The biggest criticism of J.J. McCarthy is out of his control. And those who watched McCarthy closely at Michigan don’t believe it should overshadow his NFL potential.

McCarthy, a polarizing quarterback prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft, does not have the same statistical resume as top signal-callers like Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye. Of those four quarterbacks, the consensus top four, McCarthy finished with the fewest passing yards in 2023, and by a wide margin. He also threw nearly 100 fewer passes than Maye, who attempted the most (425) of the quartet, and 50 fewer than Williams (388).

“It’s real, right?” Aaron McMann, a beat reporter who has covered Michigan football for M Live Media Group since 2017, told during a phone interview.

“Michigan didn’t throw the ball a ton. I think that is certainly a knock against him because he just doesn’t have as much film as the other quarterbacks do.”

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There were seven games in 2023 where McCarthy threw the ball 20 or fewer times, including an eight-attempt win against Penn State. There were five games where he didn’t throw for a touchdown. And in 2022, he threw 18 or fewer passes in five games, including Michigan’s season opener when he was still competing for the starting job.

That’s the way former head coach Jim Harbaugh built the Wolverines. Michigan averaged 37.5 rushing attempts and 24.1 passes per game in 2023. It had one of the nation’s best running backs in Blake Corum, who, along with McCarthy, had the privilege of playing behind one of the best offensive lines.

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“When they did throw the ball, it wasn’t always deep down the field,” McMann said. “Sometimes it was check downs, sometimes it was slant routes over the middle. They weren’t deep shots. That may give some NFL teams pause.”

McCarthy completed 72.3% of his passes last season. But those 240 completions went for a total of 2,991 passing yards (12.4 yards per completion).

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“But the one thing about him is, when they did utilize his arm, he was as efficient as they get,” said McMann, who recalled some believing Michigan should have used McCarthy’s passing ability more. “If you look at the efficiency numbers — quarterback rating, etc. — they’re off the charts.”

The narrative surrounding McCarthy’s college production isn’t anything new. It’s been discussed at length in the lead-up to the draft. And while those who watched McCarthy at Michigan believe there is merit to it, they also believe if McCarthy played in an offense that relied on him, he would have the production to show for it.

“He really does have a pretty special skillset, and he didn’t always get to show that at Michigan,” said Austin Meek, who has covered Michigan football for The Athletic the last five seasons. “He didn’t have to carry the offense, he just had to facilitate the offense. But when he needed to make plays, he had a handful of plays in his career that made you go, ‘Wow, this guy really has something special.'”

It’s why some draft experts and analysts view McCarthy as more of an unknown than Williams, Daniels and Maye. Whichever team selects McCarthy is making a bet on his ceiling rather than college stats. He’s viewed as more of a projection.

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“A few years down the road could J.J. McCarthy develop into that kind of quarterback? Absolutely,” Meek said. “I don’t think there’s a ceiling on what he can do just because of the offense he played in in college. I think it just means there is more unknown.”

I don’t think there’s a ceiling on what he can do just because of the offense he played in in college.

The Athletic’s Austin Meek on J.J. McCarthy

One thing that is known about McCarthy? He’s a winner.

“You can’t get past that,” Meek said. “He’s been successful at every level of football.”

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Both McMann and Meek saw it first hand the last two seasons. McCarthy, a five-star recruit who won IMG Academy’s first football national championship and was named Florida’s Player of the Year, went 27-1 as the Wolverines starter.

McCarthy won the starting job in the second week of the 2022 season. At the time, Harbaugh gave each senior Cade McNamara and then-sophomore McCarthy one regular-season start to prove themselves. McCarthy completed all four of his attempts during McNamara’s start in Week 1, and then 11 of his 12 passes in his start against Hawaii in Week 2.

He won the job and the rest is history.

“I think the way he handled that situation, with a veteran quarterback that he was competing against, and kept the team together and was able to make that transition, that was kind of when I felt like, ‘OK, this guy has the makeup to be a really successful quarterback,'” Meek said. “It was a really intense situation, and the type of situation that could have gone south in a hurry if the team had been divided, if J.J. hadn’t handled it well.”

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Those sorts of intangibles reportedly have played a key role in McCarthy’s rise up the draft boards. Meek praised McCarthy’s energy and lauded him for always being engaged and thoughtful. McMann, who pointed out that McCarthy was not named a Michigan captain in 2023, called McCarthy one of the “nicest kids” he’s come across. He’s mature and comfortable in his own skin, McMann said.

McCarthy has been linked to the Washington Commanders, who hold the second overall pick, and the New England Patriots, who own No. 3. Additionally, the two-year starter is seen as a viable option for a first-round trade-up candidate like the Minnesota Vikings.

Neither McMann nor Meek have been surprised to see McCarthy’s recent rise.

One reason behind it, they believe, is the fact McCarthy performed well at the NFL Scouting Combine and Michigan’s Pro Day. He made throws some questioned whether or not he could make. Another reason, they believe, is because league evaluators have had more time to watch his tape. McCarthy didn’t announce he was entering the 2024 NFL Draft until mid-January, after some questioned whether or not he could return to Michigan. The uncertainty might have limited the amount of time evaluators had to study McCarthy.

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The two college football reporters, not to be confused as draft experts, believe McCarthy is a first-round prospect and worthy of an early selection.

“If you really watched him closely during his college career, watched every throw, you saw things that went beyond the box score and stats,” Meek said. “There were just some throws he made in some games where you’re just like, ‘That is definitely an NFL throw.'”

It was reported last week Patriots de facto general manager Eliot Wolf was “pushing hard” for McCarthy. NFL draft expert Tony Pauline reported Wolf is “in love” and even went as far as to say it seems like McCarthy will be New England’s pick.

Will that prove to be the case? Who knows. Those sentiments came during the NFL’s “silly season,” after all.

But should McCarthy come to New England, it would be a different scenario than many he has faced in his football career. Unlike the football factory of IMG Academy or College Football Playoff-qualifying Wolverines, the Patriots lack high-end talent on the offensive side of the ball. McCarthy might not have a game-changing receiver like other young signal-callers, and he might have a talent-depleted line in front of him. The Patriots haven’t done much this offseason to improve either position from last year, though their draft capital could help change that.

The situation in New England has the two Michigan reporters setting cautious expectations.

“If he went to a team like the Patriots, who have some holes to fill on the offense, I think that would be a tough situation for any quarterback. I think it would be a tough situation for him,” Meek said. “Probably ideally for any quarterback, but I think especially for him, having a chance to learn behind a veteran quarterback would be the ideal scenario.”

McMann agreed. He believes it would take McCarthy time to adjust, which is common. But McMann also hinted a scenario that could be detrimental to McCarthy’s development. His sentiments made for flashbacks of Mac Jones’ struggle-filled tenure.

“He (McCarthy) has a tendency to force things when he wants to get something done and I have to imagine if he does that in the NFL, it’s probably going to hurt him,” McMann said. “And I wonder, too, if he doesn’t have the line in front of him, if he doesn’t have the playmakers around him, does he feel like he needs to create things and do those things? Whether that’s with the Patriots or wherever he ends up going.”

It all comes back to McCarthy being a bit more of a projection. A projection with a high-ceiling, sure, but a projection nonetheless.

Featured image via Junfu Han/ USA TODAY NETWORK Images