It is uncommon for NFL scouts to have an opportunity to see Heisman Trophy quarterbacks square off on a big stage, but the 101st Rose Bowl provided evaluators with a chance to see Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston battle it out in Pasedena. Mariota outperformed Winston in this head-to-head battle, leading Oregon to a 59-20 victory over Florida State.
But with each guy considered a potential franchise quarterback in scouting circles, I thought I would make the trip to the Rose Bowl to see which guy has the edge heading into the draft season. With the game serving as a perfect tale of the tape, here are my thoughts on what Mariota and Winston bring to the table as NFL prospects:
The presence of speedy pass rushers and linebackers throughout the NFL makes it imperative for quarterbacks to be nimble athletes within the pocket. Although NFL signal-callers aren't expected to be explosive runners or scrambling threats, the ability to elude and evade defenders is essential to consistently move the chains in the pro game.
Mariota is one of the most explosive athletes in college football, exhibiting exceptional speed, acceleration and burst on the perimeter. He is a fluid runner capable of producing explosive plays with his legs while also flashing the skills to extend plays within the pocket to create big plays in passing opportunities. Against Florida State, Mariota rushed for 62 yards on eight carries, including a nifty 23-yard gain that showcased his speed and burst on the perimeter.
Winston is not an explosive athlete of Mariota's caliber, but he is also a nifty playmaker on the perimeter. Although he is a little herky-jerky in his movements, he displays enough wiggle to avoid defenders in traffic and shows exceptional strength warding off tacklers in the pocket. Winston's ability to stand tall with defenders draped around his legs reminds me of a young Ben Roethlisberger when he first entered the NFL. Although Winston finished with minus-15 yards on eight carries against Oregon, he capably executed the triple option near the goal line and extended a few plays by rolling to his right or left to buy time for his receivers to shake free. Those plays rarely make the highlights, but coaches and scouts certainly appreciate his ability to extend plays in the pocket.
NFL coaches will quickly tell anyone within earshot that arm strength is overrated, but elite quarterbacks must be able to generate enough zip and velocity to fit the ball into tight windows downfield. Moreover, the top quarterbacks in the game are able to throw the ball to every area of the field with exceptional accuracy and placement.
Mariota certainly the displays the arm strength and talent to play effectively in the NFL. He capably pushes the ball to the outside areas of the field, while also showing the arm strength to make vertical throws down the middle. While his accuracy and ball placement leave something to be desired, particularly on intermediate and deep throws, Mariota has the physical tools to play the position as a passer. He displayed those skills on a couple of "pocket" go throws to Darren Carrington down the boundary for scores of 56 and 30 yards in the third quarter.
Winston is a natural thrower with a strong arm. He consistently throws laser tosses between the hashes, exhibiting outstanding arm strength and touch. In addition, Winston fires the ball with precision to the receivers sitting outside the numbers. Those throws are staple tosses in most NFL playbooks, which is why coaches and scouts will give Winston high marks for his arm talent when they break down the film of the Rose Bowl.
Learning how to play amid chaos is the biggest challenge for NFL quarterbacks. The best quarterbacks have the ability to feel the rush, but are disciplined enough to keep their eyes down field on their intended targets. Watching young passers transition from the college game to the pros, I believe it is the one skill that can't be taught at the highest level. Thus, elite quarterback prospects must display the courage and composure to function with rushers in close proximity as a collegian, or it's unlikely they will develop those skills in the NFL despite running through an assortment of simulated drills on a daily basis.
Mariota is an extraordinary playmaker, but he doesn't show exceptional poise or patience within the pocket. He looks uncomfortable working through his reads when his primary receiver is covered, leading him to quickly flee the pocket or move around to create a potential big play in a scramble drill. While he routinely converts these chances into explosive plays -- passes of more than 25 yards -- Mariota must learn to play within the confines of the pocket when it crumbles. It's the same lesson Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel are grappling with as pros. Mariota will be challenged to do the same at the next level.
Winston is a superb passer from the pocket. He stands tall at the top of his drop and doesn't flinch when rushers are in close proximity. Most important, Winston consistently works through his first, second and third receiver in the progression before attempting to flee the pocket. Although his run around fumble against Oregon will make every blooper reel following the season, Winston showed tremendous pocket poise for most of the game. Watching him consistently deliver bullets to receivers working between the hashes, I walked away convinced that he could effectively function within an NFL pocket from Day 1.
The challenge of running a complex NFL offense requires the quarterback to be a cerebral playmaker in the backfield. He must be able to read coverage and defensive fronts during the pre-snap phase, but make quick adjustments after the ball is snapped. Additionally, NFL quarterbacks are routinely tasked with making protection calls or using hot reads or sight adjustments to naturalize blitzes. This is not a standard requirement in most collegiate offenses, but every team has an answer to handling pressure at the line of scrimmage.
Mariota runs the Ducks' version of the spread with remarkable precision. He makes sound decisions with the ball on zone-reads; he does a great job of counting the numbers to make decisions whether to run or throw bubble screens on read-option plays. Looking at Mariota's impressive numbers in the Rose Bowl, I was surprised at the production generated off bubble screens and other deceptive screen tactics. He accurately read the reactions of defenders and made the correct call repeatedly. Now, I must point out that Oregon's offense doesn't feature the complexities of a pro system, but Mariota thrives running the Ducks' spread, and that should earn him some points in meeting rooms across the NFL for his superb execution.
Winston plays in a traditional offense that features concepts found in every NFL playbook. From basic smash-corner reads to a variety of level routes between the hashes, Winston is asked to execute progressions that are routinely seen on Sundays. He effectively moved the offense down the field for the better part of a half before a number of turnovers and mental mistakes allowed the Ducks to run away with the game. Although Winston will be tagged with a couple of turnovers in the Rose Bowl, it is important to note that his third-quarter interception resulted from a drop and deflection from an open receiver. When coaches grade the film based on his execution of the assigned tasks, Winston will earn high marks for his play.
Playing well in the clutch is one of the most important aspects of playing quarterback in the NFL. Elite signal-callers excel when the game is on the line, particularly at the end of the half or following critical errors. These moments reveal a quarterback's mental toughness, awareness and judgment, while also providing a glimpse at how they will handle intense situations at the next level.
Mariota will earn high marks for his overall play against Florida State in critical situations. He bounced back from a few missed opportunities, missing two receivers for explosive play chances in the first quarter, to get his offense into a groove for three quarters. From using his legs to spark a long drive from his own end zone to making a few big plays on fake bubble screens bombs, Mariota made the plays to blow open the game against the Seminoles. Scouts certainly would've loved to have seen Mariota execute a two-minute drill with the game hanging in the balance, but his ability to make the critical plays to seal the game will earn him high marks from evaluators.
Scouts certainly have seen enough film of Winston making plays in the clutch to have a feel for his confidence and swagger in big moments, but he provided another example with his brilliant execution of the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. Winston picked apart the Ducks' defense on the drive, culminating in a 10-yard touchdown run from Karlos Williams. On the drive, Winston made pinpoint throws in traffic and effectively managed the clock to preserve enough time for a score. Given his history of delivering in the clutch, Winston's play in the Rose Bowl will further cement his status as a primetime performer.
The Rose Bowl certainly provided evaluators with a terrific opportunity to see the top quarterbacks in college football duke it out on a big stage. Although the game turned into a lopsided affair, scouts will walk away with a better feel for the potential of both quarterbacks. For Mariota, the game showcased his athleticism and playmaking potential as a dual-threat quarterback. He can impact the game as a runner or passer and has a flair for delivering an explosive play at the right time. While he needs to continue to make improvements as a pocket passer and probably needs to play in a system that features several of the components of the Ducks' offense to succeed early in his career, Mariota is an intriguing prospect capable of developing into a spectacular player down the road.
Winston remains the most pro-ready passer in college football. He is an exceptional pocket passer with big-time talent and valuable experience in a pro system. Winston plays the game in a style that translates easily to the next level; coaches can project how he will play in their system and quickly craft plans to get him on the field quickly as a pro. Although his character issues will raise red flags in most meeting rooms, there is no doubt in my mind that he is the better prospect right now.