Are Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota NFL-Ready?

Brandon OliverContributor INovember 30, 2013

QB Marcus Mariota and RB De'Anthony Thomas have elite talent, but are they ready to take on the challenge of the NFL?
QB Marcus Mariota and RB De'Anthony Thomas have elite talent, but are they ready to take on the challenge of the NFL?Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

They arrived at Oregon in the same recruiting class facing much different expectations from fans and the media.

While leading the Oregon offense to never before seen heights in 2012 and 2013, quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De'Anthony Thomas have been mentioned as potential first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft.

Both players will have eligibility left after Oregon's bowl game, but many analysts believe both players will leave school early for the NFL. After their respective struggles in 2013, the question is whether either player is truly ready for the NFL.

As the most spotlighted players in Oregon's high-profile football program, the highs and lows of both players have been widely publicized. Both Thomas and Mariota have had plenty of moments that make us all think that they are not only ready to enter the draft but are ready to become stars in the NFL.

Whether it is Thomas' world-class speed, his breathtaking ability to change direction without slowing down or his versatility on offense and special teams, there are moments when he even exceeds the hype that has followed him since middle school.

Then there are the concerns over his slight frame, his lack of a true position and his maturity (as evidenced by his willingness to provide bulletin-board material).

There is no denying Thomas has a unique skill set that combines speed and a feel for the game unmatched in college football. What he has yet to prove is what position he will play at the next level and how durable he will be. 

He held up better than expected at running back early in the season, but then missed four games due to an ankle injury. When he returned against UCLA, he was tossed around like a high school freshman on varsity, causing him to sit out the second half of the game.

Thomas sat out the second half against UCLA after taking a pounding from the Bruins' linebackers in the first half.
Thomas sat out the second half against UCLA after taking a pounding from the Bruins' linebackers in the first half.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The question regarding his position seems to be the biggest issue. It's the same question most asked when assessing his collegiate potential coming out of high school. He would have likely played cornerback had he attended USC, which was a major reason for his choosing Oregon.

If he is to go on and have a successful NFL career, it will most likely be as a cornerback and a kick returner. He has all the ability in the world and would likely become a solid NFL starter within a couple of years. But for him to answer the questions regarding his maturity and his toughness, another year in college would likely serve him well.

Mariota shot up mock-draft boards everywhere after a sensational start to the 2013 season. He was the clear leader in the Heisman Trophy race until a knee injury hampered him in the loss to Stanford. 

He played poorly for most of the game, but stuck it out despite a sprained MCL and nearly helped the Ducks rally for an improbable victory. He bounced back with another solid effort against Utah the following week, but much like the Ducks, he came unraveled immediately after the opening kickoff of the Arizona game.

The result of the the game's first play was no fault of his own, but Mariota seemed to lose confidence and hang his head after having his Pac-12 record of 353 consecutive passes without an interception broken.

The Ducks were clearly off against the Wildcats, and Mariota was a big part of that. Not only did he fail to make the plays we have become accustomed to seeing, but he was unable to lift the team out of the rut in which the Ducks found themselves.

The result was the Ducks rolling over and playing dead in the face of adversity.

Mariota hung his head after the Ducks fell behind Arizona.
Mariota hung his head after the Ducks fell behind Arizona.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Mariota's quiet and humble persona led many to question his ability to lead a team through tough times. While the Ducks didn't have many of those through the first 21 games of his career, the past four games have provided plenty of opportunities for the redshirt sophomore to inspire the team and lead it to victory.

Against Stanford, it was mostly special teams that enabled the Ducks to score 20 unanswered points late in the game, but Mariota did make some clutch plays down the stretch. 

In the first half against Utah, Mariota and the Ducks struggled through a hangover from the Stanford game, before taking off offensively in the second half behind Mariota's play.

In Oregon's last-minute victory over Oregon State on Friday night, Mariota showed us the best and worst of what he has to offer.

Mariota led the Ducks on a nine-play, 83-yard game-winning drive in the final minute.
Mariota led the Ducks on a nine-play, 83-yard game-winning drive in the final minute.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

He threw interceptions on back-to-back first-half possessions against the Beavers' porous defense. The first was a mistake almost any quarterback occasionally will make. The second appeared to be a mental mistake stemming from his inability to forget about the first miscue.

In the end, Mariota showed his mental toughness and clutch playmaking ability by connecting with wide receiver Josh Huff for a 12-yard touchdown on 4th-and-11 with just under eight minute remaining in the game. 

After Oregon State scored with 1:38 left on the clock, Mariota calmly led the Ducks down the field on a nine-play, 83-yard drive that ended with another 12-yard touchdown pass to Huff. Mariota's third touchdown of the night, all second-half throws that ended up in Huff's hands, gave the Ducks their sixth consecutive win over the Beavers and secured the program its sixth consecutive season with at least 10 wins.

Some quarterbacks can lead their teams with a quiet confidence that spreads to the rest of their teammates. Mariota has some of that, but he doesn't yet have enough to lead a team of grown men into battle at the NFL level.

Only time will tell if Mariota and Thomas make the right decision, as there are any number of situations that impact the thought process of a college kid being tempted by NFL money. They must consider their personal situations and their families before making a choice that will impact the rest of their lives. 

It is clear that Mariota and Thomas both possess the talent to play in the NFL, but both could use some more seasoning at the collegiate level. Despite their incredible talent, if they want to make the best choice for their long-term football careers, they should probably both spend one more season in Eugene.