There has been a lot of debate on the internet and on social media surrounding Derek Carr’s future, and if the Raiders quarterback position can be upgraded. There isn’t a easy and straightforward answer to this question, however.
Many of the quarterbacks in the NFL don’t have the ability to play in just any scheme or with varying supporting casts.
For instance, saying “Lamar Jackson is better than Tom Brady” is an exercise in tire-spinning because each QB is vastly better in one area of the game than the other, and therefore the offensive scheme surrounding them must reflect their strengths.
For the purpose of this article, I will divide all NFL quarterbacks into two styles—The “in-structure passer” and the “out-of-structure passer.”
The “in-structure passer”
The “in-structure passer” thrives when the offense is in rhythm. When he can make the majority of his throws on the first or second read, the “in-structure passer” can be deadly accurate and lead an efficient passing attack. They require rhythm and order to be most effective.
The “out-of-structure passer”
The “out-of-structure passer” thrives in chaos. When the bullets start flying and the offense breaks down, the “out-of-structure passer” seems to elevate his game and hurt defenses even more. At his best, this style of quarterback leads an attack that is always a big play away from changing the game.
So, to find out where Carr ranks let’s organize the starting quarterbacks in the NFL into tiers. There isn’t necessarily an order within each tier (although some tiers will be more obvious than others), but each tier represents quarterbacks who compare to each other.
*Note: Players in the ‘A’ category in a certain are in-structure passers, while players in the ‘B’ category are out-of-structure players. For example, in Tier 2a are not ranked ahead those in 2b. They are simply divergent sections of the same tier.
Tier 1: The Elite
The best quarterbacks in the NFL are those who can thrive in either style. They are precise when the offense is humming and can bail their team out when the offense breaks down. They can make average coaches look great (cough cough Mike McCarthy), and when they are in an innovative offense they can change the game. Having a quarterback like this is every fanbase’s dream. There are only three in the NFL right now, and having one of these players means your team will be in the post-season regularly.
Tier 2a: The Field General
The best “in-structure” passers eventually turn into a coach on the field. They are their own play-caller and their command of the game, pre-snap reads, and knowledge of the offense become their greatest weapon. Field generals do much of their play with their minds and can stay effective even when their physical tools decline. The best Field generals can win a Super Bowl late in their careers. This is the most stable type of QB play, and owners, coaches, and general mangers crave landing this type of QB and reap the benefits of job security for years.
Tier 2b: The Playmaker
The best “out-of-structure” quarterbacks are those who use their arm and their legs to make game changing plays. They invite pressure by holding onto the ball much longer than most coaches prefer, but their athletic ability allows them to stay alive just long enough for defensive schemes to break down. When they get their opponents to blink, they either throw a crippling pass or break a run off for a big gain. Playmakers can be the most exciting type of QB and require youthful athleticism to remain effective.
Tier 3a: The Surgeon
The Surgeon is the ultimate “in-structure” signal caller. Surgeons need excellent play-calling, a strong supporting cast, and a great defense before they look like an elite QB. But don’t be fooled, as soon as one of those things goes away, the Surgeon can be exposed and is often called a “system QB.” This is why there can be such a huge difference between one season and another for the Surgeon; they don’t become “great” or “terrible,” but are the ultimate reflection of the pieces around them.
Tier 3b: The Backyard QB
The budget version of the “out-of-structure” Quarterback is the Backyard QB. They will often make plays with their scrambling ability, but their mistakes often outweigh their big plays. There are times, however, when their bad habits are masked by a great play. The Backyard QB can elevate their game to become “The Playmaker” when they learn how to limit errors and protect the football.
Tier 4a: The Gunslinger
The most volatile category of “in-structure” quarterbacks, The Gunslinger isn’t adverse to risk like his Surgeon counterpart. The Gunslinger has never seen a throw he thinks he can’t make and he will attempt tight window throws with regularity. Gunslingers push the ball downfield from within the pocket and thrive when they have jump-ball specialists at the wide receiver position. They can just as easily lead the league in touchdowns or interceptions...or both.
Tier 4b: The Question Mark
These Question Mark QBs use to be phenomenal “out-of-structure” passers but injury and father time have cast a shadow on their NFL future. See why teams prefer pocket passers? When Philip Rivers ages, he can remain effective (up until last year). When Cam Newton ages, his ability may be completely written off because his style of play has compromised his body. Both QBs on this list used to be playmakers, but now we have no idea what we’ll see in the coming years.
Tier 5: Not Enough Information
We just don’t know enough about these rookies to classify them as an “out-of-structure” or “in-structure” quarterback just yet. They haven’t played enough professional football to be sure, so I’ll reserve judgement for now.
Derek Carr can be compared to a group of quarterbacks that each have had highs and lows in their NFL career. Matt Ryan went from league MVP in 2016 to borderline garbage in 2018. Jared Goff went from the league MVP discussion in 2018 to an abysmal showing in 2019...sound familiar? On the opposite side of the spectrum, Ryan Tannehill went from being terrible in 2018 to comeback player of the year in 2019, and Kirk Cousins has wavered between great and terrible since he stepped into the league.
The reality is, none of these QBs skill-sets ever change dramatically. They are always above average passers, and will only be as good as the offense they are in. Your team can win with the style of QB play that Carr represents, but it won’t be enough to lift the team out of a hole, (see Jimmy Garoppolo in the Super Bowl for confirmation).
Carr is the type of quarterback that is valuable in the NFL. Offensive minded head coaches know this type of guy will execute the offense the way its intended. Gruden wants a signal caller who does what he’s told and can see his vision of the offense. You keep those type of players around and hope that over time they can internalize the offensive scheme and become a coach on the field. Gruden has invested too much time in Carr to draft a rookie replacement and turn back the clock three or more years on this organization. Let’s hope it pays off.