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.