Futures: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota

Mariota could be a top-15 pick, but is he worth it? Photo by James Santelli.
Mariota could be a top-15 pick, but is he worth it? Photo by James Santelli.

Futures: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota

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.

Read the rest at Football Outsiders

3 responses to “Futures: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota”

  1. I would agree that Mariota has a lot of skill development needed to be a pro level Qb but I have to disagree strongly with your comparison to Sanchez. He has above average athleticism but to compare the ability demonstrated through Sanchez’ 33 career rushing yards to Mariota’s 2237? I’m appalled. Yes, Smith put up about 600 yards rushing his final year and was pretty nimble back then but his yards per carry were a pedestrian 3.7. Neither Qb have no where near the high end speed that Mariota possesses. Also Mariota put up over 700 yards rushing all three years with 29 rushing td and a 6.6 yard average. Many of those runs were long, bust out runs we have seen from C Kap. Like others before me think the Kap comparison fits pretty well, at least in regards to the running game. Kap had more closer to 1100 yards rushing per season but that had more to do with the obscenely high number of rushing attempts at Nevada. The ypc avg of 6.9 is fairly telling. In terms of passing statistics, Mariota does compare well to Sanchez and Smith and simply destroys Kap. I certainly don’t see that as a knock on Marcus. There is a reason he won the heisman and he is considered a top prospect. He has talent. Many failed or mediocre NFL Qbs were talented when entering the league. I don’t think lack of talent or bad talent assessment is really the issue of Qb inconsistency at the pro level.

    I would argue that Smith and Sanchez would have been more successful with better coaching and some consistency at offensive coordinator in their early years. I think Mariota’s fate is as much dependent on coaching and team functionality. Could any Qb be consistently successful on teams with horribly dysfunctional ownership/management (DC, Cleveland, Oakland)? That said, wouldn’t Smith, Sanchez, Griffin, or Mariota or any other moderately talented Qb have a far better shot at greatness working within healthy and intelligently run programs (New England, Seattle, Green Bay). We need to recognize better in this country that trickle down theory applies far more to corporate structures than to economics in a macro scale. The fate and responsibility of Football corporations does not rest firmly on the Qbs shoulders as we all like to believe, it is a team sport who health and prosperity start with ownership. Bad teams need better owners not better Qbs.

    That officially concludes my meandering rant!

    • I think your response is a perfect example of why I anticipated people would be upset about the comparison to Mark Sanchez. It’s unfortunate this is the case, but a lot of it is my responsibility for communicating in full detail why I make the comparison. As stated in my piece, a lot of the comparison has to do with what they do well: ball fakes and throwing on the move. The rushing potential for Mariota is more in line with what I see from Alex Smith. I think rushing yards vs. actual context of how a player is used on a scheme a rather blunt tool for analysis in the sense that I’m projecting what I believe he’ll do in the NFL, not what he gained in college football.

      When Mariota faced top defenses, he had effective moments as a runner, but he was not nearly as productive weapon. This is what I believe we’ll see in the NFL.

      While Mariota may have more speed than Smith, his tape against top competition illustrates a player more in line with his best gains being in the range of 15-20 yards as opposed to the high-end we’ve seen from Kaepernick. Additionally Kaepernick was nowhere near as polished a pocket presence as Mariota so I think it’s unfair–and poor–depiction of what Mariota already does from the pocket.

      The comparison issue is always thorny for readers of draft analysis. I try to state often that my comparisons are about style of play, not talent. I believe Mariota’s budding skill from the pocket will have teams looking to him more in the vein of the 49ers initially hoped it could do with Alex Smith, not CK. Even so, Mark Sanchez was a top talent coming out who probably left a year too early and landed on a team that wasn’t the best fit for developing a passer. I agree with you about the need for organizations to have overhauls with its management leadership from the top-down, but I’ve written extensively about this. If you’re new to my work you wouldn’t know this just from reading the Mariota piece.

      Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and if you truly think about Smith and Sanchez as prospects (not end results), the nature of QB failure in the NFL, and how teams have a big role in that poor transition, you might not be so appalled at the comparison of Mariota with two first-round picks who throw from the pocket and can execute in offenses that require a lot of movement behind the line of scrimmage to set up defenses.



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