Derek Carr threw for over 12,000 yards in three seasons as a starter for Fresno State. (Tony Avelar/AP)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Six months before he will take a preseason snap, Derek Carr called the first audible of his NFL career.
As Carr's time Friday in front of the media expired and an NFL scouting combine liaison started to whisk him away for his next activity, a reporter tried to sneak in one more question about the former Fresno State quarterback's son, who battled for his life against a condition known as intestinal malrotation after being born just prior to the 2013 season.
The NFL rep started to nip the extra inquiry in the bud with "We're done here" efficiency. Carr waved him off, as if sending a last-second substitution back to the sideline: "Nah, it's OK. I'll just tell him the story real quick."
It was a moment totally true to Carr's reputation and personality as an outgoing leader in the locker room. His press conference was one of the gems of the weekend -- Carr was confident, composed and at times hilarious. (How will your career be different than that of your brother, David, the first-ever pick of the Texans? "Well, there are no expansion teams, so that's a great thing.")
Yet, as impressive as Carr was, his was a secondary plot. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel packed reporters in to overflow capacity earlier in the day. Later, the media waited impatiently for Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater to arrive (his press conference was pushed to Saturday). It is Bridgewater, Manziel and Central Florida's Blake Bortles who are generally believed to be the top three quarterback prospects in this draft.
Carr sits on the borderline between those perceived elite options and the best of the rest. The "rest," in this case, just so happens to feature two-time national champion A.J. McCarron; the vastly experienced Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and Logan Thomas; small-school star Jimmy Garoppolo; and the record-setting Carr himself.
All of those unofficial rankings are subject to change between this weekend and the draft. For now, Carr is relegated to leading the charge for the second-tier quarterbacks.
"From the evaluations that I've had and the meetings that I've had ... I don't care what anyone says out of those rooms, because I know what I've heard and I know what [teams have] said to me," Carr said. "They're never going to sugarcoat things. It's just fun to hear [the criticisms] because I know what the teams are telling me."
At its core, the combine is merely part of an extended interview process -- a bizarre process, mind you, that asks job hopefuls to strip down for medical evaluations, run sprints in minimal clothing and provide answers to mind-benders like "How many different ways could you use a paper clip?"
And the critical challenge of any job interview is to convince an employer to hire you. That is the case here, even for the Bridgewaters and Manziels of the draft world. Scouts, coaches and general managers simply need a little more prodding when it comes to Carr and company.
"I don’t try to worry about any of that," said McCarron, one of the harder prospects to pin down in the entire draft due to his phenomenal college success and apparent lack of upper-echelon athletic abilities. "If you ask anybody, any GMs or head coaches, nobody knows where anybody is going to fall [in the draft0.
"The draft is just kind of here and there, really. One guy could get picked up earlier than expected and it can change the whole draft. I’m just worried about what I can control, and that’s me going out there and performing to the best of my ability. Wherever the chips fall, they fall."
The 2014 hopefuls need look no further back in history than 2013 to see that unpredictability play out. Matt Barkley, who entered his final college season as a unanimous top-10 possibility, slipped to Round 4 and No. 98 overall. E.J. Manuel unexpectedly came off the board first, with hyped-up products Geno Smith and Ryan Nassib dropping well below him.
The 2012 draft may more accurately parallel this year's expectations -- Andrew Luck came off the board at No. 1 and Robert Griffin III at No. 2, as most expected. Right now, all of Bridgewater, Bortles and Manziel could hear their names called in the top 10 without anyone so much as batting an eyelid.
After that ... well, settle in. Any of the other talented quarterbacks could tickle a team's fancy, and all of those quarterbacks believe they're capable of climbing the charts.
"I definitely think [I have something to prove], but not so much of a proving them wrong type of level," Thomas said. "It’s more a level of showing them what I’ve got and how I’ve gotten better and what type of things I bring to the table."
For all the accomplished quarterbacks alongside him, Carr stands out as the player capable of crashing the top-10 party. He had the misfortune of turning in arguably the worst game of his Fresno State career in a 54-29 bowl loss to USC. The Trojans' ability to shut down Carr emphasized all the concerns teams have about him—namely, that his mechanics waver badly and that he's unable to roll effectively through his reads due to Fresno State's quick-trigger passing attack. Carr's frame, rocket arm and even the pedigree of being a brother of a former No. 1 pick (even one who struggled as David Carr did) could push those fears aside for a team desiring a franchise quarterback.
"The number one thing my brother has taught me: You're going to be praised a lot, you're going to be criticized a lot," Carr said. "Ignore both because neither matter."
No fewer than six teams holding a top-10 pick look to be in need of a new starting quarterback. A seventh, Tampa Bay, may wander into that territory, too, despite the presence of 2013 rookie Mike Glennon. Plus, as Russell Wilson proved unequivocally, dropping into the mid-rounds does not preclude a quarterback from taking over as a starter -- and succeeding -- early.
Every game played in college stands as evidence either for or against the draft's prospects. This week offers a shot to show off, be it in the interview room or on the field.
"I wanted to come out and showcase my talent against the other best quarterbacks in the nation," Garoppolo said. "That’s what the combine is all about."