How good is J.J. McCarthy? Why Michigan QB is drawing Jim Harbaugh comparisons from Mel Kiper Jr.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is the most polarizing first-round quarterback prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft. He played for Jim Harbaugh, the most polarizing coach in college football last season. 

It would make sense for those careers to mesh at the NFL level, right? ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. can see it. 

“Does he have a chance to be a good solid quarterback, like Jim Harbaugh was?” Kiper asked on a teleconference on April 5. “Good solid quarterback. Not spectacular. I think he is kind of in that Jim Harbaugh mold.” 

That is an endorsement of sorts, but the comparison has merit. The Chicago Bears selected Harbaugh in the first round with the No. 26 pick in the 1987 NFL Draft. McCarthy is expected to be a first-round pick, but there are questions about whether he can be a franchise quarterback. 

Harbaugh faced the same ones coming out of college. How did that work out? A closer look at the comparisons between Harbaugh and McCarthy. 

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Which NFL QBs did Jim Harbaugh compare J.J. McCarthy to? 

Harbaugh predicted that McCarthy would be the first quarterback selected in the 2024 NFL Draft during a Feb. 2 appearance on “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd. 

“Arm talent, athleticism, it-factor, winning with numbing repetition. Don’t be surprised if — when — he’s the No. 1 quarterback off the board,” Harbaugh said. “That’s my prediction right now.”

That isn’t the conventional draft thinking given USC’s Caleb Williams is the favorite to land with the Bears with the No. 1 pick, but Harbaugh isn’t exactly a conventional coach. 

He’s also been effusive in his praise of McCarthy, with comparisons ranging from Andrew Luck to Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. McCarthy led the Wolverines to the national championship in the 2023 college football season, something none of those QBs came particularly close to doing. 

“This is the greatest quarterback in University of Michigan, college football history,” Harbaugh said after the 27-20 Rose Bowl victory against Alabama on Jan. 1. “Got a long way to go to get to where Tom Brady eventually got to, which is the GOAT.”

Brady, of course, is Michigan’s most-famous quarterback, going from sixth-round pick to seven-time Super Bowl winner. 

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Do Jim Harbaugh and J.J. McCarthy have a similar playing style? 

Michigan beat Iowa 27-14 on Oct. 1, 2022, and that’s when Harbaugh used third person to compare McCarthy’s style to his own. 

“He’s better than me, but he reminds me of a young Jimmy Harbaugh,” Harbaugh said. “Off he goes, he drops back, and then he runs over to his left, circles back to his right, back to his left, runs it, or throws it, to an open guy. Man, I love it, I just love it.”

That ability to extend plays popped up again when McCarthy threw a flip pass to Donovan Edwards against Indiana last season. It was almost identical to a play with Harbaugh and Gerald White in the “Game of the Century” against No. 1 Iowa in 1985. 

McCarthy, like Harbaugh, has an uncanny way of extending plays with his scrambling ability. Both were highly touted recruits at Michigan who delivered on that hype. 

Harbaugh was 24-5-1 as a starter from 1983-86. He finished with 5,214 yards, 31 TDs, and 19 interceptions. McCarthy was 27-1 as a starter at Michigan. He finished with 6,226 yards, 49 TDs, and 11 interceptions. Both quarterbacks were 2-0 against Ohio State. McCarthy has better passing numbers, of course, but some of that is the product of the development of the passing game in the modern era of college football. 

McCarthy will have to take more risks at the next level. 

How good was Jim Harbaugh in the NFL?

Here’s one major difference: Harbaugh was the third-string quarterback in Chicago in the first two seasons of his career behind Jim McMahon and Mike Tomczak. Harbaugh finally emerged as the starter in 1990 but suffered a shoulder injury before the playoffs. 

Harbaugh stayed with the Bears through 1993 before reinventing his career with Indianapolis. He led the Colts to the AFC championship game in 1995 and made the Pro Bowl. Harbaugh played one year with Baltimore and closed his career with the Chargers in 2000. 

He played 14 NFL seasons, posting a 66-74 record as a starter with 26,288 yards, 129 TDs, and 117 interceptions. 

Kiper sees the possibility for a similar career path for McCarthy. 

“I think he’s kind of like his coach. They don’t have great upside  – at least it doesn’t look like he does – maybe he will, but it doesn’t look like he does,” Kiper said. “He’s probably a guy that’s going to be a solid starting quarterback.” 

Jim Harbaugh NFL stats

from Pro Football Reference

Year Age Tm G GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT QB Rating
1987 24 CHI 6 0 8 11 72.7 62 0 0 86.2
1988 25 CHI 10 2 47 97 48.5 514 0 2 55.9
1989 26 CHI 12 5 111 178 62.4 1204 5 9 70.5
1990 27 CHI 14 14 180 312 57.7 2178 10 6 81.9
1991 28 CHI 16 16 275 478 57.5 3121 15 16 73.7
1992 29 CHI 16 13 202 358 56.4 2486 13 12 76.2
1993 30 CHI 15 15 200 325 61.5 2002 7 11 72.1
1994 31 IND 12 9 125 202 61.9 1440 9 6 85.8
1995* 32 IND 15 12 200 314 63.7 2575 17 5 100.7
1996 33 IND 14 14 232 405 57.3 2630 13 11 76.3
1997 34 IND 12 11 189 309 61.2 2060 10 4 86.2
1998 35 BAL 14 12 164 293 56 1839 12 11 72.9
1999 36 SDG 14 12 249 434 57.4 2761 10 14 70.6
2000 37 SDG 7 5 123 202 60.9 1416 8 10 74.6

Who was Michigan’s last first-round QB? 

Harbaugh was Michigan’s last first-round quarterback in 1986. 

Eight Michigan quarterbacks have been selected in the NFL Draft since Harbaugh. Brady was selected with the No. 199 pick by the New England Patriots in 2000. 

The rest of the list includes three second-round picks: Todd Collins (1995), Brian Griese (1998), and Chad Henne (2008). Drew Henson (2003) and Jake Rudock (2016) were sixth-round picks. John Navarre (2002) was a seventh-round pick, and Elvis Grbac (1993) was an eighth-round pick. 

Will McCarthy break that lineage of fringe-starters and backups? 

J.J. McCarthy draft projection

McCarthy could land in the NFC North with the Minnesota Vikings with the No. 11 pick, which is the latest projection from Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer. 

“The Vikings will do their best to move up, as they now have two first-rounders in play, but McCarthy’s live arm and gritty athletic playmaking should appeal to them here should he fall past the non-QB needy teams,” Iyer writes

A gritty playmaker? That sounds like something Harbaugh would say. McCarthy will be a first-round pick and get his chance to be a franchise quarterback, and if it’s Minnesota, he could have a chance to develop behind Sam Darnold until he’s ready. Whether McCarthy follows the same career path as Harbaugh remains to be seen, but the comparisons will continue at the next level.

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