Jameis Winston, then Marcus Mariota? Mariota before Winston? There's a QB derby atop the NFL draft, and even the most venerable experts are having a helluva time handicapping this one
WHAT SORT of warm-down was this? With representatives from all 32 NFL teams in attendance, including five head coaches, Jameis Winston had just finished filling the air with footballs at Florida State's pro day, on March 31. Now, as he made his way off the field, he briefly appeared to be skipping, or riding an imaginary hobby horse.
"You know when you're watching the Kentucky Derby, [there's] that one horse that everybody's got their money on," the quarterback was explaining to a retinue of relatives, cameramen, handlers, well-wishers and hangers-on. "But the other horse keeps going." At this point he performed a brief pantomime of a jockey—a 6'4", 231-pound jockey—riding his mount to a commanding lead down the homestretch.
In this equine analogy Winston was widening the gap between himself and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, thought to be the only player who could supplant the Seminole as the No. 1 pick when the NFL draft begins on April 30. In real life, though, it's not clear that Winston is pulling away from the field. Yes, the Buccaneers have indicated that they're leaning toward taking him. But the pocket remains muddy, so to speak. "We as an organization are comfortable ... with Jameis," Tampa Bay cochairman Joel Glazer told reporters at the NFL owners' meetings—but only after going out of his way to mention that he and the team's top brass had also spent quality time with Mariota.
A product of FSU's pro-style offense, Winston is widely considered more NFL-ready than Mariota, who piloted an up-tempo spread system in which he neither ran huddles nor called plays—skills he'll need to quickly master at the next level. Still, there are those who believe that between Mariota's upside and Winston's checkered past, the Bucs will err on the side of Gallant, rather than Goofus. True, Winston's career was marked by clutch second-half plays. But he was often the guy getting the 'Noles into those holes in the first place: He threw 18 interceptions last season, to Mariota's four.
Sitting at a Starbucks in Palo Alto, Calif., late last month, Ryan Tollner flashed a thin, Mona Lisa smile. As Mariota's agent, he'd recently spoken with a former NFL coach who, after a deep dive into his client's college video, had described Mariota as "one of the most rare talents I've ever come across. This guy should be the first pick in the draft. It's not even close."
"Marcus is going to be the first pick," Tollner declared, serenely. "I'll be very surprised if he's not."
Respectfully disagreeing is Winston, whose self-esteem remains robust despite persistent questions about his judgment and maturity. Asked moments after his pro day why he should be the first pick, he replied, "Because I'm the best player in this draft."
HOW FRUSTRATING it must be for the 21-year-old QB, who went 26--1 in his two seasons at Florida State, that facts so clear to him are not as obvious to everyone else. Yes, he completed 91 of his 102 pro day passes. But his insistence on throwing under duress—with his private coach, George Whitfield Jr., rushing off the edge, brandishing brooms and tennis rackets—may have backfired. In Winston's determination to show that he's gotten better at keeping his balance and throwing on the run, he called attention to that minor shortcoming.
"When you dropped back, when you were in rhythm, you were money," the NFL Network's Kurt Warner told Winston postworkout. "When you had to move a little bit, you struggled with your balance, your accuracy."
Afterward Winston seemed a tad exasperated by such nitpicking and by the fact that no one will tell him what he wants to hear: that all the questions have been answered, that his will be the first name called by commissioner Roger Goodell. (Never mind that he won't be there to hear it; neither he nor Mariota will be in Chicago.)
Asked after that pro day if Winston was the leader in the clubhouse, a member of the Bucs' front office would only allow, "That's kind of the perception. [But] we haven't come out and said that. Is it because we have a lot of people here?" (A total of nine Tampa scouts, coaches and executives flooded the zone at FSU's Moore Athletic Center.)
"We were out in Oregon last week; we'll be in Oregon next week," he added. "We're still tying up some loose ends, still got some work to do."
Read: Before coach Lovie Smith and GM Jason Licht link their livelihoods to him, they'll spend every available hour conducting due diligence on Winston, whose past includes accusations of stealing soda at a Burger King, a citation for shoplifting crab legs, involvement in a BB-gun battle during which players shot out $4,000 worth of windows, and a one-game suspension last season after he stood on a table at the student union and shouted an obscene phrase. The last stunt was particularly inauspicious considering that he'd been accused of raping an FSU undergraduate in 2012. (Following a flawed investigation that was obstructed by both school officials and Tallahassee police, the state attorney declined to press charges against Winston. In a separate proceeding he was found not guilty of violating the school's conduct code.)
Other quarterback-starved clubs are following suit, which means that if you ever cut Winston's hair or delivered him a pizza, you've probably already been debriefed by some NFL-hired gumshoe. Teams have interrogated his "elementary schoolteachers, bus drivers, [employees at] local restaurants, the lady at the Florida State cafeteria," according to Whitfield, the broom-wielding QB coach who also told SI that at least one team had arranged to plant observers on flights taken by his client, in order to monitor his behavior and interactions—"just to kind of be in the mix, be a fly on the wall."
But how would these "shadows" know which flights Winston would be on? Striking a slightly conspiratorial tone, Whitfield intimated that the NFL, and people connected to the league, have ways of getting their hands on flight manifests. How else to explain why another one of his clients, Johnny Manziel, was often met at the airport by paparazzi during the last draft cycle?
"Johnny would always wonder, How are there 200 people waiting for me to fly out at 6 a.m.?"
Possibly because they'd all been at the same nightclub two hours earlier?
Speaking of Johnny Football, when Winston opened his scouting combine press conference in February with the preemptive "I know I've made mistakes" strike, followed by contrition and a vow to do better, many observers recalled Manziel's penitent performance from a year earlier.
"We've seen this before," remarked one agent. "Eddie Haskell."
After the Browns used the 22nd pick on him, Manziel began a slow-motion meltdown, and by early February he had checked himself into rehab for a possible dependence on alcohol.
While Winston has no such (known) issues, his judgment remains in question. "When there's a pattern like that, you have to be concerned," says Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's foremost draft expert. Of greater concern to Mayock are the poor decisions Winston made on the field last season, which ended, incidentally, with Florida State's being routed 59--20 by Oregon in the Rose Bowl. In that battle of the 2013 and '14 Heisman winners, Winston was decisively outplayed by Mariota.
In his briefcase at the Seminoles' pro day, Mayock carried "a separate reel" of just Winston's interceptions. "Lot of bad decisions and throws in there," he tut-tutted. "Miami, Louisville, Florida—he was awful in the first half of those games. Now, to his credit, in the second half [of games] he made plays and won.
"If you think these two guys are in the same ballpark, you've got to take the Oregon kid first because he doesn't have any of the baggage. But they have to be in the same ballpark." Mayock believes they are: Three weeks before the draft, he leapfrogged Duck over Seminole in his quarterback ratings.
MARIOTA WAS in the house at 1 Buccaneer Place on March 16. He spent two hours with members of the Glazer family, owners of the NFL's worst team. Much of that time was spent discussing the other football: Mariota played varsity soccer at Saint Louis High in Honolulu; the Glazers own Manchester United, the English soccer powerhouse.
Mariota also got along very well with Licht, the GM. But his most important meeting may have been with recently hired offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who is expected to install a fast-paced, up-tempo system—which would be squarely in Mariota's wheelhouse. At one point, according to Tollner, Koetter told the quarterback, "You're gonna have no problem learning this when you come back."
The disadvantages of Mariota's playing in Oregon's spread have been, if not greatly exaggerated, somewhat exaggerated. Digging into Mariota's tape, Mayock noticed a multitude of "combination routes on the front side, routes that are no different than what the NFL runs: slant, slide, smash—all kinds of different concepts and combinations. And he's very good at them."
While the Ducks had those concepts, Mayock notes, "they [didn't] ask him to do much reading beyond that half of the field." If he didn't like what he saw, he was inclined to move the chains with his legs. "You can't kill him for that. He wins games that way."
Mariota ran a 4.5-second 40 at the combine. "The goal was to run a 4.4," says his speed coach, Ryan Flaherty. Mariota had been running 4.4s in the buildup to Indianapolis. Regardless, the moment he's drafted, he'll be the fastest quarterback in the league.
The select group that Flaherty prepared for this year's combine included, yes, both Mariota and Winston. And yes, they were different, he recalls. But it wasn't a huge difference. "Marcus isn't as deficient as people might think, coming from that system," Flaherty says.
One morning in early March, Flaherty was working with Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer, among others, when talk turned to Mariota and the transition that awaits him. Wilson made this point: "Do you know how many times I was under center last season? Half the time. The game is changing." Palmer echoed his point: NFL coaches are more often letting QBs step out from under center these days, allowing them to play as they did in high school and in college.
In Super Bowl XLIX, Tom Brady was in the shotgun on 80% of his snaps, Mayock points out. Yes, Mariota will need to polish his footwork and lose the hitch in his stride that precedes his release. He'll grind his gears in the beginning, memorizing plays and calling them in the huddle. But he's closer to being NFL-ready than many realize.
The Eagles, of course, could plug him right in, Mariota having already played an entire season for their coach, Chip Kelly, at Oregon in 2012. But Philadelphia, picking 20th, would need a king's ransom to move up high enough to get him. Think Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray and draft choices. And that, Kelly explained at the owners' meetings, goes against the grain of his more-is-better philosophy when it comes to draft choices: "You get a better chance of hitting if you have more draft picks than if you have [fewer] draft picks."
So there's no chance he'd trade up for Mariota? "There's an exception to every philosophy," he concluded.
This could get interesting.
Are the Bucs willing to wait while Mariota smooths those wrinkles from his game? They went 2--14 last season; as one Tampa Bay insider says, "They've used all their mulligans." Another factor in Winston's favor: Lovie Smith fancies himself as a kind of modern-day Father Flanagan, a self-proclaimed "believer in second chances." He may see himself as just the coach to shepherd Winston into manhood—and into greatness.
Flaherty has worked with, by his count, nearly half of the NFL's starting quarterbacks. "The great ones and the really, really good ones—they just have it," he says. "You can't put your finger on it." Those in possession of this ineffable quality "don't move a certain way, they don't look a certain way. What it comes down to is: They have the football IQ, they're really smart, and they're relentless in the pursuit of being perfect. They're the hardest working people in the room, and they're charismatic. People just want to follow them. They're born leaders. Marcus has all of those traits ...
"... So does Jameis."
And down the stretch they come.
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661 Combined margin of victory during Winston's 27 starts at FSU, including just one loss, in the 2014 national semifinal.
3 Multiple-interception games in 41 career starts by Mariota, whose 0.9 INT percentage in '14 was No. 2 in the FBS.