Selecting quarterback Marcus Mariota in the 2015 NFL Draft is a dangerous proposition. He's a mobile quarterback with a thin frame. He played in a gimmicky offense at Oregon which gave him plenty of wide open throwing windows.
All of that is mostly true, but not totally true. Oregon’s offense set Mariota up to succeed, and he did. He won the Heisman Trophy last season by throwing for 4,454 yards and 42 touchdowns while completing 68.3 percent of his passes. It allowed him to take advantage of his mobility, evidenced in his more than 2,200 yards and 29 touchdowns running the ball in three seasons with the Ducks.
"This offense leads itself to good decisions because you have clear and defined reads that are determined before the snap," NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah recently said on an episode of his Move the Sticks podcast. "You have a lot of space to work and a lot of options."
However, Mariota isn't the next Dennis Dixon or Darron Thomas coming out of Oregon. His game is much more complete. Take the running for instance. Mariota's rushing stats lead some to incorrectly say he is a running quarterback. The key difference is eye level. On plays where he runs around, Mariota keeps his eyes up the field and will throw it to a receiver when possible. Other quarterbacks who run drop their eyes quickly and take off.
Take this play, for instance (and try to ignore the penalty on the offensive lineman). The pocket in front of Mariota becomes a complete mess and he’s left with the option to either pull the ball and just run or pull the ball and locate a receiver. From an NFL standpoint, also note the ball placement:
Moving forward, Mariota will have to get used to an offense in the NFL that requires him to play from under center considerably more. At Oregon last season, Mariota was under center on just a handful of plays. It's an issue of which he's fully aware.
"For us it's going to be huddling, I haven't huddled in a while," Mariota said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "That will be one thing. It seems like a little detail, but that is kind of a big thing. There's other things as well. Three-, five-, seven-step drops under center."
The NFL game will also require him to read defenses before the snap and make adjustments. He’ll have to locate the middle linebacker. He’ll have to call hot reads based on coverage. Those aren't things he typically did at Oregon.
"Those will be operational things he’ll have to get used to," Stanford head coach David Shaw said on the Rich Eisen Show this week. "What I saw with (Mariota), granted, out from under center, I saw him play action pass. I saw him go from the first to second to third read and dump the ball off to the running back."
Shaw said he spotted some principles of the West Coast offense in Oregon’s play calling, and he’s right. Most pigeonhole the Oregon offense by saying it functions to get the receiver open and make it easier for a quarterback. To do that, a lot of underneath routes are run early -- bubbles, screens, slants and short passes over the middle. That opens up the deeper passing game, which is staple of the West Coast offense. The twist is that the Ducks’ offense is faster-paced and features more designed option and run plays from the quarterback.
Still, boiled down, a lot of Oregon’s passing offense is a modified and sped up West Coast. It’s a system created by legendary coach Bill Walsh, perfected by his star quarterback Joe Montana and modified to the current NFL by Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.
"A lot of ‘spread offense guys,’ you don’t see that," Shaw said about Oregon using a lot of West Coast principles. "You see them find No. 1, get the ball out or maybe find No. 2. But you don’t see them find the third option or check the ball down."
Still, many NFL teams remain wary of the spread offense. They're especially uncomfortable with quarterbacks who come out of offenses with odd play call cards where the offense looks over to sidelines to get a play. This takes simplification to another level. To a large degree it removes play calling duties from the quarterback and simplifies the game.
"There’s a transition for any college player coming to the NFL. And in Marcus’ case, they run an offense that most teams in the league don’t run," Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith said at the combine. "But I’ve seen him scrambling around, making decisions and for the most part making the throws that we’re making in the league. It probably helps a little bit if you’ve been doing more of the same thing you’ll be doing in an NFL game. But a lot of this is about adjustment to the league.’’
At the combine, New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan wouldn’t speak specifically about Mariota as a player. But he did voice some concern about spread quarterbacks in general because it’s harder to figure out how they translate to the NFL.
"There are more unknowns with (spread quarterbacks). It’s like anything in life. There’s more uncertainty on how he’s going to be able to develop because you don’t see if happen very often," Maccagnan said. "It’s not anything, per se, with the offense. It’s just you look at him and you don’t see a lot of things on the college tape you put a value on, so you have to speculate about it a little bit."
What teams will put value on with Mariota is how well he continues to manage the pocket. Jeremiah was impressed by how much Mariota improved his pocket awareness.
"It’s going to be a leap for him from Oregon to the next level," Jeremiah said. "But I have seen him do it in small doses, just have to see him do more of it."
From his sophomore to junior seasons, Mariota got more comfortable moving up in the pocket, an area where Florida State’s Jameis Winston clearly has the advantage. Here is Mariota in the national title game against Ohio State showing the type of pocket presence he just didn't have early in his career:
The other big adjustment Mariota will have to make in the NFL is consistently putting the ball in a tight window. For most quarterbacks, that can be the biggest adjustment they face. This is another area where Winston is the superior quarterback prospect right now. But here's a play against Winston's Seminoles last season that shows Mariota can place the ball in a difficult spot. Mariota puts it over linebacker Matthew Thomas but uses enough arm strength to zip the ball in fast enough to not allow future star Jalen Ramsey break on it and make a play on the ball.
Singularly, the largest issue with Mariota is ball security. In three seasons, Mariota had an alarming 27 fumbles. Although not all of them were lost, it's an issue that will have to be corrected straight away.
"One thing, though, that can work against someone like a Marcus Mariota is the fact that he never gives up on football plays. That is something he needs to work on at the next level," Jeremiah said. "He’s trying to make things happen when they aren’t there. A lot of times that can lead to him not only trying to make extra yardage on the ground as a runner, it also can lead to him holding the ball a little bit long at times in the pocket. Because of that, he’s got an issue fumbling."
Look at how loose Mariota carries the ball when the play breaks down. This can unfortunately be seen on several occasions in Oregon's games.
Mariota is far from the perfect quarterback prospect. If he didn't have issues, there wouldn't be such a strong consensus about Winston going first overall in the draft. The thing is, though, many of the issues with Mariota are misconceptions. He's more advanced at this stage as a pocket passer than Colin Kaepernick was coming out of Nevada. He's not as fast to pull the ball and run like Robert Griffin III was coming out of Baylor. His offense at Oregon may not look like an NFL offense with its option plays and fast tempo. But it features so many staples of the West Coast offense -- one of the classic schemes of the NFL. If a team that drafts Mariota is willing to employ those principles, they'll get a quarterback who could be ready to play at the next level quicker than people think.
"For any rookie quarterback it's going to be an adjustment stepping up to this new level," Mariota said. "I'm going to continue to absorb as much as I can, learn from all the people I can and do my best in whatever situation I get into."