The Buffalo Bills opted for the more dramatic route of acquiring their veteran quarterback by waiting for the final seat in the free agent game of musical chairs. Former Cincinnati Bengals QB AJ McCarron came to terms with the Bills on a two-year deal. McCarron is somewhat of an unknown so naturally we set out to get some answers.
McCarron’s best review comes courtesy of 2015, when he subbed for Andy Dalton for 3.75 games when the latter injured his thumb. McCarron ended his most prolific season as a passer with a 66% completion percentage, six touchdowns, two interceptions, and a QB rating of 97. The “on paper” look is promising, so let’s turn to the tape. All plays detailed below (by the author) come courtesy of Week 16 of the 2015 season. This marked McCarron’s second start and the Bengals fell to the Broncos 17-20.
This play could be used to make McCarron look really good, but it’s probably wiser to temper expectations. This appears to be a full-field scan but look closely. It’s a quick look to one target to his right, then immediately to a second read to his left. This is also fairly unusual for McCarron, as there’s not a great deal of looks to both sides of the field. With the Bengals, McCarron was asked to keep things simple and generally used only half the field at a time.
Here we have a more common set of reads for McCarron. He drops back and is immediately locked to one side of the field. Reading the eyes of a QB can be tough even using the All-22. The stoppage here is to draw a line showing the foot alignment. Foot alignment should be closely correlated to “reads” as the QB needs to make a fast decision and have proper mechanics to throw the ball. Using this as a guide is spot on for McCarron as he tends to have his feet aligned with where he’s looking. Taking the good with the bad, he’s often limited to half the field but shows encouraging signs with foot placement to make the throw.
The word “encouraging” was deliberately selected above. Foot placement ideally translates to accuracy. While McCarron’s feet are generally “looking” in the same direction as his eyes, he needs to work on ball placement. His high completion percentage isn’t a fluke, as he tosses plenty of catchable balls. However, like this play, the receivers constantly were adjusting to come down with the catch when McCarron was behind center in 2015. If we’re looking for encouraging signs, the timing is good on this and many other passes.
So what happens when defenses lock down the half field he’s focusing on? Well, you just saw it. Scrambles and sacks have the common denominator of the first couple reads being well covered. Using the feet as the guide here, McCarron never looks toward the left side at all. He’s still trying to make a play to the right side when he’s sacked. On the positive side of the ledger, he’s not prone to panicking and throwing the ball up for grabs. When there’s a clean pocket, he can buy some time as well and isn’t afraid to pick up a few yards with his legs.
Let’s end with the good news. If Brian Daboll was the right hire, Bills fans should expect at least adequate QB play. McCarron seemed to have a good handle on the playbook and timing. Frame by frame makes it easy to see in the GIF, but anyone looking at McCarron should keep an eye out for this. This isn’t a fluke, and his throws often come out timed well with the receiver’s break. On this exact play, the arm starts to wind up well before the receiver turns back to look for it. McCarron has his warts, but combined with a capable coordinator, he can be effective. The completion percentage is also in part due to plays finding the better half of the field for McCarron to lock onto. Pre-snap, McCarron displays good ability to identify match ups and once the play starts he confidently goes to his selected target.
Dan Orlovsky’s take
For you @buffalobills fans take a look at your new QB and how his tape shows he does some really good things at the NFL level. @TheBillsWire @TheBillsMafia @BillsNewsNow @mikerodak @JoeBuscaglia @MatthewFairburn #nflfreeagency #FreeAgency pic.twitter.com/LjfRPHwYTi— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) March 14, 2018
Dan Orlovsky has put out a couple hype clips regarding McCarron and is definitely better versed in most of these matters than I. Orlovsky rightfully points out that McCarron is relatively inexperienced and still displays some positives.
If you follow YardsPerPass (our own Jon Ramsey, proprietor), you saw a different side of the coin. Check out this thread from YardsPerPass on Twitter for a more thorough look, including plays. To summarize the overall sentiment;
McCarron had some garbage time passes this past year + then a few games back in '15— YardsPerPass (@YardsPerPass) March 15, 2018
He ran Hue's gimmick offense pretty well but that Cincy team was loaded at the skill positions
I can't see him being the starter for more than 7-8 games max before whatever draft pick takes over
AJ McCarron makes many of the mistakes you’d expect from a QB with so few starts. When looking at his ceiling, there’s plenty to like between his ears. Pre-snap reads and decisive throws are right in his wheelhouse. If he can steadily improve, the Bills have found a tremendous bargain.
There is however, a potential for his red flags to be exacerbated in the wrong system or with the wrong team. Currently, poor ball placement is a significant concern. Similarly, there’s no guarantee that the Buffalo combination of skill positions and offensive scheme will lead to the same ease of identifying effective match ups that he had in Cincinnati.
The Bills likely come away with exactly what was expected. A QB that hovers in the mid-tier to keep the seat warm while the heir apparent gets ready.