Is Derek Carr a Smart Quarterback Selection in Fantasy Football This Year?

Derek Carr showed massive improvement in his second year in Oakland. What does that tell us about 2016?

Derek Carr was a Day 1 starter after being selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Like most rookie quarterbacks, he struggled his first season in the league. Not only did Carr have to get acclimated to the speed of the NFL and complexity of defensive schemes, but he had to get comfortable with the basic center-quarterback exchange because the majority of the snaps he took in college were from the shotgun.

In addition, the Raiders were in the third year of a massive rebuilding project, so the roster was devoid of playmakers. The 5.46 yards per attempt average that Carr had during his rookie year showed how he dinked and dunk through the season. He did a nice job limiting turnovers and sacks, but from a fantasy perspective, 2014 was underwhelming.

The gates of productivity opened up in 2015. Carr threw for 717 more yards, 11 more touchdowns, increased his yards per attempt by 1.50, and elevated his completion percentage from 58.1 to 61.1%. An influx of talent, most notably at the wide receiver position, helped Carr take that huge step forward. GM Reggie McKenzie drafted Amari Cooper in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft and signed Michael Crabtree in free agency. Having those playmakers on the outside enabled Carr to be aggressive and stretch defenses vertically.

After finishing his rookie season as the 20th quarterback in fantasy, Carr made the leap to 14th in 2015.

What can we expect in 2016?

The Amari Cooper Injury

At numberFire, we like to quantify things football-related by using our proprietary metric called Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP factors in variables such as down-and-distance to place a value on how much a player contributes to his team's expected point output. For example, a completion of 5 yards on 3rd-and-3 is more significant than a 5-yard completion on 3rd-and-10. NEP accounts for that.

For more information on NEP, please visit our glossary.

During Carr's rookie season, he accumulated a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.07. The league average that year was 0.10. In his second year, Carr posted a 0.06 mark, while the league average was 0.11. So, with a massive improvement between his first two years in the league, Carr was still a below-average quarterback according to our metrics. In fact, he ended as the 25th quarterback in terms of per-play passing a season ago.

There's plenty of room to go up from there, but is the glass half full or half empty?

One of the things that negatively affected Carr's numbers last year was the foot injury to Amari Cooper. In 11 games with a healthy Cooper, Carr surpassed the 300-yard mark six times and his Passing NEP per drop back was 0.23, good for fifth among quarterbacks. In the final five games with Cooper hobbled, Carr failed to reach that mark and never exceeded 5.9 yards per attempt.

Think having a hurt number-one receiver is no big deal? Look what happened to Aaron Rodgers after he lost Jordy Nelson last season.

A healthy Cooper increases the chances of a Carr breakout, for sure.

But it doesn't guarantee it.

Will Opportunity Be There?

When identifying breakout players, opportunity is a great thing to look for. Is that player moving up the depth chart? Is he in line for more carries or targets? Is there a scheme change that will provide more offensive plays?

A good example of scheme change is the 2013 Denver Broncos. During the offseason, the talk was about going no-huddle and running as many plays as possible. No one could have predicted a record-breaking season from Peyton Manning, but there was no doubt that the increased volume would provide more opportunities to make plays and score points. It's the same logic why the fantasy community loves Chip Kelly.

What does this have to do with Carr?

Well, the Raiders are building their team to play a physical, more conservative style of football. Head coach Jack Del Rio is a defensive-minded coach and is conservative by nature. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave wants to run the ball. I mean, in his prior six seasons as an OC for the Panthers, Jaguars, and Vikings, his teams averaged 441 rushing attempts per season. The Raiders ran the ball 370 times last year.

That's about to change in 2016, and it all starts with the offensive line.

The offensive line is big and physical, essential for implementing a power run game. Gabe Jackson (6' 4", 340 pounds) is at left guard, Donald Penn (6' 4", 304 pounds) mans the left tackle position, and Austin Howard (6' 7", 333 pounds) will be the right tackle. Rodney Hudson is one of the best all-around centers. Most importantly, recently acquired guard, Kelechi Osemele, received Pro Football Focus' fourth-highest run blocking grade among guards last season.

The Raiders run game was the 11th-worst last year -- according to our metrics -- at -0.04 Rushing NEP per play. The run game is going to take on a greater importance this season given their offseason moves, and it should be much improved. If it can be more effective, the number of pass attempts for Carr could decrease, though the efficiency numbers could increase. Play action should be more effective, the passing lanes should not be as clogged, and the down-and-distance scenarios should be more favorable.

If a team is constantly chasing points, the run game usually takes a back seat. And that's why the Raiders' defense received the most upgrades in the offseason.

Bruce Irvin was signed to create a formidable pass-rushing duo with Khalil Mack. Cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson were brought in to solidify the back end. And the Raiders first-round draft pick was safety Karl Joseph.

What this means is that Carr may not see as many pass attempts this year, but he should be more effective. For proof, when trailing last season, Carr had a quarterback rating of 88.7 (106.4 with the lead), and his touchdown rate was 5.2%, down from 7.4% when his team was ahead.

The situation for Carr this year, in honesty, reminds me of the early Ben Roethlisberger days. Those Steelers teams had a dominant defense with strong run games. Roethlisberger wasn't asked to throw a high volume of passes, but was super effective when he did -- for example, in 2007, Roethlisberger only attempted 404 passes, but threw (what is still a career-high) 32 touchdowns. He ended as the seventh-best fantasy quarterback that year.

Carr isn't going to throw only 400 times this season -- it's a different NFL, and that'd be a huge dip for the third-year starter. But he should see better efficiency given his 2015 splits, which could make the decline in volume a moot point.

What this comes down to, then, is touchdowns. That's not surprising, since touchdowns correlate to fantasy success more than any other statistic at the quarterback position.

That makes Carr a slight risk. According to a study just concluded by our own JJ Zachariason, Carr's 2015 touchdown rate was higher than it probably should have been, meaning there could be some regression in store. And since he's not going to be putting up the rushing numbers other quarterbacks might -- like a Cam Newton or Russell Wilson -- there's a chance his upside is already baked into his average draft position.

That doesn't make him a very viable later-round option.