Smoke screens around Mariota make him NFL draft's biggest domino

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports
Marcus Mariota, Kevin White, Amari Cooper, Melvin Gordon, and Todd Gurley.

Charles Robinson NFL Draft dominoes edit

Marcus Mariota, Kevin White, Amari Cooper, Melvin Gordon, and Todd Gurley.

A highly respected NFL personnel man was mentally thumbing through Marcus Mariota comparisons this week when he found what seemed to be an appropriate box for the Oregon star.

Aaron Rodgers.

It sounded like a glowing comparison. But in what may be the only negative Rodgers analogy that still exits, this is what the personnel man said: "If [Mariota] doesn't go in the top six picks, he could do an Aaron Rodgers," he said.

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This was a dark nod toward draft torture. Specifically, the 2005 first round, when Rodgers did a slow bake on national television as his draft position Plinko-ed from a potential No. 1 pick to the 24th selection.

Few believe this could happen to Mariota. Falling that hard? 

"If he gets past the top six, it could be out of the top 10 to whatever point the Eagles trade up for him," the personnel man said.

In the grand sense of anything-can-happen, this could be a realistic scenario. But in most quarters, it doesn't fit with what many NFL sources have been saying about Mariota in recent days. Then again, the one absolute about Mariota right now is that there is no absolute about his destination later this month. While all signs point to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers having zeroed in on Florida State's Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick, far fewer have certainty about Mariota.

Indeed, various media reports have connected the Ducks' star quarterback to five of the top seven teams in the draft, including Tampa Bay, the Tennessee Titans, the Washington Redskins, the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears. Two other franchises – the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles – have been forwarded as potential trade suitors for Mariota as well.

The public picture is so muddled over Mariota he could be connected with half the teams in the draft by the time the selection process kicks off. He's this year's biggest draft domino – one of the players whose uncertain position could change boards, either with a high selection or a slide.

But he's also not alone. Along with Mariota, a handful of players still have evaluations that are all over the place. Here are a handful, along with some of the most recent pieces of information:

(AP)
(AP)

1. Jameis Winston: Admittedly, there is an overwhelming amount of hesitation having Winston on this list. Virtually every single NFL evaluator has said Winston is the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft. But as time has gone on, there has been a little grumbling about Winston's raw workout numbers. As an overall athlete, he's not as good as past No. 1 QBs such as Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford.

But aside from the obvious, one league source familiar with the inner workings of the Buccaneers offered two interesting observations this week.

First, general manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith won't have the final say on drafting Winston. The source said the selection won't happen without the approval of ownership. Second, the source said Darcie Glazer Kassewitz (the daughter of late owner Malcolm Glazer) is one of the voices in the Bucs' front office whose opinion could influence the pick.

The source did not say Kassewitz was against drafting Winston. Nor did the source say Mariota or any other player was preferred at No. 1. But the source said that Kassewitz – who is the co-president of the Glazer Family Foundation – has raised some internal questions about the community relations impact of the pick.

That could mean little. But at the very least, an important person in the Glazer's inner circle will be looking as much off the field as on it when it comes to the Winston selection.

(AP)
(AP)

2. Marcus Mariota: The scenarios linked to Mariota seem endless. In a way, he's a perfect illustration of the misinformation and leverage that is such a huge part of the draft process. The Redskins, for example, have been leaking for weeks that they will seriously consider taking him at No. 5 overall, and also let it be known that there are plans to host him in the run-up to the draft. But that has also drawn a collective eye-roll from multiple league sources.

"They're trying to create leverage to get someone to [trade] up" one AFC personnel source said.

What has been more interesting over the last month is the amount of resources the Tennessee Titans have devoted to Mariota. While most believed prior to the NFL scouting combine that Mariota didn't fit head coach Ken Whisenhunt's offensive system, several league sources said the Titans have done significant off-field vetting despite this belief. This has gone beyond the basics, which has included watching his workouts at the combine and pro day, scheduling a private workout and then flying Mariota to Nashville this week.

Whisenhunt also seemed candid at the owners' meetings last month, suggesting with certainty that Mariota could make the transition to a pro-style system, and that Tennessee was genuinely intrigued by his talent. And at least one thing has continued to make the marriage between Whisenhunt and Mariota sensible: drafting him would very likely give the current coaching staff and front office a three-year lease on their jobs to develop a franchise quarterback. Drafting an edge rusher like Leonard Williams and going 4-12 would likely do the opposite.

3. Kevin White vs. Amari Cooper: When West Virginia's White ran his blistering 4.35 second 40-yard dash at the combine, it appeared that his combination of size, speed, athleticism and potential would make him a lock to be the first wideout off the board. Particularly when it appeared Alabama's Amari Cooper ran a 4.42 in Indianapolis and didn't cut the same imposing figure. 

But distinguishing the pair by pure speed became even tougher when NFL teams got official unreleased data (the stuff that isn't shared with the media) from combine workouts. In reality, both ran faster than the times released by the NFL Network. Cooper ran in the window of 4.35 to 4.38 seconds, and White was listed in the window of 4.32-4.35.

As time has gone on, Cooper's tape has helped him immensely, as well as individual workouts. One highly regarded source in the scouting community raved about Cooper's route-running in March, and said of his pass-catching ability: "You rarely ever hear the ball hit his hands." The same evaluator told Yahoo Sports that White had a more unrefined game, but also had a higher ceiling for development. He also added that White's game also revolved a lot around his own confidence: when he's on (which is most of the time), he's a terror for defenses. Conversely, he can have the occasional game where he doesn't appear as aggressive as his size would suggest. 

Most still appear to believe that White's edge in measurables (2 inches taller than Cooper, with arms more than an inch longer) will make him the first wideout off the board. But that race is closer than most think, and personal workouts could tip the scales in Cooper's favor.

4. Todd Gurley vs. Melvin Gordon: The race for the first running back selected has a distinct split at this stage, which might be a surprise considering the massive amount of momentum attained by Georgia's Todd Gurley.

Todd Gurley (Getty Images)
Todd Gurley (Getty Images)

Despite a knee injury that could keep him off the field as far as the midpoint of the 2015 season, some have still pointed at Gurley as the top running back in the draft and one of the best players available. Those distinctions seemed to relegate Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon as the next running back up.

"If it was just a heads-up situation in terms of talent, Gurley would easily be the pick over Gordon," one NFL personnel man told Yahoo Sports. "But Gurley with Gurley's knee and some other physical issues, I think Gordon gets taken first. Gurley does have a little bit of an injury history there, with his knee and some ankle stuff. It's not just his knee that you have to look at.

"[Gurley] is as close to a Willis McGahee situation as there has been in the draft in a while, in terms of the amount of talent involved and how long you're willing to wait."

Melvin Gordon (AP)
Melvin Gordon (AP)

Another high-level scout told Yahoo Sports that teams are also looking at Gurley's injuries in comparison to the load he carried in college. Gordon had 631 carries over four years, while Gurley had 510 over three. Aside from a groin injury as a freshman, Gordon is being looked at as the more durable over the length of his career. Gurley had lingering ankle/leg issues his sophomore season, and then tore his ACL as a junior.

 

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