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Can Buccaneers Afford to Pass on a Top QB Prospect in 2015 Draft?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 14, 2015

Oregon's Marcus Mariota walks off the field during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Ohio State Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't seem to understand that quarterback is the game's most important position. 

Either that or the franchise is preparing its fanbase for the possibility it won't select one with the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft. 

Entertaining such a thought, though, would be a massive mistake by the organization.

The Buccaneers' new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, held his first press conference Tuesday. During the meeting with the media, Koetter was peppered with questions surrounding the Buccaneers' quarterback situation. 

He raised some eyebrows when asked about the importance of the quarterback position. 

"I do think in the NFL, it’s easier to win when you have a franchise quarterback, but I don’t think it’s a necessity that you win by having a franchise quarterback," Koetter said, via Buccaneers.com.

It's an odd statement to make when the Buccaneers own the first overall draft pick, and the entire outside world expects them to select a quarterback. 

Of course, Koetter couldn't speak to the top quarterback prospects in the draft. It's very early in the process for coaches after yet another grueling season. However, it sounded like a coach hedging his bets at the position. 

The quote was part of a larger answer after Koetter was questioned about whether the team requires a franchise quarterback. He also admitted that he hasn't completed all of his film work on either Josh McCown or Mike Glennon. 

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However, Koetter provided another curious quote regarding Glennon later in the Q&A session: 

...when Tampa drafted Mike, I’ve watched Mike from afarfrom the other side of the ball here in Atlantaand from afar, I thought he had some of the same attributes as Matt Ryan. But that’s me looking at it from the outside, and until I get on the inside and get a chance to look at the tape and spend some time with those guys, I can’t give you much more than that.

During his coaching career, Koetter previously worked with the likes of David Garrard and Blaine Gabbert at the NFL level. Ryan is clearly the best of the bunch. Koetter's comment certainly falls under high praise considering the caliber of the quarterbacks he previously coached. 

Some of this is simply pandering to the players already on the roster. It's also an opportunity to try to sell a different angle if the team does decide to go any other direction with that valuable No. 1 overall pick. 

Plus, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Florida State's Jameis Winston have been trending down in recent weeks. 

As NFL scouts tear into each quarterback's entire body of work, they're finding things that called into question their status as elite prospects. 

ESPN.com's Mike Sando reported (subscription required) that at least one "high-ranking personnel evaluator from a team with an established starting quarterback" doesn't view either prospect as No. 1 overall quality: 

What it comes down to is whether these teams picking at the top have the guts to take the best player and call everyone else's bluff, hoping these guys come back to them in the second round. The reality is that there are two quarterbacks at the top, but no second group, so people are going to push these two up really high, knowing they have to bite the bullet if they want a quarterback.

Neither exactly helped their case with the final performances of their collegiate careers.

The Ducks signal-caller couldn't carry his team to a national championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Mariota missed a couple of throws and was rattled by the Buckeyes' pressure. Despite a throwing for 333 yards and still being the best player on the field for Oregon, Mariota didn't enter rarefied air by willing his team to victory against a superior team. 

“Want to know how to beat Mariota?” an NFL talent evaluator told PewterReport.com's Scott Reynolds. “Get him into 2nd-and-10 and 3rd-and-long. If Oregon doesn’t get yards on first down they seemed destined to punt.”

The lasting impression of Winston will remain a fumble during the Seminoles' 59-20 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Even with a 29-1 career record as a starter, Winston was lying flat on his back when his team needed him the most. 

Teams will see a passer who came out of a pro-style system, though, and highly value that trait.

Can those same teams overlook Winston's expansive off-the-field history? 

One veteran defensive coach doesn't think so, according to Sando: 

You either want to draft clones or you stay away from him. He is a Manziel clone in terms of maturity. Remember when Manziel went to Vegas? There is nothing wrong with going to Vegas. We all like going to Vegas. The problem is, he [screwed] it up even worse during the season, getting into fights and all that. Winston and Manziel are different players, but you will not change maturity overnight. You are looking into who is in Jameis' circle and how big of a change it's going to be with lots of money and lots of free timethere is lots of free time in the NFL.

There are built-in excuses for the Buccaneers to not take a chance on either prospect. 

It seems Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is even preparing Buccaneers fans for the possibility of a top pick at quarterback not playing early if the organization decides to pursue that option. 

When Smith was asked directly about whether the team can win next season with a rookie starting behind center, Smith was adamant in his response, but he added a caveat. 

"Absolutely," Smith said during his postseason press conference, via Sports Talk Florida's Jenna Laine. "In an ideal world, you would have a guy that waits like the situation with Aaron Rodgers. I've seen Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning...there have been guys that came into the league and were able to play. ... For a football team, if they choose to go in that direction, you can get that."

Smith's ideal world obviously doesn't include starting a first-year quarterback to open the 2015 campaign. 

However, there's an opportunity in front of the franchise to draft the perfect quarterback for the team's current situation. 

Mariota is the ideal candidate to become a franchise-caliber player in Tampa Bay. 

Koetter described his vision for the perfect quarterback during his introductory press conference: 

I think the ideal quarterback, I think one of the things that is really [underrated] is how fast can you process information, because playing quarterback in the NFL, things are coming at you fast and furious and if you can’t process information, it’s tough to be successful. Second would be toughness. Toughness, because when you play quarterback in the NFL, you’re going to have to demonstrate toughness on a daily basis and certainly every Sunday. Intelligence, arm strength, accuracy, mobilitythose things are all important as wellbut the ability to process information and make great decisions would be number one on my list.

When Mariota is discussed, the obvious talking points revolve around his blazing speed or the effect of Oregon's offense on his production.

Those discussions don't concentrate on the most tantalizing aspect of Mariota's skill set: his ability to digest and process information.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly marveled at the quarterback's computer-like mind during a pre-national championship interview with ESPN, per CBS Philly's Andrew Porter:  

It’s like PhD level stuff he was doing as a true freshman. That’s how his mind works. To have someone that thinks that well, thinks like a Peyton Manning, but has that athletic ability where he can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his leg, it’s a special package. And obviously, the season he had, it’s one for the ages this year.

As athletics as he is, when you look at him—he may arguably be the fastest guy on the field tonight—but his mind is even faster. 

You gotta have a guy that can process it at a real fast speed and that’s what Marcus can do better than anyone in the country.

While the effusive praise comes from Mariota's former coach, it seems to be a perfect blending of what Koetter wants and what the Ducks quarterback brings to the table. 

A superficial look at Koetter's offense during his tenure with the Atlanta Falcons would cause many to assume the coordinator prefers a traditional pocket passer in the same mold as Ryan. Koetter, however, started his coaching career in the collegiate ranks. 

Who was an assistant coach on Koetter's staff with the Boise State Broncos and the Arizona State Sun Devils? Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich. 

Helfrich spent eight seasons serving as Koetter's quarterbacks coach. 

Whennot if—Koetter calls his old friend and colleague, the Buccaneers coach is sure to receive a sparkling recommendation based on Helfrich's post-national championship game reaction, courtesy of CSNNW.com: 

NBC Sports Northwest @NBCSNorthwest

"I love this guy, and will forever, and couldn't be luckier to coach him everyday" a choked up, teary-eyed Helfrich says about Mariota

The choice is simple.

The Buccaneers can't outthink themselves.

The right quarterback is available atop April's NFL draft, and general manager Jason Licht shouldn't take long to submit the team's pick once Tampa Bay is officially on the clock. 

Anything other than a selection of a quarterback with this year's No. 1 overall pick should be considered a failure. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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