receiver to be able to counter.

With this amount of pressure, Carr struggled. He didn’t look horrible but he didn’t look good, either. He struggled to complete passes and deal with the pressure in front of him.

Here is a clip from that game to illustrate how Carr struggled. In this clip, Carr isn’t really even facing pressure but he still doesn’t step into his throw and the result is that it sails long. My favorite part of this clip, by the way, is the reaction shot from #3, WR Josh Harper, giving a “WTF?” look that the network showed before rolling the replay:

Carr’s struggles versus the rush are more the exception than the rule, however, and I believe they are due more to an overall difference in talent than any fatal flaw in Carr’s psyche.

More often, he’s able to use his plus athleticism to escape the pocket and make a play. While he’s not Johnny Manziel, Carr has a very good skill set to be able to roll out of the pocket either to extend plays or to run up field – and he does both, frequently.

When it all comes together, Carr senses the pressure, makes his escape out of the pocket and uses his legs to buy himself time and then uses his arm talent to make a throw downfield. Here is an example of this scenario, where he rolls right out of a collapsing pocket and finds a crossing receiver downfield for a very nice gain versus Wyoming:

When Carr fell out of the first round, I was a proponent of the Raiders taking him in the second because he boasts a skill set that projects well to the NFL. He is not a slam dunk starter – there are questions about his size, the talent level at which he’s played, and his ability to rise to the occasion under pressure.

But despite those questions, Carr was well worth the risk for the Raiders. He gives the Raiders something that they have not had in many years – a young, promising, experienced quarterback that they can coach and groom to be a star in the NFL.

About Asher Mathews

Head writer for TFDS Sports, covering the Oakland Raiders and NFL at large. Proud Purdue alum. Follow me on Twitter!

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