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Derek Carr’s future may be tied to his 2019 deep ball success

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Derek Carr’s deep ball effectiveness could make-or-break the Raiders’ 2019 playoff hopes.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When Derek Carr led the Raiders to a 12-4 record in 2016, he was considered to be the next guy at quarterback in the NFL. It was only his third season in the league, and the Raiders seemed to be on the upswing.

Three years and a regime change later, the public perception has begun to sour on Carr. No longer is he considered a game changing player, and many prognosticators feel that Jon Gruden would be willing to move on from the Fresno State product if he doesn’t revert to his 2016 form.

But was Carr really a better player in 2016 than he is now? Did he somehow peak in year three?

Looking at basic counting statistics, Carr doesn’t seem to be regressing.

In 2016, he completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 3,937 yards with an average of 7.0 yards per attempt. Those numbers dropped across the board in 2017 to 62.7 percent, 3,496 yards, and 6.8 yards per attempt before rising to career highs in 2018 of 68.9 percent, 4,049 yards, and 7.3, respectively.

The major jump in completion percentage and yards per attempt is eye-popping, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he was more effective under center.

A major discrepancy in Carr’s year-to-year passing potency is shown in his Independent Quarterback Rating (IQR) on passes, per Sports Info Solutions tracking data. IQR uses factors such as dropped passes, dropped interceptions, and throwaways to expand on the traditional passer rating, and backs up the eye test that Carr’s deep ball isn’t what it once was.

In 2016, the Raiders capitalized on his 114 deep pass IQR with seven different passing scores of 30 yards or more. It seemed like a sign of things to come after he posted a tidy 105 deep pass IQR in 2015. However, those long-ball IQR numbers fell off a cliff in 2017, dropping to 70 before rebounding slightly to an 87 last season.

The lack of successful downfield throws has permeated through his medial passing game as well, as Carr’s intermediate attempts (84) and intermediate IQR (79) were both career lows in 2018. Compare that to his 2015 season (when he threw 142 intermediate attempts with a 107 IQR) and it becomes evident that Carr has become less confident and less effective throwing downfield for one reason or another.

Further accentuating Carr’s lack of downfield confidence is his average throw depth (ATD) over the past four years, which, according to Sports Info Solutions, has shot down from 6.3 yards in the 2015 season to 5.6 yards in 2016, 5.5 yards in 2017 and an alarmingly low 5.1 yards last year.

No starting quarterbacks on playoff teams averaged less than a 5.4 yard ATD last year, with Carr amongst names like Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles, and a few surprising playoff no-shows such as Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford. Among 33 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 passes last year, Carr ranked No. 28 overall in ATD.

The voluminous amount of dump off passes has hurt Carr’s touchdown rate immensely, as it has plummeted in lockstep from 5.6 percent to 5.0, 4.3 and (gulp) 3.4 last season. Out of those same 33 qualified passers, Carr’s 3.4 touchdown percentage ranked No. 24, just behind Stafford and Manning and ahead of Mariota and Bortles.

Are Carr’s Poor Downfield Numbers His Fault Alone? Surely Not.

The lack of weapons at his disposal last year after the Amari Cooper trade has to be factored in somewhere. Ditto for Gruden’s propensity to favor short routes in his old-school “West Coast Offense.” The main culprit, though, is likely the Raiders porous pass-blocking last season.

After taking 37 sacks in 2016 and 2017 combined, Carr was sacked a whopping 51 times last season. His 9.2 sack percentage was seventh worst in the NFL, and the limited amount of time in the pocket likely contributes to his propensity to dump the ball off.

Per Sports Info Solutions, the Raiders duo of rookie offensive tackles, Brandon Parker and Kolton Miller, shared the league lead in sacks allowed with 14 apiece. They ranked first and third, respectively, in percentage of plays with a sack allowed.

Miller’s continued development as a pass protector will be paramount to the Raiders passing success. Adding Trent Brown, who allowed only 2 sacks all 2018, to man the right tackle spot should add major stability for Carr as well.

According to Gruden, the Raiders plan to be more assertive throwing the ball downfield this season.

“The better your receivers are, the more aggressive you are. And the better your line is, the more vertical shots you can call,” Gruden said this week. “We think we are better on the line. We think we are better outside. With that being said, we are going to take more shots, I hope.”

Antonio Brown garners most of the national spotlight, but the guys Carr will likely throw the most deep shots to are speedsters Tyrell Williams and J.J. Nelson.

At 6-4, Williams touts a 4.42-second 40-yard dash speed and a 39.5 inch vertical leap. That combination makes him a deadly downfield target, and his 11.1 yard receiving ATD ranked No. 13 in the NFL among receivers with over 50 targets.

Meanwhile, Nelson brings the Raiders world-class 4.28-second 40-yard dash speed and has routinely made big plays in practice this summer. The former Arizona Cardinal only grabbed seven receptions in an abysmal offense last year, but seems primed to seize a role as a deep threat specialist in Oakland.

Since entering the league in 2015, Nelson is third in the NFL in ATD with a gaudy 15.4 mark.

With Nelson and Williams taking the top off the defense, superstar Antonio Brown should have plenty of room to work with underneath routes.

Last season, 66 percent of Carr’s total targets went to Jared Cook (20 percent), Jordy Nelson (17 percent), Jalen Richard (16 percent), and Seth Roberts (13 percent). None of those players provided any sort of downfield reliability, with Cook and Nelson tied for the ATD lead at 7.8 yards per target.

In 2017, Cook led all Raiders with 60 or more targets in ATD again with 8.6 yards per target. Clearly, if your tight end is leading the team in deep ball targets, something has gone awry.

While Carr’s last two years have been uninspiring, he’s never had the dynamic downfield talent around him on offense as he does in 2019. This is a make-or-break year for his career as a Raider, and his deep ball effectiveness might be the decisive factor.