The best quarterback in the 2015 draft might be Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. What kind of prospect is the Heisman Trophy winner, and can he succeed as a pocket passer in the NFL? Several experts familiar with Mariota‘s game share their views
NEW YORK—It’s amazing to me that some people question Marcus Mariota as a prospect because he’s not a big vocal leader. I have covered the NFL since 1984, and I will tell you the quarterbacks I have known who are not good vocal leaders:
Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Brian Griese, Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, Brad Johnson, Tim Couch. There are more who forced themselves to be louder than they ever wanted to be—Ken Anderson, Vinny Testaverde, Jeff Hostetler, Joe Montana. But the point is simple: One of the worst ways to judge a quarterback is by “vocal leadership.” It’s bunk. As Derek Jeter says, “I never said much. The best leaders lead by example."
Yes, Mariota is quiet, and he really does not like doing the press thing. On Saturday, hours before he won the Heisman Trophy, Mariota sat at a round table and met with some members of the national press for 15 or 20 minutes. He was pleasant enough, but it was clear he didn’t want to talk about himself, or how good he was. The answers were clipped, vanilla and cooperative. But his humility seemed real, and those who know him say it's not an act. It certainly didn’t seem to be much of a detriment to the 6-4, 218-pound quarterback.
I’m more interested in the 67 percent passing over 39 starts ... the 101-12 touchdown-to-interception differential ... the arm that, in the two games I watched, seems to be good enough to hit the sideline throws, the ones he’ll have to make consistently in the NFL.
Over the weekend I asked five club executives or scouts what they thought. Because Mariota still has a year of eligibility left at Oregon and has not declared for the draft yet (though it is widely believed he will soon after the college football playoffs in January), team executives would not speak on the record about him. One said he would only speak about Mariota as a future pro, not as a quarterback available in the 2015 draft. But for my purposes I just wanted to know what they thought of him as a prospect, and particularly how he compared to the other college quarterbacks he would one day compete with in the NFL. Most notable among those, of course, is Jameis Winston of Florida State.
Tony Dungy is not among that group of scouts or executives, because he doesn’t work in the league anymore. But he is uniquely qualified to judge Mariota, because he attended many of his games in 2012 and 2013, when Dungy’s son Eric was a reserve wide receiver on the Oregon roster. Dungy’s point to me was that, while many quarterbacks in college football today are athletes who play quarterback, Mariota is a complete quarterback who can fit in any system.
“He’s a quarterback who’s a great athlete," Dungy said Sunday. “He will have no problem being a pocket quarterback. He’s got a good arm. He can make the downfield throws, and he has good touch. I am on record as saying he’ll be a great quarterback in the NFL."
Here’s the impression I got from the NFL people: Mariota is not as good a prospect, or as no-doubt a quarterback, as Andrew Luck was in the 2012 draft. But he’s a more accurate thrower, and better in the pocket, than Robert Griffin III was in that same draft.
One general manager who scouted college quarterbacks this fall said: “He has the intelligence you want in a quarterback, and the work ethic. When he came back to school this year, it was basically Heisman or bust, and it was Final Four [the new college playoff system] or bust. He accomplished both. You need to give him time to breathe, time to adjust, to the pro game. You don’t want him to be the kind of guy you’re penciling in to start opening day, because he’s not playing in a classic pro-style offense in college, and you don’t want him to come in relying all on his athleticism. I also think he evolved this year as a passer. He stayed in the pocket longer. When I watch now, I see a quarterback going through his progressions more. Less impulsive."
This GM advanced the below-Luck, above-Griffin measurement of Mariota. One other personnel director, on a team that also would be in the market for a quarterback next offseason, said Mariota would be a much safer pick that Griffin, because Mariota played better from the pocket in 2014 than Griffin ever did at Baylor.
Mariota’s such a reticent kid about the fame that the best thing to happen to him over the weekend might not have been the Heisman. It might have been the Jets’ third win.
Steve Palazzolo is a game-grader for the football analytics site Pro Football Focus, which has begun to study college tape now. He watched most of Mariota’s games this season. Palazzolo said: “The NFL will fall in love with his tools. Nice touch. Good arm. Uses his running as a complement. But he’s a tough evaluation out of that offense, partly because he doesn’t have to make the kind of tight-window throws he’ll have to make in the NFL; his receivers at Oregon were so open. He’s still pretty quick to take off out of the pocket, so it could be a tough transition.”
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Mariota said he spent time in the preseason this year, and after some practices, taking snaps under center. At Oregon, as well as at many colleges now, quarterbacks run almost exclusively out of the shotgun, so his coaches thought he should get more used to the form of snap-delivery that will be common to his game at the next level. I’ve always found it’s not the act of taking the snap from center that is the big adjustment for college quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s the fact that in the shotgun, a quarterback can have a clearer view of what the defense is doing while he’s looking over the secondary after taking the snap; taking snaps the regular way, a quarterback doesn’t always get the clearest look at the defense, because he’s moving back three or five or seven steps with a pass-rush bearing down.
But the biggest question for Mariota is this: How will he transition from the college game (average rushes per game: 8.2) to the NFL, where coaches are trying to take the runner out of mobile guys like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, and make them successful pocket passers?
"I’d love to do that [be a pocket passer]," Mariota said Saturday. “Whatever the team wants me to do, I will execute it to the best of my ability."
I asked if it would be a tough transition.
“Not at all," he said. “I tend to believe I look to throw first. Not saying those guys [Kaepernick, Griffin] are the opposite, but that’s just who I am. I try to execute whatever the game plan is."
My feeling? Mariota’s such a reticent kid about the publicity and the fame that the best thing to happen to him over the weekend might not have been the Heisman. It might have been the Jets’ third win. Now the Jets probably would have to trade a ransom to move up to get him. Mariota would be better off anyway going to a less-intense environment with very good skill players. Coincidentally, Tampa Bay is excellent in those categories … and the Bucs currently hold the first overall pick with two weeks left before the final draft order is released.
Mariota to Vincent Jackson (though he’ll be 32 next year) and Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Not a bad group of targets to start with—if the Bucs cooperate, and lose to the Packers and Saints in the last two weeks of the season. That would ensure Tampa Bay having the top pick next spring.
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