When the dust settles on the college football season tonight outside of Dallas, win or lose for Oregon's Marcus Mariota, his NFL Draft fate may already be sealed.
Mariota and Florida State's Jameis Winston have been regarded as the top two quarterback prospects all season. But after knocking Winston and the Seminoles out of the new college playoffs last week, now the Heisman-winning Mariota has the 13-1 Ducks in the National Championship game where he will stare across the field and see the unlikely Cardale Jones under center for Ohio State, also 13-1.
Jones started the season as the Buckeyes third-string quarterback. But a preseason injury to starter Braxton Miller and a late-season leg injury to backup J.T. Barrett thrust Jones into the spotlight. He led Ohio State as they took down Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game and beat top-seeded Alabama in the national semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.
Timing has been everything for the redshirt sophomore Jones. However, he risks being benched again next season barring a transfer by Miller and since Barrett is only 19 he has the inside track to take over the job if Miller were to leave. This had made some speculate Jones could make a jump to the NFL but it seems unlikely because at best, a team would take a flyer on him as a developmental project with a mid-to-late round pick, according to Phil Savage, a former NFL GM and now president of the Senior Bowl, as reported by Bleacher Report.
As for Mariota, less the national title, there is nothing left for him to prove in college, but that still may not be enough to convince an NFL GM sitting near the top of the draft board to take him as his franchise quarterback. Mariota is one of the best statistical passers in college by most metrics. He also only lost four games in three years as the Ducks' quarterback. The yardage he threw for increased each year he started; this season, his touchdown to interception ratio was better than 13:1, and in a season that saw him throw more times than in the previous two seasons, Mariota posted the highest completion percentage of his career.
So why are teams gun-shy about drafting the dual-threat quarterback from Hawaii? A major reason why is the fact that Mariota and his recent predecessors who were under center at Oregon are products of one of the smoothest running offensive systems in modern college football. There are hurry-up offenses and then there is Oregon. At that speed, Mariota led the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision's most efficient offense this season averaging 311 yards through the air and 242 yards on the ground per game.
The system knock could make GMs think twice about drafting Mariota because they hold the belief that he would need to be drafted by the right coach with the right scheme in order to have success at the NFL level. Whereas Mariota's contemporary, Florida State's Winston, was viewed as having run a more pro-style offense that showcased his skills in a better NFL light, according to some NFL analysts.
Though the quarterback position in the pro ranks has changed rapidly in the last 15 years, embracing players that are just as lethal with their arm as their legs like Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and now Russell Wilson is important. However, the jury is still out on the mobile quarterbacks who are primarily runners and throwers second.
Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton have experienced mixed levels of success at the pro level. But with Vick near the end of his career and Kaepernick's and Newton's lives as starters possibly ending sooner as opposed to later, if they cannot consistently pass from the pocket to complement their legs, they will be gone.
This is the trap Mariota would have to avoid. According to Sports Illustrated, If he is able to hang in the pocket and not take off at the first sign of trouble then there is no reason to suggest Mariota would not be an effective NFL quarterback. NFL defenses are much faster than any competition he regularly faced in college so if Mariota can learn to read a defense and run only as a last resort look at him to resemble more of a Wilson than a Vick.