Is This the Derek Carr Breakout Everyone Has Been Waiting For?
In a 30-24 overtime win, Carr threw for 513 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Because it was a lot of yards, and because the Raiders are 6-2, and because we love jumping the gun, Carr’s name was thrown around as the latest “legitimate” MVP candidate.
That’s not an argument we’ll make or refute here, but we can look into the body of work to figure out if this is the Derek Carr breakout everyone has been waiting for.
A Steady Improvement
Ever since Carr’s rookie season when he threw 21 touchdowns, many around the league wanted to crown him as the next great quarterback in the NFL.
But there were many problems to that rookie year, namely his 5.5 yards per attempt average, which was 33rd out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks by over half a yard. His rookie year also wasn’t great by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
In 2014, Carr ranked 38th among 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in Passing NEP per drop back.
But then he got better!
That’s good and exactly what you want from a young quarterback -- improving each season. And while he threw 32 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl, the improvement was just marginally better by NEP in 2015. Carr was 29th in Passing NEP per drop back among 46 quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs.
Now there’s this season, which -- so far -- is legitimately good.
Heading into Week 8, Carr ranked ninth among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back. So that’s where we are right now, with Derek Carr as a top-10 quarterback by 2016 performance through eight weeks. That, to put it simply, is quite good.
But it's also not enough to figure out just how good or if it will last.
Last season, Carr had a tremendously hot start to the season through the first four weeks before fading out. His start this season is double that -- another improvement. Maybe at this rate, Carr will have an incredible 12 games in 2017 and will put a full dominant season together for his fifth year in 2018.
In reality, that wouldn’t be a terrible progression for a young quarterback, but that’s all in jest and shouldn’t take away what’s been going on with Carr this season.
The 500-yard game was impressive, but there were also a lot of other circumstances needed for it to happen. Carr needed almost an entire overtime period and 59 attempts to get over the 500-yard mark. Of the 18 different 500-yard passing games since the merger, Carr’s 59 attempts were the fourth-most.
Carr's big day was also just the eighth-best quarterback day in Week 8 by Passing NEP per drop back, mostly because of the high volume.
And that’s one of the things with Carr -- he throws the ball a lot. Carr currently leads the league in pass attempts, which is incredible for a team with a season point differential of plus-12. The Raiders have played in some close games, yet they still rely heavily on the quarterback on the offensive side of the ball.
Oakland isn’t necessarily unbalanced, though. Entering the week, they were just 13th in pass-to-run ratio. and against Tampa Bay, there was a 62-38 percent pass-to-run split. That’s not particularly pass-heavy because league averages are closer to 60-40 than 50-50 in today’s game.
One reason why Oakland throws so much while still staying relatively balanced is the amount of plays the offense gets to run. Thanks to a defense that ranks 29th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, the Raiders’ offense has run the sixth-most plays in the league this season. And while the Raiders call on their quarterback for a fair number of those plays, they also put him in one of the best situations to succeed.
The Raiders spent heavily on improvements in the offseason, and while the defense has yet to pull through, the offensive line has been one of the league’s best. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, the Raiders have allowed the second-lowest pressure rate on offense. That’s allowed pockets to stay clean for Carr, who has the lowest sack rate among current starting quarterbacks.
Oakland’s lack of pressure allowed has also allowed Carr to make better decisions with his passes. His interception rate is currently 0.9 percent, which is well below his two previous seasons, which were both around two percent.
There’s a league-wide shift to fewer turnovers, so Carr’s newfound ability to avoid interceptions is something to watch going forward, especially because he’s no stranger to throwing some dangerous passes. His lack of interceptions is a fairly large part in his overall efficiency by NEP this season, considering he’s actually below last season’s rate in touchdowns (5.6 percent to 5.3) and just tied for 18th among quarterbacks in yards per attempt.
Tests to Come
To this point, Carr and the Raiders have also gotten a fairly favorable schedule of defenses. The best unit they played, the Kansas City Chiefs -- sixth in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- allowed just 10 points to Oakland.
The Denver Broncos are next up for the Raiders on Sunday Night Football for Week 9. Denver has kept their place as one of the best defenses in the league, as they entered Week 8 third in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Following a Week 10 bye, the Raiders will face the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, and Buffalo Bills -- all top-half defenses by NEP this season.
There are certainly things to like about Carr -- there always have been -- but the question remains if this type of play will actually continue. The first eight weeks have undoubtedly been the best of his career, but the next few weeks are likely to be the key in telling if this performance is for real or just another hot start that gets extinguished by a run of better opponents.