Marcus Mariota deserves to be considered the consensus top prospect going into the new college season. Despite the continued dependence on conventional wisdom by various talking heads — the game is adapting. Not in the way many people think, but it is adapting.
This isn’t about the read option and running quarterbacks. It’s about elusiveness, playmaking and extending plays.
Robert Griffin III is a classic case on how not to handle and athletic, skilled quarterback. His ability to run is an asset, but that still needs to be managed. It has to be an accent, used to extend plays and provide moments of inspiration. When Pete Carroll talks about his desire to be the best scrambling team in the league it’s with good reason. Mobile quarterbacks who make plays when seemingly bottled up are incredibly difficult to defend.
RGIII seemingly wasn’t used in such a way (aka a point guard). The read-option became a staple of the Washington offense and the quarterback was asked to do too much running — even when clearly injured. We all know the consequences of that. The injuries are one thing, the more serious issue could be Griffin’s continued preference to run after one or two quick reads. The Shanahan’s never truly tackled that.
Seattle rarely uses the read-option. It’s added to specific game-plans but only in the same way they might emphasise the tight end against a favourable match-up or offer a specific look on defense. Russell Wilson runs, scrambles and makes plays. But you never sense any real recklessness. It’s managed by the team and he knows how to protect himself. The same can easily be said for Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Cam Newton in Carolina.
Being able to scramble is a vital component in the NFL these days. As we’ve debated many times, the best high school and college athletes are playing defense. Fewer elite athletes are playing on the offensive line. It’s why the top offensive tackles in each draft get snapped up so quickly. It’s why teams in the NCAA and NFL are moving defensive linemen to the offense in an attempt to get better athletes on the OL. It’s becoming increasingly harder to contain all of the explosive athletes rushing the passer.
That’s not to say you can’t be an orthodox pocket passer these days, but fewer quarterbacks can survive like that. You need to buy time. You need to offer the threat to run. You need to be able to get out of the pocket, avoid the rush and extend plays.
Mariota will no doubt be criticised by the old-school brigade for being mobile, athletic and exciting and not a 245lbs statue with simply a cannon arm. In reality he’s perfectly suited to the modern NFL. He’s an accomplished passer who ticks every physical box but he’s also elusive and capable of making plays outside of the pocket.
There are other positives too — he isn’t a careless runner, he doesn’t turn the ball over and you only hear good things about his character. Yes the Oregon offense is wide open, designed to create enormous passing windows and overmatch opponents with all the speed the Ducks have at receiver/running back. He’ll need to adjust to a pro-offense at the next level, but in 2014 he’s playing in an environment that almost guarantees huge numbers.
Teams will fall over themselves to draft Mariota and make him the face of their franchise. It probably won’t even be a close run thing. I suspect he’ll be seen as a Kaepernick clone with the potential to be a better passer. He is destined to be the #1 pick next year unless a team with a newly drafted or established quarterback owns the pick, which seems unlikely in 2015.
A lot of people are talking up the running back class. I just can’t buy into running backs in round one. Not any more.
Trent Richardson looked sensational at Alabama. Big, strong, fast, decisive. He was the complete package. Nobody was criticising him leading into the draft, nobody was projecting the totally underwhelming career he’d have at the next level.
He’s been a titanic flop, costing two first round picks in the process. Here’s the top-ten running backs from 2013, along with their draft cost:
LeSean McCoy — 2nd rounder
Matt Forte — 2nd rounder
Jamaal Charles — 3rd rounder
Alfred Morris — 6th rounder
Adrian Peterson — 1st rounder
Marshawn Lynch — 1st rounder initially, but traded to Seattle for a late round package
Ryan Mathews — 1st rounder
Eddie Lacy — 2nd rounder
Frank Gore — 3rd rounder
DeMarco Murray — 3rd rounder
Of the group, only freak-of-nature Adrian Peterson and Ryan Mathews cost their current team a first round pick. Mathews, until 2013, had been a total bust.
It’s not just Trent Richardson that’ll be scaring off teams either. Doug Martin and David Wilson were both first rounders in 2012 too. Wilson has since retired from football due to injury and Martin missed the 2013 season with a torn labrum.
Remember Mark Ingram? Former Heisman winner and another fantastic Alabama running back. He’s been a total shocking bust too and another former first rounder who appeared destined for big things.
The risk factor is too high unless you truly believes you’re getting another Peterson. Equally, the value later on is too good to go digging for a running back in round one.
Melvin Gordon is fun to watch and one of my favourite players going into the new season. He has speed, he’s competitive and patient. He’s such a graceful runner and he makes excellent cuts. He’s well spoken. Yet he offers precious little in the passing game and he’ll need time to adjust in protection. His best asset is his ability to avoid contact and act as a home run hitter. That’s not quite as easy to do at the next level. A fine player, certainly worthy of a high second round grade at least. If anyone can make it in 2015 it’s probably this guy.
Todd Gurley is a beast at Georgia — 6-1 and 226lbs, he runs with authority and can be a playmaker. You just wonder though if he’ll be quite as fearsome at the next level. Has he got the speed, fight and power to really challenge teams? People compare him to Marshawn Lynch but that’s unfair. Lynch is a unique player, we’ll not see another running back like that possibly ever. Gurley is big but with Lynch it isn’t about size — it’s about Beast Mode. It’s about being tough to bring down. It’s the attitude, the skill, the patience, the cut back ability. Lynch is a marvel. Does Gurley deserve a better grade than Eddie Lacy, a second rounder? Perhaps not.
T.J. Yeldon looked terrific when he burst onto the scene at Alabama. Since then he’s suffered ball-security issues and he looks lean. I’m not convinced he’s a special athlete, so what are you really getting? Someone who won’t operate as a between the tackles threat, but can work to the sideline and cut. He can be effective in the passing game. I’m just not sure you can get behind the idea of drafting him in the first round — especially if he keeps fumbling. Ideally he comes in to work with a power guy as a change of pace player, before possibly earning a greater role.
This trio is ‘the big three’ in terms of name recognition. Will any go in the first round? You’d have to be a really good team to justify it. Hey, you don’t rule it out in August. But I think we need to temper some of the expectation. Running backs going in round one should be a dying breed.
Of the defensive players I’ve watched so far I’m most excited about Missouri’s Markus Golden, Florida’s Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley at Clemson and Washington’s Marcus Peters.
Golden will get a ton of opportunities this year given the defensive exodus on Mizzou’s D-line. He’s fast, athletic, strong and he makes plays. Watch out for this guy because he’s the real deal.
Fowler can line up at linebacker or end. He really flies to the ball and can take on a left tackle, initiate contact and release. If he gets a sniff of a gap he’ll shoot through it to blow up a play. He forces fumbles, he has such fluid mobility. He can also work through traffic and line up inside. He’s an exciting talent.
We all know about Beasley by know and while he is undersized, you just can’t match-up to his speed off the edge. It’s explosive — and he should test well at next years combine. He didn’t declare for the 2014 draft but let’s not knock him for that. Undersized, nickel pass-rushers are no longer a no-no in round one. He can work the edge and he’ll have a big year for Clemson.
Peters just looks like a Seahawks cornerback. He’ll take chances and some teams won’t like that — yet he plays with such physicality and attitude. He’s big and fast and playing on a loaded defense at Washington.
There are others too — Baylor’s intriguing (and massive) Shawn Oakman plus Peters’ team mates Hau’oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson. A lot of people are talking up USC’s Leonard Williams and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory. I’d like to see more this year from both of those players.
There’s another crop of 4-5 good left tackle’s so expect another early rush — Cedric Ogbuehi, Brandon Scherff, La’el Collins and Cameron Erving could’ve been day one picks this year. Andrus Peat is highly rated but Stanford offensive linemen are just so difficult to grade for the NFL. It should be a better center class in 2015 with Oregon’s Hroniss Grasu and Auburn’s Reese Dismukes.
The receiver group appears underwhelming — a stark contract to 2014. Amari Cooper has natural talent but just made too many mental mistakes last season. He’s also undersized and that didn’t help Robert Woods or Marqise Lee. Nelson Agholor is a decent player but I just can’t see anything but a limited draft grade. Austin Hill is one to watch at Arizona but has durability issues. I’m not a big fan of Jalen Strong at Arizona State.
Dorial Green-Beckham is the big X-factor having transferred to Oklahoma. Will he play in 2014? Will he declare for the draft? What will teams make of his character background? In terms of talent and physical stature he’s a sure-fire first rounder, but there are so many question marks and potential red flags.
Keep an eye on Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell and Tennessee’s Pig Howard for multi-dimensional playmakers.
And what about Jameis Winston? Wear contact lenses, keep your nose clean and hope teams can trust you. I’m not sure I could. He has the talent, but he’s a long way off being ready for the NFL.