Good evening, Steelers Nation. I would like to apologize for already getting into draft mode but after watching the Steelers offense so far in 2021, can you really blame me? The Steelers are in a very unfamiliar spot, one that they have not been in much during my lifetime: they need a quarterback. I would like to preface this by saying that I do not believe that Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers biggest problem- that award goes to the offensive line who can’t block for Najee Harris and can’t protect their Hall of Fame QB, either. With that being said, the Big Ben era is ending soon. So what’s next?
Over the summer, I did some work on most of the draft eligible QB’s and came away largely unimpressed. This class has a bunch of guys that are fun to watch but aren’t prospects that I would be willing to put my job on the line for. While this class is probably deeper than any recent class, it lacks the top talent that we have become so accustomed to seeing out of the college football world. The guy that I came away most impressed by? Nevada’s Carson Strong.
Over the past month, I have gotten dozens of mentions from Steelers fans everywhere fawning over all of the other draft eligible QBs like Malik Willis, Spencer Rattler and Sam Howell. It’s been very perplexing that I have seen very little conversation about Carson Strong because this kid is really good. Maybe it’s that he’s not the supreme athlete that Willis is or maybe it’s that he doesn’t come from Lincoln Riley’s QB powerhouse at Oklahoma like Spencer Rattler.
Who is Carson Strong? A former two sport (basketball/football) athlete, he’s now a redshirt junior who stands all of 6’4, 215 pounds. His frame suggests that he could stand to benefit from adding around ten pounds of muscle early on in his career. In 2019, Strong started at quarterback for the wolfpack as a redshirt freshman but displayed massive improvements to his game during the 2020 season. Last year, he was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year after throwing 27 touchdowns in just nine games played.
What are some of Strong’s strengths?
Possesses extremely impressive arm talent, without a doubt his calling card. This is a guy that can make all of throws and layer the ball all over the football field. It helps that he’s able to generate so much power from his lower half. He’s capable of working the middle of the field, the sideline, the deep ball. Natural for understanding when to add touch and when to throw the fastball. Strong currently operates in an air raid system where he’s tasked with making a ton of throws down the field, underneath and to the sideline. There simply isn’t a throw in the playbook that Strong isn’t physically capable of completing which will give his future NFL offensive coordinator tons of playcalling freedom. While he’s smart with the football and knows how to keep throws out of harms way, he will test tight windows and win because he has the arm strength to do so. Watch below as he drills this ball in between multiple defenders- that’s an NFL throw right there on 3rd and 20 to move the chains.
Strong loves the deep ball and he’s made immense strides in improving this aspect of his game to where this is now a legit weapon as his disposal. He’s made some improvements to his trajectory where he’s putting more air on his throws and that change has been a big help in improving his accuracy. He’s not just accurate but he’s also precise at the third level and guys rarely have to break stride or make any in air adjustments. Below you will see him put a ton of air and great touch on this throw that travels right around 55 yards or so. Notice the ball placement right in the bucket where the receiver doesn’t break stride.
The Wolf Pack signal caller also throws with great timing and anticipation. In the games that I watched, there were several different instances where he was throwing guys open before their breaks. That’s something that is required at the next level where defenders are better athletes and those throwing windows close faster because of that. When the ball is out, it’s on time and it’s on target. Below is an example of a couple of things that I already mentioned: Arm strength- from the far hash, ball is driven with velocity to the sideline. Anticipation- watch when this ball comes out of his hands, well before the receivers break. The throw could be down just a tad on this particular play, you would like to see this on the receivers face mask and not above his helmet. However, check the pressure on him down the middle, takes a kill shot but it’s a first down. That’s a demoralizing feeling for a defense.
Strong has the mental makeup of an NFL starting quarterback. He makes a lot of the calls at the line of scrimmage- whether it be manipulating protections with his offense line or hot routing his wide receivers, he’s in full command of this offense. He also displays the necessary toughness that is necessary to be the face of a franchise. He’s not afraid to step up in the pocket and take hits and when he takes those hits, he seems to come back even stronger. Mechanics are clean with a quick release. Strong is tasked with working many different quick game concepts and he’s decisive when moving through his progressions. He’s a calculated risk taker who does a nice job taking care of the ball.
Where are the areas to improve?
Strong has plenty of experience working under pressure within the pocket but there were times where he drifted from interior pass rushers or that pressure affected his ability to throw. Because of how easy of a thrower he is, he will sometimes get sloppy with his footwork when throwing the deep ball or outside the numbers when there’s pressure. This is most noticeable when he’s moving to his left, he won’t set his feet but instead opt to launch from different angles that aren’t optimal and will affect his accuracy. While he’s never going to be a threat to run the football, he could continue to improve as an improvisor especially since he’s likely to be behind a bad offensive line to begin his NFL career.
Strong is going to be a little more of a projection than many of the more recent first round draft picks at the position. While some teams are opting to use more air raid concepts, there will still be a noticeable learning curve moving to a prototypical NFL offense. I wish that the offense implemented at least some NFL level route concepts, particularly over the middle which would make his evaluation much easier. Strong operates solely out of shotgun and will not be getting really any under center exposure the rest of the year. Strong is just an average athlete that’s never going to be extremely dynamic with his legs but there are examples of him working outside the structure of the play that are encouraging.
I understand that Carson Strong won’t be for everybody. The pocket passer mold is becoming less and less common. However, I think Strong has all of the necessary tools to one day transform into a quality NFL starting quarterback. Truthfully, who knows if the Steelers elect to grab a starter in free agency after the season concludes or if they choose to try to find the next guy in the NFL Draft, it’s impossible to predict. However, if I had my choice as of today, Strong would be the favorite in an otherwise murky draft class.