The NFL Scouting Combine is an exercise in both overanalyzing and undervaluing certain traits and characteristics of potential NFL players. There isn’t much that an offensive lineman’s broad jump is going to tell you about his ability to protect the quarterback, unless the quarterback is being tackled on the other side of a ravine. And a quarterback’s high jump shouldn’t come into play too often, unless he wants to give his head coach a heart attack by regularly hurdling defenders.
Yet there was a lot to pay attention to during Saturday’s combine, specifically the performances of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. The two most recent Heisman winners each went through a full workout, including passing drills. Sometimes the top quarterbacks don’t throw at the combine because they don’t see much upside, given that they are targeting unfamiliar receivers. But it seems that each is hoping to stake their claim to the top selection in April’s draft and inch ahead of the other, so taking a seat wasn’t an option.
We’ve been watching Mariota for a while now and got to share him with the rest of the country as he became a national brand the past couple seasons. Without doing an official survey of who Hawaii residents think should go No. 1, I’d say we favor Mariota by a margin that would make Chicago ballot-box stuffers salivate. We’re not impartial or objective, but unfortunately, we’re also not the ones ultimately deciding who goes where.
By all accounts, each showed well in Saturday’s high-pressure environment. Mariota looked a bit bigger since the season ended, weighing in at 222 pounds, but he put his quick feet on display with the sixth-fastest 40-yard dash by a quarterback in the past 13 years. His 4.52 was faster than either Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick ran and is the best time among this year’s QB hopefuls.
One question mark about Mariota is his ability to drop back from under center. He operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation as quarterback at Oregon, but during his passing drills, Mariota showed solid footwork and ease transferring his weight, even going to a seven-stop drop and hitting his targets precisely. Now, it’s easier to do this when there are no blitzing linebackers and no defensive backs harassing your receivers, but by watching his movement, there would be no reason to believe Mariota hadn’t been part of a pro-style offense for years already.
Analysts also came away from Winston’s throwing session very impressed. The NFL Network reported that former head coach Steve Mariucci called Winston “the most astute X’s and O’s guy” he’s ever analyzed. Winston also talked about how he’s been able to focus on shoring up his throwing motion since he’s never before had an offseason where he wasn’t playing baseball. He seems to be doing all the right things to keep himself in pole position for that top spot.
There’s a lot at stake for both. They already know that they will be the first two quarterbacks off the board, with one likely going first overall. But the runner-up could wind up with a much tougher situation, in addition to the slightly lighter contract. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keep the top pick and go with either Winston or Mariota, the selectee walks into an offense that includes one of the best rookie wide receivers (Mike Evans) the league has seen in some time, a veteran receiver (Vincent Jackson) with six 1,000-yard seasons and a running back (Doug Martin) coming off two down years, but not far removed from a 1,400-yard season in 2012. Tampa clearly has work to do or they wouldn’t be holding the top pick, but there is talent to put around a young quarterback.
The next QB would likely wind up in Tennessee with the Titans, unless they have plans for second-year player Zach Mettenberger, who they took in the sixth round last year. I’d be surprised if the Titans passed on a quarterback, though they may still try to trade down a spot or two. But the Tennessee offensive chest is quite bare. They scored the second-fewest points in the league and don’t have any skill players that could be considered “playmakers.”
Since the National Championship game, people have been looking for reasons to drop Mariota out of the first few picks. Saturday’s performance took away quite a bit of that ammo and just might have placed him back into Tampa Bay’s field of vision.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.