NASHVILLE, Tenn. – ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay held his first conference call Tuesday to discuss the 2015 NFL Draft, comparing top quarterback prospects Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. The call came two weeks after McShay published his first mock draft that had the Titans selecting Florida State's Winston with the second overall pick.
Winston finished his redshirt sophomore season with 3,907 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his second year as the Seminoles starter.
McShay raved about Winston's ability throughout the hour-long call with national media.
"With Winston, there are really few cons when you're talking between the lines," McShay said. "Even with game preparation in the facility, he's a very smart individual and picks up football concepts very quickly. He knows how to go through progression reads, he's comfortable from the pocket, can manipulate the pocket and can feel pressure coming.
"He's not the quickest quarterback, but he is mobile enough and strong enough to extend plays with his feet. He anticipates throws as well as any quarterback in the last couple drafts."
As has been well documented, there are plenty of questions regarding Winston's knack of making headlines away from football.
"It's the decision that every team in need of a quarterback at the top of the draft is going to have to make," continued McShay. "The cons about Winston are all about what you're getting from a maturity standpoint and with the individual off the field. Can he stay out of trouble? Can he handle himself in a manner that you feel comfortable giving him 20-25 million dollars and tagging him from day one as the face of your franchise? I don't know the answer right now."
McShay also gave his evaluation of the other top quarterback in the draft, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, whose standout collegiate career included being named the nation's 2014 Heisman Trophy Winner. College football's top honor went to Mariota after the junior QB racked up 4,121 passing yards, 40 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. His 134 career touchdowns at Oregon and 12,661 all-purpose yards are the most in Pac-12 history.
While the scouting report was still positive, McShay didn't offer the glowing remarks from a football standpoint that he showered on Winston.
"Obviously he's a phenomenal athlete and can extend plays," he said. "One thing I love about him is how quickly he goes through reads and how quickly he operates. In Oregon's offense, there's no time to process, you just have to react. The one thing I don't see with him is the anticipation as a passer. In that offense there's not a lot of opportunity to show that.
"Even the other day (in the Rose Bowl), he missed several throws he needs to make. Marcus missed a higher percentage of intermediate and vertical throws than I'd like to see, ideally. You combine that with the fact that Oregon's offense doesn't require him to anticipate throws and that's what concerns me. Can he develop over time and adjust? Probably, and that's why I think he's going to be a high pick."
The two QBs met on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl during College Football's first ever Playoff. Mariota's Oregon Ducks came away with the decisive 59-20 win against Winston's Florida State Seminoles.
Mariota was the more efficient passer in the game, completing 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also added 62 rushing yards and another score.
Winston's 348 passing yards came on 29-of-45 passing with one touchdown and one interception. The Florida State QB also lost a costly fumble in the second half that was returned for an Oregon touchdown.
Oregon's Rose Bowl dominance didn't sway McShay's opinion of the two quarterbacks, making it clear he prefers Winston as a player.
"To break it down, if you're making the decision based on football and what you see on the field, Jameis Winston is the better prospect," he said unequivocally. "He is better from inside the pocked than Marcus Mariota, which is what the foundation of an evaluation should be – can you win from inside the pocket?
"If off the field didn't matter and there were no questions about his personality, I'd take Jameis Winston first overall and not look back if I was the Tampa Bay Bucs. If he's sitting there at number two I'd say the same thing as well."
Despite his favor for Winston on the field, McShay's initial mock draft indicates Winston's off-field troubles were taken into strong consideration. He has the Bucs taking Mariota first overall.
ESPN counterpart Mel Kiper also has Mariota first on his big board, with Winston sitting at number six.
There's no question this could change with the NFL Draft still months away. McShay said he won't definitively decide on either quarterback at number one until the psych tests and interviews take place at the NFL Combine in February.
With each quarterback having college eligibility remaining, there's a chance – albeit a small one – that one or both quarterbacks could return to their respective schools for another season. If they declare, both are near certainties to be selected in the top 10 on day one of the draft.
McShay said there's huge drop-off in quarterbacks after these top two prospects. Both, however, come with respective questions. Do teams believe Winston can overcome his off-field shortcomings to become a franchise player? And do clubs believe Mariota can develop into an elite NFL quarterback?
McShay said he didn't envy anyone who has to make the decision between the two.
On April 30th, someone will.