The Tour of the Top Four: J.J. McCarthy

by Sam Bruchhaus|March 27, 2024

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Leading up to the draft, we will be bringing you THE TOUR OF THE TOP FOUR, a data-driven journey to the NFL draft for each of the top four quarterbacks. We will be providing you with a summary of the careers of J.J. McCarthy, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, and Caleb Williams. You can find companion discussions to the articles on The Class Play Podcast, which can be found on the SumerSports Show Podcast Feed on your audio platform of choice. 

The clock hit zero, and the Maize and Blue rushed onto the field. Finally, Michigan had reclaimed its status as college football royalty by winning a National Championship. As the confetti rained down from the skies, junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy, with tears of joy just about to sprout from his eyes, exclaimed his love for his team. “It’s amazing what you can do when you love each other,” said McCarthy. 

McCarthy was part of one of the winningest stretches in modern Michigan history and played with several surefire Michigan greats. He helmed a team that went to the College Football Playoffs in 2022, only to be upset in a shootout with the TCU Horned Frogs. In 2023, McCarthy and Big Blue returned to the playoffs, escaping with an overtime win against powerhouse Alabama before steamrolling the Washington Huskies to claim the title. 

“Steamroll” is the key word here. McCarthy quarterbacked a powerful, run-heavy scheme that was complimented by a destructive defense in each of his two years as the primary starter. These two juggernaut squads lost exactly one game and were +723 in terms of net points. In fact, McCarthy’s defense gave up a stunning 298 less points than the next closest “Top-Tier” quarterback’s teams did. 

In a way, his relationship with his team summarizes J.J. McCarthy’s draft prospects, for better and for worse. If looked at only through the lens of his team success and leadership at the amateur levels, McCarthy appears to be a proven winner. In contrast, the view could be taken that he is a game manager whose success is a product of his loaded IMG and Michigan teams. This dichotomy poses a question. Can he do it at the next level where margins are much thinner, and the talent is greatly superior?  

For a closer look, let’s take a data-driven journey alongside each step of J.J. McCarthy’s career.

 

McCarthy is a native of the Chicago suburb La Grange Park, Illinois. His illustrious winning ways began early on in his high school career as he led his hometown Nazareth Academy to two state runner-up finishes and a championship in his freshman to junior seasons. However, when Illinois suspended the 2020 season due to COVID-19, McCarthy transferred south to the Florida-based football powerhouse, IMG Academy. There, McCarthy led his team to a MaxPreps National Championship 

All this winning led to a 4-star rating by 247 Sports, a 4-star rating from ESPN, and a 5-star rating in composite. If you can think of a major college football program, McCarthy likely had an offer from it. 

247 deeply explains how to interpret their rankings. McCarthy’s 247 score was a 97, which means by its estimation, McCarthy was likely to be drafted and was among the top 10% of high school prospects. Looking at his composite grade, a 0.9866, and extrapolating that number to the 247 100-point scale, the consensus was that McCarthy projected out to be a first-round pick. 

With that in mind, McCarthy had his work cut out for him to make it to the next level. Five-star recruits are drafted in the first round only about 29% of the time, according to an Axios analysis of 247 recruiting classes ranging from 2015 to 2020. A meager 58% of those players were selected within the first three rounds. 

 

By committing to a powerhouse and never transferring, McCarthy took perhaps the most traditional path to the pros of the four top quarterbacks in this year’s draft. Though the team was coming off an anomalous 2-4 COVID season (where 2024 Draft classmate Joe Milton was the opening week starter), McCarthy signed with a Jim Harbaugh-led team which had been ranked in the top 15 of the CFP final poll 4 of the preceding 6 years 

In camp, a quarterback competition was staged, with McCarthy ultimately losing out to Cade McNamara. McNamara led Michigan to a College Football Playoff appearance, while McCarthy played mostly spot duty. Notably, McCarthy came in as relief in the playoff game versus the titan-esque Georgia Bulldog defense, where he went 7-17 for 131 yards and a touchdown in a 34-11 drubbing of a loss.  

2022 is when McCarthy’s journey to the NFL Draft truly started. A lingering shoulder injury kept the sequel to the McNamara vs. McCarthy competition open into training camp and the season, but by the third game McCarthy was seeing most of the snaps. This led to immense team success. The offense, in McCarthy’s inaugural season as a starter, jumped from 16th in the nation in points per game in 2021 to 6th in the nation in 2022. 

McCarthy was a major engine behind the improvement. In 2021, McNamara was 24th in ESPN’s QBR metric. In 2022, McCarthy was 16th. McCarthy added just over 0.02 more expected points per relevant play than McNamara did in 2021. To put that in perspective, the median qualifier for ESPN’s leaderboard registered around 450 relevant snaps. Thus, using that median, we can assume that on plays where the quarterback was involved, Michigan’s offense was about 10 points better for the season with McCarthy at the helm than McNamara. 

As the regular season ended, Michigan locked itself into another College Football Playoff appearance. 

This all led to a showdown with the dark horse TCU Horned Frogs in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. Despite Michigan being a stereotypical Jim Harbaugh “power” offense most of the year, this game was an absolute shootout. The teams scored a combined 96 points in regulation. Both offenses were above the 70th percentile in success rate and the 80th percentile in yards per play, according to Game on Paper. 

McCarthy racked up 343 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and 82 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Judging by the box score, you’d think McCarthy put on a show, but the analytics tell a different story. McCarthy had two soul-crushing pick sixes. Together, his turnovers caused Michigan’s win probability to fall almost 33 percentage points, effectively cancelling out all his other production in the air. While a few of McCarthy’s big-time plays kept them in the game, his turnovers and struggles with accuracy broke the camel’s back. The Horned Frogs upset the Wolverines in one of the most shocking victories of the College Football Playoff era. 

 

Coming back for his third-letter season, McCarthy was a certified preseason star. For the most part, he delivered on the hype. The more experienced Michigan signal caller jumped from 16th to 3rd in ESPN’s QBR ratings. Aided by another stingy defense, the Wolverines flattened the competition on their way to another College Playoff appearance. 

First up was against the legendary Nick Saban in the “Grandaddy of ‘Em All”, the Rose Bowl. McCarthy had a conservative, though productive, game in an absolute rock fight with the Tide in which he definitively outdueled another Heisman vote-getter, Jalen Milroe. McCarthy completed 17 of his 27 passing attempts for 221 yards and 3 touchdowns. He finished the game at the 79th percentile in EPA per dropback and made big plays in big moments, including a 38-yard bomb to go up a score before the half and a short 4-yard pass in the dwindling moments of the second half to tie the game up, 20-20. The effort was enough to send Michigan to the National Championship. 

In similar fashion, though the game was less closely contested when it was all said and done, McCarthy played a game manager role in the championship. McCarthy attempted only 18 passes, completing 10, as a potent Michigan running game broke free against the Washington Huskies. McCarthy was not especially effective through the air, only ranking in the 19th percentile in terms of EPA per dropback, but the team’s effort was enough to take home the trophy by a score of 34-13. McCarthy had conquered the college game, adding a CFP National Title to match his high school trophy. 

Many wondered if McCarthy might consider returning to college. On January 9th, according to NFL Mock Draft Database, McCarthy sat at 32nd on the consensus big board, indicating that it was questionable whether he would be a first-round pick. However, McCarthy ultimately eschewed a massive NIL payday to try his luck in the draft. By the time the NFL Scouting Combine rolled around, McCarthy still sat at the edge of the Top 32 on the consensus big board.  

 

The ascent to being a potential Top 5 pick began at the combine. Despite not having a major correlation with NFL Performance (as documented by SumerSports’ own Tej Seth), McCarthy tested well in the agility drills, posting a top-ten three-cone score across positions and an elite shuttle score amongst quarterbacks. Though he struggled connecting on deep balls during his on-field drills, a deficiency that also shows up in his charted in-game performance, his overall showing led to a growing belief that McCarthy might be in the certified top-tier of quarterbacks in the 2024 class.  

As a result of his combine performance and a generally successful pro day, McCarthy began rising up the consensus big board, currently sitting at 9 (as of March 27th, 2024). After the Vikings traded for an additional first-round pick, smoke began to billow that several teams are considering moving up in the draft to snag McCarthy. According to Grinding the Mocks, his expected draft position is currently around the 7th pick (as of March 27th, 2024), though NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that he may go as high as the 2nd pick.  

 

Of the “top-tier” quarterbacks in discussion for a high draft pick, McCarthy has had the most direct path to the top of the NFL draft and arguably the most successful. He was a highly rated recruit in high school. He played snaps in each of his three seasons at a blue-chip program under a then-former, now-current NFL head coach. He made three College Football Playoff appearances, lighting up the box score in one and winning it all in another.  

However, McCarthy has by far the murkiest future ahead of him. There is imminent drama on where, when, and how he may be selected, and he is seemingly the most disagreed upon prospect in terms of public scouting information. All-in-all, where there is smoke, there is fire, so expect pyrotechnics on draft night connected with J.J. McCarthy. 

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