Thursday, February 12, 2015

Kelly-Mariota reunion is more feasible than you think

 For many years, there was a strong belief in baseball that college programs did more harm than good when it came to getting pitchers ready for the major leagues.

And the thought process was probably correct, at least in the days before anyone cared about things like pitch counts.

After all, most college coaches weren't about to try to serve two masters -- in this case, winning while at the same time getting their prospects ready for the next step.

Self-preservation generally dictates which part of an equation wins and sports, even at the college level, is a bottom-line profession, meaning the head coach of Wossamotta U is never going to be all that worried about what the manager of the New York Yankees might want, especially if it's undercutting his own goals.

A similar dynamic is occurring in football right now with quarterbacks. Spread offenses are all the rage at the college level and although there is more read-option than ever in the professional ranks, most organizations aren't all that comfortable with signal callers who have spent their entire college experience in the pistol or shotgun.

In fact, if anything the pendulum is swinging back and most teams are more enamored with the old-school, pocket-style passer who is comfortable with a three-, five- or seven-step drop, and capable of planting his foot in the ground before letting it rip.

A quarterback with mobility who can do that is the prototype, but you can count the number who have both of those attributes on one hand.

With the NFL Scouting Combine less than a week away, the first-round quarterback hype centers on just two players, Florida State standout Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, the last two Heisman Trophy winners.

Both are projected as top-10 picks by most and with some expecting the two players to go quickly off the board at Nos. 1 and 2.

"It's not a real good quarterback draft," NFL network draft analyst Mike Mayock recently admitted on Philadelphia radio station WPEN. "You've got two quarterbacks that are head-and-shoulders above everyone else, and even they have their own holes -- one on the field (Mariota) and one off the field (Winston)."

From a pure football perspective, Winston is light years ahead of Mariota when projecting both to the professional level. The ex-Seminoles star is regarded as NFL-ready and similar to Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, only with better size and overall physical skills than the current Minnesota Vikings' starter, who if you were redrafting '14 all over again would probably end up No. 1 overall.

Mariota, on the other hand, is a lump of clay for those planning to run a traditional pro offense, and while most rave about his athleticism, plus-arm talent, football IQ and work ethic, you are going to need significant time to mold that clay.

"From a physical trait perspective, he has everything you want," Mayock said. "He's big, he's athletic, he's got great feet and he's got a live arm. So on the surface, the individual components all work. The problem is he's a projection coming to the next level because of the pocket awareness, the progressions and the reads."
In other words, the Oregon offense did Mariota no favors when it comes to the pro level unless he ends up in the one city that embraces it -- Philadelphia.

Chip Kelly's previous history at Oregon is well-documented. The Eagles coach believes in an up-tempo offense built around the read-option above all else, and the fact that he gushes about Mariota like he has a teenage crush has many surmising that Kelly, who recently won an organizational power struggle with former general manger Howie Roseman, is set to do whatever it takes to acquire the apple of his eye.

"I think Marcus will be successful whether he's an NFL player, a banker, a teacher, a fireman, a policeman," Kelly said on another Philadelphia-area radio station when asked about his former recruit. "I've said it before about some other players, but if you can buy stock in a human being, you buy stock in that kid because he'll always be successful in anything he does."

The Eagles are scheduled to pick at No. 20 on April 30 and moving up to the top spot or even No. 2 is almost untenable unless Kelly is willing to risk a Ricky Williams-like mortgage of the future for what is essentially a high-risk venture.

And that mind-set has more than one observer worried.

The rationale is simple. If a Mariota experiment fails, Kelly can simply move on to a high-profile college job after scorching the earth in Philly.

You can allay at least some of those fears because the Eagles will not have to go up nearly as far as most think if they want Mariota, who piloted the Ducks to 12-1 record and No. 2 overall ranking that past season.

Recent history magnifies the fact that someone's stock in the first two weeks of February before both the combine and the various pro days around the country is meaningless in the NFL's eyes.

Before the 2013 draft, Geno Smith was projected as the top overall pick by FOXSports and was in both NFL.com's and Sports Illustrated's top five. Yours truly had the West Virginia product going No. 7 overall to Arizona, and the history book says he ended up in the second round, 39th overall to the New York Jets.

Rewind one year and you will see that Peter Schrager of FOX and this writer had Bridgewater going No. 1 overall while most others had him in the top five. He eventually fell to No. 32 after a shaky pro day, although his play on the field vindicated his supporters.

The immature Johnny Manziel, who may or may not currently be in rehab for alcohol dependency, was drafted 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2014, but Don Banks of SI and Nate Davis of USA Today each had him projected at No. 1 overall while TSN has him going at No. 4 to the Browns in early February.

Mariota is ripe for a similar fall and it's just a matter of how far.

If Kelly and the Eagles really want Mariota, the hurdles to get him are not nearly as steep as advertised with the only real contenders to usurp the perceived plan being the Jets, who struck out with Smith in 2013, at No. 6 overall, and Cleveland, which now understands they can't count on Manziel and owns both the 12th and 19th overall picks.

The Jets are the biggest threat because Mariota's intangibles point toward eventual success and the team's new general manager, Mike Maccagnan, has the rope and time to take a chance.

Conversely, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer is dealing with a much tougher landscape because of his first-round shenanigans a year ago in which he passed on the ability to take playmakers like Sammy Watkins and Odell Beckham Jr. in favor of trading down and taking overmatched cornerback Justin Gilbert. Farmer then traded back up to get Manziel, who he would essentially be giving up on after just 365 days.

For Kelly, the bigger issue is not about mortgaging that future to get what he wants, it will be about bypassing a guy who is 14-4 as his starter, Nick Foles, in favor of an unknown.

 "(If the Eagles) think he's the guy and that they can win a Super Bowl with Marcus Mariota, given people around him and a good defense, then I think they have to try and go get him," Mayock said.
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