There was a time, not long ago, when the draft evaluation of Marcus Mariota would have caused a great deal of hand-wringing in the NFL.
The spread QB, as Mariota is, was once considered a foreign object in the pros.
He'll no doubt be scrutinized to the fullest whenever he decides to leave school, whether it's after this season or next, but projecting how a QB like Mariota will translate at the next level isn't nearly as unfamiliar to scouts as it would have been for them five or six years ago. I trace the NFL's evolution on the issue of spread QBs back to the lockout year (2011) when college spread QBs Cam Newton and Andy Dalton entered the league and immediately had success under coordinators who incorporated spread elements into their offenses -- that's when the NFL got on board.
In fact, Mariota's opportunity is better now than it's ever been because the NFL is as close to college football as it's ever been. We see college-style offenses infiltrating NFL Sundays more than ever before.
And there's no doubt in my mind that Mariota could be the draft's No. 1 overall pick, whenever he chooses to declare. He's one of the most impressive student-athletes I've ever been around. Whether it's his intelligence, work ethic, natural athleticism or competitiveness (even though it's masked by his cool demeanor), Mariota earns high marks on every front.
Best NFL QB comp
He seems to frequently be compared favorably to 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, but I'm not sold on that comparison. Kaepernick was a bigger, thicker guy than Mariota when he entered the league, and while Kaepernick might have had more of a gun for an arm, Mariota is more precise than Kaepernick was as he departed Nevada. To me, the better comparison for Mariota, in terms of body type and playing style, is Robert Griffin III as he left Baylor.
Now, Mariota will have to learn to drop back from under center when he gets to the pros, just like every spread QB who has come before him. It's an acquired skill and he'll have to work on it. Reading defenses will be an entirely differently task than it is for him at Oregon.
He'll also have to make a lot more throws into tight windows -- with the Ducks, he's usually throwing to a guy who's wide open. In college football, QBs are used to seeing a WR open before throwing the ball. In the NFL, QBs have to see the window before it's open.
I've brought those concerns to scouts before, and they all say just about the same thing. They say Mariota throws an excellent ball and doesn't miss many of those "layups" (throws to wide-open receivers). Of course, he's human -- I was on hand to see him miss a wide-open target in the end zone in the second quarter vs. Stanford last week. Oregon went on to win the game comfortably, and that was one of the few "layups" I've ever seen him miss.
Big question remains
So, how will Mariota fare when he's working against NFL DBs riding the hip of a receiver who has maybe a half-step on the defender, leaving a tiny window to throw into? That'll be the question confronting evaluators whenever Mariota decides to enter the draft.
There aren't many people who don't believe he's going to adapt and thrive, though.