Derek Carr belongs in the MVP discussion.
That’s right. Derek Carr belongs in the MVP discussion. Those are eight words I did not think I would write this season, but given how tumultuous 2020 has been, it feels rather apt that the Toyota Camry of quarterbacks would be making an early case to be in the MVP conversation.
I know it sounds crazy at first but read on before making up your mind. Then if you still think I am wrong you can let me know in the comments.
The competition Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Derek Carr isn’t, and shouldn’t be the favourite for the award right now.
“Russ Wilson should be the MVP, he’s cooking.”
“Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown a pick, and the Packers are undefeated.”
I hear you loud and clear, imaginary arguments in my head.
Wilson is my current favourite for MVP at the time of writing, and Aaron Rodgers is a close second. He’s running his own f**k you tour to everyone (including myself) who doubted him in the offseason.
But not too far behind in third place, fresh off a statement road win over the Kansas City Chiefs, is Derek Carr.
Offensive output Derek Carr’s play is elevating this Raiders offence to a high level so far this season. The Raiders rank sixth in the following metrics: overall offensive DVOA, passing DVOA and EPA (expected points added) per dropback.
This success in advanced metrics translates to the Raiders ranking seventh in points per game (PPG), just 0.4 PPG from being top five. Their offensive success isn’t built on the back of an elite run game either.
he running game ranks just 24th in DVOA and 18th in EPA. So what is Carr doing to help carry this offence?
First and foremost, he’s been incredibly accurate. Carr is second in the NFL in completion and on-target throw percentages and has the fourth-lowest ‘bad throw’ percentage. This accurate ball placement and consistent success mean that he ranks third in both passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt.
His touchdown rate isn’t exceptional, but 6.3 per cent is still a very good rate. For context, Peyton Manning finished his career with a touchdown rate of 5.7 per cent.
It isn’t just in raw output that Carr is performing well either. Per Ben Baldwin’s advanced stats, Carr has outperformed every quarterback not named Wilson or Rodgers in the composite EPA (expected points added) and completion percentage above expected (CPOE) grade, which measures the differential between true completion percentage and expected completion percentage.
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Put simply, Carr is helping his team score points and is completing passes at a much higher rate than expected.
Part of the reason why Carr has been so efficient is that he is methodically moving the ball downfield. His current average depth of target (aDOT) is just 7.0 (26th in the NFL), down from his career average aDOT of 7.6.
As Henry Ruggs III gets more involved, he may start to push the ball downfield with more regularity, but for now, Carr is dissecting defences with short and intermediate passes and is doing so with great effect.
Strength of schedule When judging how quarterbacks have played, it’s important to add context based on their schedule. Carr certainly hasn’t been beating up on soft defences. Looking at Warren Sharp’s strength of schedule, it’s evident that Carr has had a tougher time against opposition defences than Wilson and Rodgers.
The Raiders rank 25th in opposition pass defence faced (eighth toughest) and 19th in overall defence. The Packers rank 21st in pass defence and seventh in overall defence, while Wilson and the Seahawks have taken advantage of the 12th softest pass defence and the easiest overall defensive schedule to date.
In the Raiders’ biggest win of the year, Carr went on the road and lit up the Kansas City defence that are ranked second in pass defence DVOA (per Football Outsiders). Carr is performing to a high level against tough opposition.
Supporting Cast andamp; Play Calling There are worse skill position groups in the NFL than the Raiders, but we shouldn’t pretend that Carr has the luxury of weapons at his disposal like Dak Prescott (Andy Dalton), Matt Ryan, Baker Mayfield or even Russell Wilson.
The passing offence runs through the tight end position. Darren Waller is dominating the team’s target share with just over 28 per cent of the team’s targets, which is more than double the next closest receiver (Hunter Renfrow at 13.8 per cent).
Waller is one of the better pass-catching tight ends in football and his versatility allows him to line-up all over the formation, but Carr is playing well without the benefit of a true alpha wide receiver.
Henry Ruggs III has made a few nice plays and should help stretch the field moving forward, but fellow rookie phenom Bryan Edwards is yet to stay healthy enough to contribute. Perhaps the most compelling statistic to highlight how well Carr is throwing the ball is that Nelson Agholor is catching over 91 per cent of his targets (up from 60 per cent from his five years in Philadelphia) while having the highest aDOT of his career (12.6 up from 10.7).
Given the reputation he earned in Philadelphia for dropping the football, it really is a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the former first-round pick.
In Josh Jacobs, Carr has an elusive runner who can make plays, but he is yet to carve out a true bell-cow role with both Jalen Richard and Devontae Booker involved in the passing game. The Raiders have leant on their run game where possible, ranking third in the NFL in run to pass ratio when in neutral or positive game script situations (passing just 45 per cent of the time).
However, when trailing, they throw the ball on 62 per cent of their plays, which is the 11th highest pass rate in such situations. The Raiders have also been behind on the scoreboard for over 60 per cent of their offensive plays meaning often, they are asking Carr to dig them out of a hole.
Given the lack of success running the ball (see above), Gruden might want to ask Carr to throw more on early downs. The Raiders rank 22nd in pass rate on first and second downs. However, they have a success rate of 56 per cent at 7.7 yards per attempt when passing, compared to a 52 per cent success rate and 4.1 yards per carry when running the ball.
Looking at EPA, the Raiders rank 14th in EPA per dropback on early downs, and only 20th when running the football. When you combine the run-heavy approach on early downs and the relative lack of success when doing so, there’s an argument to be made that Carr is flourishing despite Gruden’s conservative early-down play-calling.
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Carr has kept the offence on track by being exceptional on third downs. The Raiders rank third in the NFL in EPA per play on third downs and have a conversion rate of 9.9 per cent over expectation which ranks fifth. Carr throws the ball 72 per cent of the time on third down, showing yet again that putting the ball in his hands will bring the team success.
Finally, Derek Carr has been successful without the benefit of great offensive line play. On paper, the Raiders have an excellent offensive line and dedicate the most cap space to the position in the NFL ($58 million). Unfortunately, they have lost Richie Incognito who is on IR, and Trent Brown is working his way back from a calf injury that has seen him miss time to start the year.
The result is that this unit that was elite in 2019 has dropped off significantly. According to ESPN Analytics, the Raiders rank 20th in pass block win rate and 24th in run block win rate. Contrast that to the Packers and Seahawks who rank first and fifth in pass block win rates, and third and 18th in run block win rates respectively.
Both Rodgers and Wilson have the luxury of significantly better pass protection through five weeks.
Derek Carr is playing extremely well. When you take into context his receiving weapons, the offensive line play, play-calling and the schedule he has faced, he should absolutely be in the MVP discussion. It likely won’t happen.
The narratives of Russell Wilson having never received an MVP vote and Aaron Rodgers being elite once more are too prevalent in the media conversation for Carr to get the buzz he deserves. It would take one of them to have a derailment of Josh Allen proportions on a nationally televised game for Carr to slide into the conversation.
Regardless, I believe Carr should be in the discussion. Do you?
Data used in this article is collected from Pro Football Reference, Football Outsiders, NFL Next-generation Stats, Sharp Football Statistics, Over the Cap, rbsdm.com, and airyards.com.