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Mariota-Winston: Top NFL prospects take Rose stage

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The Rose Bowl matchup between Florida State and Oregon makes the inaugural College Football Playoff an historic opportunity beyond the luster of national title implications.

Nevermind the vast future NFL talent in this game, the fact that more Seminoles will likely be selected in the 2015 NFL draft than any other program or that this spring the Ducks could break their previous record for players picked in a single draft (six).

What makes the 2015 Rose Bowl so compelling? The quarterbacks.

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston are projected as the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in 2015 by NFLDraftScout.com.

Games on this stage that offer an apples-to-apples level comparison are gold for NFL scouts. These types of matchups are among the reasons Senior Bowl practices — and other prospect all-star games and workouts — are so valued.

For context on the magnitude of the individual matchup in a major bowl game, a poll of longtime scouts didn’t turn up a more tantalizing showdown.

“Vince Young against Matt Leinart in the 2006 Rose Bowl was close,” one talent evaluator with 20-plus years in the business said. “But this game is even bigger. Leinart had (Reggie) Bush to take some of the attention away. There’s no question that in this game, all eyes are going to be on the quarterbacks.”

It is entirely possible that representatives of every NFL team will be on hand to scout the game. Several high-level executives have already announced their plans to attend, including general managers Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Ruston Webster (Tennessee Titans), who run the teams slated to make the first two picks of the 2015 draft.

Scouting the Duck

Mariota is perceived as the leading candidate to be the first pick and there is no denying his talent. Physically, he’s most like San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. The 6-foot-4, 215 pound Mariota has a strong arm, extraordinary speed for the position and produced video game-like numbers, including 38 passing touchdowns against just two interceptions this season.

The comparison to Kaepernick isn’t perfect. Mariota throws the ball with better touch. Kaepernick is far more reliant on his speed to make big plays. For all of his success as a runner, Mariota often uses his athleticism and spatial awareness to remain alive as a passer, rather than scrambling. The threat of his running and Oregon’s spread principles create wide-open passing lanes for Mariota to exploit.

Mariota has shown improved mettle this year against defenses known for their physicality (Michigan State, Stanford and Utah among them) but he’s never faced anything like Florida State’s speed – except, of course, maybe in practice.

The Ducks might not be nationally known for their defense, but like the Seminoles, Oregon does have legitimate NFL prospects at all three levels.

Most notable are massive defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, who could play a key role in determining the outcome of this game and in the live evaluation of Winston in Pasadena.

Scouting the Seminole

Whereas Mariota reminds me of Kaepernick, Winston is most like Pittsburgh Steelers’ star Ben Roethlisberger.

He senses pressure around him and moves to avoid it. He shows incredible strength and balance to deliver passes even with defenders draped on him. While Winston has faced a plethora of talented edge rushers this season, most have been smaller, speedier defenders. Armstead and Buckner, on the other hand, check in at 6-foot-7, 296 pounds and 6-foot-6, 286, respectively.

While Oregon’s defensive line could pose unique problem for Winston and the Seminoles, Florida State caught a break with the knee injury suffered a few weeks ago by the Ducks’ All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Viewed as a potential first round pick prior to the injury, Ekpre-Olomu had the savvy, fluidity and ball-skills that might have forced Winston to look elsewhere than his favorite target Rashad Greene.

On paper, Mariota is the more accurate passer. The tape, however, shows that Winston has better ball placement on the challenging intermediate and deep routes each quarterback will have to make in the NFL. While Winston’s 17 interceptions this season are disconcerting, the redshirt sophomore’s willingness to test tight windows and experience taking snaps from under center means that his learning curve at the next level shouldn’t be as steep as Mariota’s – even though the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has a year more of experience at the collegiate level.

What’s on the line

Scouts (and draft analysts) will spend the next four months juxtaposing the two players if both underlcassmen enter the 2015 draft as expected.

There will be passionate debates where questions of “schematic fit” and “off-field issues” will take a life of their own and could lead to one, both or neither player dropping out of the discussion for the No. 1 pick.

For roughly three hours during the Rose Bowl, these quarterbacks can be analyzed on a uniquely level playing field.

Don’t be surprised if the player who performs best under this national spotlight winds up hearing his name called first April 30.

Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a property of The Sports Xchange distributed in partnership with CBSSports.com.


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