The hype machine is humming in full effect after Oregon QB Marcus Mariota was named the Heisman Trophy winner over the weekend. Coaches like Tony Dungy and Jim Mora have compared the Ducks' standout to NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, with Mora going so far as to call him a "bigger, faster, stronger" version of the three-time Pro Bowler.
Now, I certainly respect and appreciate the opinions of coaches who know Mariota really well through personal experience or have competed against the dynamic playmaker in Pac-12 play the past two years, but the assessments are certainly off base if you've scouted either player and watched them develop over the course of their careers.
Rodgers, the 24th overall pick of the 2005 draft, was viewed as the classic drop-back passer when he entered the NFL following two productive seasons at Cal. While he displayed above-average arm talent, refined footwork and fundamentals, there were questions about his mechanics, namely his tendency to "carry the ball on the shelf" during his drop and set-up and his ability to assimilate into a pro-style offense after playing in Jeff Tedford's "quarterback-friendly" system. Additionally, there were concerns about his build (Rodgers was listed at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds in Cal's media guide during his final season; he measured 6-2, 223 pounds at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine) and potential durability due to his frame.
Scouts in support of Rodgers raved about his management skills, judgment and consistency, as he efficiently worked through his progression to string together completions. He showed the ability to get to his secondary read on routes and rarely forced the ball into coverage as a collegian. The naysayers would point to the fairly straightforward scheme and how Tedford made the game easy for the quarterback. Additionally, the skeptics wondered if the system prepared quarterbacks for the NFL game after several of his pupils (Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and David Carr) struggled transitioning to the pros.
As the West Coast scout for the Carolina Panthers during that time, I gave Rodgers a 7.0 on our grading scale, which placed him at the bottom of the first round and suggested that he would need time to develop into a quality starter at the NFL level. For comparison's sake, I handed Alex Smith the exact same grade and ranked those guys as the top two quarterbacks in the area when I filed my reports in the fall.
Looking at Mariota for the past two seasons, I don't see similarities to Rodgers in their play at the collegiate level. The Ducks' standout is an explosive athlete (6-4, 225 pounds) with exceptional speed, quickness and burst on the perimeter. He excels at executing various zone-read concepts and is comfortable using his legs to make plays on the perimeter. As a passer, Mariota displays above-average arm strength and adequate footwork. He is fairly accurate on short and intermediate throws to stationary targets, but has trouble making pinpoint tosses on anticipation or timing routes over the middle of the field. To be fair, he is rarely asked to make these throws in Oregon's system due to the volume of run-action passes featured in the playbook. Mariota routinely throws slants, "pop" passes and seam routes following a zone-read fake, so he rarely makes a conventional drop back and throw without some form of a play fake to hold second-level defenders (linebackers and/or strong safety). This system routinely puts a designated defender in a bind and asks the quarterback to hand the ball off or throw based off the defender's reaction. This allows Mariota to hit his primary read on nearly 90 percent of his passes, allowing the quarterback to function efficiently as a passer in the system.
While the Ducks' coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for making the passing game akin to a game of "pickle" for the quarterback, the NFL game requires a quarterback to frequently find his second and third option in a pure progression system. Quarterbacks are routinely asked to read from left to right or high to low based on coverage or route concepts; it takes some time for college quarterbacks coming from spread systems to adjust to the flow of the NFL passing game. Granted, Mariota has likely experienced some of those concepts during his time at Oregon, but the bulk of his throws are of the "pick and stick" variety (bubble screens, etc.) that are rarely used in the NFL.
That's why I have a hard time digesting the comparison between Rodgers and Mariota due to the vast differences in their body types, styles of play and playing experience (system). While Rodgers has developed into a mobile assassin as a pro, he rarely used his legs as a weapon at Cal. He did most of his damage from the pocket while operating in a system that featured a number of concepts currently used in the NFL. Thus, Rodgers' evaluation and projection was easier for scouts.
In Mariota's case, I believe the most apt comparisons are Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. Both players were exceptional dual-threat playmakers as collegians and their early success in the NFL was largely due to their coaches' willingness to incorporate several collegiate concepts into the playbook. From a physical standpoint, Mariota is most like Kaepernick (6-5, 233 pounds), but he can't match his arm strength or arm talent. Although Mariota is not quite as explosive as RGIII, he will garner some comparisons to the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year due to his style of play outside of the pocket. He might not be as reckless as the Redskins' standout, but Mariota can certainly terrorize opponents with his mobility and agility on the perimeter.
Now, I know those comparisons won't excite fans based on the recent struggles of the aforementioned duo, but scouts should paint a realistic picture of a player's game when making a comparison to decision makers. Dungy and Mora aren't held to the same standard in the press, but comparing the Heisman Trophy winner to the top quarterback in the NFL is creating unrealistic expectations for a developmental prospect at the position.