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Jameis Winston Faces Tougher Test Transitioning to NFL Than Marcus Mariota

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2015

AP Images

One statement was made more often than any other during the 2015 NFL draft.

Jameis Winston will have an easier transition to the NFL than Marcus Mariota.

While the words weren't always precisely the same, the sentiment remained a constant. Winston played in what was regularly referred to as a "pro-style" offense at FSU, whereas Mariota was coming from Chip Kelly's spread offense at Oregon.

Kelly's offenses haven't produced quality NFL passers. The belief is that it simplifies the game too much for the quarterback, so when the prospect is taken out of that scheme and transitioned into a pro-style offense, the shock to the system is too great for him to develop.

Using "pro-style" as a descriptor for offenses is misleading. "Pro-style" implies that it's what professional teams do. Yet professional teams all run different types of offenses, and Kelly's scheme specifically is now being used with success both by the Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins.

Instead, Winston ran a more traditional offense rather than a pro-style offense.

Running that offense allowed evaluators to clearly see how he fared when tasked with mitigating pressure in the pocket for longer periods, diagnosing complex coverages or blitzes before and after the snap as well as how quickly he could read through coverages.

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were impressed enough by Winston's skill set to select him first overall. Winston's skill set is based on his ability from the pocket. He is not a running threat against NFL athletes. Over his two years as a starter at FSU, he consistently showed off an ability to diagnose plays before and after the snap while making anticipatory throws.

However, he also proved to be inconsistent during his second season, as his accuracy and decision-making declined.

Although a lesser supporting cast sheltered him from some of the blame, Winston was primarily at fault for his 18 interceptions last season. His consistency as an individual simply wasn't where it was the previous season.

For Mariota, consistency hasn't been an issue. While running Kelly's offense, his skill set was able to transcend the moniker that comes with manning the quarterback position in Oregon. He wasn't simply a plug-and-play option who could be easily replaced by anyone else on the roster.

Mariota still received "system quarterback" labels during the draft process, but his traits as a pocket passer suggest he is much more than that.

There is no doubting that Kelly's scheme is more quarterback-friendly than many others, but Mariota wasn't reliant on it to be effective. Instead, he elevated his teammates by relying on subtle, precise footwork in the pocket, sustained eye level and a willingness to read through progressions to find open receivers.

Because Kelly's offense dictates more to the defense than FSU's offense, which is more reliant on the quarterback to react to what the defense does, Mariota's achievements on a snap-by-snap basis were more polarizing.

Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt consistently praised Mariota's ability as a quarterback both leading up to and after the draft, per Jeff Darlington of the NFL Network:

Jeff Darlington @JeffDarlington

1 reason Titans think Mariota can start Week 1? “Spacial memory,” Whisenhunt says. Sports' equivalent of photo memory. Will ease transition.

Jeff Darlington @JeffDarlington

Whisenhunt said, during draft process, Mariota could recall exact scenarios (when, where, how) from games three years ago in perfect detail.

Whisenhunt backed up his words by selecting Mariota with the second overall pick when there were reportedly multiple trade offers available to Tennessee.

Understanding Mariota's mental capacity is crucial to determining whether he can start as a rookie. From everything the Titans have said and has been reported, it appears to be a foregone conclusion that Mariota will open the season as a starter. Therefore, both the first and second picks in the draft will not only both start as rookies, but both will start from Week 1, when they will face each other.

Because Winston played in a traditional offense, he has more experience diagnosing complex coverages and working deep into a drop in the pocket while reading progressions downfield. If both players were asked to do these things in a vacuum, Winston would be expected to come out looking better.

However, that's not what is going to happen when they step on the field in Week 1. Winston is going to be asked to run Dirk Koetter's offense.

Koetter likes to push the ball down the field. His four vertical concepts will suit wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, but they will also stress Winston behind what looks set to be one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

Despite the additions of offensive tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet, the Buccaneers don't have five viable starters up front.

The line was a travesty last year. It made the running game one of the worst in the league while not giving the Bucs quarterbacks any consistent help. Two rookie linemen shouldn't be expected to turn it around, especially not two rookies with the kind of skill sets Smith and Marpet boast.

Marpet may not even start as a rookie. He played against low-level competition in college, so he should have a steep learning curve initially. 

Smith is expected to be Winston's blindside protector. That should come as a major concern to Winston and Buccaneers fans considering the failure of Anthony Collins and the similarities between the two.

The Buccaneers are going to drop Winston into a situation where he will be under consistent pressure from defenses that don't need to blitz while trying to push the ball down the field. They won't have a running game to rely on, so his transition to the NFL is going to be anything but easy.

Meanwhile, Mariota will be running Whisenhunt's offense in Tennessee. At least, a version of it.

Although Whisenhunt's play-calling and design have been problematic at times throughout his career, he has shown a willingness to adjust to the specific skill sets of his quarterbacks. General manager Ruston Webster revealed on NFL Network's Path To The Draft (via NFL.com) that the Titans would adjust their offense significantly to cater to Mariota's skill set early in his career:

Our coaches have been working on a plan for quite some time now for Marcus. Really to adapting our offense to his skill set -- he has a special skill set. There's really not much he can't do from physical standpoint and he's very bright. That combination is going to allow him to do his own adapting to the NFL game but our coaches have worked very hard on coming up with a system within our system for Marcus. I think it will work well.

Instead of dropping Mariota into their current offense and asking him to make difficult pocket reads while learning the speed of the game, the Titans will ease his on-field development. This was most famously done by Washington with Robert Griffin III in recent years.

While injury derailed Griffin's career, then-Washington head coach Mike Shanahan's and then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's initial work with the young quarterback created outstanding results.

Like Griffin, Mariota is an impressive athlete. He will be able to outrun some NFL defensive backs in a straight line. However, that is where their comparison as players comes to an end. Griffin built his success on his ability to push the ball down the field accurately with his strong arm.

Mariota can throw the ball deep, but his arm isn't as strong. He is a better short and intermediate passer than Griffin was while being a more technically sound pocket passer with his footwork and coverage reads.

If the Titans are going to make Mariota's transition as easy as it can possibly be, they will obviously look to the Eagles and Dolphins offenses. But they could also look at what Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson did with Andy Dalton last season.

One of the most important things with any rookie quarterback or a quarterback who is incapable of carrying an offense is creating easy offense. This is primarily done with screen plays or rolling the pocket to first-read throws.

Mariota's speed and the threat of his mobility will make it easier for the coaching staff to scheme easy yardage into the game plan.

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Jackson did a great job of creating easy yardage for Dalton early on during last season. This play comes from a Week 1 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens. It is a play that Mariota also ran in college, so it should be easy for him to incorporate at the next level.

It is a simple concept based on pre-snap and post-snap reads that stretch the defense horizontally.

Credit: NFL.com

Dalton initially had a running back to either side of him when the offense lined up. The back to his right ran into the left flat after the snap. The Ravens are in their nickel package, so they already had two defensive backs to that side of the field aligned across from two receivers.

Reacting to the pre-snap motion, the Ravens moved a deep safety across with the running back. They didn't split their right outside linebacker out, meaning the offense has a three-on-two situation in space to the bottom of the screen.

This is the first read the quarterback has to make. If the outside linebacker moved outside with the running back, the screen pass would likely not have been an option.

Credit: NFL.com

This play can have one option, two options or three options. Dalton is able to throw the screen pass immediately on this play because of how the defense reacted to the motion before the snap. If the defense had reacted differently, though, there were other options.

The offense leaves the right outside linebacker unblocked when he stays inside. This sets up a potential read-option running play with the running back in the backfield.

If the outside linebacker, Terrell Suggs in this case, moved outside with the running back, the quarterback could default to an option run that would give him a chance to run off tackle into space. If the defense sent an inside linebacker out with the running back, the Bengals could still look to run the ball.

The only difference would have been that the quarterback would need to read Suggs' movement as the edge defender and determine if he should keep the ball or give it to the running back.

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Furthermore, because the defense has a light front and Suggs' eyes are drawn to the running back moving inside after the snap, neither he nor any other linebacker can recover quickly to close on the screen pass. With a simple throw, Dalton has given his running back a chance to run to the second level unopposed.

In Tennessee, the Titans have big outside receivers and Delanie Walker as a versatile tight end. Those players should be able to be impact blockers on screen plays.

Kendall Wright is their best receiving option, and he can be dangerous as the screen receiver. However, on this type of play, it will likely be Dexter McCluster or Bishop Sankey who is tasked with initially lining up in the backfield before motioning into the flat.

Mariota will likely spend a huge amount of time working from the shotgun, beginning plays with either a read-handoff or a quick play fake.

This is how Kelly and Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have built their success in the NFL as of late. A huge percentage of their plays look like exact replicas of each other at the beginning but develop differently to attack multiple areas of the field.

Manipulating the defensive front is always crucial to creating space that the quarterback can easily attack. This play is a perfect example of that.

Credit: NFL.com

Three-receiver sets with a tight end and a running back alongside the quarterback in shotgun are a staple of Kelly's and Lazor's offenses. Having invested so much in receivers this offseason, it appears that this is the direction the Titans are hoping to move in with Mariota.

Against the Kansas City Chiefs on this play, Lazor's Dolphins offense creates a simple throw for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. 

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Unlike on many of their read-option runs, the Dolphins don't leave the backside defender unblocked on this play. Instead, they invite the inside linebackers forward by blocking the edge defender and leaving more space between the tackles.

Both linebackers bite on the play fake, while Lazor runs his tight end into the space that they departed on a slant. Tannehill has his first read wide open when he looks up from the play fake, but that's not the end.

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The play didn't just send one receiver through that zone. Instead, all of the receiving options to Tannehill's left are running slant routes. Therefore, Tannehill doesn't have to read through a progression to find different receivers.

He keeps his eyes focused on one spot where the offense is sending waves through. Tannehill picks the second receiver and throws a simple pass into his chest.

Creating easy yardage can have a big impact on an offense by simply acting as a sturdy bridge between the running game and passing game. Managing situational football becomes easier when you can use these types of plays to stay out of 3rd-and-long.

Despite their importance, it's very difficult (likely impossible) to run an effective offense that is primarily based on these types of plays. You still need to be able to run the ball and push passes downfield.

In Tampa Bay, Winston won't directly add anything to the Buccaneers running game save for a few scrambles. That is a problem because the Buccaneers had the 31st-ranked rushing attack by Football Outsiders' DVOA last year, and they haven't made major alterations entering 2015.

Mariota is going to be heavily involved in both the running game and the passing game. Much like with Griffin, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson or Cam Newton, Mariota's presence alone will hold the backside defender on running plays to create more space for the running back.

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Kelly hasn't had a mobile quarterback outside of Michael Vick, but his scheme still held backside defenders on running plays with starters such as Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles. With a quarterback as athletic as Mariota, that threat becomes even greater.

In 2014, the Titans had a below-average running game. Adding Mariota, David Cobb, Jalston Fowler and expecting development from Sankey, Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan should allow the Titans to become at least an average running team.

Using the run to set up the pass will be the best way to create shots downfield for Mariota. The young quarterback doesn't have great ball placement, but he's not an inaccurate thrower. And his lightning-quick release and control of velocity work in his favor.

Winston has an elongated release that will take time to shorten and speed up. His throwing motion negatively affects his accuracy, and at this level, it will also let defensive backs read him more easily.

In Wright and Walker, Mariota doesn't have two ball-winners like Evans and Jackson. However, he does have two players with skill sets that perfectly complement his strengths. Wright and Walker have been outstanding players for a few years now, but they never received the requisite service to shine.

Both players can excel over the middle of the field, down either seam and working across the field on horizontal routes. Those are the kinds of routes Mariota should be best at early in his career.

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No matter what kind of route Mariota is throwing to, the Titans passing game should be built off of play action as much as possible. The young quarterback is adept at making exceptionally quick decisions as he sees the field well while carrying out play fakes.

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On this play, the Eagles ran a quick play action while sending their receivers vertically down the field. Foles had a huge throwing window to place the ball because Ryan Clark bought the initial fake as the deep safety.

The play resulted in a 27-yard touchdown, but Foles had nothing of real difficulty to execute.

Mariota is an accomplished pocket passer who can make the necessary mental adjustments and use his feet to extend plays within the pocket. He can also extend plays outside the pocket, whether by design or necessity.

Although unlike him in physical stature and appearance, Mariota (6'4", 222 lbs) resembles Ben Roethlisberger with his willingness to constantly keep his eyes downfield and his comfort throwing on the move.

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Lining up under center shouldn't be a major obstacle for Mariota to overcome, even though his offense should be primarily based on shotgun formations. From under center, it will be easier for Mariota to make hard play fakes that bootleg him into the flat.

This is a prime example of that kind of play.

Credit: NFL.com

Hard play fakes combined with quickly changing the point of attack for the quarterback can not only distort defenses, but it completely collapses coverages. This leaves receivers running into wide-open space. Mariota's combination of comfort throwing the ball and speed to move will make him dangerous in these situations.

The Titans should be able to sell play fakes well with their mobile offensive line and chesspiece tight end Walker.

While he doesn't have an established ball-winner like Jackson or someone as talented as Evans, Mariota will have two big-bodied outside receivers who have the ability to dominate defensive backs physically.

Both Justin Hunter and Dorial Green-Beckham have the potential to become accuracy-erasing wideouts who only need the ball to be thrown in their general vicinity for it to be completed.

Hunter has flashed his ability on occasion over his first two seasons in the league. He is extremely athletic with the fluidity to run a full route tree and adjust to the ball in the air. He needs to show more consistency catching the ball, something that may come easier with better service from the quarterback position.

Green-Beckham was considered the star of the 2015 draft class until he was sidelined because of off-field issues before last season. He fell to the second round of the draft because of concerns over his character, but if he stays clean off the field, he can be a dominant receiver on it.

As a rookie, expectations must be muted for Green-Beckham. The Titans won't rush him onto the field either, as they have veteran Harry Douglas to rely on.

What you are asked to do and whom you are asked to do it with are two important aspects of playing quarterback at the professional level. More may be expected from Winston during his rookie season, but that level of expectation may be the reason why the Buccaneers ask too much of him.

It will be easier for the Titans to find a balance between caution and expansiveness with Mariota because of their supporting cast and his specific traits as a quarterback.

Winston may be the better long-term option, and he may even be the better rookie starter. But it won't come easy to him if he is.

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