NFL Draft is poker season, and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy might simply be its latest QB bluff

Three years ago, we saw it play out with Mac Jones at center stage. Two years ago, it was Malik Willis. And last year, we watched it unfold with Will Levis.

The NFL draft’s age-old quarterback bluff.

If you’ve followed the league’s annual sifting process long enough, you likely remember your team being attached to one of these storylines. Maybe it was the Houston Texans being pegged to take Johnny Manziel first overall in 2014, or the San Francisco 49ers’ infamous Aaron Rodgers okey-doke in 2005. Many NFL Drafts have featured tenuous connections between teams and quarterbacks — where the overall pecking order of a class is fluid and marked by one player or another “heating up” or suddenly getting cemented into a specific slot by analysts. It’s how we became certain for a sustained period that Jones was going to the 49ers at the third overall pick in 2021, Willis had solidified first-round status in 2022, and that the Indianapolis Colts were locked onto Levis with the No. 4 overall pick last year.

None of those things happened. And all of them underscore how unreliable information can be when it comes to marrying a quarterback to an NFL team weeks or even months in advance.

That’s a reality that should be hitting home right about now, for a quarterback class that has already gone through multiple stages of certainty. First from an oft-predicted hammerlock 1-2 selection of USC’s Caleb Williams and UNC’s Drake Maye beginning one year ago, then to LSU’s Jayden Daniels jumping into the No. 2 slot behind Williams in recent months, and now — this week — the screaming draft stock of Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy forcing him into the conversation at No. 2 overall, with betting odds following suit.

All of this despite being an entire month away from the draft, which is still an eternity when it comes to solidifying boards. Private team visits are just now starting for the quarterbacks. Medical information is still being processed. And pro days are just now nearing a conclusion. This is why we’re on the doorstep of April and zero pre-draft trades have occurred inside the top five picks, despite a clear interest in moving into that territory for quarterbacks. Even the Minnesota Vikings, who have acquired draft capital that puts them into a trade-up position, are taking their time with their next step. Largely because they’re still shaping up evaluations and building up a consensus when it comes to the best course of action. Much like every other NFL team in late March.

That’s something to keep in mind when it comes to McCarthy, who has no shortage of strong (and varying) opinions when it comes to his meteoric rise since the draft process began. One AFC general manager this week labeled talk connecting him to the Washington Commanders and No. 2 overall pick “crazy.” An NFC general manager took the opposite position, adding that “everyone sees things differently.” Another longtime NFC evaluator said he “can’t see it” happening, while a second NFC general manager found it completely plausible, noting that McCarthy was part of three straight college football playoff teams and Michigan’s “best modern era run.”

So what do evaluators feel is “real” when it comes to McCarthy’s rise over the last few months? The list varies, but also contains some intriguing points. His success and charisma oozes in meetings. His teammates respond to him as a leader and even some of his former teammates, like Texas wideout Xavier Worthy, who was briefly at Michigan, have great things to say about him. He operated the offense at Michigan at an extremely high level — and precisely as designed — which is attractive to many offensive coaches who prioritize quarterbacks who can execute what they’re given … exactly as it was given.

He gained weight on his frame after Michigan’s season concluded, which is suggestive to some teams that he’s got a higher physical ceiling that hasn’t been reached at 21 years of age. And about those 21 years: Some of the other quarterbacks that McCarthy is being measured against are years older than him, leaving open the projection of how much better McCarthy can be once he reaches 23 and 24 years old. Even his lack of tape was smacked down by some evaluators, including one of the aforementioned NFC general managers, who said McCarthy has enough tape and reps to show what he’s capable of doing in a passing offense.

Nobody has been more effusive with praise for J.J. McCarthy this NFL Draft cycle than his former head coach at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh — who now coaches the team picking fifth overall. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Nobody has been more effusive with praise for J.J. McCarthy this NFL Draft cycle than his former head coach at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh — who now coaches the team picking fifth overall. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) (Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images)

So where is the poker being played here? Interestingly, quite a few evaluators are pointing at McCarthy’s former coach at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers and sitting with the fifth overall pick. Nearly every evaluator I spoke to about McCarthy brought up the considerable praise that Harbaugh has been lavishing on his former player, which included calling him the best quarterback in this draft. To say that statement has elicited some eye-rolls would be a vast underestimation of how it was received in many personnel departments.

One longtime evaluator chuckled when I asked about McCarthy’s projection at No. 2 overall and shot back: “Harbaugh didn’t say he was the No. 2 quarterback. He said he was the No. 1 quarterback.” Another longtime evaluator noted, “Jim needs everything but a quarterback. So every quarterback that gets taken before [the fifth pick] is a win for him.”

While nobody suggested that Harbaugh is the source of the supposed Commanders interest at No. 2 overall, some evaluators came close.

“There definitely could be a little bit of an ulterior motive to get someone pushed to him, for sure. That would be a Harbaugh type move,” one evaluator said. “There’s a plan there, I would say. Because they’re sitting there like, all right, if top four are QBs, we get our pick of whatever the hell we want. They’re probably in the best position of any team up there, because now the first four probably are going to be quarterbacks.”

“He’s definitely been pumping [McCarthy] a lot,” another evaluator said of Harbaugh. “It seems like he’s doing it every time he sits down with anyone. Which I’m sure that’s what most coaches would say about their guy who wins a national championship and has that [27-1] record as a starter. But it’s definitely convenient that McCarthy going in those top four picks is really a best-case scenario for the Chargers, too. I do think there’s something to that, too.”

So what’s the consensus on all of this? There seems to be doubt that McCarthy is going to leap all the way to the No. 2 pick. There’s also a consensus that part of the buzz surrounding him ascending to that spot has been generated by things Harbaugh is saying, as well as some typical draft gamesmanship. For now, it falls into the category of a potential bluff, for reasons that can only be guessed at. But also not entirely implausible, either.

As one scout noted, Commanders general manager Adam Peters was with the 49ers when they reached two Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks who had a similar trait: Both Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy operated inside the structure of Kyle Shanahan’s offense and executed it precisely in the fashion it was drawn up. Something that was very similar to how McCarthy went about his job at Michigan. And in the case of Purdy, it came after busting out on Trey Lance, whose skill set bares some resemblance to the one Daniels brings to the table.

“You can’t ignore how Peters saw things work out with the quarterbacks when he was with the 49ers,” the scout said. “McCarthy definitely fits that kind of game manager profile of Brock and Jimmy. Who knows? Everyone has their own set of things they like in a quarterback, so really anything can happen.”

If we haven’t learned that with previous late-March proclamations about where a quarterback is going to land in late April, we likely never will.