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QB Marcus Mariota Is Obvious No. 1 Choice for Bucs After Koetter, Bajakian Hires

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 26, 2015

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) points to the crowd after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter against Stanford in an NCAA college football game in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Ryan Kang/Associated Press

Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston?

It's the question everyone will be asking until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are finally on the clock with the first overall pick in April's NFL draft and submit their final decision. 

Cases can be made for both.

Recent momentum even swung toward Winston as the favorite. However, recent hires by head coach Lovie Smith appear to have the Buccaneers leaning in the opposite direction. 

Speculation during the NFL offseason is often a game of connecting the dots. The Buccaneers now have two major tells that point toward the eventual selection of Mariota. 

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

On Jan. 8, the Buccaneers officially named Dirk Koetter the team's new offensive coordinator. Two weeks later, the team found Marcus Arroyo's replacement as quarterbacks coach by hiring former Tennessee Volunteers offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.

One previously hired and worked eight seasons with Marcus Mariota's current head coach, Mark Helfrich, as part of coaching staffs with the Boise State Broncos and the Arizona State Sun Devils. The other spent his entire career working in spread offense. 

Koetter's recent history with the Atlanta Falcons notwithstanding, the Buccaneers aren't necessarily searching for a classic pro-style passer like Matt Ryan. Plus, the new offensive coordinator is expected to implement more uptempo facets to the team's offense, according to ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

With Bajakian added to the mix, it becomes even more apparent that the Buccaneers are properly building an offense around a player like Mariota to develop as an NFL passer and eventually thrive in an offense that initially fits their skill set. 

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Bajakian has never handled a quarterback the caliber of Mariota or Winston, though.

During his career as a collegiate play-caller, Bajakian's top quarterbacks were Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour and Cincinnati's Zach Collaros. 

Both were talented dual-threat quarterbacks, but neither was able to establish any kind of NFL career. However, they were successful in Bajakian's spread offenses with zone-read principles that allowed both to succeed according to their strengths. 

Bajakian's quarterbacks vs. Mariota, Winston
PlayerLeFevourCollarosMariotaWinston
Comp.%66.462.166.866.0
Passing yards12,9056,27010,7967,964
Yards per attempt7.328.059.259.36
Passing TDs1025110565
Interceptions36261428
Rushing yards2,9487802,237284
Yards per carry4.43.06.62.0
Rushing TDs4716297
Source: ESPN.com

Even during the seasons that Bajakian didn't have an established starter, he found ways to incorporate his system to fit their skills. But they still operated within the framework of a spread system.

A 6'4", 228 pounds, Brendon Kay wasn't Cincinnati's most mobile quarterback behind center, but Bajakian still ran him 48 times for 306 yards during limited action. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tennessee's offense didn't thrive until it inserted sophomore Joshua Dobbs into the lineup over the final six games of the 2014 campaign. Dobbs ran for 469 yards. 

The two constants with quarterbacks under Bajakian's supervision were a spread offense coupled with a mobile quarterback. 

As a result of these additions to the staff, ESPN's Chris Mortensen already drew conclusions, via the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman, regarding the Buccaneers' draft plans: 

Greg Auman @gregauman

So @mortreport says on ESPN "stars are aligned" for Bucs to take Mariota, based on Koetter's Helfrich ties, Bajakian's spread history. Ah.

Plus, Bajakian said in an interview with Sports Radio WNML Friday that he believes he'll have some say in the team's eventual draft picks:  

I've gotta assume I will. In talking with Dirk Koetter, the offensive coordinator, and Lovie [Smith] and my previous experience with Coach Smith, there's always been a sharing of ideas, a sharing of thoughts. Obviously, you come to a conclusion based on the information gives and everybody gets behind it 100 percent. But yeah, I'm gonna assume I'm going to have quite a bit of input.

How big of an effect will Bajakian's experience have in the team's eventual decision regarding the No. 1 overall pick? 

You never know. Obviously, Coach Koetter is going to be the offensive coordinator and I'm looking forward to really learning a new scheme and implementing that from scratch with very talented skill and very talented players at the Buccaneers organization.

But I do think there's value to having my background on the staff, whether it's in communication with the defensive staff and maybe how Chip Kelly's approaching the game plan or in the direction we might head offensively in our future.

Does this automatically mean Buccaneers brass already made up its mind and already committed to Mariota three months before the draft actually occurs? Absolutely not. 

Last season the Buccaneers were in a similar situation. A former college coach, Jeff Tedford, was named the team's offensive coordinator. Tedford held deep ties with former Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and his family. Tampa Bay didn't select Carr despite Tedford's familiarity with him. 

However, it can't be assumed that the Buccaneers weren't interested in Carr. The team passed on him with the eighth overall pick, but the quarterback was never considered a top-10 talent. The Oakland Raiders then selected Carr with the 36th overall pick before the Buccaneers even had the opportunity to consider the Fresno State product in the second round. 

Winston may be the more prepared of the two prospects to make the transition to the NFL level, yet one of Smith's mentors, former NFL head coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy, implored the Buccaneers to select Mariota with the No. 1 overall pick. 

"I would definitely take Marcus Mariota," Dungy previously said during NBC's Football Night in America, courtesy of Auman. "He went to school with my son (Eric). I got to watch him play and practice. He's not only a great quarterback, but a great person and leader. He is going to make them better. Please Lovie, take Marcus Mariota."

Dungy also added, via Fox 13's Kevin O'Donnell, "Winston would scare me, too, with the off-the-field issues."

Despite Winston's talents, his off-the-field issues can't be ignored as an organization contemplates a possible franchise-changing move. 

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Quarterback Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles looks on during the College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Oregon Ducks at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 1,
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

There are reasons to be worried about Winston the person. 

The latest being his accuser came out publicly about a 2012 incident when Winston was believed to commit sexual assault. Charges were never filed, but the incident isn't going away for the quarterback. The same accuser filed a civil lawsuit against Florida State's board of trustees on the same day Winston declared for the NFL draft, which will continue to shed a negative light on the quarterback until it's resolved.

This was the most serious of multiple incidents during Winston's career at Florida State. 

The Buccaneers will consider every aspect of Winston's life in order to become comfortable with him possibly being the face of the franchise. 

It seems unlikely when another strong option is available who fits what the team apparently wants to do on offense. 

Tampa Bay simply can't miss with the top pick in April's draft. The Buccaneers want to make sure they land Peyton Manning and not Ryan Leaf. 

It's an extreme example but one that is eerily similar to the franchise's upcoming decision. 

Mariota is the smart choice, and the Buccaneers are doing the right thing by hiring coaches who can get the most out of the Oregon product and his particular talents if he becomes the No. 1 overall pick in April. 


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

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