NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As more quarterbacks come into the NFL out of college spread offenses, the league faces a big challenge getting them in position to play as successful pros.
The trend is not new, and teams have to bend at least some to accommodate the guys they are bringing in. The clock on quarterbacks coming into the league today dictates that they play quickly and get judged too early.
Marcus Mariota played in a spread offense at Oregon. To their credit, the Tennessee Titans' brass at the time -- general manager Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt -- saw that Mariota could do what is needed in the NFL; he just wasn’t asked to do much of it in college. But projecting that might not have been so hard, considering the skill set Mariota has shown since he came into the league as the second pick in the 2015 draft.
“Mariota is a special player,” former NFL safety and current ESPN.com analyst Matt Bowen said. “Unique skill set. Athletic. Accurate. Plays with really good vision. Can anticipate throwing windows.
“If we were going to make a model of the ‘modern NFL QB,’ based on the offensive systems we see at the lower levels, he would be the guy.”
Does Mariota’s conversion to the league offer hope to teams seeking a quarterback and limited mostly to options who played in college spread offenses, such as Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb?
A mix of several NFL insiders -- coaches, scouts and personnel executives -- indicated that such evaluations are on a case-by-case basis, and Mariota qualifies as an exception -- not a shifting rule. But some allowed that the Titans’ quarterback could alter approaches.
“I think whenever there's an example of a unique or foreign style that's transferring with some success to the NFL game, it's going to make more teams a lot less standoffish,” one personnel man said. “NFL teams have no choice but to adapt to what the college game and current talent pool is giving them now on a multitude of fronts, even if it involves tailoring their own current systems to these prospects if they want them to actually play and have some success.
“The teams and coaches have no choice but to take the time and have the patience to develop these guys -- which isn't exactly music to most coach’s ears that are charged by most owners and Joe fan to win now, regardless.”
But another personnel man doesn’t see Mariota as a change agent in the how-to-project-a-spread-QB conversation.
“I'm not sure one example causes many to alter how they scout, but there may be similarities in the skill set you find that are comparable that give you more confidence about a particular guy,” he said.
Bowen believes that in a longer view, Mariota could help change things.
“I think the success and quick development of Mariota should help change the narrative some on spread QBs,” Bowen said. “He is a very good example of a young QB that has adjusted his footwork, vision and progressions to fit a ‘modern’ NFL system.
“But I also think pro coaches and scouts have to adapt to the changing game at the lower levels. I have coached a spread offense at the high school level the last two years. We run up-tempo, work out of the gun, etc. However, the route concepts and reads are no different than a ‘pro-style system.’
“Mariota and the Titans should be a prime example of how the position is changing. Pro and spread concepts mixed together. Tennessee is downhill, power run with pro concepts that are also paired with QB designed runs, run-pass options, etc.
“The point here, in my opinion, is to cater to the position, given the development of QBs starting in high school. Make them comfortable. Adjust the playbook. And put them in a position to succeed based on their skill set. That's coaching. You can't take a kid who has run a spread system since the age of 14 and throw him into a pro-style box. That's poor management.”
Dan Hatman has scouted for the Eagles, Jets and Giants and now works as director of development for The Scouting Academy. From his vantage point, seeing the things that helped Mariota be pretty NFL-ready out of Oregon's spread can help in scouting other QBs out of different spread systems.
"For scouts, it is about unpacking what the quarterback is doing within their system and then looking at the transferable skills," he said. "There is not one version of 'The Spread' and that the QB does have to have processing skills to make some of those systems really hum. Some have clear progressions to read; they just are not the same format as some NFL progressions.
"For someone like Mariota, he has high-level processing skills, made anticipation throws, hit small windows and threw from the pocket in college. So his development has been more dependent on learning the pre-snap and post-snap pictures as they are presented in the league, which he consistently grows with."
Mariota is unlike some spread quarterbacks in one big way. Although he didn’t play in a rare pro-style offense in college, he could have. He excelled in Oregon’s spread, but what has happened since tells us his skills and mentality didn’t demand it. That's what Webster and Whisenhunt were saying when the Titans drafted him.
“I think the whole league thought Marcus could play,” a third NFL man told ESPN.com. “Scouts knew we was going to be a player, that it just might take some time. The Titans have done a good job of building around him. Tennessee is the only true run-first team in the NFL. They've built the O-line, and they have two good backs.
“That helps Marcus as much as anything. Now he can grow and continue to get better without all the pressure being on him. His running ability is what separates him.”
Spread quarterbacks coming into the league need things that are in short supply: Organizational patience; scouts who can get solid reads on work ethic, mental aptitude and mental makeup; great work by the quarterback coach and smart design and play-calling by the coordinator. Good luck finding all of that in one place.
Landing and developing a young quarterback might be more challenging than ever, and even some of the best guys are still viewed as less-than-complete when compared to the ones who remain the NFL standard.
“Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and even Alex Smith will always have their limitations,” a fourth source with an NFL team said. “The days of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are few and far between. Also, very few quarterbacks stay four years ...”
“You have to realize we can only take what the colleges are producing. They have very little exposure to full reads, and the ability to read fronts and [hot reads] are nonfactors in the spread. That is why guys need to stay longer in college football. However, the position is becoming more athletic because those guys are part of the run game.”