Analysis: Is AJ McCarron an Upgrade for Buffalo?

Tyrod Taylor departed Buffalo in what can only be described as unusual circumstances. There are not many teams that go to the playoffs, ending one of the longest active playoff droughts in major sports, only to then move on from the quarterback that helped get them there. There’s no denying that the relationship between the front office and Taylor was tenuous at best. At one point during the season, benching him in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman who had a historic first start, throwing five interceptions in 16 pass attempts, only to be removed for Taylor later in the game. It was clear that the front office wanted to move on, and Taylor’s playoff performance where the team only scored three points did nothing to help cement himself as their long-term option, and following his trade to the Browns, enter new Signal Caller AJ McCarron.
McCarron saw his quarterback market collapse around him. Following a trade deadline where the Browns reportedly offered multiple picks to Cincinnati in a botched attempt to secure McCarron’s services, many thought his market would be more competitive. Instead, Buffalo got great value with a minimal investment and McCarron settled for a two-year deal worth $10M with roughly $7.9M guaranteed to act as Buffalo’s interim starter. That role may be short-lived, as Buffalo could have propelled themselves into the mix to draft a quarterback after trading OT Cordy Glenn to move up to 12th overall, swapping first round picks with Cincinnati. Buffalo, with two first-round picks, has enough ammunition to move up in the draft, or select a quarterback at 12 (should one fall to them), but following the Jets trade with Indianapolis, Cleveland might be the only willing trade partner left, and it will likely cost Buffalo both of its first-round selections to leapfrog an interested Denver.
His future’s uncertainty aside, does McCarron provide an upgrade to Buffalo’s offense? It’s hard to compare body’s of work when judging Taylor and McCarron side by side. McCarron, who played behind Andy Dalton in Cincinnati doesn’t have the same amount of tape as Taylor, and much of his analysis is based off a small sample size and potential scheme fit. His historic college career demonstrates a winning pedigree and ability to exercise ball security, but he played for Nick Saban on an Alabama team with one of the most daunting defenses protecting his leads. Similarly, in Buffalo, McCarron will have a high performing defense that will keep games competitive, and if his past is any indication, should provide an upgrade over Taylor with regards to ball security. Taylor turned the ball over a respectable eight time’s last year (rushing and passing), and has a career interception ratio of 2.8:1, whereas if McCarron can maintain his limited sample of 3:1, it may limit the demand on Buffalo’s stellar defense to protect short field.
Taylor’s big arm and his persistent threat to run gave him the opportunity to throw the ball deep off play action, but Buffalo’s offense under Head Coach Sean McDermott was largely ineffectual on high percentage offensive plays. Attempting among the fewest short pass plays in the league which accounted for only 31.82% of their offense. Only Carolina had less of their offense come from these high-efficiency plays with 31.59%. It should be noted, that this metric is not necessarily a causal mechanism for judging offensive effectiveness, the New York Giants had a league-best 41.3% of their offense driven through short passing plays and they were one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL last season (15.4 ppg ranked second to last). But, the metric does show moderate correlation, teams who ran a high frequency of short pass plays such as New England, San Francisco, Los Angeles Chargers, and Pittsburgh averaged 28.9, 20.7, 22.2, and 26.4 points per game respectfully.
Adding to Buffalo’s offensive woes, Tyrod Taylor scrambled over 40 times on broken plays where he threw the ball (third behind Seattle and Cleveland), and his hesitation to release the ball resulted in only 15 of those plays being converted for first downs. His time to throw the ball on average ranked among the bottom of the league at 3.01 seconds after the snap in 2017, and 3.1 seconds in 2016. As a comparison, quarterbacks synonymous with success such as Brady, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger averaged 2.7, 2.64, 2.58, and 2.56 seconds respectively. Only four qualified quarterbacks had their time to throw longer than three seconds in 2017. Tyrod Taylor (3.01), Brett Hundley (3.0), Deshaun Watson (3.1), and Russell Wilson (3.05). Each of their teams missed the playoffs in 2017, although a significant knee injury hampered Watson’s promising campaign. Taylors slow release and willingness to move outside of the pocket likely contributed to his 46 sacks, which was 3rd highest in the league behind Jacoby Brissett (52) and Matthew Stafford (47), a number that is expected to decrease with the more conservative and quick firing McCarron under center.
It’s hard to determine what other factors contributed to Buffalo’s offensive stagnation last season, Taylor ranked 16th among qualified passers in quarterback rating (89.2), 13th in QBR (56.4), and 16th in completion percentage (62.6%). Where he fell out of the middle of the pack was in yardage, he ranked 25th with 2,799 yards. 1,778 yards behind the league passing leader and MVP Tom Brady. Much of the success in the NFL is symptomatic of the scheme, and while Taylor was unable to thrive under McDermott, he is uniquely suited for Cleveland’s offense under Head Coach Hugh Jackson. Jackson prefers playing to the strengths of a mobile quarterback, and I expect weapons such as Jarvis Landry, Duke Johnson, David Njoku and Corey Coleman, and a commitment to the running game with the addition of Carlos Hyde to help Taylor put together a better campaign in 2018.
McCarron, on the other hand, comes to a Buffalo team that has fewer offensive weapons than Cleveland. Much of Buffalo’s offense was generated through LeSean McCoy, but to develop offensive potency, Buffalo will need to add at least one more weapon in the passing game to complement a developing Zay Jones and big framed Kelvin Benjamin. I think McCarron will put up a better statistical year in 2018 than Taylor did in 2017, but it’s hard to assess whether or not the switch at quarterback will result in added wins. My gut says that Buffalo remains a 9-win team in 2018, but it’s hard to imagine Buffalo’s offense doesn’t improve from its mediocre 2017 showing, and if McCarron does take the next step, we could be looking at a second consecutive playoff berth for the Buffalo Bills.

FA Signing Grade: B+
McCarron’s contract makes him a good investment for Buffalo, even if they draft a quarterback, the team will still be spending less than most of the NFL on the position. McCarron has seen limited action in the NFL, but in his few regular season and playoff opportunities, he has looked more than serviceable. His time in the NFL should make him more polished than the player we saw at Alabama, and if Buffalo’s waiting game pans out and McCarron is their future quarterback or McCarron is an effective bridge for their future franchise quarterback, they would have secured him by playing it safe and allowing their funds to be allocated to needs elsewhere.

Statistics and Data retrieved and generated from NFL Savants,, and Pro Football Reference.

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