Oregon junior quarterback Marcus Mariota certainly looks the part of a potential franchise quarterback: 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, a sub-4.5 40-yard dash, impeccable leadership skills. Mariota, who will graduate with a general science degree in December, is almost certain to be a top-five NFL draft pick should he forego his senior season, but there are questions on if he can succeed outside of the quarterback-friendly Oregon system.
The MMQB's Greg A. Bedard took a detailed look at Mariota in this week's Sports Illustrated and dug deeply into why so many people are high on him.
First, the positives: Bedard says that Mariota throws the football with a smooth, quick over-the-top motion and can get the velocity he needs without using a lot of energy. His speed is comparable to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but Bedard says that's where the comparisons should end. When the protection breaks down, like in one play in the third quarter in the Ducks' 46-27 win over Michigan State on Sept. 6, Mariota escaped the pocket and outran four defenders to get a first down.
"Mariota will still need to develop his footwork, arm strength and adapt to a more pro-style offense that includes reading the field, but all signs point to him being a huge and immediate success," Bedard said.
Kaepernick's arm is stronger, but Mariota is more advanced as a passer and his high completion percentage is due to Oregon's system, which asks Mariota to keep his reads to a minimum. A closer look will also show Oregon's receivers running free in the secondary for a majority of games, allowing Mariota to easily pick and choose where he wants to go with the ball.
Now, the negatives: While Mariota has nice touch on his passes, his anticipation could use work, especially when his first intended receiver is covered. In college, Mariota is not asked to make "every NFL throw," which includes the dig route and the skinny post. Oregon relies on Mariota "throwing open" his receivers with routes like the common back shoulder throw. In the Michigan State game, Mariota missed a wide open receiver in the first quarter after not anticipating how the defense would react to the receiver's routes.
Mariota's leadership is done with his play on the field and he admitted that he needed to be more of a leader to get Oregon over the hump and win a national championship. Bedard says Mariota possesses "a levelheadedness that can and has rubbed off on teammates" and relies "on his rare combination of throwing and athletic ability."
"The biggest question NFL teams, who are near the top of the draft, are going to ask themselves about Mariota is, 'Is he too nice?' Marcus is, by all accounts, the real-deal when it comes to being a role model and a nice person. But even he's acknowledged that he has shortcomings when it comes to being a vocal leader. That will turn off some NFL teams, who want an alpha male at QB. Take Russell Wilson. He's a great guy, but he's a killer on the field," Bedard said. "Not sure I see that with Marcus. Personally, I think that's a little overblown. Plenty of nice, quiet guys have been very successful in the league, like Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. As long as you have important intangibles like work ethic and desire to be great, and Mariota seems to have those, how you lead isn't quite as important."
Mariota is completing 70 percent of his passes for 806 yards, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions this season for the second-ranked Ducks (3-0).
"I think once all is said and done on Mariota's stellar collegiate career, he will be viewed as the best dual threat, pass/run, quarterback to enter the draft in recent memory," Bedard said. "Aaron Rodgers is the prototype in the NFL now, but he wasn't close to this type of player as a rookie and needed three years training to become what we see today. Michael Vick could run and had a huge arm, but he never develop accuracy and was short. With his unique combination of size (6-4 plus), accuracy, speed and smarts, Mariota should be able to start immediately somewhere."
For more on Mariota, check out Bedard's piece in this week's Sports Illustrated (subscribe here).
Also featured in this issue, SI's L. Jon Wertheim and Emily Kaplan look at how the NFL's discipline policy leaves teams to make their own decisions regarding punishment, including the case of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.