We are now just weeks away from the NFL draft, and as the annual selection meeting gets closer and closer, the debate will grow louder and louder.
There’s a major battle at the top of the draft class between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the two best quarterbacks available.
Winston is likely to go as the No. 1 pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and there is a legitimate chance that Mariota could be the No. 2 pick of the Tennessee Titans. Head coach Lovie Smith of the Bucs is not given to a subterfuge – at least compared to many of his peers around the league – and it seems quite obvious that the Bucs are going in the quarterback direction. Winston seems to be Smith’s favorite.
The Titans’ situation is not so clear cut. While head coach Ken Whisenhunt and the Titans have a huge need at the quarterback position, they could use help on the defensive line, and there is a very good chance that Leonard Williams of USC will fill the bill. There is also an excellent chance that the Titans could be involved in a trade down in the draft that brings them extra picks in the first, second and third rounds.
If the Titans trade down or the Jaguars do the same with the No. 3 pick, it would not be a surprise if Mariota is picked in one of those two spots. If he goes unselected there, it seems very likely that the Jets will make a move for him with the No. 6 pick in the draft.
There’s also a scenario that Mariota could go into an Aaron Rodgers-like tailspin if the Jets don’t take him. Rodgers was viewed as a potential top pick in the 2005 draft. He lost out to Alex Smith, who went No. 1 with the San Francisco 49ers, and instead of getting selected shortly thereafter, Rodgers slid all the way down to the No. 24 slot, where the patient Green Bay Packers calmly selected him.
It has worked out rather well for the Packers.
While Winston was viewed as a problem throughout the 2014 college football season because of his immaturity and off-the-field problems, his pro potential has been too strong to ignore during draft season.
Mariota was looked at as an ideal candidate as he won the Heisman Trophy while playing for the Oregon Ducks last year, but a less-than-stellar game against Ohio State when the national championship was on the line has left him in the line of fire of many critics.
The upgrading of Winston and the downgrading of Mariota is a big mistake. We are not going to excuse or look past Winston’s off-the-field difficulties and his strange behavior. However, if you look at his 2014 performance on the field, he did not play as well as he did in 2013.
That’s troubling from an NFL perspective. Winston had just two years of experience at the college level, and while his performance overall was quite eye-opening, he did not show improvement. In particular, Winston did not take care of the ball with the requisite care that many NFL scouts and coaches demand.
Winston completed 257-of-384 passes as a redshirt freshman in 2013 for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as the Seminoles won the national championship. A year later, Winston was 305-of-467 for 3,907 yards with 25 touchdowns and 18 picks.
The latter number is the most troubling. Winston was cavalier with the football and was willing to take chances because of his strong arm and therefore turned the ball over a lot. Another issue for Winston in 2014 was his slow starts. While Florida State was successful at playing come-from-behind football throughout the season, that’s the kind of problem that will get a quarterback buried in the NFL.
Quarterbacks can register comebacks from time-to-time, and the best quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Dan Marino cement their legacy with memorable comebacks in big-game situations. However, no quarterback can do that on an every-week basis. There was a certain sloppiness to Winston’s game that cropped up throughout the 2014 season.
Mariota’s career with the Ducks was simply superb. While he had some problems against the Buckeyes, he was not awful against them. Mariota was on the run throughout the game as the Ohio State front seven got the best of Oregon’s blockers, and Mariota felt the heat. Nevertheless, he completed 24-of-37 for 333 yards, with two TDs and just one interception. How’s that for a quarterback’s worst game?
Mariota completed 304-of-445 passes for 4,454 yard with 42 touchdowns and four interceptions. As good as those numbers were, there was no fluke involved. Throughout his three-year run at Oregon, Mariota threw 105 TD passes and just 14 interceptions. He never threw more than six interceptions in a season.
Scouts who are not drooling over Mariota should be. He protects the football and he makes big plays. He has the ability to make an average team competitive and a good team into one that has a shot at a championship.
Forget the critics, Mariota is the true prize in this year’s draft. If he gets past the Jets at No. 6, the team that selects him will get a Rodgers-like phenomenon.
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