2024 NFL Draft: J.J. McCarthy Passing Clinic Now in Session

    Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy has been one of the most efficient 2024 NFL Draft QBs through two weeks. But what does the film say about his growth?

    Through two games in 2023, how has Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy grown as a 2024 NFL Draft prospect? And is he trending toward realizing his aspirations as a first-round passer in the 2024 cycle? In this week’s Scouting Spotlight, we approach these questions.

    J.J. McCarthy Off to a Wicked Fast Start in 2023

    It’s 2023, and the J.J. McCarthy passing clinic is now in session.

    McCarthy has always been a naturally talented passer, dating back to his days as a fringe five-star recruit out of high school. But in 2023, he’s already taken a visible step up, closing the gap between being a raw talent and being a legitimate quarterback.

    Through two games as of this writing, McCarthy has completed 48 of 55 passing attempts — amounting to a mind-boggling 87.3% completion rate — for 558 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions.

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    Now, the competition that McCarthy faced over this stretch — East Carolina and UNLV — pales in comparison to the tests he’ll face farther down the road, with NFL talent-laden defenses such as Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State.

    Nevertheless, NFL plays are NFL plays. In a short stretch this year, McCarthy has already put plenty of those on film, and he’s strengthening his case to be the 2024 NFL Draft QB3 behind Caleb Williams and Drake Maye.

    Scouting Film Spotlight: McCarthy’s Operational Growth in 2023

    There’s one thing we’ve always known about McCarthy: He has the necessary physical talent. He’s on the leaner side with his build, but his throwing motion remains one of the most alluring in the 2024 NFL Draft crop. He’s a loose, elastic thrower, whose over-arching flexibility allows him to consistently maximize the torque generated from his hips.

    Along with his high-level arm elasticity and release quickness, McCarthy also brings an elite creation component. He has speed in open space, but even more valuable in the pocket is his change of direction and short-area agility. He can use this agility to evade sack threats, create new throwing windows, and keep plays alive amid adversity.

    As the play below shows, there are other details that also matter. McCarthy drags his back foot on the line of scrimmage here, so as to not be penalized, and his vision off-script, drawing the linebacker out of the middle, is what helps seal the play. But plays like this are routine for McCarthy because of his effortless athleticism and mobility.

    McCarthy is loose and elastic in all phases, and to top it off, his arm strength is a visible plus. He doesn’t quite have the mass you’d expect from a QB labeled with a big arm. But as the throw below shows, McCarthy has the necessary velocity generation capabilities to fit the ball into incredibly tight windows and drive throws past tight coverage and undercutting defenders.

    We’ve known for a long time that McCarthy has the necessary tools to separate himself as a potential Round 1 passer in the 2024 NFL Draft. But in 2022, that talent was the primary selling point of McCarthy as a future prospect. Now, in 2023, it looks as though he’s adding more to his game.

    Anticipation

    You can have the strongest arm in the world, but if you don’t see things quickly, and if you don’t make exhaustive use of timing as a thrower, you won’t be successful.

    On the flip side, if you can properly weaponize your arm talent with quick timing and anticipation, you can complete passes even when facing decent coverage. McCarthy has shown improved anticipation so far in 2023, and it’s visibly helped his production.

    Here’s the first example of anticipation for McCarthy. It’s a simple one — a quick comeback route on the boundary. But McCarthy releases this throw well ahead of the break and throws it perfectly to lead the WR outside and away from coverage. Even these simple anticipation throws need precise timing and placement.

    The pass below is a more nuanced example. McCarthy triggers on an intermediate out route from a stacked alignment on the right side. The defender, in man coverage, actually plays the route fairly well — but McCarthy releases just as the break happens, firing a laser into a tight pocket outside the numbers. No defender can account for perfect execution.

    Tracking to the intermediate and deep thirds, McCarthy has also shown he can anticipate over the middle of the field. His base is a little too wide at the top of his three-step drop on the play below, but he has the field vision to recognize his receiver breaking open on the dig route over 20 yards out, and his quick trigger prevents defenders from being keyed in.

    Even on throws where he doesn’t have an abundance of time, McCarthy has shown he can work quickly with the information relayed in front of him. On this play-action fake, McCarthy knows where he’s going as soon as he stops his drop. He rips a laser to the crossing receiver and does so before the LB can get depth and turn his head.

    In short, McCarthy has shown, through two games, that he’s seeing the field quicker, acting on information quicker, and he’s being much more disciplined and exhaustive with his timing. Once a passer has the timing element down, that opens up opportunities to manipulate the defense.

    Manipulation

    When a pocket operator can use his mechanics and eyes to actively manipulate defenders, it’s a sign of his heightened comfort and control — and that’s something McCarthy has displayed to evaluators this year.

    In the play below, McCarthy has a left-side skinny post, an intermediate dig from the right, and a single-high safety in conflict between them. Using his flexibility and elasticity, McCarthy tilts his base toward the post to draw off the safety.

    All this causes is a slight misstep from the safety, but it’s enough to give the dig receiver space. McCarthy is able to trigger on the dig, even with his tilted base, by using his crisp arm elasticity.

    Below, you’ll see an even more distinct example. In the red zone, McCarthy has a corner route to the end zone with a swing pattern underneath. He actively hitches to draw the flat defender downfield to the swing, and in doing so, he creates a window to hit the corner route.

    McCarthy releases with no hesitation and layers the ball perfectly into a tight bucket with his elasticity and controlled shoulder loft. Plays like this don’t happen unless the QB knows what he’s seeing, and he has control of both his mechanics and the field.

    In-structure manipulation is perhaps the most complex, but it’s important to note that McCarthy has the vision, quick processing, and situational IQ to manipulate defenders while working off-script as well. Furthermore, he can use his ability as a running threat to draw underneath defenders out of passing lanes — as shown below.

    In just two games in 2023, we’ve arguably seen more bouts of anticipation and defensive manipulation from McCarthy than we saw in the entirety of 2022. It’s clear that the Michigan offense is opening up more to McCarthy now — and that’s a direct byproduct of his growth as a passer.

    Poise

    McCarthy has grown in several areas as a 2024 NFL Draft prospect. But the most important area of growth has been his poise.

    Poise enables passers to do more things from inside the pocket. Inversely, passers who lack poise leave opportunities on the table, either from missed reads (dropping their eyes), missed throws (eroding mechanics), or lost time (failing to navigate and create).

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    Last year, McCarthy did all of these things frequently under pressure. He’d drop his eyes early; he’d experience modulations in his mechanics, causing inaccuracy. And he’d take himself away from secondary reads and checkdowns, trying to do too much.

    This year, McCarthy is bringing almost uncanny toughness and resolve in the pocket. The play below, from the ECU game, is an excellent example. This is a third-and-11 snap. McCarthy knows he needs the first down, and he knows he’s going to get hit low. Regardless, McCarthy slides, stays controlled and composed, and hits his WR for the first.

    Not only has McCarthy been resolved in maximizing pocket opportunities, but he’s also been much more disciplined with his mechanical congruence. In 2022, direct pressure threats evoked frantic reactions from McCarthy. But the play below is another stellar example of his growth.

    As the pocket collapses, he climbs up, stays locked in, and uses his mechanical congruence to layer a perfect pass. He leads the receiver away from the looming flat defender and also throws high, allowing the receiver to go up, take authority, and high-point the pass.

    And finally, there’s this example of poise from the UNLV game — one that resulted in a touchdown. McCarthy’s entire interior offensive line was demolished within a second or two of this rep, but McCarthy still remarkably stays in control. He slides diagonally up the left side, keeps his mechanics in phase, eyes his crossing WR early in the rep, and leads him laterally for a RAC opportunity.

    A lack of poise can prevent otherwise intelligent passers from using and fully unleashing their intelligence and manipulation capabilities on a defense. It can be a devastating roadblock for passers who otherwise have all the tools.

    It was a roadblock for McCarthy in 2022. But in 2023, it appears we have a different J.J. McCarthy on the field.

    McCarthy Starting a Strong Case for QB3

    We knew J.J. McCarthy had the athleticism and the arm talent, but now he appears to have the poise, field vision, and complete control expected of a first-round quarterback.

    Yes, it is very early, and McCarthy hasn’t faced tough competition yet. Games against Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State will be even more revealing regarding just how far McCarthy has come.

    Nevertheless, McCarthy has achieved an absurd level of efficiency as a passer early on in the 2023 campaign. The way McCarthy has achieved this is very translatable across situations and matchups.

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    McCarthy is a high-level creative force, with an elastic, high-velocity arm. And beyond that, he’s an anticipatory, manipulative pocket passer with newfound poise and mechanical discipline.

    If McCarthy can sustain this operational growth through the entirety of 2023, it’ll be hard to poke holes in his profile. By seeing through that development, he can lock in a place as a Round 1 quarterback prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft.

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