Sometimes in a draft class you get a clear cut choice for who the best overall quarterback is. This was the case in 2011 with Cam Newton and 2012 with Andrew Luck. On other occasions you have a range of potential candidates, such as 2014 with Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, all vying for the honour of being the first quarterback taken.
This year’s overall crop of QB talent is rather poor when held against some of the previous years. Only the 2013 class being one I would regard as worse – a year that gave us one 1st round QB in EJ Manuel of the Bills. However there are two men deemed worthy of a 1st round selection this year. In fact, both have the potential to be selected with the very 1st pick.
The two prospects who have managed to set themselves apart from the rest are Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. And with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and their gargantuan-sized hole at QB, holding the 1st overall pick, it is fairly safe to assume that one of these men will be taken by them. However, as always with these college prospects, excluding Andrew Luck, they are far from the finished article. Here we take a look at both players to establish who has the upper hand as we head towards draft day.
By Stephen Rhoden Jr – Lead NFL & CFB Writer – @SRhodenJr
Whilst having stellar athletic ability is not an absolute necessity for a quarterback it is a skill that can help set you apart from the competition as well help mask some of the inefficiencies that a rookie QB may have whilst learning the intricacies of the position. Furthermore, over the last half-a-decade or so we have seen a number of quarterbacks thrust into the limelight based more so on their athleticism than their ability to be a pure pocket-based NFL calibre quarterback, such as Newton, RG3 and Manziel.
Winston has shown himself to be fairly impressive when required to roll out of the pocket and make things happen with his legs. But these moments are fleeting and when he makes the leap to the NFL, with its hyper speed linebackers and defensive ends, it is more than likely that Winston will need to hold tight in the pocket and use his feet in small spaces to make plays. At 6’4”, 231 lbs and posting a 40 time of 4.97, Winston is certainly not quick enough to outrun a defender around the edge. However, he does have the big frame which should make him tough to bring down. Whilst it is not to say he won’t be able to ball out and pick up yards when the play breaks down, Winston is far more in the Ben Roethlisberger mould when it comes to evaluating his athleticism. Big bodied, tough to tackle and very capable of making plays whist defenders are hanging on to him.
Mariota on the other hand is a phenomenal athlete. He measured in at the Combine at 6’4” 221 lbs with a blazing 40 time of 4.52. Mariota was the top performer for all QBs at the Combine, in every drill, further outlining his dynamic athletic ability. His straight-line speed is something rare for the position and will certainly be a factor that all defences will need to account for. His success at the next level will not depend on his running ability. But it gives him options as to what he could do should the play breakdown and will have opposing lineman and linebackers always on edge should he decide to take off. As most guys will know, if he goes, he’s gone. A quick pro-comparison for Mariota would be a mix of RG3 and Colin Kaepernick. He may not be a polished quarterback just yet, but he is a top-tier athlete.
WINNER – MARIOTA
Pocket Presence / Mobility
Closely linked to athleticism is the ability for a QB to move and slide in the pocket. It is widely-regarded by many scouts to be an attribute that you cannot teach and is very much based on a feel and sense of people and space that comes naturally to those who have it. It’s often one of the toughest transitions for young college quarterbacks when stepping up to the pros. Just ask Johnny Football.
In this area Winston has shown himself to be a natural. His ability to feel pressure and step up in the pocket then deliver a strike downfield is what sets him apart from most other QB’s in the draft. At times, he looks like a 10-year veteran when faced with a collapsing pocket. Only Luck is another QB who is as polished as Winston is in this area when coming out of college. And it is this skill set that will make head coaches purr, as in Winston they will feel they have a guy they can trust to hang in there and execute the offensive as opposed to feeling a wee bit of pressure and bolting out of the pocket to make something happen with their legs.
Mariota, on the other hand, does not have the pocket smarts that Winston does. He has shown himself to be able to step up and evade pressure in the pocket, but this is probably down to his superior athletic ability which he could rely on to avoid college defenders. At the next level that ability will disappear in the three yards of wiggle room he will have as a beast like JJ Watt closes in. Mariota will face the same steep learning curve that his athletic peers such as RG3, Newton and Manziel are all going through in order to learn how to work his feet, avoid defenders, his own lineman and step up and make plays. His super speed won’t always get him out of trouble and won’t be with him for his entire career. This is an essential skill that Mariota will have to work on to master.
WINNER – WINSTON
Whilst most NFL coaches are quick to mention that having a cannon for an arm is not essential. It is certainly an important tool that can allow a QB to make a range of throws and launch the occasional bomb downfield to take a shot at the end zone. However, more than overall arm strength it is vital that a QB shows accuracy and anticipation when delivering strikes to their receivers.
Winston is a strong-armed quarterback who is a very natural thrower. He is also a stud baseball pitcher with a 94mph fastball, so he can certainly generate velocity on his throws. More important than the strength though is that Winston has shown consistently throughout his collegiate career that he can zip laser throws to receivers at any area of the field. He displays a fantastic level of touch on his passes when targeting catchers between the hashes. In addition to this, Winston also throws the ball with extreme precision to receivers on the outside. A study of almost any of his game film from college will indicate to a coach that he can make the kind of throws that are the basics which make up most NFL playbooks and yet again show to a coach that he is a guy who can come in and already have a level of confidence and comfort in the kind of passes he would be expected to execute. Moreover, due to Winston playing in a pro-style offence at Florida State he already knows how to work through his reads and anticipate where to aim and when to pull the trigger for his receivers.
Mariota has certainly shown the required arm strength and talent to play in the NFL. But with his time in Oregon’s quarterback-friendly spread offense he hasn’t had the same opportunity as Winston to show scouts and coaches he can make NFL calibre throws. He can push the ball downfield as well as to the outside. He can certainly make those crucial vertical throws that can split a defence and a game open. Yet, unlike Winston, his accuracy will raise questions. He hasn’t always displayed the kind of ball placement skills that are required to ensure he will hit his intended target. As we know, the windows in which NFL level quarterbacks have to fit the ball through can more often than not be microscopic to near on non-existent. To ensure that he doesn’t suffer any turnovers Mariota will have to show to coaches that the he has both the accuracy and anticipation to make the kind of throws required to succeed in the league. A prime example of someone who struggles with this is Jay Cutler of the Bears. Whilst Cutler has a gun for an arm he more than often cannot anticipate his throws and where the window is going to be, hence the turnovers. To ensure this isn’t going to be a similar issue for the current Heisman Trophy winner, he will need to work hard at his craft to perfect the art of a touch pass.
WINNER – WINSTON
Perhaps the biggest adjustment that rookie quarterbacks need to contend with is the weight of expectation that is placed on them to read, understand and then adjust accordingly to how defences set up. NFL quarterbacks are required to make adjustments to protection to account for blitzes as well as audible route changes based on the set up of the defensive secondary. These are basic level tasks for NFL QB’s, but they do not play as prominent a role in the college game.
With Winston having played in the pro-style offence at Florida he has certainly shown that he is capable of making these adjustments. His offence has meant that he has got to grips with the kind of play concepts he is bound to encounter in an NFL playbook, such as having a varied route tree and the need to work through your reads to target the open receiver. He can effectively and efficiently move his offense downfield to put his team in a scoring position. However, one of the biggest knocks on Winston is that in his last year he threw a whopping 18 interceptions. Which, when viewed in a statistical vacuum, naturally looks bad. But a review of the plays often shows that more than a few were down to error on the receivers’ part and also factoring in that several of his receivers were all rookies who were themselves just learning the ropes. My biggest concern is that quite often he looked to target ‘his boy’ Rashad Greene on a number of plays last year. Probably down to over-trusting Greene in a situation where he wasn’t the best available option. Winston would need to cut this out and stick to finding the receiver in the best place to make the play and keep the chains moving.
Mariota ran Oregon’s version of the spread offence with truly remarkable precision. He completely mastered the offence that was given to him and whilst some may knock him for having only worked in an offence that holds very little semblance to that of what is run in the NFL, you cannot fault him for the fact that he managed to execute it better than anyone. He displayed a great footballing intelligence to maximise the offence and make all the right the reads on zone-read plays as well as great decision-making when it came to choosing to pull the ball down and run or to drop it off on a bubble screen. Mariota never looked like the type of player who was running because he felt he was just faster and better. His runs always appear to be as the result of him processing the defence in front of him and making the correct call to bail out and pick up the first down.
This is probably the toughest category to call a winner in as Mariota is hindered by the style of offence he had to execute in Oregon and, whilst Winston has shown he can make the kind of decision required by an NFL quarterback, I cannot help but be impressed by the mastery with which Mariota had on his offence and can only assume that he could, given time, master anything thrown at him in the NFL.
WINNER – TIE
Whilst having the size, speed, arm skill and football smarts are all essential to making the grade in the NFL, the mental makeup for an individual can often be the defining factor in whether or not a prospect makes the cut. Unlike the other skills listed so far, this is the stuff that cannot be measured or quantified through watching game tape.
Winston has shown to have extraordinary leadership skills. He is an infectious personality who can get a team to rally behind him with his play and his words. He is very much an alphamale and one look at Winston speaking to his team mates before a game against rivals Clemson will show you exactly the type of upbeat character he is. It is a consensus that Winston loves the game and would do anything to be the best he can be and make sure his team is. He has already stated that his aim this season is to win the Super Bowl. It is not cockiness that makes him say this, but a belief that he should always be aiming for the top. However, the biggest knock on Winston has been some very well-documented off the field issues which clouded his time at Florida State. It is these moments of immaturity that he will need to cut out to prove to general managers and coaches that he can both lead his team to the top but also be the face of the franchise. It is these red flags, such as the crab legs theft, shouting NSFW language at a fellow female student and the serious sexual assault allegations that will be getting probed in any meetings he has with prospective NFL teams. How he answers these questions will play a pivotal role in whether or not a team opts to put their faith in him.
Mariota on the other hand has an absolutely perfect record at Oregon. He may not be as vocal a leader as Winston, but rather he appears to be the type of guy who leads by example. First in the building in the morning, last out at night – Mariota is the guy you can set your watch to. You don’t see Mariota getting impassioned on the sideline or hear about him giving rousing speeches in the locker room. Mariota draws his strength from the mirror. He is an extremely humble and confident individual who gives his all for the team. And things such as vocal leadership can be gained through experience so it is not to say that these traits are not within him somewhere. Unlike Winston, Mariota has a perfect record off-field with no incidents that are likely to question his maturity and are bound to make any interviews he has a lot more comfortable experiences than Winston is likely to endure.
WINNER – MARIOTA
Who Edges it?
In conclusion, right now Winston is the player who is most ready to step into an NFL offense, start and succeed from day one. His experience in the pro-style offence at Florida State is a massive boost to him and will make the transition a lot smoother. His build, arm and ability to work in the pocket make him a highly-attractive prospect. If the Bucs do decide to select him at No. 1 I can see him sliding easily into the offence and making a difference from the get go. However, he will need to address the character concerns that surround him. One can only hope that he would cut that nonsense out given the opportunity before him. Mariota on the other hand may not be the finished article, but given the skill set that he has displayed in college there is nothing to suggest that with time and experience he cannot develop in to a superstar quarterback in years to come. I would have to give the edge to Winston at the moment and by some distance. However I would not be stunned if the player who ends up being the best out of them 5 – 10 years from now is Mariota.