The Mountain West conference has produced another quarterback from a relatively small California town, who was under-recruited in high school, has prototypical size, and a rocket launcher that doubles as a right arm.
Carston Strong is not Josh Allen, but his background is intriguing.
Strong, by most measures, had a better college career statistically compared to Allen, with a notably higher completion percentage and a touchdown to interception ratio. However, I’m not going to make the mistake of comparing Strong to Allen, as the two have different play styles. Allen is much more of a runner who can make dynamic plays with his legs, while Strong is a prototypical passer who has great pocket awareness but rarely takes off beyond the line of scrimmage.
In Dane Brugler’s latest mock draft that came out on January 19th, the Colts took Strong with their second-round pick. This selection sparked the following deep dive into Strong’s film, which has a lot of fantastic NFL throws in it, as well as some pretty awful misses. That is to be expected from a college quarterback, but what matters most is if his game will translate to the professional level, one of the most difficult dilemmas currently faced by quarterback-needy teams.
Will Carson Strong become the next Ben Roethlisberger? Or will he end up with a career like Christian Hackenberg, filled with untapped potential that never materialized for one reason or another? Let’s settle on a verdict.
Note: I watched 4 games over the course of this study, 2020 UNLV, 2021 California, 2021 Boise State, and 2021 Kansas State.
Carson Strong 2021 Stats:
36 Touchdowns to 8 interceptions for 4,186 yards and 70% completion percentage with 8.0 yards per attempt.
Here the Rebels come out in a two-high shell and drop into Cover 6, or “Quarter, Quarter, Half”. Nevada is lined up with trips to the field and runs a four vertical concept. Romeo Doubs, the receiver to the boundary, can get behind the cornerback who falls and makes the grab for a big gain. Carson Strong does a fantastic job of holding the half field safety with his eyes before coming back to Doubs. You’d like to see the ball placement slightly more outside so a more rangy NFL safety can’t intercept it; nevertheless Strong showcases his elite arm talent with this throw, a very evident trait across his tape.
UNLV again shows 2 high pre-snap, but the boundary safety rotates down on the snap, dropping into a Cover 1 “Hole” look, where the boundary safety acts like a robber. Strong has a switch-go concept to the boundary but passes it up because once again Romeo Doubs has beaten his man vertically on a post route. The safety and corner aren’t able to pass off the routes because the slot receiver to the field ran a burst corner route and had the safety guessing which way he was going to declare. With pressure bearing down on him, Strong again delivers a strike down the field to Romeo Doubs, this time for a touchdown. This play showcases Strong’s ability to keep his eyes downfield and deliver an accurate pass, even when he knows he’s going to take a shot.
For whatever reason UNLV insisted on playing man again against Romeo Doubs, who destroyed their defensive backs the entire game. This time though we see a misfire from Carson Strong on what should have been a pitch and catch a touchdown. The Rebels line up in Cover 1 and Doubs torches the DB by 3-4 yards on a go route, but Strong just misses him. There are throws that wow you on Carson Strong’s tape, but these are the type of misses that lead to riding the pine in the NFL. You simply can’t miss a wide-open receiver in the league and expect to be considered the face of a franchise.
This is a “big boy NFL throw”, one of those that not many guys in the world can make. Nevada comes out in empty to the field, while Cal shows a one-high shell. The boundary corner facing towards the quarterback tells Strong he’s probably facing a Cover 3 look, and sure enough, that’s what Cal drops to on the snap. Carson Strong knows he has a bazooka, and that is no more evident than on this throw. He drives the out route from the opposite hash before the flat defender can get into the throwing lane, hitting his receiver square in the chest with deadly accuracy. This is one of my favorite throws on Strong’s tape because it shows the confidence he has to fit the ball into tight windows.
One of the most unique parts about Carson Strong’s game is his control of the offense. Under Ken Wilson’s pass-heavy schemes, Strong can make protection checks and audibles at the line as he sees fit. This play is an example of a blitz fooling Strong. Cal lines up in an overloaded look at the line with only two down defensive linemen and five standup backers/hybrids. In this look Strong knows he likely won’t be able to identify who is dropping and who is coming, so he has to read the defense’s rotation out of the sim pressure post-snap. The Golden Bears put pressure on the interior offensive line and drop the edge players into coverage. By California flooding the underneath zones with defenders, the Wolfpack receiving core has a hard time getting open, leading to Strong having no options to check the ball down; especially with the running back staying in the protection fold. In any event, Strong should have audibled out of the called play to a hot route (probably a five-yard hitch with an outside release) to his boundary-side receiver. This defensive front presented Strong with an obvious pressure look, and he didn’t give himself a failsafe option that would have gotten him out of a sack no matter who dropped into coverage.
Nevada lines up in a 3×1 look to the boundary and on the snap, Cal drops into a classic Cover 6 look. The Nevada receivers, from outside to inside, run a sail, under, seam concept. Strong does a fantastic job of driving this ball over the two “hook-curl” linebackers and away from the half-field safety who is bearing down on the slot receiver. The awareness and accuracy on this throw protect the receiver and result in a first down. For a guy with a big arm, Strong showing the ability to throw with touch and precision is beneficial for his eventual career prospects knowing that he has a changeup in his arsenal.
Cal brings a nearly identical cross-dog blitz to the one that hit home two plays ago, except this time the protection holds up. But nothing comes open after he cycles through his progression, meaning he’s going to have to extend this play with his legs. Carson displays good upper body strength shaking off the defender before rolling out to his right and nearly completing a pass to his running back. He’s not going to wow you with his ability to improvise outside of the pocket, but with another offseason of rehab for his knee, Carson Strong should be able to maneuver outside the pocket adequately without being an obvious liability.
On third and long Nevada comes out in empty, contrasting Kansas State’s drop 8 prevent coverage. Nevada runs a go, hitch, seam concept. Strong’s natural pocket presence shows here as he moves slightly to his left, giving himself a better throwing window. Then, changing arm angles Strong rifles the ball between three defenders for a first down. This is the type of play veteran quarterbacks make, and Strong hasn’t even played a down in the NFL yet. This was the most eye-popping throw I saw on tape, even more so than the highly lauded drop in a bucket throw earlier in this game.
To be a successful quarterback in the NFL, you have to be efficient in the red zone. Throws like this will go a long way towards accomplishing that and lead to a lot of wins. Strong has three wideouts to the field, and the pre-snap motion forces a safety rotation. Carson sees single high and knows he’s more than likely facing either Cover 1 or Cover 3. But it’s not obvious presnap due to the alignment of the corners. Right before the snap, the boundary corner turns towards the quarterback, essentially declaring he’s a deep third zone corner. The field corner is playing outside leverage so as not to get beaten by a fade route, knowing he has inside help from his safety. Strong fires a dart into the small window between the two, beating the entire coverage with his arm. The fact this play design included a post route shows how much Kevin Wilson trusts the arm of his quarterback in a critical situation.
Nevada aligns in 12 personnel, a rarity for them. Strong assumes the outside linebacker is in man coverage on the weakside tight end, a mistake that will force this to be an incompletion. Instead, the safety runs downhill to take away the tight end spot route, freeing up the backer to blitz. The backer hits Carson as he throws, forcing the incompletion. This is another example of Strong misidentifying a blitz and paying the price.
Nevada lines up 3×1 to the field, and Boise brings a cross-dog linebacker blitz with the defensive ends dropping into a short hook zone to take away immediate drag routes. The pressure is largely picked up but eventually forces Strong to move to his right, where he displays his accuracy while on the move. Strong lofts the ball to his receiver who is working back to him for a 30-yard hookup. The ability to throw on the run is one of the most crucial aspects of being an effective NFL quarterback.
This quarterback class has been frowned upon by media and draft personalities often throughout this draft cycle. Regardless, some quarterbacks are going to be drafted higher than the consensus believes due to the inherent positional value the position brings.
Where does Carson Strong fall?
I don’t know if Strong would win any specific superlatives out of the quarterbacks in this class, but he is pretty good at a lot of things. His playing style may be more of a dying breed as teams look to find signal callers who can make plays consistently with their legs, but there is still a place for the old guard statue style of QB. Overall, I think Strong is a solid 2nd round quarterback who has the chance to have a Derek Carr type of impact on a team. Will Strong ever carry a team to a Super Bowl? Probably not; but if he is given the correct surroundings I believe he can take a team deep into the playoffs and maximize their talent.
Is the league leaving quarterbacks like Carson Strong in the dust? I think that question will largely be answered by the order in which the QBs come off the board in April.
*All video clips are courtesy of Christian F on YouTube.