Dreaming on J.J. McCarthy—Rookie QBs Tiers 3-4

Dreaming on J.J. McCarthy—Rookie QBs Tiers 3-4

Last week, I covered Tiers 1-2 of the rookie QB class, as well as some thoughts on how to play the position in fantasy. In this post I'll cover Tiers 3-4.

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Tier 3 - Because the NFL Approves

J.J. McCarthy

At a Glance

J.J. McCarthy is mobile, has a rifle for an arm, and won a National Championship as a true junior. The NFL sees serious potential. Once thought to be on the Round 1 fringe, he now looks like a lock to go in the top 13 picks. McCarthy's low-volume passing resume adds risk to his fantasy outlook, but he has upside to develop into a high-end executor with plus mobility.

Positive Indicators

As I'll cover in detail, McCarthy's dropbacks were seriously managed at Michigan. But McCarthy flashed traits that NFL coaches love. Specifically, he was a capable passer when targeting the splash zone (10+ yards downfield and over the middle). He was also impressive under pressure.

McCarthy was sacked on just 14% of his pressured dropbacks, in the range of C.J. Stroud (13%) and Jared Goff (15%). He's not a sack-avoiding magician like Patrick Mahomes (11%), but he shouldn't generate a lot of lost yardage on sacks.

McCarthy was also very accurate under pressure, with a 67% adjusted completion percentage on his pressured dropbacks, matching Joe Burrow. So, in addition to avoiding negatives under pressure, McCarthy looks capable of generating positive plays as well.

McCarthy also looks like a very capable executor to the middle of the field, posting a career passing grade of 95 on splash zone throws, just behind Trevor Lawrence and just ahead of Jared Goff and C.J. Stroud.

McCarthy also showed an ability to hit deep throws, with a big time deep throw on 4.3% of his dropbacks. McCarthy doesn't profile as a super fun deep thrower by fantasy football standards—he's just below Baker Mayfield, Teddy Bridgewater, and Jared Goff in big-time-deep-throw rate. But, like Goff, he should be able to challenge deep often enough to operate a professional passing game.

Red Flags

McCarthy flashed NFL-level traits at Michigan... but it's not ideal that part of Jim Harbaugh's championship-winning formula was to seriously limit McCarthy's role in the offense.

It's hard to overstate the extent to which McCarthy's dropbacks were limited compared to the other QBs in this class.

McCarthy's lack of passing volume is a sobering reminder of what we, as fantasy managers, not general managers, are looking to do here.

If McCarthy winds up being a 49ers-era Jimmy Garoppolo-level facilitator for the next few seasons, that's not a bad outcome for an NFL team that can make use of his rookie contract to build out the rest of their roster. But that's not going to be very fun for fantasy.

Fortunately, McCarthy is far more mobile than Garoppolo. McCarthy rushed for 22 per game at Michigan (excluding sacks), matching Justin Herbert and just above Sam Darnold (20).

However, McCarthy scrambled on just 3% of his kept clean dropbacks, a significantly lower rate than Herbert and Darnold (both 4.8%). McCarthy could ultimately be dependent on others – his playcaller or defenders getting pressure – to add a consistent rushing element to his game.

And as a rookie, we could be talking about a low-volume passer who only adds with his legs as a last resort.

Statistical Comps

  • Sam Darnold
  • Bryce Young
  • Zach Wilson
  • Joe Burrow

McCarthy weighed in at the Combine at 6-foot-3, 219. So he's built much more similarly to Sam Darnold (6-foot-3, 221), Zach Wilson (6-foot-2, 214), and Joe Burrow (6-foot-3, 221) than Bryce Young (5-foot-10, 204).

He was also a better passer splash zone passer than Darnold and took better care of the ball when moving off his first read.

And he was better at avoiding sacks than Zach Wilson and Joe Burrow.

At the same time, McCarthy was a less productive rusher than Zach Wilson and Joe Burrow. He's mobile but is unlikely to add a ton of fantasy value with his legs.

Ultimately, McCarthy could be a version of Sam Darnold, who takes better care of the ball. With strong weapons around him, that could be pretty fun.

Best Ball/Dynasty Outlook

J.J. McCarthy doesn't have an especially fantasy-friendly skillset. But... he has a skillset that the Vikings – a very fantasy-friendly offense – may be working to acquire. It would be hard not to get excited about McCarthy's potential with Justin Jefferson as his WR1.

But it's not just the weapons. Kevin O'Connell's system also looks like a great fit for McCarthy. O'Connell is from the Sean McVay branch of the Shanahan tree. This coaching tree is hyper-focused on the splash zone.

In 2023, offensive coaches from the extended Shanahan tree made up eight of the top 12 teams in splash zone yards: the Texans (1), 49ers (2), Vikings (3), Dolphins (4), Bengals (6), Packers (7), Rams (11), and Seahawks (12).

Of course, McCarthy could very easily end up playing elsewhere and may struggle if asked to carry an offense that puts more on his shoulders, especially early on.

But at the same time, as a long-term bet, McCarthy is pretty interesting as an early Round 1 pick, regardless of landing spot. McCarthy just turned 21 this past January and has the tools to develop into a strong NFL passer. He also has enough mobility to become a solid scrambler and occasional out-of-structure playmaker at the NFL level.

And so from a dynasty lens, McCarthy shapes up as a target. Even as an eventual bust, he's likely to generate excitement and a corresponding profitable sell window at some point in the next year or two.

From a best ball perspective, McCarthy looks more shaky. It's hard to imagine that at 21 years old, McCarthy is going to immediately graduate from a highly protected college role to a prolific NFL passing attack. But I think he's draftable, mostly as a bet that he lands on the Vikings.

Best Ball Recommendation

Draftable as a desperation QB in the Big Board pre-NFL draft. Potentially a strong 15th-18th round pick if the NFL draft breaks right.

Superflex Rookie Draft Grade

Late 1st Round.

Tier 4 - Worth a Shot in Superflex

Bo Nix

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