Why Are NFL Scouts Having Such a Hard Time Figuring out Marcus Mariota?

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMarch 21, 2015

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Marcus Mariota produced ridiculous numbers as quarterback at Oregon, won the Heisman Trophy and tore up combine workouts. He's got a great attitude, and scouts love his leadership ability. 

"This kid is smart, humble, a hard worker," one scout told me. "His 'makeup' is why he gets it."

So why is it so hard for these same scouts to grade him?

The problem is the system. Oregon's track-meet-style offense is the first talking point when scouts discuss Mariota and his transition to the pro game.

Mariota was making simplified reads at Oregon. The playbook cuts the field in half for the quarterback, and the tempo creates open throwing windows against gassed defenses. That leads to busted coverages and receivers who can run through the secondary for explosive gains.

He will have to learn pro-style reads and the route progressions to play in the NFL. Scouts also question his footwork, and his overall mechanics need to improve so he can get better ball placement. 

Ryan Kang/Associated Press

Working from the shotgun alignment in the NFL, Mariota will look like a natural at the position, but what about the three- and five-step passing game, the pro-style play-action concepts or the timing? Can he get the ball out, read the entire field, play with vision and produce in the classic "Z-Y-checkdown" progression?

Mariota's pro day didn't answer these questions, and some scouts see that as a concern, because pro days are scripted practices in a comfortable football environment.

I saw enough during his combine workout to believe he passed the NFL's "eye test" if we are focusing specifically on a throwing session.

I've also watched the tape on Mariota, and his measurables jump off the screen. At 6'4", 222 pounds, his game speed meshes with his testing time (4.5 range). His athletic skill is rare for a player his size at the position. He can cause some serious issues for opposing defenses because of his ability to work the edge of the pocket (boot, sprint), and he has a clean, quick release when he throws the ball.

The arm strength? He doesn't have a hose, but the tape shows enough to make all the necessary NFL throws.

Ryan Kang/Associated Press

The NFL can be stubborn and old school to a fault. Yes, the league is adopting concepts such as the spread, zone read and packaged plays, but even so, teams are still searching for quarterbacks who develop at the college level in offenses that mimic NFL systems.

Dating back to the days of Andre Ware and David Klinger, quarterbacks coming from spread-style playbooks don't have a solid track record in the pros. And scouts know it. They aren't afraid to acknowledge that spread offenses are setting the position back through the eyes of the league.

With Jameis Winston, it's just the opposite. The Florida State product—and expected No. 1 overall pick—has high-level talent and played in a pro-style offense down in Tallahassee. That's the resume teams want to see, even if it also features some off-the-field concerns.

Winston also breezed through the throwing drills at the combine with an almost effortless ability when focusing on his footwork, release point and overall mechanics. It looked too easy. That cemented his spot at the top of the draft board and reminded scouts he is "pro-ready" in terms of system fit—which creates an unfavorable contrast for Mariota.

So where does that leave Mariota? Is it possible he comes off the board early, as high as No. 2 to the Tennessee Titans, No. 5 to the Washington Redskins, No. 6 to the New York Jets—or will he start to slide on the opening night of the draft?

Some scouts say Mariota would fit best in a West Coast-style offense, with quick-passing concepts and a lot of throws between the numbers and hash.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The rumblings that former Oregon coach Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles will make a move up the board to land Mariota sounds great. That would be a seamless transition for him, playing in a familiar playbook and system. Kelly could hand him the ball on Day 1 of camp and let him go to work.

But for scouts setting their final grades, it all still comes back to projecting Mariota's talent at the NFL level. They have to consider how long it might take him to adjust to pro coaching and how much risk there is that he can't make that adjustment.

I don't think it will be an easy transition. But after listening to scouts talk about his work ethic at the position, I also can't doubt him. 

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

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