Every NFL draft has certain aspects of intrigue, and as we close in on the 2015 event, the most enticing question has become: Where will Marcus Mariota end up?
Yes, at this point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick on April 30. (See: Our uniformity over at Mock Draft Central.) Consequently, the intrigue lies in the No. 2 prospect at the game's most important position. Where would Mariota fit best? How quickly can the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner assimilate to the pro game? What can fans expect in Year 1 and beyond?
To answer those questions, there are certain things you have to know about Mariota. I dug deep on the Oregon product in a special edition of the "Move The Sticks Podcast" -- Marcus Mariota 360 -- evaluating what he brings to the table on and off the field. Drawing from that research, conversations with numerous football evaluators and my own personal scouting, here are five things you must understand if you're going to draft Marcus Mariota:
1) Don't try to change his personality.
Jameis Winston is known as a vocal leader, an extrovert who's constantly engaging teammates in the locker room, on the practice field and in the huddle. That's just not who Marcus Mariota is. He's not a rah-rah guy. And although I generally prefer quarterbacks to be a bit more assertive, Mariota's lead-by-example style has been highly effective. No one should try to make him someone he isn't. Talking to people who know him well, Mariota inspires through his actions. His work ethic, his desire, his professionalism and his respect for those around him draw admiration from teammates. There are different ways to lead, and this is Mariota's approach.
The most important thing is to be genuine. This is something Stanford coach David Shaw expressed to me on the Marcus Mariota 360 podcast, and it's true: People respond to genuine. If Mariota suddenly tried to assume a boisterous, alpha demeanor, it'd be a turn-off to people, because they'd know it's not him. One thing Mariota will have to learn how to do at the NFL level is to command the huddle, seeing how Oregon literally never huddled. This will be a challenge -- something Mariota will have to grow into -- but the worst thing he could do is come off as a phony. Grown men don't respond to that.
2) Despite what you've heard, he has experience making full-field reads.
There's a general assumption that Oregon runs a gimmick offense with nothing but zone-reads, QB runs and bubble screens -- quick-hitters that I call scheme winners. Many believe that in a spread offense, all of the thinking takes place on the sideline, not on the field. But when you study Mariota's tape, there are a handful of plays every game where he will take a three-step drop from the shotgun and work through a progression from left to right -- a full-field read, as opposed to a simple high-low concept. It's NFL-type stuff, graduate-level football. While it doesn't occur at high volume, there are notable examples of Mariota executing NFL concepts and making NFL reads. As Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has said, the Ducks' attack incorporates elements of the West Coast offense, the run-and-shoot and many other schemes.
No, the Ducks don't major in NFL concepts; they sprinkle them in. Truth is, pro-style offenses are few and far between in today's college football. Thus, Mariota's evaluation is not unique -- this is becoming the new normal. With the spread taking over the college gridiron, NFL teams will have to take a leap of faith in QB evaluation going forward, at least to some degree. If you're going to just eliminate all guys who come out of a spread, you're going to have a tough time finding a quarterback. USC used to be the staple for the pro system, and now, with Steve Sarkisian at the helm, even the Trojans are beginning to incorporate some zone-read concepts and work out of the shotgun. So, by and large, personnel evaluators are tasked with scouring game film and finding the plays that could portend NFL success. I've seen them with Mariota.
3) Don't force him to be a pure pocket passer early on in his career.
Ultimately, you want your quarterback to play inside-out -- meaning he's functioning within the framework of the pocket 90 percent of the time, but when necessary, he can get outside and make plays on the perimeter, either with his arm or his legs. When it comes to Mariota, though, it'd be a mistake to try taking him to that point too early. Mariota can throw very accurately while moving to his right or left -- take advantage of this skill. It's fine if the aforementioned ratio is more 70:30 early on; allow him to gradually grow to the 90:10 point.
Mariota's new team would be wise to factor in some designed runs, given his explosiveness in space. Utilize his outstanding running ability to complement everything else he does and force opponents to game plan against it. Obviously, this should be done in moderation, as you don't want to subject your franchise quarterback to unnecessary carnage. But on that note, Mariota is a responsible runner. On a scale from Robert Griffin III (who is far too reckless) to Russell Wilson (who is the gold standard when it comes to protecting yourself), he is far closer to the latter. Mariota still takes an unnecessary hit here and there -- see: the national title game, when Ohio State's Joey Bosa briefly knocked the quarterback out of the game on a play when he held onto the ball too long -- but he'll grow in this area.
4) Ball security needs to be constantly reinforced.
Much has been made of the interception discrepancy between Winston (28 INTs in 27 college games) and Mariota (14 INTs in 41 games). However, Mariota had a troubling amount of fumbles during his Oregon career, putting the ball on the turf 27 times (and losing 11). He needs to know when to get rid of the ball, as well as when to cover up with two hands.
Mariota displayed improved pocket awareness during his final season at Oregon, but there's still room for him to get better in this area. One thing that he'll have to work on in the NFL is confidently letting it fly when his receivers gain just enough separation. The Oregon offense is able to get pass catchers stunningly wide open. That won't be the case at this level. Against NFL defenses, Mariota will not be able to scan the field and think, OK, he's a little open, but where's the guy who's wide open? I know he's around here somewhere ... That's how fumbles happen -- when a QB holds onto the ball too long. Mariota's a very good decision-maker, but he'll have to play aggressively and take advantage of what's given to him on Sundays. It's not "taking a chance" when the guy has a step. If there's a window, let 'er rip.
5) Don't doubt his competitiveness.
Some people, on the outside looking in, study Mariota's demeanor and take him as a quiet, laid-back, go-with-the-flow type. But when you talk to coaches and teammates who've been around him in high school and college, they say he's a fiery competitor. The general consensus is that, when the stakes are raised, his performance follows suit. Last September's Michigan State game is a good example of this. Oregon trailed the Spartans 27-18 midway through the third quarter, with MSU's ferocious defense hemming in the Ducks' attack. But there was no quit in Mariota, who then led Oregon to 28 unanswered points, transforming a nail-biter into an easy victory. He has a passion for winning and he'll put in the long hours that are necessary to succeed as a quarterback in the NFL.
When I was scouting for the Baltimore Ravens, we drafted Haloti Ngata. Some skeptics questioned his demeanor: Does he have the ability to hit the field and be that nasty guy you want in your defensive front? Is he gonna be ultra-competitive? Five Pro Bowls and a couple first-team All-Pros later, I think it's safe to say he put those questions to rest. The old adage rings true: You can't judge a book by its cover.