Marcus Mariota projects similarly to Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers when they entered the NFL draft. Can he replicate their success?
Scouting report No. 1: "Plays in the spread offense, taking the bulk of his snaps from the shotgun...Tends to side-arm his passes going deep...Lacks accuracy and touch on his long throws...Seems more comfortable in the short/intermediate passing attack...Does not possess the ideal height you look for in a pro passer, though his ability to scan the field helps him compensate in this area...Will improvise and run when the passing lanes are clogged, but tends to run through defenders rather than trying to avoid them to prevent unnecessary punishment."
Scouting report No. 2: "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."
If you didn't know any better, you might think both of these scouting reports describe Marcus Mariota, the former Oregon quarterback selected by the Tennessee Titans with the second pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Neither one does. Both reports come from NFLDraftScout.com, the first written in 2001 about Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, the second in 2005, about Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Brees was seen by most as a too-short guy in a pop-gun, gimmick offense, and Rodgers was seen as a player with limited upside in a system that hadn't done much to produce great quarterbacks. In Brees's case, it was his preternatural ability to read the field and immediately discern the best course of action that set him apart from other spread-offense quarterbacks -- both with the Chargers and Saints. For Rodgers, it was the three seasons from 2005 through 2007 he spent on the bench and running scout team in practice behind Brett Favre that made all the difference.
“When I came in, it was kind of like, ‘It’s Brett’s offense, whatever we’re going to do we’re going to do, and keep up,’” Rodgers told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2008, his first year as a starter. “Which was fine, it was a good challenge, but I couldn’t keep up. I was struggling big time.”
Mike McCarthy, who is Rodgers' head coach in Green Bay and was Alex Smith's offensive coordinator when Smith was selected first overall in the 2005 draft out of Utah (from a different kind of spread offense),, understood the most important factor in Rodgers' development from alleged system quarterback to legit MVP candidate every year: Time.
“I’m not talking bad about the 49ers, but our team was not ready for Alex,” McCarthy said in 2008. “We had 100 starts missed because of injury. We needed a quarterback to win a couple of games.
“Here, we have a good defense, good special teams. That’s where I think we’re ready for this. It’s been a process leading up to this, an education over the last three years. He’s matured. The only thing he needs is to be playing the game.”
When Rodgers hit the NFL, he was overwhelmed and underdeveloped, both physically and mentally. He's admitted as much.
And now, for Mr. Mariota:
"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."
That was part of my write-up of Mariota in this year's SI 64. I think Mariota has just about every necessary attribute required to be a great NFL quarterback (he proved to be at least the equal of Jameis Winston during the throwing drills at the scouting combine), but it's clear that he'll have a ways to go when it comes to reading protections, seeing the field and making full reads on a consistent basis, and understanding an NFL-sized playbook.
That said, those who believe that Mariota, and all spread-offense quarterbacks by proxy are inexorably lost at the next level are misinformed. Probably as misinformed as the anonymous AFC scout who told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 10 years ago that Rodgers was "A system quarterback. 3-, 5-, 7-step guy. Can't create on his own. Panics under pressure. Gets flustered easy. I don't think there's a quarterback in the draft worthy of a first-round pick. I'm dead serious. None of them are worth it."
To cast aspersions on a quarterback's NFL-readiness based solely on his body of work in college showcases a complete lack of understanding of how quarterbacks develop. Brees gained a ton of arm strength when he got with an NFL conditioning program, as did Tom Brady. Rodgers was able to build up his body, learn the hard way about the toughest parts of playing quarterback in the NFL, and when he was ready, his progress showed.
Now, the question becomes: What will the Titans do with Mariota? Will they play Zach Metttenberger in the short term, understanding that Mariota most likely needs time to get the hang of things? Or, will they do what the Panthers did with Cam Newton and the 49ers did with Colin Kaepernick -- weld a pro-style offense onto their young quarterback's spread-offense past and hope for the best over time?
For his part, Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt has been talking Mariota up as a pro-ready guy since the owners' meetings in March. There he said that if Mariota went to the Titans with the second overall pick, Mariota would be the starter from Day One. The Titans franchise has tried this strategy in different iterations with two other quarterbacks in somewhat similar systems with Vince Young and Jake Locker. Neither of those players learned to acclimate to NFL defenses, and neither quarterback ever learned to win consistently in the pocket which, in the end, is the deciding element when determining greatness at the position. Even the most mobile quarterbacks are limited by NFL defenses if they don't thrive in the pocket.
"There are going to be some things he's had success with in college we'll incorporate in what we do," Whisenhunt said the day the Titans refused a host of trade offers from other NFL teams for the second overall pick. "I don't think it's going to be that challenging. I'm excited about doing that. ... We'll see how it grows, what he can handle and how he can progress."
Mark Helfrich, Mariota's college coach, defended his charge's ability to acclimate about as fervently as one would expect.
"He sees the field really well," Helfrich told NFL.com on April 30. "He processes things almost too quickly for his own good sometimes -- his eyes or his brain are on that third or fourth thing in the progression and his feet are still on No. 1. That's where he's had a couple -- and we're nitpicking the most efficient passer in college football history -- issues, where his feet are off-balance. And it's, 'He was nine-for-nine, but on the 10th, he missed that throw.' "
"Our system has aspects of a lot of systems. We're not a quote-unquote spread offense that says, 'Hey, throw it here; and if not, run.' We don't do that. He has split-field reads. He has full-field reads. He has coverage-based reads -- go to this, based on man or zone. All of those things. All the things that NFL teams run, he's been exposed to. Is it a mirror of any system in the NFL? Absolutely not. And nobody else is, either. There are a lot of 'can't-miss' guys who've missed on the next level, because it's hard."
Aaron Rodgers wasn't one of those "can't-miss" guys, which is why he fell to the 24th overall selection in his draft class. Mariota is a "can't-miss" guy in ways that would have been inconceivable years ago, but the NFL is far more accepting of quarterbacks who do what he does. Mariota has the dedication, intelligence, physical gifts and raw awareness to live up to that potential, but it will be his team, and how he's handles along the way, that will decide things in the long run.
As gifted as he is, there's only so much Marcus Mariota can control.