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Instant Debate

Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota: Who is poised to prevail in Week 1?

There are a number of enticing matchups in Week 1 of the regular season, but for draftniks, one game appears particularly striking:

Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- a showdown of the top two picks in the draft, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

With that in mind, we assembled our resident team of draft gurus -- former NFL executives Charley Casserly and Gil Brandt; former NFL scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks -- and asked them to dig into the preseason performances of these two high-profile prospects. What has each done well? What has each done poorly? And who will prevail in Week 1? Here are their thoughts:

Before I dig in here, let's all remember one thing: We have a very small sample size (three preseason games) when it comes to evaluating these two quarterbacks at the professional level. And, of course, there are factors beyond these quarterbacks' control. (Yes, Mariota has outplayed Winston so far, but Mariota has also played behind a better offensive line.) OK, with that out of the way, here are my thoughts:

What impresses you most about Jameis Winston is his ability to make the special throws, putting a ball in a tight spot. He did this especially well in the second game ( against Cincinnati). Winston has a quick release with a strong arm, and he can make all the throws. The areas he could improve on are the same issues I noticed in his final season at Florida State. He will miss some throws he shouldn't because of problems with his footwork. And, if pressured, he will force the ball. Also, I've seen him hold the ball too long at times, but that might be a product of inexperience.

With Marcus Mariota, I like what I have seen so far. He has been an accurate passer with a quick release. He has shown good vision in working through his progressions. As we saw at Oregon, Mariota makes some athletic plays with his feet, running and throwing the football. I would say he has been fairly comfortable in the pocket, displaying the ability to slide in the pocket to find throwing lanes. Some of his negative plays were the result of inexperience. There were some other potential issues to keep taps on going forward, but since we've seen such a small sampling of plays, I would hesitate to call them weaknesses. I saw him look at the rush instead of downfield, and also be hesitant to throw the ball to the sideline. Lastly, he had some footwork issues when throwing the ball, and decided to take off and run too soon a few times.

So, who'll win in Week 1?

I am going with Tennessee. I don't see this as Mariota vs. Winston. I see it as Titans assistant Dick LeBeau against a rookie QB. LeBeau's record against rookie QB's is 19-2. I look for LeBeau to pressure Winston and take advantage of Tampa's issues with protecting the QB. The impressive thing about Jameis Winston has been his command as a rookie starter. He definitely has a full grasp of things, and consequently, Buccaneers coaches are giving him a lot of responsibility. He's made some big-time throws -- which isn't a huge surprise, given his arm talent -- but they've been real NFL throws that make you take notice. Also, before he sprained his ankle in the second preseason game, he flashed solid mobility, rushing for touchdowns in each of his first two games and showing the ability to get out of trouble in and around the pocket. The discouraging thing, I would say, is more a product of what's in front of him. Tampa Bay's offensive line has been a sieve in the preseason. Winston's just going to face so much pressure, which will exacerbate the problems that stem from his naturally aggressive playing style. Instead of just giving up on a play and getting the ball away, Winston has a tendency to force throws into small windows. The Bucs have to run the football to take some heat off Winston -- thus, it's encouraging to see how Doug Martin has looked in the preseason. During his Florida State career, Winston obviously faced a lot of adversity -- on and off the field -- and to his credit, he was never rattled. That will be the big challenge for him this year: to get back on the horse and keep battling.

Marcus Mariota has surprised me with how good his footwork looks, for someone who barely spent any time under center at Oregon. I've also been extremely impressed with his poise -- he just looks very comfortable out there, which is something that's not easy for a young guy to do. He is not jittery at all, and the NFL game does not look too fast for him. His arm is plenty good enough, too. Against Atlanta in the preseason opener, Mariota made one particular throw that really stood out to me. With the 
Titans facing a third-and-12, 
Harry Douglas ran a curl route on the right side, presenting Mariota with a tight-window option. The ball needed to have some giddy-up on it, and Mariota was able to stick it in there and convert the first down. Now, in terms of criticism, ball security was a bit of an issue for Mariota in college, and he fumbled in the preseason opener -- so he still needs to clean that up. Also, he's been confused a little bit with some of the different looks defenses have thrown at him. But I think the solution there is just more experience, being exposed to different coverages and continuing to learn from mistakes and grow. 

Looking ahead to the Week 1 showdown between these two rookie signal callers, I think it's set up where Winston is going to have more on his shoulders, and therefore, he'll enjoy the better statistical performance. He's just going to be asked to do more than Mariota. Also, it doesn't hurt that Jameis will be opening up his career at home, in the comfy confines of Raymond James Stadium. I think Jameis Winston will win the battle when it comes to this Week 1 showdown, but Marcus Mariota will win the war, in terms of having the better overall rookie season. Winston has the benefit of working with established receiving talent in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, which should make it easier for him to be more immediately successful. I also think Winston will get a boost from offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who I think is really a good coach.

That said, Mariota is the better athlete. He's more accurate and a better runner. He also came out of college with more experience as a starter, which can be a good indicator of initial pro success. I think Mariota is working with the better offensive line in Tennessee, whereas Winston's line will feature two rookies ( Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet) and all the growing pains that come along with that. As Mariota's receivers grow up a bit, he'll start to surpass Winston. I see Mariota finishing with a better passer rating and completion rate than Winston. It's uncommon for rookie quarterbacks to enter the NFL with the talent, poise and confidence to handle the responsibilities of serving as a team's franchise player from Day 1, but that certainly appears to the be case with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota taking over the reins in Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively. Both players have delivered enough splash plays to provide coaches and scouts with a glimpse of their superstar potential, yet it will be their ability to work past mistakes that will ultimately determine their ceiling.

Winston, in particular, must improve his ball security and risk-management skills. Although his supreme confidence and gunslinger's mentality are desired traits in a franchise quarterback, he has to learn when to scale it back based on the circumstances. This is a core trait of winning quarterback play, and Winston has shown growth in this area throughout the preseason. Despite completing only 48.9 percent of his passes with zero touchdowns and two interceptions, Winston has shown the ability to throw an accurate ball with exceptional zip and velocity. Most importantly, he throws with superb anticipation and timing. Against Cincinnati in Week 2, Winston delivered a 22-yard strike to Russell Shepard down the seam that showcased his ability to throw guys open. He confirmed his anticipation traits in Week 3 against Cleveland with a pinpoint pass to Vincent Jackson on a deep crossing route. With Winston also showing a willingness to check the ball down to a running back when his primary receiver is covered, the Buccaneers should be able to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with the rookie under center.

Mariota has been equally impressive as a rookie starter this preseason. He has exhibited better-than-anticipated poise, confidence and playmaking ability from the pocket. Mariota has consistently delivered the ball on time to open receivers on the perimeter, showing excellent accuracy and ball placement on timing throws. Granted, Mariota showed the ability to make pinpoint throws executing Oregon's offense as a collegian, but the fact that he has been able to do it on traditional dropback plays is a bit of a surprise. Most impressively, he has executed play-action fakes with his back to the defense and quickly relocated his primary receiver to attack a void behind overaggressive linebackers charging to the line of scrimmage. This is one of the biggest challenges for an ex-spread quarterback, yet he has handled it with ease. Mariota also has impressed with his athleticism and throwing skills on the move. He hit Craig Stevens on a bootleg pass for a 35-yard gain in Week 2 against St. Louis that showcased his speed, agility and arm talent on perimeter. The pass is one of several movement-based throws the Titans have scripted for Mariota, which has helped him discover his confidence as a passer at the pro level. Although Mariota has been superb in several areas this preseason, he must continue to work on diagnosing coverages before and after the snap. He has thrown a few passes directly into the hands of defenders when he failed to recognize the late-moving coverage (though, fortunately for him, most of those balls have been dropped). Given the complex coverage and exotic disguises that Mariota will face during the regular, the rookie could turn the ball over quite a bit when the bullets start flying in a few weeks.

Looking ahead to their Week 1 battle, I believe Mariota has the slight edge in the matchup due to his superior offensive line and speedy receivers. The Titans are likely to feature a quick-rhythm passing game built around a variety of short passes, which is the ideal counter to the Tampa 2 defense the Buccaneers will employ under Lovie Smith. Thus, Mariota could ring up a number of completions on catch-and-run passes and allow his playmakers ( Kendall Wright, Hakeem Nicks, Dorial Green-Beckham and others) to do their work on the perimeter.

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