INDIANAPOLIS -- The scouting combine is about all positions, of course, but quarterbacks make the needle move as much here as in the NFL. The 2015 combine was driven in that regard by Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who decided to go against the grain of recent years and participate in all the throwing drills, despite their statuses as apparent first-round locks.
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Winston's combine was as much or more about his personal issues, and he's addressed that with the media and with the NFL teams interested in him. Mariota needs to prove -- at least in the court of public opinion -- that he can operate outside a limited spread offense with designed openings and short reads. On Saturday afternoon, in the second group of quarterbacks, both quarterbacks got their shots in a group in which they were four players apart. Each player showed typical attributes and limitations, with a few surprises thrown in. From the media box at Lucas Oil Stadium, the test run for both looked like this:
On the 10-yard in route to the right sideline, Mariota started a little late on his first throw, but threw the second more decisively. Winston really lit it up with his velocity in the first one, and perhaps as a result of taking a bit off his second throw, was a hair late.
On the 15-yard stutter-go, Winston showed a dynamic downfield arm — in fact, his second throw was overthrown. Here, we saw that Winston has the ability to generate a great deal of zip and torque with just his upper body. Michigan State's Keith Mumphrey dropped one of the passes, but the ball was on the right line. On deeper passes, Mariota has what I would call a reductive arm, meaning he doesn't have a gun at all, but the ball comes out with a very nice spiral and when he's on point, he puts the right amount of air underneath the pass. He had a particularly nice touch on a deep pass to West Virginia's Kevin White, who was another star of this combine. But more than Winston, Mariota gets the subtleties that all quarterbacks must eventually understand: when to take something off the ball, when to air it out, and how to adjust for receivers. Winston, on the other hand, brings the confidence that comes with his rare physical gifts, and that's both good and bad. At times, he's too singular with his velocity.
On the five-yard slant, Mariota was in his wheelhouse, and displayed nice footwork in three-step drops. He tends to be a little choppy with his legs on his dropbacks (Cam Newton had this issue in college as well), but he throws short passes with confidence and anticipation, which some had questioned about him. On short passes, Winston still has a great deal of velocity, and there are times when he seems to push the ball a bit on these types of throws, as if he's trying to compensate mechanically for his relative inability to change speeds.
Mariota showed particularly quick feet on the 10-yard speed out. He transfers his weight very well from his back foot to his front, and he adjusts to different receivers very well. And again, though some may question his ability to throw receivers open, Mariota can do so pretty consistently when given the opportunity. I don't think this will be a major issue for him in the NFL. Winston is a bit slow with his weight transfer at times, and though he can get away with it because he's able to generate that upper-body velocity, I started to notice that on shorter throws, his upper and lower body don't always work together. That said, he has really efficient footwork on his dropbacks, with no choppiness at all.
The 17-yard in-and-up is where both quarterbacks looked really good. Mariota had great timing on his passes, and though he did have a little shuffle at the end of his dropbacks, he showed good anticipation. When Mariota throws from 15-25 yards, the ball doesn't zip out as it does when Winston throws it, but he gets it where he needs to. This throw required both quarterbacks to throw across their bodies, and Mariota had no issue with this -- the throws weren't less aggressive, which speaks to his functional velocity on those mid-range throws. Winston's touch was based a lot on his upper-body, but as his throws get deeper, he seems to be more integrated between his upper and lower body.
On the deep fade, Winston pulled ahead with his deep arm and a better sense of integrated mechanics. He can zing it downfield, but the ball arrives with good timing. He's not just throwing bombs with no clue; this is where his accuracy shows up. Mariota overthrew his first fade to Kevin White, but recovered by throwing a perfect spiral to Kansas State's Tyler Lockett, and got nice air under the ball on his throw to Maryland's Donnatella Luckett.
Mariota should have been better on the 10-yard speed out, but his footwork got in the way, (again, a slight hesitation at the end of his dropback), but he showed a consistent overhand delivery on these throws. Winston isn't always exact with the timing of shorter throws, but he didn't let his arm splay when throwing to the sideline; his mechanics were pretty well in check.
Winston was a bit more bedeviled on the timing of the 12-yard curl, though this wasn't helped by the fact that a high percentage of the receivers he was throwing to were very inconsistent with their cuts on this route. This is where Winston's relative lack of anticipation sense tends to get in the way. Mariota was outstanding on the curl. He zipped the ball nicely and had the better sense of anticipation and adjustment.
And on the post to deep sideline route, neither quarterback was on top of his game, probably because neither quarterback has thrown these routes a lot. Mariota tended to put too much air under the ball, and those would have been easy picks against a good NFL defense. Winston is more of a see-it-and-throw-it guy, even in deeper routes, and while he got away with some upper-body throws in this environment, the NFL will not be as forgiving.
Overall, I thought both Winston and Mariota came across well, showing the high sides of their specific attributes. Mariota is better than advertised in certain nuances of the passing game, especially timing and anticipation. Just because he didn't make those types of throws at Oregon doesn't mean he can't when given the opportunity. Winston is a far more compelling physical specimen, but there are reasons for concern with his deep velocity. His bunches of interceptions tend to happen as a result of poor mechanics and flawed reads, and he'll need to fix these things before his admirable skills can be used to their ultimate potential.
Mariota's lack of a deep arm is oversold. Honestly, I think it's as much about the fact that he's not used to throwing deep as it is about any general inability. Not that he's ever going to make anyone forget about Joe Flacco or Jay Cutler, but he can make most throws NFL quarterbacks need to make, he'll just now have to do it more often, and against more complex defenses. As he said from the podium this week, Mariota went against more three-deep zone coverage than anything else while at Oregon, and he'll need to ramp up the study time to adapt.