Marcus Mariota, Oregon * 6’4", 211 lbs
Dear reader, have zero doubts: Mariota is not the polished product that similar top prospects were coming out of college, and that’s perfectly acceptable. The following will help to explain why.
The key to Marcus Mariota is POTENTIAL. Marcus is only 19 years old, and has performed exceptionally well at every level despite having little experience. The native Hawaiian is 6’4" and 211 lbs, and is the prototypical dual threat quarterback. He’s exhibited a willingness to run the ball without exposing himself to huge hits, and can throw well on the move. He will continue to play a mobile qb game at the NFL level, where his style of play draws many comparisons to Cam Newton, who ran a similar 1-read/option offense.
The problems experienced trying to properly evaluate Marcus Mariota is two-fold. First, he runs a gimmicky college offense as his BASE offense, meaning he has less experience with pro-style sets and route concepts than many other quarterbacks. (A problem with the evaluation of Tajh Boyd, Braxton Miller, and Bryce Petty as well) This is not an indictment of his skill set (which appears solid) but rather a challenge for personnel evaluators. It did not stop talents such as Colin Kaepernick, EJ Manuel, and Cam Newton from being high picks who rewarded the teams for being patient. Secondly, MM is struggling with injuries in his sophomore season, which has impacted his effectiveness as a runner and as a passer in the past few weeks.
Mariota can run the ball as any qb in college, and features incredibly precise decision making in the read-option offense. He routinely makes the correct read at the line, and throws balls with very good accuracy for his age and experience. He has great zip on the ball when throwing in the middle yardage range,from 10-20 yards. He displays better touch on the ball than most of his contemporaries. Mariota has excellent throwing mechanics and footwork, which are difficult skills to mold in the NFL for those with serious problems. The ball comes out of Mariota’s hands quickly with a tight spiral, which can partially make up for his ability to wing it downfield. If Mariota can add bulk to his lower body, he may be able to improve his throwing strength on the run.
Typically, Mariota’s accuracy improves as he gets into a game flow. His accuracy numbers per quarter tend to improve, which is a tribute given the poor competition the Ducks have played until late in the season. He had exceptional numbers as a RS freshman, leading all Pac-12 QB’s in rushing yards, completion percentage (69.9%) and passer rating (165.4) An important piece of the Mariota prospect puzzle is the way he takes care of the ball. He is was the career leader in INT % (heading into the Nov 23rd USC game where he threw his first pick of the season) and went over 345 attempts between interceptions. He has fumbled occasionally, but running quarterbacks ARE susceptible to these mistakes and it’s considered a correctable problem. O-Live does a wonderful story on how Mariota has been historically outstanding in his care fof the ball. After this article was written, he threw 2 (to break his streak) against Arizona, and threw two more in an outstanding performance against Oregon State in the Civil War game.
Mariota possesses strong leadership fundamentals and gained the respect of his team mates at every level. DBN’s own Mike Krupka did a fantastic piece on the journey Mariota has traveled to become the leader of the Ducks. Surprisingly, he was not heavily recruited, and his trajectory of success has skyrocketed with playing time.
Most importantly, Mariota is a thundercat in the open field. (I wanted to use the term "gazelle" but it has been taken and doesn’t properly reflect how dangerous Mariota is when he has room to run) He’s big enough to break arm tackles, but possesses incredible stop/start speed and instincts. Most importantly, he’s smart enough to know when to slide or get out of bounds without exposing himself to punishing hits from linebackers, a skill that the Cleveland QB’s of years past never developed in college. (If the Browns do manage to draft Mariota, I pray he can teach Hoyer how to slide correctly. Someone needs to teach him the trick)
Todd McShay and others believe that you need to look at his ability on the whole without taking too much stock in the Stanford/USC games if you wish to properly evaluate MM. Todd McShay is a blowhard, but I tend to agree with his assessment. Every top draft pick this year has had at least one clunker , and its difficult to know right now how much Mariota’s knee injury impacted his ability to execute a read-option offense. Brendan Leister wrote an excellent evaluation of the Ducks game vs. Tennessee early in the 2013 college season. To see all the promise Mariota offers, watch the highlights on youtube and compare them to the notes in the writeup. You will see a quarterback that plays with polish, can make difficult throws into traffic, and appears faster than the entire defense. (Make no bones about it, the Tennessee defense is undisciplined but plays FAST)
Video of Tennessee destruction:
Mocking NFL draft's season highlights:
On the negative ledger, Mariota has difficulty throwing the ball "on a rope" to deep parts of the field. He exhibits more touch on immediate throws, but will need to be able to throw with zip on NFL out routes and hitches. In games late in the season where he was unable to beat teams with his feet, he struggled to stand in the pocket under pressure and deliver strikes downfield, despite having quality offensive weapons around him. His deep balls have a tendency to float, which is a major problem in the pro game.
Weighting in at around 200-210 lbs in his second year of college football, Marcus is too thin to take hits from NFL defenders as he’s currently structured. This criticism is similar to to concerns voiced over Teddy Bridgewater’s frame, and is something NFL evaluators will have to take into account. Marcus is still very young and should have the potential with his length to pack on extra pounds without losing speed.
The closest NFL comps for MM are difficult to establish. He throws with great accuracy and feel on intermediate routes, which draws high end comparisons to players with that reputation in college like Aaron Rodgers. Usually, he’s compared to the modern "big" read-option/zone-read quarterbacks like Kaepernick or Newton, but is more of a polished passer in his second season at Oregon than they were at this point. Without a doubt Mariota IS a running quarterback at this stage in his career development, and teams drafting him will do so until the assumption that his running game will translate to the highest level of competition while his passing improves.
I expect MM to return to school (few underclassman QB’s ever make it to the league) but see that that decision hurt the stock (and future earnings) of guys like Jake Locker and Matt Leinart. If Mariota declares, expect the "not ready" talk to dissipate as he proves in workouts how physically gifted and smart he is, and how ready he is to succeed at the next level. I also expect Chud to salivate over the prospect of having such a dynamic talent under center.
How the Browns would obtain Mariota: Most mock drafts have Mariota or Carr listed as the second QB on their draft boards/rankings. To guarantee his availability, Banner/Lombardi would have to ensure they were drating ahead of no more than two quarterback needy franchises. This could conceivably require a trade. Likelhihood: Slim, but improving as Derek Carr rises on QB ranking lists and as the Browns first pick continues its upward climb.
Next up: Tajh Boyd, Clemson.