- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It should come as no surprise AJ McCarron has opted to return to the University of Alabama for his senior season. While the junior quarterback is among the best -- and maybe more appropriately the most efficient -- signal-callers in the country, his play down the stretch has done little to help his NFL draft stock.
As coach Nick Saban is oft to suggest to his players, you don't leave school early unless you are poised to go in the first round of the draft. It would have come as a shock if McCarron were to come off the board that early, leapfrogging the likes of West Virginia's Geno Smith, Southern Cal's Matt Barkley, Florida State's E.J. Manuel, Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and possibly Georgia's Aaron Murray.
"To me, he certainly doesn't look like a first-round pick," ESPN college football and draft analyst Kevin Weidl explained. Weidl said he'd start with the third round for McCarron at this point: "He needs to get stronger, sturdier in the pocket and improve some accuracy issues I saw at times."
McCarron was a non-factor in the last three games he played against ranked teams this season. Weidl said he looked at the film and saw his decision-making "tail off at the end." McCarron threw for a then-season-low 165 yards at LSU on Nov. 3. The next week, he struggled against Texas A&M, breaking his streak of 290-plus pass attempts without an interception by throwing two key picks in a loss to the Aggies. McCarron rebounded nicely against a pair of sub-.500 teams in Western Carolina and Auburn, only to hit the skids again against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, attempting just 21 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown.
"He showed very good maturity in looking at all of the factors and making an informed decision on his future," Saban said in a released statement. "He has a chance to add to what he has already accomplished here while also better preparing himself for the next level. We’re excited to have him back for his senior season."
By returning for another season, McCarron has the chance to solidify his position as one of the best quarterback prospects in the country. His 173.08 passer rating was tops in college football this season. The only thing remaining for him to prove is consistency and measurables he might face at the NFL combine.
Weidl said McCarron won't be able to improve a lack of athleticism, but his solid mechanics and maturity will be appealing to NFL general managers and scouts. His stellar winning percentage won't hurt, either. He already has a national championship ring and could win another Jan. 7.
Looking ahead, next year's draft class won't be a cake walk for quarterbacks. Lousiville's Teddy Bridgewater, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, Florida's Jeff Driskel and UCLA's Brett Hundley will all be potentially in the mix.
"It all depends on how [McCarron] plays," Weidle said when asked about how the Bama QB might project in 2014. "The physical tools don't look elite, I would say. But neither did Andy Dalton's."
Outside of McCarron, Alabama doesn't have many experienced options under center. Blake Sims has been the primary backup, but his value is running the read-option. Sophomore Phillip Ely has played sparingly and Alec Morris is likely to see his freshman season go down as a redshirt. None of the three separated themselves during spring and fall camp as the clear cut No. 2 quarterback.
A pair of high school commitments could be the future at quarterback for Alabama. Cooper Bateman (Salt Lake City/Cottonwood), a four-star prospect, and Parker McLeod (Marietta, Ga./Walton), a three-star prospect, both plan to sign with the Tide. Bateman is a member of the ESPN 150 and the No. 6-ranked quarterback in the nation who chose Alabama over Auburn, Florida, LSU and Washington.