Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston

Whether they like it or not, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will be compared and contrasted extensively between now and April 30th, 2015 – Day 1 of the NFL draft.

Both players look like they could have been dreamt up by NFL general managers and manifested in physical form. Mariota stands 6-4 and is a wiry but solid 219 pounds. Winston clocks in at 6-4 and a stout 225 pounds. It’s safe to say that neither of these guys will have the same height and size concerns as Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel in 2014.

Many fans know the backstory on both of these guys but for those that don’t, let’s recap the current narratives on both quarterbacks:

Mariota – Superbly athletic player who runs a sub-4.5 forty-yard dash and displays a good arm and… wait for it… “can make all the throws.” The statistics say that Mariota is a good passer – 68.3 completion percentage, 38 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions in 2014. The question marks for Mariota lie in the offense that he functions in. It’s the high-volume, fast-paced Oregon spread offense that is “QB friendly” and could potentially make him appear a better quarterback than he really is because he’s throwing to mostly wide open receivers. Mariota also throws a lot of screens and smoke routes off of the read option. Might be a “system QB.”

Winston – Big time player at a big time school. Winston has performed well and is 27-0 when starting at quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles. Winston is a big body, strong-armed, multi-sport athlete. Winston appears to have everything it takes on the field. As good as Winston has been on the field, if all the reports are true, he’s exponentially worse off of it. From crustacean larceny, standing on tables and yelling vulgar internet memes, to the severely disturbing and distressing sexual assault charges that were eventually dismissed by the courts and the school during a code of conduct hearing.

Note that these are the current narratives. The point of this study is to cut through the preconceived notions on both players and look at the on-field play to extract traits and elements of these guys’ play that can be translated to the NFL. By doing this it allows a clearer vision of each player and a more accurate prediction of each player’s future as a professional quarterback.

It should be noted that this will not include any off-field observations. This has nothing to do with tabloid reports or inferences of “leadership qualities” or lack thereof from media reports. I have not met either player or spoken to either player and therefore have no basis for judging that portion of their game here. I’ll leave that up to the teams, psychologists, and talking heads.

The Traits of Successful NFL Quarterbacks

Before jumping into the film study of these two quarterbacks, it’s critical to know what exactly makes a signal caller successful at the NFL level. In my experience, there are certain traits that stand out above others that can project from college to the NFL pretty accurately. Because some will agree with what I find important and others won’t, it’s important to point out all of the traits and characteristics that are evident on film and let each person decide for themselves how they perceive each trait, and in the end, each player.

Decision Making

Ask any NFL scout his top three traits he evaluates in quarterbacks and decision-making will be near the top of his list. Decision-making encompasses a lot of variables but is most often spoken of in terms of an overall mindset of a player – game manager or gunslinger. The essential idea to take away here is that most quarterbacks can be categorized as conservative or aggressive in their decision-making. Few college quarterbacks will toe the line between the two categories by making smart throws but with anticipation and accuracy into tight windows. These are the guys we want.

It’s important to evaluate the process and not the result. Results can vary but if the decision-making process is consistently sound then so is the outcome. The problem is that sometimes the decision can be good and the execution poor and the result tells the wrong story. For example, if a quarterback makes the correct read of the defense and throws to an open receiver but overthrows him right into a safety’s hands, that’s a good decision with a bad throw/execution. Most fans will see the play and exclaim, “But that’s an interception!” Of course, it is, but it wasn’t the decision that caused the pick, it was the throw. It’s vital to be able to separate the decision and the decision-making process from the end result.

This trait not only covers the ability to make good decisions but also the efficiency in making them. It doesn’t help to make the right decision if it takes too long to make it. Geno Smith actually made good decisions in college but the problem was that he couldn’t come off of his first read fast enough and it affected his ability to get to his 2nd and 3rd receivers in the progression. Instead of finding the next guy open, Smith would face undue pressure that rarely resulted in a good outcome. It’s now easy to see how that translated to the NFL.

Pocket Presence (including pocket tolerance)

This trait is one that separates the good from the best. Good quarterbacks can work in timing and rhythm in the offense but struggle when that is disrupted by pressure or other factors. Good quarterbacks will escape the pocket at the first sign of pressure to buy time but by doing so, i.e. rolling to his right or his left, the quarterback will limit the amount of field he has to work with.

The absolute best in the game (Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers) move inside the pocket in subtle ways that create space or cause a defender to miss. It can be stepping up in the pocket and “climbing the ladder” to leave edge rushers behind him, or it can be a single step left or right to let a rusher up the middle pass by. This is moving within the pocket and is vastly different than sensing pressure and escaping the pocket.

The difference in the two is that moving within the pocket is a natural and instinctive motion that allows the quarterback to keep his eye level up and on the receivers, while leaving the pocket often forces the quarterback’s eyes down to the oncoming pressure. When a quarterback drops his eyes to the pressure he loses sight of the coverage and his receivers and it takes him longer to get his eyes back up, find his target, and deliver the football. In the latter situation, bad things tend to happen unless a quarterback is mobile enough or buys enough time to reset his eyes and make a good decision.

Quarterbacks who have a history of running as much as they throw tend to want to escape the pocket sooner, while guys like Manning and Brady will remain in the pocket as long as possible and only use their legs when absolutely necessary. This is pocket tolerance – the ability to remain in a collapsing or muddy pocket as it closes in and still be able to deliver the football. “Running” quarterbacks tend to lack this element in their game simply because it’s always been a better option for them to escape and run and gain the first down with their feet.

Pocket tolerance is important because remaining in the pocket while avoiding pressure extends the play allowing receivers extra time to get open but keeps the entire field available for the quarterback to throw to. This is opposed to a quarterback who escapes the pocket and rolls to his right and essentially takes away his ability to throw to the left side of the field. By condensing the field, the quarterback has lessened his ability to exploit the defense through the use of larger spaces. He’s confined his playing space.

This is the same reason why offenses will use max protection (two or three extra men in pass blocking) while the receivers run deep routes. The extra protection allows the quarterback to stay in the pocket while allowing the longer routes to develop and still keeping the entire field open because he’s not scrambling one way or another. This is a way that teams will try to create big plays.

Accuracy (including ball placement)

One of the most important attributes to a quarterback’s game is his ability to locate the football. It’s important the he hit the open receivers when they’re available, but it’s also important to locate the ball in a good position for the receiver to have the best chance possible of making the catch, and taking it a step further, potentially making a run after the catch.

The quarterback must be consistent with his accuracy and not scattershot. Being precise and consistent in this aspect may be one of the toughest traits to find at this position.

Anticipation and Arm Strength

These seemingly unrelated traits are lumped together because they are complementary to each other. There must be a combination of these two traits that reaches a certain baseline to be a successful NFL quarterback. Throw in accuracy and this is the trifecta of being able to throw the ball with location and timing so that it ends up in the receiver’s hands and not in the hands of the other team.

Arm strength is one of the most debated traits of the quarterback position. While it’s a sexy trait to have because it’s fun to watch, if there is a lack of arm strength it can be made up with good anticipation.

Most offenses in this era of the NFL function on rhythm and timing between the quarterback and his receivers. The passer must be able to deliver the ball on time and on target to his receiver or he risks a deflection by a defender, or worse, an interception. If a quarterback is late delivering the ball to a spot because he recognized the pattern late, he can make up for it by zipping the ball into the spot with a strong throw. If a quarterback has good anticipation, even if he loops a ball into the target, if he recognized it early enough and delivered it early enough, the lack of arm strength is negated by the anticipation.

Of course it’s best if a quarterback has both of these characteristics in exceptional levels but not all do. It just should be noted that these two traits have a very strong relationship in terms of projecting a quarterback prospect to NFL success.

Information Processing

This trait aligns closely with decision-making but deserves it’s own category. Much like a computer with a more powerful processor can churn through data faster and more efficiently, the best quarterbacks are able to do so in multiple phases.

Peyton Manning may be the best in the history of the NFL at pre-snap and post-snap recognition. This is due to his ability to process information extremely efficiently. He can see how the defense aligns, adjust his offense to fit what he thinks is going to happen post-snap, snaps the ball, validates or in-validates what he thinks he’s supposed to see, determines the correct throw, and then makes it. This all happens in less time than it took you to read that sequence.

One Final Disclaimer

It’s important to try to remove all bias when evaluating players and to try to remain as objective as possible. It’s tough to do this with prospects who have a significant amount of hype surrounding them. While the hype over this year’s quarterbacks isn’t at the Manziel-ian or Tebow-ian level, there is still a major buzz surrounding both of these guys.

It’s necessary to point out that under the necessary traits to be successful that are listed above, mobility or running ability wasn’t listed. There are many who will disagree and believe that the NFL is moving to that style of quarterback play. While it may be, it’s not there yet. The quarterback position is still played from the pocket and is still a predominantly passing position. If you disagree with that, you’ll probably disagree with my evaluations simply because we place different levels of importance on different aspects of play in the position. This is normal and it’s perfectly fine to disagree – it’s actually a good thing because it can start conversations that lead to more clarity of both the prospects and also what to look for when evaluating the position.

With that said, there are specific benefits to having speed and athleticism at the position as it can help manage other flaws. Mobile quarterbacks tend to lack a strong ability to read through a progression because they’ve simply never had to do so. In college and high school, these types of quarterbacks were better off checking their first read and if he wasn’t open, tuck the ball and run for fifteen yards. Unfortunately, in the NFL, everyone is faster than the quarterback and defensive coordinators are much smarter and have specific ways to take away this ability (for the most part).

However, having the ability to run can create larger holes in the defense because of the ways that defenses will scheme to keep a quarterback from collecting yards on the ground. It can slow down the pass rush and spread out defensive lines who are playing contain to keep the quarterback from scrambling outside of the pocket. The ability to run can also cause a defense to place a “spy” in the middle of the field, taking him out of rushing the passer or coverage, which leaves larger holes in both elements. Running quarterbacks can also force defenses to play more zone to keep the linebackers and secondary’s eyes in the backfield for better support in case the quarterback tries to take off.

While these are all very valuable byproducts of having a quarterback who runs better than he passes, there simply must be a baseline passing competency for a quarterback to be consistently successful over the long term. Most running quarterbacks don’t have the passing ability to meet that baseline. Essentially, a quarterback must be a passer who can run and not a runner who can throw. Running is an ancillary bonus trait for the quarterback position and doesn’t lead to any long-term success.

Many will point to Steve Young’s success as a “running quarterback” to refute this argument. The fact that Young is the only applicable contradiction is, in itself, an affirmation of this theory. But even using Young as an example, he was still a passer before a runner and was coached that way. Running was a last resort option and it took sitting behind Joe Montana and being coached by maybe the greatest offensive mind in Bill Walsh, to get him to play the position the way it has to be played.

The quarterback position in the NFL is played as a passer from the pocket. Those are the traits that indicate long-term success in the NFL and those are the traits that must be examined while making note of any ancillary characteristics, like the ability to run the football as a quarterback.

The Prospects

While Winston and Mariota will never be on the field at the same time in a game, they will indirectly be competing against each other in this week’s Rose Bowl. Now that Tampa Bay has secured the number one overall pick in the draft and are in desperate need of a quarterback, they are going to have to figure out which quarterback gives them the best chance for long-term success.

While the Buccaneers must take into account all of the off-the-field aspects of each player such as discipline, leadership, and (most importantly) the ability to stay out of trouble, we’re just looking at the on-field play here.

Marcus Mariota – Oregon

6-4, 219lbs.

2014 Season: 68.3% comp, 3,783 yards, 10.2 Y/A, 38 TDs, 2 INTs, 186.3 rating

Marcus Mariota is a bit of an enigma to project. He is obviously helped by a very friendly offense that gives him wide gaps in coverage to throw into. The Orgeon scheme creates space for receivers and running backs to work and it helps a quarterback tremendously. In the NFL, those elements are almost the complete opposite – tight windows to throw into, must throw guys open, quarterbacks must operate from a tight and muddy pocket and throw from compromised positions because of it. This means that Mariota is more of a projection of skills – as opposed to a translation of skills – than just about any quarterback I’ve ever watched.

Essentially, Mariota has a lot of very good traits that are rolled up like a ball of clay, waiting to be molded into an NFL quarterback. Instead of being a well-formed QB, Mariota is a prospect that will need coaching and development to become great. It’s very important that Mariota lands in the right situation, and with the right coaches, because he has some terrific tools to work with but he also has a long way to go to become an NFL-ready passer.

I’m not saying that Mariota is a “system QB.” His system helps him, sure, but he plays the quarterback position well and probably could play well in many other college schemes. His numbers are inflated because of the system he operates in but not his skill set.

The first thing that jumps off the screen when watching Mariota play is his athleticism and speed. He’s quick and slippery as a runner, has a high top-end speed, and gets to it quickly. He is a vertical threat with his legs. Oregon uses him in multiple packages where he has the option to run and he’s just as much of a threat running the ball as any of the Oregon running backs.

When operating from the pocket, and it’s very clear Mariota prefers to operate from the pocket first, he displays good mobility within the pocket and an ability to manipulate the pocket with his feet to buy time. He’s not totally comfortable in this aspect as his movement is elaborate and not as subtle as I’d like. Instead of a slide step left, right, or forward, Mariota moves more in a frenetic fashion. It’s a small difference but in tighter NFL pockets it can become an issue. This is something Mariota can refine with practice.

One other concern about Mariota’s in-pocket movement is that he voluntarily moves himself off “the spot.” In the NFL, protection centers around offensive linemen knowing where the quarterback is supposed to be in the pocket. Whether it’s a three-step, five-step, or seven-step drop, the offensive linemen know that the quarterback is going to be at that spot, directly behind center. Mariota tends to move himself off of that spot on his own too often. This can help create undue pressure because a linemen is blocking to keep a defender away from that spot, except that’s not where the quarterback is. This is another small issue that can create problems in the NFL but is a fairly easy fix with enough coaching and reps.

In the pocket, Mariota shows a strong ability to work through a full-progression though not as efficiently as I’d like. There’s a difference in his 2013 and 2014 film where in ’14, Mariota tends to hold onto the ball longer in the pocket, which allows a better evaluation of his ability to get through progressions. The issue that it also uncovers is one of my most serious concerns with Mariota: the ability to pull the trigger and make throws into tight windows. This is a critical trait in the NFL and Mariota lacks it. He will have to re-learn what he believes an open wide receiver is in the NFL. There are many times on tape where Mariota looks at his primary read, who is open by NFL standards, and passes up a normal NFL throw to look for another receiver.

I can’t stress how important this aspect is for Mariota to learn. He must pull the trigger on tighter throws or he’ll be very inconsistent as a passer. His lack of interceptions is a direct result of this. It’s good that Mariota doesn’t take chances with the football but it’s very important for him to grow into the ability to makes tough throws or else he’ll always be very dependent on the talent around him and his receivers to get exceptional separation for him to feel comfortable enough to make a throw. If he doesn’t learn this ability, then he basically becomes a bizarre form of Alex Smith because he won’t take chances with the football.

He has a good base for expanding this element of his game because he does a good job of moving his feet with his eyes as he goes through his progressions. This allows Mariota to get the ball out quickly when he sees a receiver open. He can also throw from compromised body positions and arm angles well.

Mariota has a good arm and throws the ball with great zip to the intermediate areas of the field. He has a mechanical flaw where he doesn’t use his front side of his body enough to generate torque. He’s learned to compensate by using more of his arm but this is actually a good thing as it’s an easy fix that will generate even more velocity and arm strength when corrected. Mariota’s arm is good and should get better.

One of the most disappointing aspects of Mariota’s game on film was his mediocre accuracy. He is fairly erratic with both his overall accuracy and his ball placement. At times he’ll hit a receiver directly in stride but too often he will throw it in front or behind a crossing receiver or will miss a spot altogether. Sometimes he’ll miss high because he doesn’t fully step into his throw. This is a slight concern because he does it too often without pressure, which means he’s anticipating pressure before it actually manifests. Mariota’s pocket tolerance improved vastly from 2012 to 2014 so it’s easy to think that this is something that he’ll continue to get more comfortable with and can be eliminated from his play with the right coaching.

Mariota prefers velocity throws on a line as opposed to putting touch on throws but can do both. His deep ball could use some work as too often he doesn’t give the receiver a chance to make a play and will overthrow them. One of his strongest throws is the “hole shot” throw to the sidelines behind the cornerback and in front of the safety in cover 2. He also loves throwing to his tight end in the middle of the field.

One other concerning feature of Mariota’s game is that he has mediocre anticipation. It’s decent but for a high-level quarterback in the NFL this is a very important trait. I think this can get better because right now Mariota seems to be lacking in recognition in his pre-snap reads. If he can improve his pre-snap reads, he’ll get better at being able to recognize what a defense is doing post-snap. Stanford preyed on this by mixing up pressure packages and showing blitz and dropping linebackers into coverage. Add in a lack of awareness of linebackers lurking in underneath coverage and it’s a recipe for an interception or two.

Overall, Mariota is a terrific prospect that has an extremely high ceiling. A staff looking at Mariota needs to understand what he is right now (a big ball of clay) and what he can be in the future (a top five quarterback who can attack in both the run and the pass game), and work to get him there.

The team that drafts Mariota will have a choice to make in how they route his development. They can either choose to adapt their system to his strengths early on to allow him to play and be productive (think Kyle Shannahan with Robert Griffin III), or they can force him to work on the pro-style aspects of his game which will inhibit his production early on, but is almost assuredly the best long-term option (think Steve Young).

I have some concerns about Mariota’s game. He has to improve his accuracy, anticipation, and he must learn to throw the ball into tighter windows. These are two traits that take time, effort, coaching, and reps to internalize so that they’re an automatic reaction and not a laboring decision. If he can learn and improve these aspects of his game, Mariota has the ceiling to be great.

Jameis Winston – Florida State

6-4, 230lbs.

2014 Season: 65.4% comp., 3,559 yards, 8.4 Y/A, 24 TDs, 17 INTs, 147.0 rating

When evaluating both Mariota and Jameis Winston, I found it useful to go back to multiple seasons of film. Both players progressed in different ways and it helps to get a feel for how they might develop as players in the NFL. The problem with Winston is that his numbers dropped in 2014.

Don’t let the numbers fool you. Winston is one of the best NFL quarterback prospects I’ve ever evaluated on the field.

Winston has a body-type similar to Cam Newton. He’s tall, solid, powerful, and hard to bring down. He possesses good mobility, especially for his size, and sheds would-be tacklers in the pocket as well as Ben Roethlisberger.

One of Winston’s faults is his elongated delivery that he gets from a baseball background (I think everyone is aware he is also a pitcher on FSU’s baseball team). It’s not Byron Leftwich bad, but it’s something that Jameis will need to correct to mitigate any extra chances that cornerbacks have to break on the throw.

Winston only runs when called (not that often, maybe once or twice a game depending on the opponent) or when it’s his only option left. He’s a passer who happens to be able to run the ball.

When operating from the pocket, Winston maintains good eye-level in the face of pressure. He’ll take a hit and deliver a throw without flinching. He can be forced into extremely poor decisions when under duress as evidenced by his high interception rate. Florida State has had issues at center this season and the A-gap pressure it creates is making it harder for Winston to do his job but he’s performed admirably.

Winston’s throwing mechanics are sloppy. And that’s putting it nicely. His feet are sloppy which causes his entire lower body to be sloppy and also his entire upper body. He gets away with this because he has such a strong arm and is still consistently accurate. With some discipline in his mechanics, Winston could become an even better thrower and more consistently accurate with the football. When Winston misses he misses high, especially to his right. He has a tendency to drop his throwing elbow when throwing to his right and causes a lot of his balls to sail because his hand dips below the football at the release instead of staying “on top” of it. This happens less when he throws to the left because the motion of throwing to the left naturally slots his elbow in the right position and he’s less likely to let it sail.

Under pressure, Winston’s mechanics get even sloppier. He does a good job of moving within the pocket but it takes considerable effort to move his big frame around and he’s not as precise or subtle in his movements as he should be. Winston shows a strong ability to handle edge pressure, it’s just the pressure up the middle that tends to cause his decision making to implode.

The scheme that Winston plays in is a pro-style scheme and he does a terrific job of managing all the aspects of it. He operates within the framework of the offense when at all possible but is also great when he has to break outside that structure and become a playmaker.

The most exciting part of Winston’s game is his incredibly high football IQ. Winston manages protections, checks, hot reads, and he does it all with a brilliant efficiency. He is incredibly efficient and accurate in both his pre-snap and post-snap recognition even when defenses try to disguise and trick him. He almost always makes the right decision when not facing direct pressure up the middle. Winston tries to do too much at times and that’s when he begins to make negative plays.

Winston has no problem throwing the ball into tight windows and is actually a little too lenient with what he considers open. His very good anticipation, accuracy, and velocity on the football allow him to get away with a lot of throws. Instead of read and react, Jameis takes more of a read and attack approach. He likes throwing deep and intermediate routes but will take the check down whenever necessary.

Because he has fantastic anticipation, Winston consistently throws before receivers are out of their breaks and throws to the proper spot to avoid allowing the defender to make the play. He loves throwing the deep dig to the middle of the field and will hit his receiver in stride to allow him to run after the catch. Winston displays high-level ball placement all over the field. One of the things I love about Winston’s game is that when throwing deep he always gives his receiver a chance to make a play. He rarely overthrows a receiver streaking down the middle of the field or spots the ball out of bounds on deep sideline throws.

Winston can and often reads through a full progression and does so with good efficiency. He can determine his first read and come off it quickly if the defense shifts. He’s always aware of where his receivers should be and does a good job of moving his feet with his eyes so that he can pull the trigger and deliver the ball with quickness and accuracy. Despite all of that, Winston actually has the same issue with underneath linebackers that Mariota has. Sometimes he’ll be so focused on the routes that his receivers are running that a linebacker from across the field can sneak under a throw. This is something he has to improve on.

One of the knocks on Winston this year is that he and the Florida State offense has started slowly, only to come on late and win the game in the second half. I believe this is a product of Winston’s ability to get a feel for the game. As he processes information throughout the game he seems to get better in his ability to decipher what the defense is trying to do and then compensating for it with accurate reads and throws. It’s possible that more film study leading up to a game could help him in this aspect – something he’ll have vs. Oregon, and something he’ll get the opportunity to do in the NFL.

Overall, Winston has every necessary on-field trait that NFL teams want in a quarterback, and he has it in spades. If not for all of the personality or off-field concerns for Winston, he would be the undisputed choice for the number one overall pick. Instead, we’re left to debate whether he’s even worthy of being drafted because he can’t be a good quarterback if he is suspended all the time.

The Verdict

It’s pretty simple. Jameis Winston displays all the traits that NFL teams want on the field and could probably start week 1 for whatever NFL team drafts him (provided he hasn’t done anything stupid off the field to prevent that). Marcus Mariota will have a good amount of necessary development of his skills to make himself a quality NFL starter but his ceiling is tremendous.

Ignoring the off-field concerns (which NFL general managers don’t have the luxury of doing), Winston is on a completely different level than Mariota. His skill set is more of a translation as opposed to the projection of Mariota’s skill set to the NFL. Winston’s skill set may just make him worth the risk with the first overall selection anyway.

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