Is Derek Carr's Hot Start a Sign of Things to Come?

Carr's advanced metrics are up significantly from last year. Is this the Derek Carr people were waiting for?

Derek Carr's rookie season may not have been the most publicized story during the 2014 season and the following offseason, but it was one of the most polarizing topics in the NFL.

Raiders fans believed he was the savior, almost from the moment he stepped onto the field last year. Many others remained skeptical as Carr’s statistical performances were well below the public perception.

But that was his rookie year, and sometimes rookie years for quarterbacks can be bad. We’ve seen that these types of first seasons, though, can be indicative of bad future performance more often that not. Quarterbacks who start their careers like Carr do not often turn around and improve to above average caliber starters. 

But there’s always the other side and a chance this specific case will not fall in line with the majority of others.

All of this is a roundabout way to say we still don’t know what Derek Carr is as a quarterback. Now three weeks through his second season, we can maybe start to see what type of quarterback he can become.

Setting the Expectations

Before we get into what Carr has done so far this year, it’s imperative we look back on what he did in his rookie season.

By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Carr was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last season. NEP, for those of you who are new to numberFire, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team or player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs last season, only Blake Bortles had a worse Passing NEP. Granted it was a lot worse (-97.97 to -40.94), but this is about Carr and not Bortles.

On a per-play basis, Carr was slightly better but still among the league’s worst. Carr’s -0.07 Passing NEP per drop back ranked 38th among those 43 quarterbacks, better than Josh McCown, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Bortles and Michael Vick. That’s not a great group to be in, and only two of those quarterbacks are starting games in 2015 on purpose.

There were definitely reasons to be skeptical of Carr’s potential going forward after his rookie year, but he’s started to show some signs of improvement through a few starts in his sophomore campaign.

Raising the Bar

By just about any indication, Carr is a better quarterback right now than he was at any point in his rookie year. What we’re going to need to figure out to get a more accurate read on the passer he can be is how much and why.

Through Week 3, Carr is currently the seventh best quarterback by Passing NEP, which places him behind only some of the league’s best passers and Andy Dalton. Among quarterbacks with at least 10 drop backs (eliminating your leader Kellen Clemens), Carr is eighth this season in Passing NEP per drop back, as Tyrod Taylor jumps him in efficiency thanks to fewer drop backs. So what’s gone into this sudden improvement that’s placed Carr among the league’s best this early in the season?

Carr’s supporting cast has certainly been a help this season, after it was a hindrance last year. James Jones was Carr’s best receiver last season, and he didn’t look like he does in Green Bay this year. Jones scored 6 touchdowns but had only a 0.48 Reception NEP per target, which was the 6th-worst mark among players with at least 100 targets last season. Andre Holmes was Carr’s secondary target with 99 balls thrown his way, and he’s essentially the team’s fourth receiver in 2015.

Enter the receiving corps of Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts, who has emerged as the tertiary option. Cooper has given Carr the best route runner he’s been able to throw to early in his career, and he’s certainly made some passes easier for Carr to make by simply getting open.

Take the first offensive play in Week 3’s game against the Browns, and Cooper juked Joe Haden off the line and set up an easy throw for Carr and a first down. Cooper ranks 14th in Reception NEP this season, and among the 14 receivers who have been targeted at least 30 times this year, he ranks third in Reception NEP per target behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.

As easy as it may seem, the analysis here isn’t simply “he has better receivers.”

Carr has been improving in other aspects of the game he struggled with last season. One of the biggest criticisms with Carr last season was his inability to push the ball downfield. He became the first quarterback since Sam Bradford in 2010 to throw more than 500 passes and have less than 6.0 yards per attempt. Including Bradford, only eight other quarterbacks have accomplished that feat per the Pro-Football-Reference play index.

Much of that was due to the length of Carr’s passes because, last season, only Bortles had fewer air yards per attempt for a quarterback. Carr’s 2.85 air yards per attempt tied with Alex Smith, who notoriously is known for his short passes, but Carr’s number wasn’t just an aversion to the deep ball. 19 percent of Carr’s passes traveled 15 or more yards down the field, and while that was 28th among 40 qualified quarterbacks last season, it was 6.1 percent higher than Smith, who ranked last.

Instead, Carr and the Oakland offense was inconsistent on the intermediate throws that can be a major indicator of a quarterback’s ability. That hasn’t been much of a problem yet this season. though. Carr’s air yards per attempt have increased up to 3.73, and while that’s not close to placing him among the league leaders -- Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer are all over 5.5 -- almost a full yard improvement is quite a jump.

All of this, of course, is in the course of a three-game sample, or in Carr’s case two and a half. He’s yet to throw even 100 passes this season, which makes this sample way too small to make any definitive statements on what he’s become.

Right now, though, the early returns are favorable, and that’s the best thing the Raiders can hope for at this point. These are the types of improvements you’d like Carr to make in order to take a step forward in his second year.

Maybe they won’t last, but it’s possible they will, and at least through three weeks the outlook is more positive than it was after a forgettable rookie season.