There’s still an entire season of college football to be played before the 2015 NFL draft class is set, but two quarterbacks—Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota—already stand out as the favorites to be the next No. 1 overall pick.
In his first playing season for Florida State, Winston won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship. The big quarterback, listed at 6’4” and 230 pounds by FSU’s official athletics website, compiled a 184.85 passer rating—the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2013—by completing 66.9 percent of his throws for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Mariota, from Oregon, already has two seasons of excellence under his belt. In 2012, he had a 68.5 completion percentage as he threw for 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns. In 2013, the signal-caller listed at 6’4” and 219 pounds threw for 3,655 yards and 31 touchdowns with a 63.5 rate of completion.
It’s not a lock that either of them will be in the next NFL draft. Winston is a third-year sophomore while Mariota is a fourth-year junior, so each of them will have the option of staying in college in 2015.
That said, it’s likely that either of them would be turning down a big payday—or at least putting it on hold for a year—by not going pro after this season.
Both men have the size, arm strength, athleticism and collegiate production to tantalize NFL scouts with franchise quarterback potential. That said, the two best amateur signal-callers in America have varied strengths and weaknesses, and will therefore face different questions about how well each of their games can translate to success at the next level.
Tale of the Tape: Winston vs. Mariota
By comparing Winston and Mariota side by side, we can get a better idea of which quarterback brings more to the table in a variety of capacities.
Deep Passing — Advantage: Winston
Both Winston and Mariota possess NFL-caliber arms. Each has shown on many occasions that he can connect with receivers more than 20 yards downfield with drive and accuracy.
The deep ball is one of Winston’s standout traits. The following clip from Florida State’s 2013 win over North Carolina State, in which Winston threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin, shows how he can deliver a perfectly placed pass far downfield, even when taking a hit in the process of the throw.
Mariota can also rocket the ball downfield, such as he did on the following 75-yard touchdown connection with Bralon Addison last year versus Colorado.
The Oregon passer, however, is more reliant on having a clean pocket to throw deep passes accurately, whereas Winston has shown that he can do it under pressure.
Pocket Presence and Footwork: Winston
One of the most common problems for collegiate quarterbacks making the transition to the pros is pocket presence. The ability to throw accurately under pressure can make or break an NFL career, so it’s an important quality to look for in QB prospects.
Winston already has the pocket presence of a veteran. He doesn’t get rattled by the heat of an opposing pass rush. He has proven frequently that he is unafraid to take a shot and that he can deliver an accurate pass even when he is hit.
The Florida State quarterback also demonstrates clean footwork at levels of consistency and precision rarely seen in redshirt freshmen passers. He drops well from both under center and shotgun and can effectively maneuver to buy himself time when he is under pressure.
Mariota, on the other hand, becomes more skittish under pressure. Rather than standing confidently like Winston does, Mariota tends to retreat and/or escape the pocket as soon as there’s a rusher in his face.
Under heat, Mariota’s footwork becomes sloppy, as he often throws off his back foot. This compromises his accuracy and leads to misses on throws he would normally complete.
Throwing Mechanics: Mariota
Under pressure, Winston’s mechanics work better than Mariota’s because his deviate less from what they are with a clean pocket. However, Mariota generally throws the ball in a much more efficient manner.
One of the biggest reasons Mariota excels in Oregon’s quick-passing offense is that he has a compact delivery and clean release which enable him to rapidly fire off passes with velocity. He doesn't have any wobbly or hanging passes; he consistently throws the ball with zip that allows it to reach its targets.
Winston’s delivery, on the other hand, has been a point of contention for many draft analysts.
His passes often seem to be a tick late, and his elongated throwing motion can be pointed to as a reason why. As he gets to the NFL, where timing is crucial for a passer, the length of his release time could create problems. Additionally, it can make it more challenging for Winston to get passes away under pressure.
Winston has frequently displayed the throw velocity to scythe passes between coverage windows, so his mechanical flaws haven’t given him significant trouble yet, but his delivery is an early candidate to be the most excessively analyzed point of 2015 draft coverage.
Winston’s completion rate was more than three percentage points better than Mariota’s in 2013. All the while, Winston regularly threw more passes with high degrees of difficulty than Mariota, whose offense at Oregon heavily emphasizes quick screens and short throws.
Like the aforementioned pocket presence and footwork, another strength of Winston’s game that will make his transition to the league easier is his ability to fit passes between tight coverage windows. Many young NFL quarterbacks struggle as they face tighter defenses than they did in college, but he already exhibits the ball placement to be perfect when he has to be precise.
That’s not to say Mariota can’t thread the ball through tight situations as well. The following 17-yard connection with Addison from last year’s Oregon victory over Washington is proof that he can.
To this point, however, Winston has displayed his passing precision on a more consistent and challenging basis than his potential 2015 draft rival.
Mariota and Winston have each thrown 10 interceptions in their collegiate careers, but Winston’s all came in one year, while that’s all the picks Mariota has thrown in 26 total games.
That statistic is a testament to Mariota’s football intelligence and how he takes care of the football.
It’s rare to see Mariota take an unnecessary risk with the football. He exhibits great field vision to find open receivers, and he has a great sense of when it’s best to take off and run, check down to a short pass or throw the ball away.
As previously mentioned, Mariota’s offense at Oregon is predicated upon quick passes more than deep strikes, so that help keeps his interception count low. Still, he exhibits a clear understanding of the game and almost never tries to force throws that can’t be made.
Accuracy and confidence are a great combination for a young quarterback, but those characteristics can also be dangerous, as they are for Winston at times.
While it’s spectacular to see how well Winston can thread passes through double coverages and make completions with high degrees of difficulty, he also needs to learn to find easier throws when he can get them.
Winston too often tries to force the ball between closing windows, and that can lead to big plays for the opposing defense, such as the following interception from Florida State’s game last season against Miami.
Running Ability: Mariota
Both of these quarterbacks are athletic dual threats who can gain ground with their legs, but Mariota is clearly the more dynamic and natural runner.
A gazelle in the open field, Mariota can quickly make a defense pay for giving him room to run. He has already rushed for 1,467 yards and 14 touchdowns in his Oregon career, including the following 71-yard scamper against Virginia early last season.
Possessing sprinter-like acceleration and a natural, long-legged stride, Mariota should post an impressive time in the 40-yard dash at either the NFL Scouting Combine or Oregon’s pro day prior to the 2015 or 2016 NFL draft.
Big-play runs are rarer from Winston, who only had 219 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in 2013, but he too can be dangerous past the line of scrimmage. While he’s not as explosive as Mariota, he’s shown some ability to make defenders miss and is a bulkier player who can use his size to his advantage.
These quarterbacks don’t just utilize their athleticism to run the ball themselves, they can also use it to extend plays and make dynamic throws on the run.
Mariota’s speed enables him to keep plays alive very well as a scrambler, but he remains more successful running the ball forward than passing on the run. To utilize his athleticism more effectively in the NFL, he will need to learn to balance his feet better at the end of scrambles so that he can throw accurately on the move.
Neither of these quarterbacks is quite Brett Favre or Johnny Manziel in regards to making plays against the odds, but Winston has certainly been able to conjure some magic at times. His "Houdini Act" touchdown last year was a highly impressive example of the Seminoles passer turning water into wine.
To succeed in the NFL, both of these quarterbacks need to refine their skills within the pocket and be able to use those as their calling cards. That said, any team who drafts Winston or Mariota won’t be looking for a statuesque passer; the athleticism each has is part of what makes them top-notch prospects.
So Who’s Best?
The answer to this question could become more evident as the 2014 college football season progresses. Both Winston (decision-making, mechanics) and Mariota (pocket presence, footwork under pressure) have clear areas in which they can improve, and NFL scouts will expect to see progress from each of them in those capacities.
Despite having only one year of collegiate experience, Winston appears to be the more NFL-ready passer. He already possesses high-level ability to throw under pressure in the pocket and to fit completions between tight coverages, which are typically among the biggest areas quarterbacks fail to succeed in their pro transitions.
Mariota arguably has the higher ceiling of the two quarterbacks. Even if Winston can tighten up his delivery, it’s unlikely he’ll ever have the natural release and throw velocity Mariota does, while Mariota also has more playmaking ability as a runner.
On the field, Winston looks like he should be the No. 1 overall pick in 2015. His game tape, however, will only be one part of his evaluation. Off the field, he has significant red flags that might not only push him below Mariota, but also off some boards altogether.
Most notably, Winston was the subject of a high-profile sexual assault investigation last year. Although he was not charged on the accusation, he can expect to be barraged with questions from NFL teams about the incident.
Winston’s maturity has also been called into question by multiple shoplifting incidents: He was cited for taking crab legs from a grocery store this April, while he reportedly stole soda from a Burger King in July 2013.
It’s much harder to predict how Winston’s off-field transgressions might affect his draft stock than it is to project where he should be drafted based on his football talent, but it’s possible his red flags could make the difference between him being the top pick in the draft and plummeting down the board.
Other Quarterbacks to Watch
If the past three drafts have been any indication, it’s likely that at least one quarterback will emerge from the shadows to challenge Winston and Mariota, and be a top draft pick.
Blake Bortles was far from a household name at this time last year, yet he ended up being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft this May. Neither 2012 No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III nor 2011 No. 1 overall selection Cam Newton emerged as a top prospect until their final college football seasons.
Considering that, it’s likely there will be a first-round quarterback who’s not even on this list—someone that nobody is talking about as a top pick yet—but a few quarterbacks who could rise to the top of the board include:
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (Jr.)
Considered to be “a dark-horse 1st-pick candidate” by Matt Miller, Hundley’s physical tools are just as impressive as those of Winston and Mariota. A big quarterback with a rocket arm who can also make plays on the run, Hundley needs to be more consistent in his accuracy and decision-making but has as much potential as any signal-caller in college football.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
In his first year as a starter at Baylor, Petty threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He’s in a quarterback-friendly offense, and he doesn’t have the athleticism and arm strength of the top prospects, but a strong senior year could push him into the first-round conversation.
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State (Jr.)
Cook began his sophomore season as a backup and struggled in his first few games, but he showed rapid improvement over the course of the year. He’s probably best suited to return to Michigan State for his senior year, but the tall pocket passer could shoot up boards if his steady progress continues this upcoming season.
Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma (R-So.)
Knight was in and out of the lineup and played very inconsistently as a redshirt freshman, but a spectacular performance in the Sugar Bowl showed how much potential he has. He has to prove he can consistently play at a high level, and his height will be called into question, but he’s an exciting playmaker with intriguing athleticism and a good arm.
Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama (Jr.)
Coker might have the most potential of any quarterback in college football to go from unknown to top prospect in one season. His game truly is unproven—he was Jameis Winston’s backup at Florida State last year, and he hasn’t even secured Alabama’s starting job yet—but the tools displayed by the 6’5”, 230-pound quarterback in limited action have created hype.
All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted. All measurables courtesy of schools’ official athletics websites. All GIFs were produced at gfycat.com using videos available at DraftBreakdown.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.