Is Oregon's Marcus Mariota just another spread quarterback who won't be able to pick up NFL schemes? Not exactly.
With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The second overall player on this year's Big Board is Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, who has spent the pre-draft process working with Chargers QB Philip Rivers and Browns quarterbacks coach Kevin O'Connell, getting the hang of the aspects of the NFL he doesn't yet understand—things like calling plays and huddling. Did he benefit from Oregon's quick-draw system? Without question. But assuming that this is another Ducks quarterback who was propped up by the system and will fail in the pros seems to be a mistake.
Is Mariota motivated by the doubters? "I guess you could say it's a little bit of motivation, but it's not the reason why I'm doing it," Mariota said at the scouting combine. "There's a purpose of why I'm here and why I'm standing in front of you and that's because I love the game, I want to be part of this game, I want to be part of this game for a long time. My motivation isn't to prove anybody wrong. My motivation is to make a dream come true for me."
Bio: Ten years ago, the thought of a player like Mariota going first or second overall in the draft was a scary one for most NFL personnel—teams weren't then able to project spread-offense quarterbacks (the generic term) to their schemes. But as the league has trended closer to collegiate offenses, players like Mariota have a stronger chance and more possibilities.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has most of the attributes that transfer to NFL success. Mariota finished his run with the Ducks with 779 completions in 1,167 attempts for 10,976 yards, 105 touchdowns and 14 interceptions (No, that is not a typo. 14 interceptions in 1,167 passing attempts). He also ran 337 times for 2,237 yards and 29 touchdowns. Yes, Mariota's NFL team will have to take him to the next level in several ways, but he's proven that he's well worth the risk as a prime example of the NFL's evolutionary quarterback.
Strengths: Ran a heavy Pistol play-action offense which translates better to the NFL than some may think. Tremendous thrower on the run—moves quickly and smoothly, resets his base naturally and throws with good mechanics when he's not pressured. Doesn't always bail at the first sign of trouble; Mariota has proven that he will look to another open read while on the run after things break down, and he's far better at this than popular opinion suggests.
In the abstract, Mariota playing out of the shotgun so much shouldn't matter—six NFL teams operated out of the shotgun more than 70% of the time in 2014. Tremendously accurate and efficient quarterback, and a transcendent athlete on the move. Dedicated, humble and hard-working—will take whatever coaching he gets and ask for more. Doesn't have a bazooka for an arm, but can make most throws.
Weaknesses: Benefited from an offense designed to create an easy open receiver, against college defenses playing back for the most part—Mariota will find a much tougher go in the NFL when his first read isn't open. Near-exclusive shotgun/Pistol scheme may turn some more traditional teams away. Will face a fairly steep learning curve with an NFL playbook—Mariota needs to learn protections, first and second playcalls, and how to adjust to advanced defenses. Must learn to hang longer in the pocket, and right now, he drops his eyes to run too often. Tends to lose velocity and accuracy when he can't throw from an optimal base. Might not be a first-year starter. NFL team that takes him may have to shave off the deep passes in its playbook. High fumble rate is a problem—he coughed the ball up 27 times in his Oregon career, which certainly mitigates the positive effect of his insanely low interception rate.
Conclusion: "He shows good ability to learn on the field, but may struggle a bit digesting a complicated playbook... He has displayed good toughness on and off the field, but needs to be more of a rah-rah type, at times... He makes good decisions, but sometimes shows impatience and will break off the plays when pressured... When protected, he stands tall in the pocket. When protection breaks down, he has a “run first” mentality. He has made good improvement sliding out of the pocket to buy time, but still is prone to bolt when protection collapses. When he tries to make plays that aren’t there, he tends to hurry, causing him to lose sight of the defender, resulting in a costly sack..."
Does that sound like a scouting report on Marcus Mariota? Actually, it's NFLDraftScout.com's scouting report on Aaron Rodgers coming out of Cal in 2005. When Rodgers was a prospect, he was considered by some to have benefited too much from a relatively popgun offense, and common perception was that he had a ways to go before he would be able to ascend to NFL greatness. Rodgers certainly has, but as he has admitted in retrospect, the three seasons he spent on the bench behind Brett Favre from 2005 through '07 helped him immensely—he was able to change his body, fix his technical and mechanical issues, and bring the best of his potential to bear when he was finally given the opportunity to be a full-time starter.
Like Rodgers, Mariota has a very appealing combination of physical tools, pure passing potential, and the desire to work hard and be coached as much as possible. It was Rodgers' mobility that was undersold when he came into the NFL—at least, until he became the league's best thrower on the run. With Mariota, it's his grasp of the passing game that is underrated. Yes, he can scan to his second and third reads. Yes, he can see the field and adapt. Yes, he will need time to get the hang of an NFL playbook. Mariota won't be Rodgers reincarnated, but I see many similarities, starting with this one: If he's allowed to take his time with his NFL transformation, he has all the raw tools (and many of the refined ones) for NFL greatness.
Pro Comparison: Aaron Rodgers, Packers (Round 1, 2005)