J.J. McCarthy's upside is tantalizing. The question is how high it actually goes

J.J. McCarthy was behind center for Michigan’s runs to and through the College Football Playoff, putting him front and center during the college season as the Wolverines kept churning out wins.

They were powered by a classic Harbaugh-ized offense: pound the rock until the defense bursts or at least get to third-and-manageable and further into the depths of Michigan’s hyper-designed gameplan. This commitment to a certain style is not a surprise to anyone that has watched a Jim Harbaugh-coached team, but it makes McCarthy an enigma for NFL talent evaluators attempting to discern as much as possible from film that consisted of a dozen or so dropbacks, maybe, in a given game.

On that sample pack-sized collection of plays, McCarthy showed a great understanding of what Michigan was trying to accomplish, even on examples of him having to do nothing but hand the ball off after the snap. He often was given the reins to change plays based on defensive looks — Michigan had a field day on the ground against Penn State, when McCarthy attempted only eight passes but was often communicating and signaling play changes before the snap in difficult third-down and backed-up situations.

McCarthy was officially listed at 202 pounds at Michigan, though he weighed in at 219 at the combine on Saturday, according to Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson. That could be significant in determining how successful he is at the NFL level. Before we get to that, let's look at his game.

Where J.J. McCarthy is strong throwing the football

When asked to drop back, McCarthy shows good arm strength and the ability to throw on the move (he prefers to go to his right) and mitigate sacks with his pocket movement and athleticism, plus he also has the willingness to fire the ball over the middle of the field.

Showing flashes of anticipation and plenty of zip to drive into tight spaces, McCarthy was more than comfortable working in the pocket, or extending for another half-second, to drive on in-breaking throws and hunt explosive plays. He plays with a proper clock in his head, even despite the lower amount of times he was asked to drop back in his time in Ann Arbor, and a feel for when he has to get the ball out of his hands, often being able to avoid taking negative plays with good balance and footwork when moving around in the pocket. It would come up in games like the aforementioned Penn State tilt, when Michigan’s offensive tackles were overmatched by opposing pass rushers, but McCarthy, especially on early downs, showed a mature feel for getting the ball out of his hands and saving the offense from a negative play.

McCarthy has a tendency to seek out the chunkier of two options that would at times get him in trouble on passing downs like third-and-long, taking sacks as he tried to find an option past the first-down marker, aggressive habits that can create explosive plays for a defense. But I personally think it’s not the worst thing to have a quarterback that is willing to push the ball, especially if they do a pretty decent job of mitigating sacks in the first place — which holds up when you consider McCarthy’s career sack (4.3%) and pressure-to-sack (14.3%) rates both rank third among the consensus top seven QB prospects and are well within the “good” range when comparing to past highly drafted prospects. The fact McCarthy ranks at or near the top in every air yard-per-attempt category is a solid combination of aggression while not taking too many negative plays as well.

There are times McCarthy can perhaps put his pedal to the metal a bit too hard, really gearing up for that high-velocity pass attempt, putting an extra little oomph and being just a little bit late for the throwing window. Though he did show more glimpses of layering throws with touch and looping liners as opposed to a line drives in all directions.

Where J.J. McCarthy is less effective throwing the football

While throwing over the middle is such an important part of quarterback’s games and creating a sustainable offensive ecosystem, McCarthy can have more issues when he attempts to drive the ball to the outside and down the field on outbreaking routes. When a quarterback typically struggles with this, it’s because of a lack of arm strength or willingness to consistently drive on throws. With McCarthy, his misses seem to stem from a tendency to overstride on throws, creating an elongated base which can affect the quarterback’s balance and the angle of their front shoulder.

Throwing to the left, particularly down the field, seems to unravel some of McCarthy’s mechanics. The stats reflect this as well; on throws outside the numbers, McCarthy’s accuracy and efficiency drop drastically when he has to push the ball to his left and down the field. On throws of 10 or more air yards and outside the numbers over his career, McCarthy’s completion percentage drops from 56.2% to the right to 42.6% to the left; his quarterback efficiency goes from a eye-watering 205.4 to 144.2; his dropback success rate from a crisp 56.2% to a pedestrian 42.6%; and his first downs per attempt from 53.4% to 39.7%.

The question is whether this is a completely damning flaw. I don’t think so? McCarthy is a flexible athlete and has the arm to get the ball out there with plenty of RPMs, but that Zoolander-like tendency will have to get sorted out as he will be asked to drop back more often and thus have to attack all parts of the field more often as well.

McCarthy has steady accuracy on underneath throws and shows an understanding of how to work the ball away from closing defenders. There are short throws in dropback concepts with McCarthy where the ball will end up out of his hand just a little later than preferred, and some of that because of the rigidness of the dropback footwork used in this offense, but McCarthy could help himself use his arm strength even more with a quarter-count quicker timing as he progresses his game.

Where J.J. McCarthy might be able to find an NFL home

Back to his athleticism. McCarthy was able to get the edge constantly on designed runs and when having to move outside the pocket. Michigan sprinkled in designed runs for him, often in high-leverage situations, and he was able to get angles and race for first downs at a decent clip. On bootlegs and when looking to create, McCarthy plays with a strong understanding of when to get rid of the ball promptly and when to look for more:

The ability to throw over the middle — McCarthy leads the consensus top prospects in this class with 13.9% of his dropbacks attacking the intermediate (10-to-22-yard) part between the numbers — and also to throw on the move are why I think McCarthy will have fans across the league among certain coaching staffs, particularly ones with backgrounds in Shanahan offenses that thrive on getting their quarterbacks on the move and death by a million in-cutting routes. McCarthy has the prerequisite arm strength and athleticism for potential room for growth (let’s start with those throws to the left) and a bonus sprinkling of quarterback run game.

It would just have to be a sprinkle, however. Because like I brought up in my piece about Jayden Daniels, if McCarthy is close to the 202 pounds he was at Michigan, he'd be a historical outlier. Then again, if McCarthy, who only just turned 21 in January, added 17 pounds to his frame for the combine, how much of that is real will answer a big question for me. And maybe for some teams as well; Kirk Cousins is one of the sub-205-pound successful quarterbacks that I brought up in my Daniels profile, and his propensity to whip throws in between the numbers and stand in the pocket and take a shot – both qualities McCarthy shares – have made him a desired signal-caller for the Shanahan disciples.

Or perhaps decision-makers see that defenses are seemingly getting smaller and faster, and it’s OK to have a slighter but faster quarterback like McCarthy or Daniels, too.

Quarterbacks and prospects are always going to be an eye-of-the-beholder type situation with how they are assessed. McCarthy has tools and a play style that I typically prefer: movement ability, a gash-or-be-gashed mindset with a plenty strong arm. But it’s also important to extrapolate the smaller denominator of plays when comparing him to other quarterbacks of this class (and previous ones), and that’s even before considering the potential historical outlier size part of this, as well.

There are quarterbacks of this archetype that have had success with this rip-and-run play style, and perhaps not coincidentally in offenses with backgrounds similar to the Shanahan-alites around the league. That group includes Cousins, Jeff Garcia, and even past MVP winners like Joe Montana and Rich Gannon. (Gannon, another accurate thrower who can run, weighed in at a whopping 193 pounds as a prospect. He's actually not a terrible comparison for McCarthy, as long as you ignore the different throwing motions.)

None of those quarterbacks were first-round picks, however, And, overall, I have McCarthy graded more like a second-round prospect. He does things that translate well but there is always the gigantic risk of what his final upside could be. But it takes only one team or one decision-maker, and quarterbacks always get inflated in the draft, because the risk can be worth it if the team does indeed have the environment to foster a young talent.

I can see how McCarthy’s live arm, athleticism and budding maturation and grasp of the game (not to mention the classic #QBWINZ argument) could tempt teams to believe there's even more to tap into and justify the risk with the potential to find a quality starter on a cost-controlled contract.