Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (left) and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston are expected to be the top two quarterbacks taken in the draft.
INDIANAPOLIS – Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are going through the ringer at this week's NFL Scouting combine. The consensus top two quarterbacks in the draft have been shuffled from station to station to get poked and prodded by doctors, teams and the media alike.
In college, Winston won a Heisman Trophy and a national title at Florida State, while Mariota won a Heisman and led Oregon to this year's inaugural playoff championship game. To general managers and coaches here, that's old news. First-round picks are the way to compile franchise cornerstones on the cheap, and no one wants to pick a bust – especially at quarterback, where a player who never develops can set a franchise back years.
There is certainly a lot to like about both signal-callers. Winston starred in a system which translates to the NFL and has all the physical capabilities. Mariota's college numbers sparkled, and he's in the mold of the new mobile
quarterback which has become en vogue in the league.
But there are issues. Winston has dealt with a plethora of off-field problems in Tallahassee, from a sexual assault allegation to a shoplifting charge to a suspension for spewing vulgarities on campus. Mariota has the measurables, but needs to prove he can transition from a college spread offense to the more complicated NFL.
"I haven't huddled in a while," Mariota said. "That will be one thing. It seems like a little detail, but that is kind of a big thing."
As it stands, both quarterbacks are projected to go in the top-10, and it wouldn't be a great surprise if they were the first two players chosen. However, with more than two months remaining before the draft, it's not out of the realm to see one or both of them slip.
There have already been murmurs about the size of Winston's hands and a report about extra medical examination of his shoulder. Mariota will inevitably be judged on how he dissects game film.
Teams "have a ton of homework ahead of them," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think both quarterbacks have question marks."
The Cardinals sit at No. 24 in the draft, a spot seemingly much too low for either signal-caller. One year ago, though, Texas A&M hotshot Johnny Manziel showed up to the combine as a likely top-10 pick. He didn't have any huge indiscretions leading up to the draft, but clearly teams weren't convinced he could be the franchise guy. While it seemed far-fetched in February, Manziel slipped to No. 22 before being selected by the Browns.
The Cardinals originally had the No. 20 pick before trading down, and could have picked Manziel. They passed, and he had a poor rookie year and entered rehab this offseason. There are plenty of other examples of quarterbacks dropping, including Dan Marino to the Dolphins at No. 27 in 1983 and reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers to the Packers at No. 24 in 2005.
The Cardinals' braintrust knows it must evaluate every player thoroughly, no matter how high or low they are projected, because every team has a different grade on a prospect.
"You always want your board set right, so you're going to evaluate every single player, whether it's a need or not," coach Bruce Arians said. "Too many times, people use that word 'need.' You have to have your board set right to know what's available when you're picking. We'll do our due diligence on those guys."
Winston and Mariota are doing their best to quell any concerns.
They both met with hordes of media inside Lucas Oil Stadium this week, and will go through a variety of interviews with individual teams during their stay. Winston has been much-maligned for his off-field transgressions, but Arians wouldn't be concerned about drafting him, since their relationship goes back to when Winston was a ninth-grader.
"He's a good kid," Arians said.
Winston took to the podium on Friday and said his goal was to gain the trust of all 32 teams. And how can he do that?
"By my actions," Winston said. "We'll see in a year. You can't predict the future and I can't predict the future, but what I can do right now is do what I need to do to be the face of a franchise."
NFL teams only have 15 minutes to talk formally with the players at the combine, and quarterback is arguably the trickiest personnel evaluation. Winston and Mariota did enough in college to be in the discussion as the No. 1 overall pick, and now it remains to be seen if both remain atop draft boards.
The Cardinals will do their own research, and like last year when they had to decide on Manziel, they'll be prepared to make a quick decision if either quarterback falls.
"There's always a risk," Keim said. "There's a risk, whether it's as a player or as a person – whether you're taking a risk on the player's athleticism or the player's off-field issues. At the end of the day, if they're smart enough to learn it and they love it, you've got a chance."