Inside the Pocket: Marcus Mariota could be star with right NFL fit

In the back of the press box at halftime of the Rose Bowl, an interesting -- but not unexpected -- debate brewed over the game's two quarterbacks, Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, and their ability to translate to the next level. Both are underclassmen, and whether they come out this year or next, each will be coveted by some NFL franchise in need of a quarterback.



NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks believes it's Winston who is the superior NFL prospect, and I don't disagree, but that doesn't mean Mariota can't be a successful player once he leaves Eugene. He has the physical talent and mental makeup to do so. Draft history says if the two enter the draft together and are taken in the first round, it will be a 50/50 proposition that one will be a good quarterback and the other a bust. That might ring true, but if teams are willing to change how they operate for the two quarterbacks, both could be successful, and Mariota in particular could turn into a star.

For any franchise willing to take Mariota, the first thing it'll need to do is assess what it wants to be on offense. While Winston can fit in just about any offensive system, Mariota cannot thrive if he's running the same game plan as a Tony Romo or asked to make all of the same throws as an Eli Manning. He might be able to do a lot of what those players can, but if a team truly wants to find long-term success with Mariota, it must adapt and build around his strengths instead of trying to plug him into whatever the team's head coach or offensive coordinator wants to run.

The first comparison Mariota draws is almost always 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but Mariota is generally thought to be a more advanced and accurate passer coming out of college. While Mariota doesn't make a ton of them each game, he has made all the NFL throws on tape; they are simply not as repetitious in Oregon's offense as some scouts would like. It doesn't help scouts that Mariota's receivers often are running so free that he doesn't have many tight windows to throw to, but teams should consider stealing some of the Ducks' route concepts no matter the quarterback. In fact, many of them have worked out well in Philadelphia the past two seasons.

Mariota might be a bit different from Kaepernick, but clubs should also consider taking what's been used in San Francisco under offensive coordinator Greg Roman: lots of shotgun, motions, rollouts and play-action passes. Similarly, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has done a tremendous job with Russell Wilson since he arrived in Seattle, and using a similar game plan heavy on intermediate routes and bootlegs would suit Mariota's style (with fewer five-, seven-step drops though).



As with Mariota, some experts had questions about Carolina's Cam Newton and the passes he was asked to make in college, but Newton has managed to lead the Panthers to back-to-back division titles using an offense that is becoming increasingly tailored to his arm talents. The same should be done with Mariota when he eventually reaches the league.

There are successful test cases for Mariota in the NFL, and if a team wants to take a chance being creative on offense, he can be a good fit. If the franchise -- namely, the head coach and offensive coordinator -- wants to be stubborn, things won't work. Otherwise, the sky is the limit. Mariota, who just turned 21, can escape the rush unlike any other quarterback before him. He scrambles to throw and keeps his eyes open, has a strong arm, and can make throws inside and outside the pocket. He's smart and willing to learn and is likely to spend all of his time in the facility working to get better. If you want to chain him inside the pocket and force him to make throws he's not comfortable with, enjoy picking another quarterback down the road.

As he proved this year, Mariota is a special talent who earned his Heisman as college football's most outstanding player while leading Oregon to the national championship game. He might not have been perfect -- especially in the first half of the Rose Bowl -- but the makeup is there for him to be a successful NFL quarterback, and he's a better prospect than all but a handful of players at the position the past few years.

Finding the right fit, though, will be crucial if Mariota is to have a long-term future in the league.

Stat of the week

After throttling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, TCU racked up its fourth 12-win season in school history. The only 12-win season before head coach Gary Patterson's arrival? The 1935 national championship team that also went 12-1. The Horned Frogs, by the way, are 94-3 under Patterson when allowing 17 points or less.

Tweet of the Week

Sound of the Week

UCLA play-by-play man Chris Roberts called his final game for the Bruins during the team's Alamo Bowl triumph last week before retiring. Here are some highlights of his calls during the UCLA victory over Kansas State in which Brett Hundley and company put up some big numbers.



Sideline standouts

Gold medal:*Urban Meyer* -- using a third-string quarterback against Nick Saban? No problem for Meyer, who has the Buckeyes on the cusp of a national title earlier than expected in Columbus.

Silver medal:*Scott Frost*, Oregon's offensive coordinator, was aggressive after turnovers in the Rose Bowl and helped set up a number of big plays in the second half to help the Ducks rout Florida State.

Bronze medal:*Barry Alvarez* might have allowed more passes to be called than he should have, but he still came out of the athletic director's box to lead Wisconsin to a bowl win over an SEC West power.

You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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