By Matt Waldman
The NFL's private detectives will dig up intel on prospects that sometimes stretches as far back as grade school. Nearly half the teams in the league will hire a consultant touting its military "interviewing" background to assess a player's ability to lead or be led.
And ESPN and NFL Films analyst Ron Jaworski says that he examines every throw of the major quarterback prospects that he picks apart on television. It's good schtick for the masses, but regardless of how much information an analyst, a scout, and a team accumulates on a player -- especially a quarterback -- there's no such thing as complete information.
The top NFL quarterbacks are like snowflakes. No matter how much fans want their team to "crack the code" and pick the right prospect, the commonalities among the best passers are too general in nature to have value, and the variety of combinations of skills that are successful for individuals are too vast.
As stated in the December Jameis Winston column, quarterbacks are performers, not science experiments. They're also leaders, and judging from the ratio of leadership books, coaches, and conferences to excellent leaders in the world, the human race hasn't gotten much better at figuring out who has this skill (or how best to use it), either.
Winston and Marcus Mariota are the early-round quarterback candidates earning the most scrutiny for the 2015 NFL Draft. Teams will be all over the place on Winston's off-field dossier. However, the on-field analysis of Mariota seems just as scattered -- and the player comparisons I'm hearing reflect that.
Tony Dungy's comp of Mariota to Aaron Rodgers is easily the most glowing -- and the outlier -- of the bunch (with the Bobby Wagner vote for NFL MVP, Dungy is at least consistent in this regard). Jim Mora has the same comparison, but I agree with Bucky Brooks, who says the Rodgers comparison doesn't hold water upon deeper examination, because Mariota's college offense doesn't showcase the quarterback like Rodgers' Cal offense did.
Brooks compares Mariota stylistically to Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick. I'm feeling what Bucky's saying, but I haven't seen evidence that Mariota is athletically on the same plain as Griffin and Kaepernick in terms of explosive acceleration, agility, or arm talent. Mariota might be in their stylistic neighborhood, but one can hear the railroad tracks and the sirens much more clearly at the Duck's domicile.
On an October episode of ESPN SportsCenter, Mel Kiper compared Mariota's game preparation to that of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. He also intimated that the Oregon passer creates on the move like these two young NFL stars:
[Mariota's] improvisational ability is off the charts. He can be a magician in that pocket; avoid, escape, and create when nothing's there…He's a pure passer. You think about what a guy like Russell Wilson has done already, Andrew Luck, that game preparation. Being the first guy in, last one out of the building is big.
For me it's how Kiper frames this comparison into a narrower spectrum of skill sets that gives it validity. In fact, this same framing breathes a little life into the Dungy-Mora comparison to Rodgers. However, comparisons are often stylistic in nature, and the first name mentioned is often the aspirational player for the comparison, not the peer.
The Luck, Rodgers, and Wilson comparisons for Mariota are aspirations bordering on straight-up daydreaming at this point. Hopefully, the seven plays I share below will help you sever the synapses that fire up these images when Mariota's name is broached in conversation.
Unless Mariota shocks at the Combine, the Griffin and Kaepernick imagery is also too aspirational. A more realistic range of aspirational players for Mariota the prospect are Alex Smith and Mark Sanchez.
These names are downers for the average fan, and the comparison of two underachieving first-round picks to their beloved Heisman winner is bound to make some Oregon fans irate. I'm mentioning these players based on style, not the potential talent or leadership that only comes to the forefront if and when prospects can transition to the rigors of the NFL. The odds of even making this Smith- or Sanchez-like transition aren't great -- regardless of draft status.
Both Smith and Sanchez possess above average athleticism at the position, but though both passers can run, neither commanded the need for a spy when they entered the NFL. Both do a strong job of integrating ball fakes and a variety of movement into their execution of an offense. Sanchez has the stronger arm of the two, and based on what I have seen, Mariota's projected development fits more comfortably within this range.
This doesn't mean that Mariota has no chance of exceeding these aspirations. There are hints of it below. However, from what I have seen from Mariota athletically and conceptually, he's a terrific college signal-caller who hasn't shown enough as a decision-maker, thrower, and athlete to earn comparisons to better players.
Question No. 1: Why hasn't he shown it?
One of the primary reasons Mariota's passing skills lack a clear-cut projectable NFL path is his offense. This will largely be moot if Mariota is drafted by the Eagles, or another team that adopts Chip Kelly's scheme. However, the entire Kelly offense won't be going viral in the league in 2015.
The Oregon passing offense incorporates a high volume of quick perimeter throws to targets at or near the line of scrimmage. These targets are an extension of the ground game. The Ducks feed the defense a steady dose of these plays early and often -- even when they generate short gains or losses early -- as seen in the Rose Bowl against Florida State.
As the game progresses, the offensive game plan often succeeds enough that these perimeter plays begin to yield larger gains. Oregon then adds layers of complexity to the execution that baits and switches the opposition.
These consecutive plays in the fourth quarter are good examples. Both are trips left sets with some variation of tight end location along the line or opposite the formation, and both use the back in play action or motion to make the defense hesitate.
The first is this throw-out to the stacked middle receiver with a play-action fake to the back. When the game began, Florida State limited this series of plays to gains no longer than 3 or 4 yards. As Oregon stretched out the Seminoles, this 14-yard gain became more of the norm.
Oregon also set up this deep pass off a pump fake to the middle stacked receiver on this very similar-looking trips set on the following play.
Once again, Mariota executes the quick play-action fake, pivots outside, and delivers a convincing pump fake to the shallow flat that baits the defense and allows the quarterback to deliver the ball to a wide-open receiver 25 yards downfield to the 11. Mariota's throw is accurate, and the ball's trajectory encourages the receiver to run under the pass without breaking stride. The placement is also good enough that the receiver has room to make the defender over the top miss his angle.
These two plays examined in tandem illustrate one way the Oregon offense stretches the defense to cover more of the field's surface area. This strategy not only yields wider passing lanes over the middle, but also baits the defense into giving up vertical targets.
The effectiveness of this short passing to set up intermediate passing is also why some of Mariota's detractors will say he only throws to wide-open receivers in the middle of the field. It's not that he'll never possess the skill to make tight-window throws between the hashes, but there isn't a great enough sample size of success to project it -- and it is a difficult skill.
If this critique is the crux of an argument against Mariota becoming one of the best starters in the pro game, it's valid. Otherwise, watch Alex Smith's games as a 49er under Jim Harbaugh, when there were a lot of wide-open passes over the middle thanks to a strong ground game.
Mariota's arm strength and vertical accuracy are more difficult to judge in this offense. The play above is one of Mariota's longest throws of the game. While I have seen him deliver passes with accuracy 40 or 50 yards down field, they have been throws off scrambles to receivers behind the defense that don't require pro-caliber velocity. Based on the setting of his feet and the ease with which he delivers this 25-yard throw, I am confident he has the requisite arm strength to succeed in the vertical game. What I don't have a good feel for yet is the top range of his vertical prowess.
Question No. 2: Where Does Mariota Win?
Josh Norris and I steal each other's catchphrases so often that we have mutually agreed that neither of us has to give the other that courtesy credit in print or on air. The two plays above show three winning facets of Mariota's game that will transition to the NFL:
- He's adept and getting rid of the ball quickly and with placement in the short game.
- He executes football sleight-of-hand effectively within a spread offense.
- He possesses sound mechanics with his footwork and release from the pocket on short and intermediate routes, which is a building block for success within a structure.
Mariota also frequently wins in tight-window, sideline throws delivered inside and outside structure. Both plays below are reminiscent of highlights seen from Aaron Rodgers' game. However, I caution you not to take that statement and run with it.
This first-down, back-shoulder fade displays Mariota's anticipation, placement, and comfort around edge pressure. The edge rush approaches the quarterback's outside shoulder, and Mariota slides just enough to deliver the ball on the mark to the left sideline.
This is the economy of movement in the pocket I want to see more often from Mariota when he feels pressure. It helps him keep his feet under his frame so he can deliver targets of this caliber.
This is a star-caliber play for a college quarterback, but a baseline expectation in the NFL game. Joe Flacco and Eli Manning do this well and neither are considered the best of the best at their position.
Where I imagine the likes of Dungy and Mora get Rodgers Fever with Mariota is when they see flashes of his athleticism integrated with his passing skill. This scramble that takes Mariota from the left side of the field all the way across to the right and finishes with a 21-yard flick of a comeback route at the sideline is one of those plays.
It's easy to like the ease of the accuracy on the move to the sideline. However, one could make a valid argument that the catch was better than the throw. I'd prefer not to deconstruct the play so that the throw is examined without the context of the scramble. It's a positive that Mariota can buy time this well, drop his eyes from coverage, and return to scanning the secondary.
His mobility is also similar to Alex Smith, who routinely earns gains of 10 to 20 yards as his big plays when breaking the pocket, but has the initial quickness and agility to buy time across the width of the field as a thrower. Kaepernick and Griffin have the capacity for gains of 30 to 60 yards in any situation, a capacity that Smith and Mariota lack.
If Mariota can display velocity and pinpoint accuracy on the move at ranges of 25 to 35 yards, and from the middle of the field instead of the near side, now the comparison to Rodgers gains some heft. Until then, temper expectations.
Question No. 3: Where Does Mariota Lose?
Get enough pressure to rush Mariota's execution within structure and he struggles. Mariota executes a read-option fake below, but he rushes his pivot and fails to get his feet under his body and the ball sails.
This is the kind of sloppiness that comes from constant pressure or impatience. It's likely a team will draft Mariota in the first round. If so, it's also likely that that team will have a plan to start him as a rookie and incorporate an offense where he can execute a lot of movement.
If Mariota makes the transition, this will eventually pay off. Until then, expect the rookie to be off target and sloppy with these types of moves at key moments. Combine these small details with the likelihood that he'll be thinking rather than reacting on the field and he'll have some ugly plays.
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This is the short-term concern that fans will boo, but coaches should expect as a temporary growing pain. Where I don't believe he'll change is his hero mindset.
Every successful quarterback has a bit of the hero embedded in his being. The most successful either have surrounding talent to keep a governor on those tendencies (mid-career Brett Favre and late-career John Elway) or they've always had the inner discipline to pick their spots (Russell Wilson and Joe Montana).
Mariota has a troublesome tendency to become too invested in making a play. The more time he buys, the more reckless his decision-making becomes.
Here's a fourth down late in the first quarter. Mariota looks deep to short with his progression on a designed sprint out and his first pass doesn't yield an open man.
On a play limited to one side of the field, the best course of action is to throw the ball away if nothing comes open -- especially early in an evenly matched game. There's no need for desperation or heroism, but Mariota eludes pressure, shaking free of a reach for his shoulder, and floats the ball to the middle of the field.
Mariota's decision to extend the play puts him at a higher risk to take punishment that could send him to the training table and render him ineffective for the game, if not several weeks. (Robert Griffin is hopefully learning this lesson after three seasons of these mistakes in the NFL, mistakes with which he got away more often at Baylor.) Mariota also put his receiver in harm's way, getting his teammate nailed on a play.
It should have occurred to Mariota that he'd have to make the throw across his body -- a big no-no in quarterbacking -- while getting chopped at the legs. He may be the first in and last out at practice, but we all knew book-smart people in school who lacked common sense/life smarts. This fourth down was a "life smart" moment that Mariota failed. Sure, Rodgers, Favre, and Elway have completed these types of crazy throws, but they have great arms. Mariota appears to have a good arm, and that's the difference.
One play like this from a quarterback can be the difference between a win and a loss in the NFL, but it's something teams will live with from time to time. However, Mariota reveals this tendency twice in a half.
When a shoulder fake to freeze the defense doesn't help him create a play, he slides to the right to avoid pressure of two linebackers. Again, Mariota could throw this ball away. The team is in field-goal range, its second-and-1, and the game is evenly matched.
But the quarterback begins looking inside as he runs out of room on the move to his right and eventually delivers the ball across his body.
It's a pair of bad hands away from an interception at the 5-yard line. It's a horrible decision -- one I won't be surprised we'll see early in his NFL career more than once.
However, none of these flaws alone are fatal to his potential as an NFL starter. What is most likely to derail Mariota is his ability to handle pressure, and his tendency to display more book smarts from Monday through Saturday than field smarts on Sunday.
If he only fails occasionally, the Rodgers comparison may earn some merit down the line. If he experiences weekly failure of some sort, but he also has enough successes to keep the game close, then the Smith and Sanchez comparisons stand.
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If this were a better class of quarterbacks at the top, Mariota would be more of a second- or third-round pick from my perspective. However, I also don't believe in first-round quarterbacks due to market demand unless you think he's a future star. I think Mariota has a slight chance to develop into a star, but not enough to pay the sticker price.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.