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Is Derek Carr the best QB in the NFL right now?

Updated September 21, 2021 - 2:57 pm

An interesting question was posed on an ESPN talk show Tuesday morning as part of a debate about which NFL quarterback they wanted to lead their team.

It was a fairly normal argument this time of year, only it came with a twist, especially for long-term followers of the Raiders.

The question: Would you take Derek Carr over Kyler Murray of the Cardinals and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks?

The twist: Unlike in years past, Carr is playing better than almost every other quarterback in the NFL. Which begs an even more pertinent question: At the moment is Carr the best quarterback in the NFL? And if so, can he sustain it over the remaining 15 games and, perhaps, beyond?

That Carr may be the best after two games is not as far-fetched as you might imagine. He leads the NFL with 817 passing yards — 128 more than Murray and 137 more than Patrick Mahomes. Against two historically tough, physical defenses, he has completed 66 percent of his passes with four touchdowns against just one interception.

He’s outplayed both Lamar Jackson of the Ravens and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and, most importantly, led the Raiders to a 2-0 record and a share of first place in the AFC West.

All of which has captured the attention of everyone around the NFL.

Getting his due

“It’s definitely getting noticed,” said former NFL executive Marc Ross, now an analyst with the NFL Network. “After the first game, how could you not? The dramatic fashion of that first game, and the second game being against Pittsburgh, kind of two highlight games for him. And then putting up the numbers as well. It was all a perfect storm for him.”

Whether Carr can sustain that level of play remains to be seen. But with the talent around him as good as it’s been his entire career, his mastery of Jon Gruden’s offense in full bloom and the presence of a much-improved defense, all the indicators are pointing in the right direction.

That combination of factors might not make him the best quarterback in the NFL, a lofty and exclusive dwelling where only a select few players reside. But it certainly could be good enough to lead a team to special places.

“There’s a handful of guys in the NFL that are part of that conversation — Patrick (Mahomes) Josh (Allen), Lamar (Jackson),” said former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. “Then there’s a group of guys that can hover from the sixth to the 15th range. They’re really, really, really good players. And if they’ve got good play-callers and good people around them, yeah, they become top 10 players at that position. Derek is one of those guys.”

That isn’t necessarily a shock in NFL circles. Among coaches and league executives, Carr has always been viewed as a talented quarterback, albeit one that, like so many others, is dependent on the infrastructure around him.

“Everything has to come together right for him,” Ross said. All of which is reflected in Carr’s career arc.

“A really good player early on when they had good players around him,” Orlovsky said of Carr. “Then, to the public’s perception, Derek Carr stinks. No, it’s just that play-callers were a revolving door and the people around him weren’t good enough.”

Stronger supporting cast

The presence of Gruden and Carr’s rebuilt supporting cast has changed all that. On the surface, it might seem like Carr has taken his game to another level. The reality is, the level of talent around him is allowing him to take fuller advantage of his skills.

Like throwing the ball downfield more, as evidenced by his league-leading 12 completions of 20 or more yards. Including the 61-yard touchdown throw to Henry Ruggs on Sunday against the Steelers.

For years Raiders fans complained that Carr was either unwilling or unable to push the ball down the field. In fact, he simply didn’t trust his wide receivers to successfully complete that kind of play. So he went elsewhere with the football.

“If you ever go watch me play pick-up basketball, no one throws me an alley-oop because I can’t dunk,” Orlovsky said. “That’s my thought with the whole ‘Why doesn’t quarterback X throw the ball downfield?’ I’ve heard Bill Belichick say it a thousand times early on about Tom Brady’s career, and everyone wanted him to throw the ball downfield. They didn’t have receivers to throw down the field to. That’s where the Raiders were for a couple of years with Derek. And yes, now that he has those guys, he’s doing it.”

Said Ross: “Darren Waller can’t be covered, and that changes everything. And Ruggs, if there’s one thing the guy can do when they drafted him, it’s he can run. And the routes that he’s running, they’re using him the right way. You blitz us, then this guy is going to run past everybody and, hopefully, he catches the ball. That’s a scary proposition for the opponents, and it’s kind of unlocked Derek … unleashing more of his aggressive side.”

Keeping it up

The person least surprised is Gruden, who stuck with Carr when he took over four years ago in spite of so many people predicting he would put Carr on the first bus out of town in favor of “his guy.”

Hence the praise Gruden heaped on Carr after his performance against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been clamoring about Derek Carr since I got here,” Gruden said. “Hopefully he gets some recognition for what he did today. Against two great defenses, two weeks in a row, and it’s a big reason we’re 2-0.”

Keeping it up will be the key.

“It’s not necessarily what does Derek need to do,” Orlovsky said. “Alex Leatherwood has to get better. They need to stay healthy on the offensive line. Ruggs has to stay healthy. Bryan Edwards emerging is a big deal. As long as those guys stay healthy and in their development, you’ll continue to see this style of play out of Derek.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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