It should come as no surprise that the biggest story from the NFL Combine, which concluded Monday, was the battle between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota for the title of the draft’s top quarterback.
The winner, most likely, will go No. 1 overall to Tampa Bay.
“What do you judge quarterbacks on? Accuracy, decision-making, leadership, and both of these players win football games,” said Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith. “Jameis and Marcus, they’ve won a lot of games. Jameis didn’t lose a game until the last one he played. That says a lot about him.”
After the Bucs’ pick, is where the intrigue begins for whichever player is the runner-up, particularly if Winston goes No. 1, like ESPN draft guru Todd McShay expects.
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“If Marcus Mariota gets to five, that’s (Washington’s) best chance to put together a deal to move down,” McShay said during a teleconference Monday. “There are plenty of teams that have quarterback needs behind them.”
To that end, McShay added that St. Louis (10th), Cleveland (12th), Houston (16th) and Philadelphia (20th) could be interested in trading for Mariota, who certainly appears to be positioned to go in the top 10 if he doesn’t go No. 1 overall — though McShay made it clear the latter remains in the cards, as well.
“Chris Mortensen and Bill Polian are smarter men than I am, and they both think that Marcus Mariota’s the pick,” McShay said. “We’ll wait and see.”
But at least one draft analyst wouldn’t be surprised if Mariota fell a bit, largely due to concerns about the amount of time it would take for him to transition to the pro game from Oregon’s uptempo spread offense.
In his first mock draft, released in January, NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks projected Mariota falling all the way to the Chiefs at No. 18, and when asked about the projection during the combine last week, Brooks maintained it would be a great fit for both sides, even if the chances of Mariota falling that far seem increasingly unlikely.
“The reason he’s a great fit is because I think he and Alex Smith have similar traits,” said Brooks, a former NFL cornerback and scout. “When you really study them, Mariota is a more explosive athlete, but the transition is still the same.
“Alex Smith had to go from Utah, where they ran a spread offense, to learning the pro game. He was athletic, he did some of things with his legs and his arm, and I think Mariota has to do that. Also, if you understand the track record Andy Reid has with developing quarterbacks, he couldn’t land at a better spot in my estimation, because that would give him time to watch Alex Smith do all his work on the practice field.”
Speaking of Smith, Brooks understands that the 30-year-old quarterback isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. According to salary-cap analyst and former agent Joel Corry, getting out of Smith’s four-year, $68 million extension that was signed in August simply isn’t very palatable until 2017. For instance, the Chiefs would have to eat a $25.4 million cap hit if they parted ways with Smith in 2015.
However, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey was in Green Bay when they took Aaron Rodgers in the first round and sat him for three years behind Brett Favre, and Brooks believes the chance to groom another blue-chip quarterback for the future would be too tempting for the Chiefs to pass up if Mariota somehow tumbled.
“Yes, you have to consider it,” Brooks said. “Because he’s a guy that can potentially be a blue-chip guy, and you can never have enough quarterbacks, because quarterbacks can be traded and pawned away to bring back other things. And because he’s a young guy, and Alex Smith has been in the league for a long time, you want to have somebody in place to be able to do it.”
That said, the Chiefs have a number of holes at other positions that need to be filled, including receiver, offensive line and cornerback. And depending on who is available at No. 18, there’s no question Dorsey and Reid could easily select a player at another position, depending on the talent.
But Reid made it clear during his interview with the media during the combine last week that when it comes to the draft, the best teams draft less according to need and more according to their board, lest you end up with a team full of average players.
“The best you can, you stick to that,” Reid said. “Your players know it, people around you know it … if it’s a quarterback it’s a quarterback, if it’s a running back, it’s a running back, but you’ve got to stay true to that the best you can.”
That’s not always easy, especially when the best guy on the board figures to be blocked for a few years by an expensive veteran. But that didn’t keep the Chiefs from selecting outside linebacker Dee Ford 23rd overall last year, even though they had two Pro Bowlers on the roster in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Reid, for his part, is OK with that line of thinking.
In fact, he cited his 2002 draft in Philadelphia, when the Eagles selected cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown in the first and second rounds, even though both were blocked for two years by veterans Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent.
“I’ve got a lot of patience,” Reid said. “You do what you do. That’s what you try to do. In Philadelphia, we drafted two corners and basically sat them for a bit until the old guys got older, and they stepped in and did a nice job for us.”