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Film Review: Analyzing QB J.J. McCarthy's Fit With the Patriots

With the 2024 NFL Draft on the horizon, we are reviewing the top quarterbacks in this year's class and their fits in New England. 

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game between Maryland and Michigan.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game between Maryland and Michigan.

There's usually one quarterback prospect that has a meteoric rise into the first-round conversation in every draft cycle, and this year's class is no different.

Whether you agree with it or not, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is a prospect we have to discuss for the Patriots at No. 3 overall. McCarthy followed up winning the national championship with a strong pre-draft process, where he scored points with teams at the top of the draft in interviews and impressed scouts at his Pro Day.

After declaring for the draft following his true junior season, McCarthy is the youngest quarterback amongst the consensus top prospects. The Michigan product will likely be selected in the first round just three months after his 21st birthday. Although he wasn't always asked to do much, McCarthy finished his collegiate career with a 27-1 record as a starter, with his lone loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal to TCU during his sophomore season.

McCarthy returned to school for his final season, leading Michigan to a perfect season (15-0) and its first national title since 1997. The Wolverines had a dominant defense and NFL-caliber talent all over their roster, but McCarthy made plays when called upon. The 21-year-old orchestrated a game-tying drive to send the CFP semifinal to overtime vs. Alabama, with a class-leading 48.1% of his third or fourth down attempts resulting in a first down in 2023.

In his annual draft guide, The Beast, longtime draft analyst Dane Brugler summed up McCarthy's competitiveness that teams are gravitating toward with this anecdote from an NFL scout:

"Before he signed, he was telling Michigan recruits that if they wanted to party and chase girls, go somewhere else. His class was going to be the one that restored Michigan. To have that mentality and then actually go achieve it? He's different," the scout told Brugler.

McCarthy has the intangible qualities that teams look for at the quarterback position, which is inherently a leadership role, whether the player is ready to take on that responsibility or not.

On film, he displays above-average arm talent and crisp footwork. He's also generally accurate within structure, where he benefited by throwing to open first or second reads. McCarthy posted a 6.82-second three-cone at the scouting combine, sixth-best overall and best among quarterbacks. His best trait is finding clean airspace in the pocket and extending plays.

However, it's challenging to envision McCarthy being the reason you win versus a passenger on a winning roster, and that extends beyond his usage at Michigan. As a thrower, McCarthy needs an exaggerated step into his throws to drive the ball into tighter windows and outside the numbers. Due to his elongated base, like a pitcher throwing off the mound, McCarthy sacrifices touch and control for velocity, leading to sprays on routine throws. Mentally, he's not overly creative with tunnel vision for initial reads in the progressions, which can get him into trouble.

Let's dig into the film to illustrate the pros and cons of the Patriots targeting McCarthy in the first round:

Strength I - Playing Within Pro-Style Structure

Along with being a prolific winner, McCarthy is appealing to teams because Michigan's offensive system translates well to the next level.

Although he wasn't responsible for making pre-snap checks and alerts at the line, McCarthy is one of a few college prospects with exposure to playing under center. He also made pro-style reads and throws, where he was efficient within structure on NFL-style concepts. McCarthy's footwork in his drops and throwing motion are very clean.

McCarthy is at his best throwing off play-action, where he's quick to diagnose passing windows and can drive the ball between second-level defenders. McCarthy completed 75.3% of his play-action attempts for an outstanding 11.4 yards per pass attempt.

Here's an example of a high-level throw McCarthy can make off play-action, this time from the pistol formation. As we said with Drake Maye, this stuff translates to under-center actions.

In the play, Michigan pulls in the defense with the run action that goes directly into the post-snap rotation on the backend. The play-action fake gets the corner and safety to the play side out of position, with the double in-cuts coming across the field from the other side of the formation. The safety tries to recover by "robotting" underneath Roman Wilson's route, but McCarthy drives the throw around the safety for a perfectly placed pass to Wilson.

McCarthy's under-center reps were limited to 21 pass attempts, but that's still far more than Maye (4) and Daniels (1). Plus, he has pistol reps as well.

In this example, McCarthy runs a bootleg action from under center, which could be a major aspect of Patriots offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt's offense. Michigan sells the fake with the puller and stretch action, then changes the point of attack with the bootleg, with McCarthy throwing the crosser for a touchdown.

McCarthy's 88 play-action drop-backs give an NFL coordinator a good look at how he operates those schemes. But he also lived between the numbers on straight shotgun drop-backs, where he flashes feel for navigating middle-of-the-field defenders.

Michigan motions the tight end into his route to form a three-receiver side for a vertical concept. The motion makes the tight end the new No. 2, presenting a seam run against the Tampa-2 linebacker in cover two. With the linebacker playing inside leverage, McCarthy leads the receiver onto the other side of the defender for a pretty touchdown pass.

As much as the third overall pick seems rich for McCarthy, it's easy to see how he'd fit in Van Pelt's offense, given the system he was running at Michigan.

Strength II - Pocket Movement and Play Extension

The other clear positive for McCarthy that might be his most intriguing trait is his quick-twitch movements to maneuver the pocket and extend plays by evading rushers.

In a world where play creation and extension are essential for quarterbacks, McCarthy checks those boxes with his sudden movements and ability to get outside the pocket when necessary. Although you won't build a rushing attack around his mobility, he occasionally adds yards on designed runs if you want to call a short-yardage read-option.

Here's a snapshot of how McCarthy can keep plays alive by evading rushers. Michigan State's pass rush gets home with a T/E stunt over the right side of the line, creating a free runner at the quarterback. McCarthy senses the pocket closing, evades the rusher, and gets his eyes back downfield to find Roman Wilson for a highlight-reel touchdown.

McCarthy can also get outside the pocket when needed, and he'll look to throw downfield while on the move rather than instantly scrambling.

Above, Michigan initially leaves a player on the line unblocked to sell the play-action fake with a puller. Alabama DE Justin Eboigbe goes through the puller to dent the pocket, so McCarthy escapes. As he leaves the pocket, his running back goes off-script, turning upfield to work himself open, and McCarthy throws a catchable pass along the sideline.

The pro-McCarthy crowd will argue that these types of plays are what he adds to the yards created by scheme and weapons at Michigan—he's nimble in the pocket.

Areas of Concern

When we began these deep dives of the top candidates for the Patriots to draft third overall, we had three non-negotiables to be fully on board with the pick:

  • Elite physical traits (arm talent) to be a high-end playmaker in and out of structure. Must be an athlete at the position.
  • Generates easy velocity on throws from congested pockets or off-platform. Passers who need to put all their weight into throws to hit NFL-sized windows need not apply.
  • A baseline level of mental processing and instincts. You want him to know how to play quarterback. Not just a big-armed athlete (no Zach Wilson's, please).

This scribe has been critical of McCarthy's rise during the pre-draft process because he fails to check boxes two and three. First, McCarthy needs to put his weight into throws to generate velocity. In particular, he'll over-stride to generate RPMs on drive throws. This impacts his accuracy when he throws into the sideline, particularly when throwing to his left.

Here's an example of what we mean when we say McCarthy over-strides on drive throws. The issue with his throwing platform is that his accuracy and touch take a huge hit—he can't control the ball. Above, he's trying to hit a deep out from the far hash. As you can see, his lower half is extended like a pitcher coming off the mound, and the throw is uncatchable.

When he's in an NFL pocket rather than a Michigan pocket, McCarthy might struggle to hit NFL-sized passing windows without the luxury of having space to step into with his front foot. Does he generate easy velocity from congested pockets? The answer is no.

As a processor, some warning signs are tough to ignore in McCarthy's film. We said no Zach Wilson's, please, and the vibes for McCarthy aren't great.

Evaluating quarterbacks based on one rep isn't it. However, it's hard to get this play out of your head when you watch last year's college football playoff. This was McCarthy's very first drop-back in the CFP semifinal vs. Alabama, and it's an ugly turnover-worthy play that he was lucky got overturned in review because the defender was out of bounds by inches.

To McCarthy's credit, he rallied back to lead Michigan to a win with a game-tying drive in the clutch. Still, that's just the tip of the iceberg regarding struggles with post-snap processing. The more common theme for McCarthy on film is that he'll have tunnel vision on his first read and will force throws into covered receivers rather than seeing the full picture.

McCarthy struggled with this concept several times when he had a deep post clearing out the coverage for a dig or crosser. With the defense in a split-safety shell, the deep safety to McCarthy's right attaches to the in-breaker, with the second level falling underneath the route. The safety jumping the dig/crosser leaves the half-field safety to the left without inside help. You'd like to see McCarthy come off the in-breaker and throw the post for a likely touchdown.

This is also where you see his lack of touch come into play. McCarthy can't layer this throw between the zone-dropping MIKE and the safety playing over the top. That's a tough window to hit, so you'd like to see him throw the post, but it's there if he had the right pitch in his arsenal.

The Michigan product is not an overly creative playmaker from the pocket, either. In this example, the coverage dictates that McCarthy should use some savvy to hold the boundary safety with a pump fake or his eyes and then progress to the second in-breaker. McCarthy completes the pass for a first down but misses a bigger play.

McCarthy could improve as a processor with more experience, and he improved from his sophomore to junior seasons, but you'd like the third overall pick to be a more dynamic playmaker.

Bottom Line

Based on being a younger prospect, many evaluators believe McCarthy has a high ceiling because he has the necessary physical tools and mental makeup to continue improving.

However, my view is he's more in the Brock Purdy mold. McCarthy doesn't throw with consistent touch, deep accuracy, or accuracy outside the numbers. He also isn't an overly creative coverage manipulator from the pocket or a passer who maximizes each drop-back by creating passing lanes with various arm angles. From this perspective, those are the elements that make a quarterback prospect elite.

You don't see a special talent when you study McCarthy on film. He's a more physically gifted prospect than, let's say, Mac Jones. But he isn't oozing with arm talent like Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, while Jayden Daniels is in a different tier in mobility. The Michigan product also has a ways to go in terms of mental processing.

The Patriots are in a position where they need a quarterback who can elevate what's around him – they need someone who can drive the bus. If you're a team whose scheme and roster talent will set up the quarterback in ideal conditions, then McCarthy can be your distributor with an "it" factor in the clutch.

The third overall pick should have the potential to carry the team to the winner's circle on his back, and it's hard to envision that being McCarthy.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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