by Matt Waldman
Want a glimpse into a quarterback’s mind? Watch his feet.
If there’s a minimal amount of footwork before a throw, the passer is making quick decisions. If there are hitches after the initial drop, the decision process is taking longer.
If the footwork in either instance is precise, there’s a greater chance the quarterback has a mental command of his environment and the resulting passes will be accurate. If the steps and stance are sloppy and off balanced, chaos – in the pocket or in the passer’s mind – is often afoot.
One of the pervading concerns about individuals from this spread generation of NFL quarterback prospects is their ability to transition from a shotgun attack to dropping from center and reading more advanced defensive concepts on the retreat. Even as the NFL has adopted the spread, these are concerns that place Fresno State’s Derek Carr front and center among this crop of quarterback prospects.
A first-round prospect on many analysts’ draft boards heading into the pre-draft madness, Carr runs an offense that uses a lot of screens and slants. This is nothing new. Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Brandon Weeden, Geno Smith, Blaine Gabbert and Nick Foles all came from spread-heavy attacks.
However, there’s a perception among many analysts based on conversations with scouts that prospects from spread-heavy offenses have more to prove when it comes to selling a team on their ability to transition to the NFL. It’s among the reasons why there was a much more grounded, confident mood around the selection of players like Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Christian Ponder, Mike Glennon, and Sam Bradford – even if the returns have been equally mixed.
This week’s Futures examines Carr’s game with footwork as an underlying focus. David Carr’s younger brother has all the physical tools to become a productive NFL starter. The question is – as it is for more prospects at the top half of the draft – does he possess the mental acumen to integrate these skills into the complexities of leading an NFL offense?
Carr’s spread offense doesn’t provide definitive answers, but it does offer worthwhile clues about his future transition. These indicators tell me Carr is not an instant star, but give him two to three years and he can be the quarterback a team can build around.
Footwork With Purpose
A good place to start with Carr’s game is his accuracy on timing throws where he has to move a little off his original throwing spot. This is a third-and-7 pass versus a 3-3-5 front with 11:52 remaining in the first quarter from Fresno State’s most popular set, a 10-personnel, 2x2 receiver shotgun.
Carr takes a scissors-step drop looking to his to his left, slides a step to his left as pressure arrives from his right and delivers the ball from the 50 to the 32. Carr releases the ball while still sliding left and the pass is on a line to his receiver Davante Adams.
Although the spacing with his steps on the initial drop could have more precision, the overall footwork is strong and Carr generates a throw with good velocity and accuracy. When Carr’s accuracy is on, his footwork from the shotgun has pattern and purpose.
Footwork and Body Alignment: Patience Required
Carr’s accuracy falters when he rushes his delivery. The very next play after completing the out is a second-and-2 pass with 11:23 remaining in the first quarter against another 3-3-5 look with one safety deep that should have resulted in a touchdown.
Carr drops three steps and as soon as he sees the huge swath of open field at the numbers of the left flat with his slot man running through it all alone, he rushes to set his feet and delivers the ball without his body under his feet. In a hurry to get the ball to his wide-open man, Carr’s throwing motion is across his body and the ball takes that same trajectory high and behind the receiver.
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If Carr takes the extra time to align his feet, hips, and shoulders then steps through his throwing motion rather than throw across his body when he’s setting his feet during his release, he can deliver it with more velocity and accuracy. This is a sign that Carr can get too impatient when he sees a big-play opportunity.
I won’t be surprised if Carr displays this lack of patience early in his career. As with any young player, he’ll push hard to make a good impression and he’ll let his eyes and arm get ahead of his feet. Expect some errant throws on easy-looking, wide-open routes.
Even if Carr develops into a star quarterback, these tendencies will stay with him even if they occur with far less frequency. An impatient man doesn’t become patient; he becomes better at proactively addressing situations so his impatience doesn’t become a problem.
Feet + Body = Tight-Window Accuracy
When Carr’s movements are aligned and his throwing stance is balanced, he displays the tight-window accuracy of an NFL quarterback. This play from a 10-personnel set versus a 3-3-5 look that features a pass where the Boise State defender punches the ball loose from the receiver, but Carr displays tight-window accuracy after a drop and hitch.
This play illustrates Carr’s ability to make progression reads. The defensive back off the left edge blitzes and the quarterback does a fine job of beginning his drop looking left to throw into the pressure.
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As he finishes his three-step drop, he turns to the right side and he sees one of his two receivers heading into an open zone. However, there’s pressure coming free from right so he has to get rid of the ball fast. Unlike the last play, Carr keeps his feet under him and his body square to the target.
Although it’s a fast hitch-step, Carr makes the effort and delivers the ball with the defender bearing down, squeezing the ball to his receiver just under the oncoming safety. If the receiver does a better job of squaring his body after his break, the safety has no chance to punch the ball loose as he arrives.
Carr’s willingness to hang in the pocket and follow through with pressure bearing down is a positive and despite needing to rush his footwork to make the hitch and throw, it was the detail of the initial turn and square of the target that sets the stage for him to make the successful throw. This is a play he’ll have to make often to move the chains in the NFL.
A touchdown pass early in the second quarter on a fade route is another good example of keeping his feet under the threat of pressure. This is a first-and-10 with 11:46 left in the half versus another 3-3-5 look where Carr spots the safety at linebacker depth and anticipates a blitz. While in up-tempo mode, he points the defender to the running back as the protection assignment and then initiates the snap.
Carr’s drop from the right hash is two defined hops with his feet, hips, and shoulders aligned throughout the movement. There’s also no delay -– he spots the single coverage opportunity pre-snap and is going for the big play.
Carr delivers the ball from a good base at the 29 and the ball arrives over the cornerback in tight coverage at the right sideline. At this vantage point, it appears as if Carr should have led his receiver, allowing his teammate to run under the ball rather than leap over the top of his opponent. However, the placement of the throw has just enough loft for the receiver to make a play on the ball over the defender, but not so much that the defender has time to adjust.
What I like most about his play is that Carr makes quick decisions. It’s this recognition of the situation and his fast throw that gives the receiver an advantage of having the time to make an early adjustment as the defender is concentrating on gaining ground on the early separation up the sideline.
Although I criticized Carr’s impatience due to a fast decision that cost him a touchdown on an earlier play, this is the positive end of the quarterback’s nature when he’s not allowing his aggression to interfere with his form. If impatience is on the negative end of the assertiveness spectrum, initiative and action are on the positive end.
Here’s play demanding a quick throw to the backside after a play fake to the front side. Although we didn’t see Matt Ryan make this play in 2013 because Roddy White’s ankle injury prevented its implementation in games, the Falcons’ starter is great at backside throws after play-action to the front side. This 10-personnel shotgun throw is a similar concept even if he’s not taking a drop from center.
Note how quick and precise Carr’s feet change position and maintain a balanced position for him to make the quick throw to his receiver in the right flat on the stop route. It’s fast work, but thorough execution.
Precision shows up best when a player is pressed for time. The faster a player has to execute, the more precise his movements have to be. In most cases, precision comes with work and it’s clear that Carr works on his feet.
This second-and-28 play is a great example of Carr’s potential to develop into a good improviser under pressure as long as he continues to do the painstaking work of drilling his footwork. This is a play with 1:59 to go in the third quarter has pressure from the right side that forces Carr to climb the pocket.
After two scissors steps Carr’s back foot hits the turf at the same time the edge defender from the right side is looming two yards away. In this case, Carr can’t hitch his way up the pocket and avoid this defender’s angle -– he has to run.
But I love that Carr isn’t robotic about his movement. He’s not a slave to technique. He runs past the defender and has the feel for his blockers to slide to the right.
Carr also knows where he’s going the entire time. Once again, this is a positive display of initiative and action. He rushes the climb and slide to get to the spot, but then sets his feet and has his body aligned to the target to make a throw to his receiver wide-open in the left flat. This quick thinking and reacting give the receiver time to earn yards after the catch.
Accuracy and precision also require some amount of football wisdom. There are two slants in this game that highlight Carr’s potential to learn lessons on the fly.
The first is an empty shotgun set with 3:58 left in the first quarter where he targets one of the twin receivers stacked at the left side of the formation outside the numbers in the flat.
Carr takes a rushed drop with unbalanced steps. This is the type of play where he could have easily taken no drop, set his feet and delivered an accurate ball. I bet we’ll see this change in the NFL on a similar play call.
Carr drops without good balance and still technically makes an accurate throw to his receiver ahead of the linebacker who is coming over top from the inside. In spirit this bad placement; Carr should hit the back shoulder and gave his receiver a chance to turn his back to the oncoming hit and protect the ball.
Although Adams should have caught the ball -– and this is not the only target against contact in this game that he drops -– Carr has to help his receivers. Carr gets it right on the next slant into a tight zone.
This is an 18-yard completion to Isaiah Burse from a weak side trips, 11-personnel shotgun set with 5:38 left in the half. This throw is made off a read-option fake.
This quick throw is made without Carr moving his feet and while the safety over top isn’t nearly as close to the receiver as the linebacker was to Adams in the first quarter, Carr places the ball to the back shoulder. This placement gives his receiver time to prepare for contact.
Quick-hitting plays don’t always require a quarterback to drop and this is a fine point that Carr should learn as he studies the tape and sees the connection between plays like these two.
The danger of quick-hitting plays is the risk of a quarterback getting into a mode of pre-determining reads on plays that aren’t quick-hitters. This is especially true of a player with Carr’s initiative.
Where I’m most concerned about Carr’s tendency to focus on one receiver from the beginning is in situations where field position and/or down and distance can compound the magnitude of a mistake. Here is a second-and-6 pass at the Fresno State 10-yard-line from a 3x1 receiver set in the third quarter.
Carr stares down his single receiver’s stop route in the left flat from the moment he takes this snap and the result is one of multiple pass deflections he has in this contest. Carr is fortunate that this play does not result in an interception that could have closed the gap to a one-touchdown deficit for Boise State. If there is no window dressing like play-action or a receiver ghosting across the formation, Carr has to be more conscientious about using a pump fake or looking off the intended target.
These nine plays illustrate both sides of Derek Carr. He’s a quarterback capable of quick decisions, high velocity throws with tight-window accuracy, and the skill to make positive plays under pressure. He also has an impulsive streak that can lead to inaccurate throws, poor ball placement, and bad decisions.
Carr’s play has grown on me as I study him in-depth. However, it’s not a ringing endorsement for a player a team is likely to coronate as its future starter in April. He’s the type of player I think would benefit most from a year or two on the bench behind a good starter like Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but I’m not expecting he’ll be this fortunate.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its ninth year, the RSP provides pre and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons of over 170 players. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and glossary of grading criteria to “show his work.” The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country. A pre-sale discount is available through February 10, details at the RSP blog.