Of the quarterbacks to play under Chip Kelly at Oregon, only Dennis Dixon has ever started a game in the NFL.
Dixon was a fifth round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers who started three games in relief of Ben Roethlisberger during his four seasons with the team. He then failed to make Kelly's roster in Philadelphia last year, before joining the Buffalo Bills to compete for a roster spot ahead of the 2014 season.
A very low bar has been set for Marcus Mariota.
Mariota is the current starting quarterback at Oregon. He played one season under Kelly in 2012, before Kelly moved on to the NFL and Mariota became one of the most highly-thought-of prospects for the 2014 draft. The lure of winning a National Championship and the disruption caused by a knee injury appeared to motivate Mariota to skip the draft and return to college.
Without a Jadeveon Clowney to steal the attention this year, Mariota appears to be the top prospect entering the 2014 college football season.
One of the first things to look at with a quarterback coming out of what is still considered an unconventional offense at the professional level is pocket presence. Even though the Oregon offense features plenty of screens, quick passes and first-read throws, Mariota showed on a regular basis that he knew how to react to pressure in the pocket while reading the defense.
On this play against UCLA, Mariota lines up in the pocket on Third-and-7. The defense has three players on the defensive line, with pass-rushing specialist Anthony Barr lined up wide of the offense's left tackle.
When Mariota gets the ball from his center, he drops backwards into the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. At the same time, Barr explodes off the edge and gets past the outside shoulder of Oregon's left tackle. The left tackle has completely given up on his technique as he tries to recover positioning with his feet facing his own end zone.
Without dropping his eyes to the pass rush, Mariota steps up in the pocket so that his left tackle is now in a better position to block Barr. Mariota could continue into the red area and attempt to scramble for the first down, but there are three linebackers in line with the first down marker who would be in position to stop him. Instead he settles in the pocket.
Barr immediately begins to push the left tackle backwards into the pocket where Mariota is standing. The left tackle is unable to withstand Barr's power, so Mariota again neutralizes his rush with his movement in the pocket. Mariota steps backwards and resets his feet to throw the ball down the field.
Not once did Mariota take his eyes away from the coverage, but he felt Barr's presence or saw him in his peripheral vision to avoid him. His agility, balance and awareness couldn't have been better, but he still had to complete the throw down the field.
Mariota has to flight the football over multiple defenders and drop it in a spot where his receiver is waiting for the ball as another defender attacks it from behind. On this throw, he needed to show pinpoint accuracy, control of trajectory and arm strength. He couldn't have made a more impressive play on a difficult third down.
Even while playing in Oregon's offense, Mariota was still asked to regularly manipulate the pocket while reading the defense.
As his production and lack of interceptions suggest, Mariota excelled executing the Oregon offense. He was rarely forced to throw the ball into tight windows because he was able to consistently find the open receiver. Notably, Mariota regularly looked through two receivers and threw to his third option rather than being limited to the early options in the offense during the 2013 season.
By using his athleticism and awareness, Mariota was able to remain very poised in the pocket from snap to snap. The main concern with Mariota in the pocket is ball security. He fumbled 11 times in 2013, but those fumbles were more about how he held the ball while in the pocket rather than his throwing mechanics.
As the above image shows, Mariota has a very quick and compact release. He is able to release the ball as fast as receivers work through their breaks and fast enough to negate open rushers. Importantly, he doesn't lean over his front foot or throw off balance unnecessarily because of poor footwork. He releases the ball from a high point and it flies out of his hand with impressive velocity.
Mariota's mechanics are consistent from the pocket, even though he will adjust to throw the ball from a crowd or on the move when he has to.
Because of Mariota's athleticism, and more specifically his straight-line speed when he hits the open field, comparisons to Colin Kaepernick are inevitable. However, Mariota manages the pocket much more effectively than the San Francisco 49ers quarterback and he always keeps his eyes downfield. It may be too extreme to suggest that Mariota is a reluctant runner because he is aggressive when he does decide to scramble, but he definitely extends plays to try and throw the ball rather than run it.
Unlike Kaepernick, Mariota is also consistent with his mechanics when he leaves the pocket and is able to throw effectively moving to both his left and his right.
Again, this play is a Third-and-Long situation. Mariota does everything he can to extend the play in the pocket before eventually being forced out into the right flat. This willingness to stay in the pocket and extend the play before deciding to escape from the pressure makes it more difficult for the coverage to stick to their receivers down the field.
As soon as Mariota goes past his right tackle to escape the pocket, he raises his eye level to scan the field for an open receiver. Most quarterbacks who escape to one side of the field look down the sideline so they avoid throwing the ball across their body, something that is generally more dangerous. Mariota doesn't do this.
Instead he scans the whole field and locates a receiver over the middle who is open.
Being brave enough to locate the receiver is one thing, actually having the talent to make an accurate throw against the momentum of your body weight is another. Mariota perfectly places a very difficult throw to the opposite hashmark roughly 25 yards down the field.
It shouldn't be overlooked that Mariota is a very effective pocket passer, but he is at his most dangerous when he extends plays behind the line of scrimmage to throw rather than scramble. Because of that, his game is most reminiscent of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger is much bigger and he doesn't have anywhere near the speed or agility of Mariota, but their overall approaches align relatively well.
Having the ability to beat the defense within the structure of the offense from the pocket and the ability to create on extended plays outside of the pocket is very valuable. It means the defense is always being stretched and asked to cover for longer, while the pass rush has a tougher time disrupting the play.
One thing many professional quarterbacks struggle with is throwing downfield while moving to the left (right if the quarterback is left handed).
Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks both excel at throwing the ball down the field when moving left. Roethlisberger relies more on his arm strength than Wilson or Mariota, because Mariota and Wilson are quicker to set their feet beneath them and throw the ball with their shoulders aligned to their intended target. That is what Mariota does in the above play.
According to Oregon's official website, Mariota is 6'4” tall. While those listings aren't always reliable, Mariota shows no issues reading the field from the pocket. This is part of the reason why he compares more favorably to Roethlisberger rather than Wilson, but more importantly he doesn't appear to be as accurate as Wilson is/was.
One of the negatives of Mariota's ability to execute the Oregon offense so well is that he was regularly throwing to wide open receivers.
That's not a negative for the offense, but it is a negative if you are trying to evaluate his accuracy. Even when throwing to wide open receivers, Mariota missed a lot of throws in 2013. He had completed over 68 percent of his passes in 2012, but that number fell to 63.5 percent in 2013. A number of drops didn't help, but on the whole Mariota will hope to be more consistent in 2014.
He doesn't have a major mechanical issue to correct and he doesn't struggle to throw to one specific area of the field more than others. He was simply very inconsistent finding receivers with the ball.
The arm talent is clearly there as Mariota can fit the ball into tight windows down the field even though he was very rarely asked to. When throwing to underneath receivers, he creates good velocity on the ball and shows good placement to allow for yards after the catch.
A physical or mechanical issue of significance with Mariota's ability to throw the ball doesn't exist.
Concerns over his accuracy are legitimate because of how often he was throwing to wide open receivers. Even though Kelly's offense in the NFL was able to create many open throws for his quarterback, not every team in the NFL is able to run that kind of offense and it's not as effective as the Oregon system was.
It's always important to remember that these are developing prospects who will continue to develop after they are drafted. What makes Mariota a potentially special prospect is that he doesn't have any glaring issues that need to be corrected while still offering huge potential as a playmaker and pocket passer.
Another season in 2014 like he had in 2013 or 2012 should solidify Marcus Mariota's status as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2015 draft. It's very, very unlikely that he doesn't become the most successful quarterback that Chip Kelly coached at Oregon.