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After top two quarterbacks, talent level drops

This is the eighth in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Quarterbacks.

News Sports reporter

It’s a bad year to need a franchise quarterback.

At least that’s the consensus among national NFL draft analysts.

“As far as specific positions, I think the quarterback, tight end and safety classes are poor,” NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock said recently on a national conference call.

That may seem odd given the likelihood that the top two picks Thursday night could very well be quarterbacks, but it speaks to the depth at the position behind Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

“The quarterback position, I think, is very weak,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said.

That means it’s entirely possible that only Winston and Mariota go in the first round Thursday night. Winston has been thought to be the No. 1 choice by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost from the moment the draft order was set, but the possibility of Mariota being the pick has gained steam recently.

Mayock, for example, has Mariota as his top quarterback available.

“I’ve got Mariota No. 1 because I do believe in Marcus Mariota, but the other piece of that is as far as Jameis Winston is concerned, I’ve got trust issues, both on and off the field,” Mayock said. “Do I trust him with the football on the field, given the way he turned the ball over, especially this year with 18 interceptions that could have been 40 very easily? So can I trust him with the ball, which is the most important thing during an NFL game, and then No. 2, can I trust him off the field?”

Winston’s red flags include an allegation of rape during his time at Florida State. No criminal charges were filed, with prosecutors citing a lack of evidence, but he is facing a civil lawsuit from his accuser. He also was charged with shoplifting after stealing crab legs from a Tallahassee grocery store and suspended for the first half of a game in 2014 for yelling a sexually explicit comment on Florida State’s campus.

“To me, those red flags are significant enough that my answer is I would go the other way, with Mariota,” Mayock said. “When kids have significant red flags, how often do they change? I would say my perception in my experience is that plus or minus 90 percent of the time, the kid ultimately turns into who he’s always been.

“When you get a repeated pattern of bad decisions, you might be on your best behavior leading up to the draft, you’ve got all kinds of people around you telling you what to say and how to act, but once you get comfortable, whether it’s one year in, two years in, three years in, once you get comfortable again in the NFL and you get paid, typically that kid goes back to being who he always was.”

The questions with Mariota have nothing to do with anything off the field, but rather how he’ll process the NFL game. At Oregon, he made simplified reads and often was throwing to wide-open players. At the next level, he’ll need to fit his throws into tighter windows and improve his ball security (27 career fumbles).

“I think this stereotype of Marcus Mariota as a spread quarterback that runs read options every play is ridiculous,” said ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden. “I think he’s very poised. I’ve seen him go through progressions. They run some common NFL route combinations.

“He’s put a lot of points on the board. He’s been asked to do a lot with pass protections. He learned the Oregon offense inside and out. And he’ll learn your offense. It’s just a matter of you teaching him and surrounding him with a support system.”

If Winston does go No. 1, the draft’s real intrigue will start with the Tennessee Titans on the clock at No. 2. The Titans have a young quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, but may view Mariota as a clear upgrade. If they don’t, the Titans would love to incite a bidding war among teams wanting to move up and select him, not unlike when Washington traded up to take Robert Griffin III following a trade with St. Louis.

“I think the RG3 thing has blown up a little bit in Washington’s face,” Mayock said. “If you go back to Andrew Luck and RG3, the perception was these were two special players, not just really good potential franchise quarterbacks, but special, once every five- to 10-year kind of players. I don’t think we get the same vibe off Winston and Mariota.

“From my perspective, giving up the house to get up to No. 2 doesn’t make sense.”

Nevertheless, it would be a shock to see Mariota (or Winston) fall past the No. 6 pick, which is owned by the New York Jets. After Winston and Mariota, it’s a three-horse race for which quarterback will be the next drafted. The candidates are UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson.

Teams have the option of extending the contract of a player selected in the first round to a fifth year, which makes it possible any of the three could be taken on the draft’s first day.

The challenge for all of them, according to Gruden, will be the same.

“I think it all starts with the snap count,” he said. “You realize that a lot of these quarterbacks don’t even have snap count. They’re using silent counts in the shotgun. They’re using set-go every single play. They’ve never used a hard count. They haven’t been asked to recognize a problem in the defense and audible.

“So there’s a lot of things that are going to be new for these young quarterbacks coming out of college. None of them were in the huddle this year. Not Garrett Grayson, not Brett Hundley, Mariota. Not Jameis Winston, either. None of these guys, Bryce Petty, got in the huddle. So that whole process of the snap count, calling plays, recognizing coverages and defenses and getting your offense in an optimum play will be a process.”

Opinions on Hundley are all over the map. Some analysts think he could be picked in the first round, while others wouldn’t take him until the third.

“You can see why he’s the captain at UCLA. You can see why the Bruins turned things around and became a top-10 football team because they have a top-flight quarterback at the NCAA level,” Gruden said. “He is very physically talented. … He has a strong arm. I think he needs to refine his pocket mechanics a little bit. There’s some things in his delivery I think he can quicken. But he wants it real bad. He’s got a lot of talent to work with, and he is very intelligent and I think very confident in himself.”

Petty went 21-4 as a starter in leading Baylor to back-to-back Big 12 championships. He’ll have to prove he can succeed outside the Bears’ one-read system.

“If you have some patience and you get him acclimated to the new style of offensive football, this young man is athletic and he can throw the ball,” Gruden said. “It’s a matter of how much time you’re willing to spend developing a young quarterback to prepare him for the future.”

The next wave of quarterbacks includes Oregon State’s Sean Mannion. During an interview with WGR-550 AM last week, Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said Mannion belongs in the second wave of quarterbacks behind Winston and Mariota.

“He took a beating,” Mayock said of Mannion, who started for four seasons and owns 18 school records. “The offensive line wasn’t very good. He throws with some anticipation and timing. He’s really skinny, big, tall.

“He’s got to accelerate everything he does from his reads to his physical movement skills. But he reminds me a lot of Mike Glennon when he came out of N.C. State. Glennon, … I’ve got Mannion going either in the third or fourth, and I think he’s a guy that could, with development and strength, turn into an interesting quarterback.”

The closest thing to a local product in this year’s draft is South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge, who’s from just up the QEW in Mississauga.

Bridge may have the best arm of any quarterback in the class, but his accuracy will prevent him from being picked before the third day.

“He’s so raw it begs the question: Where does he get drafted, if at all?” Mayock said. “I think teams look at him as perhaps a sixth- or seventh-round pick if you really want to get him in your camp. … He’s got size. He’s got arm talent. But he’s got a long way to go from accuracy and technique.”

Next: Defensive backs.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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