Approaching his 7th season in the NFL, it seems yet again we are gearing up for an offseason where the main question being asked by Raider fans is: does Derek Carr have what it takes to be a franchise quarterback?
While at times it’s clear that he has the talent, some questionable decisions have left the Raider Nation wanting more. So what can he do to have a successful 2020 season? To answer this, we need to look back at his previous seasons in the league.
Drafted as the 36th pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Derek Carr has had his ups and downs while playing for the silver and black. He was an immediate starter in his first season and finished a solid rookie season with 3,270 yards, 21 TD’s and 12 INT’s. His rookie season was his worst for completions, finishing with 58.1% of his passes completed from a career high 599 attempts.
From here, he has been fairly consistent with his stats after taking a leap in the 2015 season. 2015 was his best year for touchdown efficiency; finishing with 32 on the season (5.6% of his total passes on the season). Along with this came Carr’s joint highest interceptions thrown at 13, the other being the 2017 season.
The infamous 2016 season which left Raider fans with a question of “what could have been” was a solid one for Carr. Before his leg break in the fourth quarter of the penultimate game of the season, he threw for 3937 yards and 28 TD’s on just six INT’s, a career low. Jack Del Rio and Bill Musgrave knew how to get the best out of Carr, which was bolstered by the fact he had one of the league’s top offensive lines.
Moving on to 2017, a number of factors impacted Carr’s development including: shifting coordinators; offensive line injuries; recovery from a broken fibula; and, subsequent injuries to his back. Derek struggled in the 2017 season before the firing of head coach Del Rio.
Enter Jon Gruden.
Jon Gruden Era
The 2018 season was a hard watch for Raiders fans. Finishing 4-12 on the season was a low point of the last few years, though much of this can be attributed to a weak squad. Gruden has made it clear he wants to win with a team he builds, so this can be seen as a rebuilding season for Carr.
With weak talent around him, Derek Carr still managed a decent season statistically, finishing with a career high 4049 passing yards and a 68.9% completion rate. The standout difference on this season was the poor offensive line play, paired with an ageing or inexperienced and talent deficient receiving core. Carr got sacked 51 times, on 8.4% of his pass attempts, a huge number and one which makes any quarterback’s life difficult.
Luckily for Derek, the 2019 off season led to huge changes to the offensive line, bolstered by the free agent signings of Trent Brown and Richie Incognito. However, the Raiders receiver issues continued, signing the troubled Antonio Brown, before losing the All-pro talent without him playing a down for Oakland.
But, even with a receiving core marred with injuries and inexperience, Derek managed to yet again break his career high passing yards and completion percentage at 4054 yards on 513 attempts, completing 70.4% of those passes.
It’s a well known trope of NFL article writing that stats don’t show everything. But the narrative around Derek Carr is generally confusing and uncertain. Despite showing that he can overcome major injuries (missing only two games in six seasons with the major injuries in 2016/17 is impressive) and a poor team around him, his role as the starter seems to be constantly in question.
So, let’s highlight some areas where improvement would answer some of these questions.
Key improvement areas
Decision making and second reads
Many of the questions asked about Carr can be attributed to over-blowing each mistake he makes. However, there are times when his decision making comes into question. His mistakes against the Cowboys and Packers proved costly. Both times he has given up a touch-back; first in the 2017 game versus the Cowboys, and then 2019’s match-up versus the Packers. Clearly the desire to win is strong, but mistakes cost wins.
Another stand out is that Carr is extremely quick to make his mind up. This comes in the second read of his progression where Carr has a tendency to make difficult throws. Since the start of 2018, his passing grade with second reads is a meagre 34.5, as per PFF last season. Developing this more could lead to more explosive plays for the Raiders.
Extending the play
Extending the play was a key focus for Derek Carr in the 2019 offseason. He mentioned as such in an interview with the Raider Cody podcast. So was he able to take this forward during the 2019 season?
Breaking out of a collapsing pocket and extending the play is key in the modern NFL. Posting a 4.69 40 yard dash in the combine, you would expect Carr to use his athletic ability a little more to extend plays and in his first two seasons, he did this. During those first two years in the league, he collected 230 yards combined with his legs. Over the next three years (2016-2018), he only ran for 183 yards on 24 more attempts.
So did he manage to extend the play outside of the pocket more in 2019? In a simple answer, yes. He collected 83 yards rushing on 27 attempts, along with piling up 2 further rushing touchdowns. He should look to keep improving on and using this ability, as he clearly has the talent to do it.
As well as the rushing ability, Derek managed to extend plays a little more in the passing game. A great example of this in the 2019 season was a touchdown thrown to Hunter Renfrow against the Lions; Raiders alumni Lincoln Kennedy breaks this down here. Carr waits for the pocket to collapse before dashing to the left and throwing a bullet to an aware Renfrow.
Further to this comes his risk taking, which would in turn help to extend the play. As you can see in the chart below, Carr is one of the safest throwers in the league. This generally translates to fewer big time plays.
But the addition of Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs III, plus other versatile pieces picked up in the draft, should help. Allowing these playmakers to boost these stats with the ability to gain yards after the catch is key.
Check out more on the speed merchant Ruggs here
Part of this risk adverse play could be a product of the system that Gruden has sculpted. However, as a general trend, Carr tends to play it safe and check down versus taking a game breaking shot.
What constitutes a successful 2020 season?
Finish with a winning record
Look, we know that it’s a team sport but Derek could really do with a winning season. The likelihood is that if a team finishes 9-7 this season, they could very well end up with a wildcard spot due to the extended playoff bracket. It’s a prime opportunity for Carr to earn his first playoff start?
Mariota stays on the bench
Speculation has been rife from the last snap of 2019 to now about Carr’s job security. After signing Marcus Mariota, the questions on whether he would take the starting job from Carr straight away, or in the early part of the season began. Ultimately, Mariota is likely just a great backup to have in case Carr gets hurt.
This pressure should hopefully spur Carr to improve his game and prove why he should be the starting quarterback. This was a great tactical signing by Mayock and Gruden, and should provide fire to Derek Carr’s game in 2020.
Beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead
One thing that gets mentioned as an argument against Carr is his record at Arrowhead. In six starts he has a grand total of 0 wins at home of the Chiefs. During this time he has an average quarterback rating of 69.3, which in comparison with his average career rating of 90.7 gives a clear idea of how much he struggles in these games. Arrowhead is a tough place to play, but Raider Nation would love to win versus the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Find out more about the Raiders 2020 schedule here
Retain 3rd down passing efficiency
Derek Carr finished with 46.2% of his third down passes converted to first downs, the 5th highest in the league. Impressive for a team that took a leap from 37% in 2018 to 43% in 2019 in successful third down conversions. If the Raiders and Carr are to have a successful season, they’ll need to continue this third down conversion rate.
Derek Carr is in one of the best positions of his career to succeed in 2020. Mayock and Gruden have done a great job at assembling a young, talented team to compete to give Carr all the pieces to win. So we should expect to see Derek win games this year, right?