The Mariota–Winston debate may be decided by anything but football

The NFL Draft Combine can, in many ways, be seen as analogous to the NFL’s version of an auto show. Instead of the latest Corvette or Porsche, NFL scouts are looking for the next breakout star to fix whatever ails their team. 

Three weeks ago in Indianapolis, the eyes of the NFL were transfixed on what the combine would reveal about the presumptive top-two quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. Since the conclusion of the college football season and the Super Bowl, the football world has debated who should be the first quarterback chosen: Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. 

The combine is normally figured into deciding the debate of who should be taken first in the draft. This year, though, in the case of Mariota and Winston, the combine has only served to enhance the debate. That goes to figure as both quarterback prospects were universally judged to have impressed scouts in Indianapolis. If anything, the results of the scouting combine left most questions unanswered.

The metric that most ends up in favor of Mariota is the 40-yard dash, where the former Oregon quarterback ran a 4.52, whereas Winston finished with a 4.99. In this instance, it would be unwise to read too much into this wide disparity. 

For Mariota, speed is a crucial aspect of the skills he would bring to an NFL franchise. He is primarily known as a scrambling quarterback. Winston, on the other hand, is exclusively known as a pocket passer who only rarely will use his feet as a weapon.

Comparing either of them by simple physical metrics is irrelevant since both quarterbacks bring fundamentally different tools to the table. Winston is closer to a traditional NFL quarterback, hence, he seems to still be the favorite for the No. 1 pick. Mariota represents the new, emerging breed of NFL quarterback in the mold of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, all of  whom can excel while improvising outside the pocket. 

From a purely football standpoint, Winston ranks higher than Mariota given his aptitude as a pure pocket passer. Though that does not mean Winston will be a better NFL player, it does likely mean he is the safer choice.

Like many things in football, though, the quarterback chosen first might ultimately be decided on nothing football related at all. This is the 1,000 pound gorilla hanging on Winston’s back. What might decide the fate of the draft, and the NFL careers of both quarterbacks, are the swirling questions and concerns regarding Winston’s maturity and character. 

As much as Winston was in the headlines for winning the 2013 national championship at Florida State and his late game heroics, he is equally known for all of the damaging headlines his name has been in. Winston was likely one of the most controversial and divisive players in college football in the recent years.

Most of this controversy centers on his high-profile accusation and subsequent investigation for sexual assault. Though he was cleared of any wrongdoing, the incident nonetheless reflects a lack of maturity that might hold negative ramifications for Winston in the NFL. With the increasing attention throughout the NFL on issues relating to sexual assault and domestic violence, Winston will be more scrutinized. While the off the field issues may not affect his draft status, they certainly could affect his success going forward. 

Other character issues such as a suspension last season for vulgar statements and sideline arguments further knock Winston’s case.

Mariota is essentially the anti-Winston. He has never been the center of an off the field controversy and he is lauded for his humility and other positive character traits. If Mariota is chosen above Winston, it may be likely that teams were scared off by Winston’s character flaws.

In the modern, image-conscious NFL, executives might think twice about taking a chance on Winston — not for what could happen on the field, but for what dangers might lay ahead off the field.

When Roger Goodell walks to the podium in Chicago to announce the first pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, the name he reads out might be the result of factors not even related to football. 

Dan is a junior in Media.

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