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Marcus Mariota
Handicapping Mariota
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John McMullen - NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is a crucial pick in every NFL Draft where things pivot dramatically and that selection is going to come very early in the 2015 version, Tennessee's spot at No. 2 overall.

If things fall as expected and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick, the Titans will have a difficult decision to make, either pull the trigger and take Oregon signal caller Marcus Mariota or trade out to an organization that wants the Heisman Trophy winner.

Mariota is a polarizing prospect, a smart kid with all the intangibles you need to play the game's most important position but little training in a pro- style offense. In fact some scouts believe Mariota was never really tested in Eugene in what is, at least in the NFL's eyes, a dumbed-down offense.

The spread system that Chip Kelly ran with the Ducks and Mark Helfrich has continued is based on tempo and doesn't require the QB to make NFL-level progressions from receiver to receiver. It's often been described as quarterback-proof, in which the pilot is told what to do pre-snap and expected to make his one read and go.

Over recent years I've compared the spread-offense phenomenon to baseball where there was once a strong belief that college programs did more harm than good when it came to getting pitchers ready for the major leagues. And that thought process was probably correct, at least in the days before anyone cared about things like pitch counts. Most college coaches weren't about to try to serve two masters -- winning while at the same time getting their prospects ready for the next step.

The similar dynamic in college football right now is the spread offenses that are all the rage on campus. Although there is more read-option than ever in the professional ranks, most organizations just aren't all that comfortable with signal callers who have spent their entire college experience in the pistol or shotgun.

In fact, if anything the pendulum is swinging back and most teams are more enamored with the old-school, pocket-style passer who is comfortable with a three-, five- or seven-step drop, and capable of planting his foot in the ground before letting it rip.

All that said, a quarterback with mobility who can throw it from the pocket is now the prototype (think Aaron Rodgers) and Mariota has the skill set to join a rather exclusive group. But, as far as plug-and-play in '15, he probably fits exactly one team -- Kelly and his Eagles.

And that doesn't seem like a top-10 pick.

Which brings us back to Nashville where for weeks the conventional wisdom was that Tennessee, which finished 2-14 under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt last season, wanted out of the No. 2 slot because the team obviously needs multiple assets in order to get better and Mariota seems nothing like a Whisenhunt-type quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers).

Moreover this is not the old NFL where five-year plans are acceptable. After 2-14 Whisenhunt is already on the clock and he probably can't afford another disastrous win-loss season while waiting for a young QB to develop.

The Titans, though, have done a brilliant job dispelling all of that and an early draft-week column by Peter King of Sports Illustrated claimed Tennessee will be "comfortable" taking Mariota "unless they trade the pick."

The subterfuge seems to have worked with most observers shifting toward the narrative of Tennessee taking Mariota. Of course if you really think about King's thesis, it's dubious and comes across as a leak from someone in Nashville.

After all, if the Titans really liked Mariota that much and were comfortable with him, their path is a rather easy one in a quarterback-driven league, draft the Hawaii native and build from there.

The "unless they trade the pick" is the key part of the deception, though. Simply put, Tennessee remains intent on dealing the selection and is trying to make a leverage play. The Titans have yet to get an offer they like and probably won't until they are on the clock in Chicago.

So the question becomes whether anyone has real interest in trading up and overdrafting a solid but far from spectacular quarterback prospect.

The most likely candidates remain the Jets and Chicago, simply because those are teams that don't have to move that far. That said, the Jets understand Mariota may drop to them anyway if the Titans are bluffing, and the Bears will have issues trying to move the poster- child for bad-body language, Jay Cutler.

Cleveland, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent New Orleans and San Diego, remain the wild cards.

The Browns have two No. 1 picks, Nos. 12 and 19, and a GM, Ray Farmer, who not only struck out badly in the first round of the draft last year, he also is in hot water for the embarrassing text-gate scandal, facts that mean Farmer is looking to make a splash to save his job. Kelly, meanwhile, is erratic, at least from a personnel standpoint, and certainly capable of shock and awe even if makes little sense and mortgages his organization's future.

The Chargers are the one team that could make a deal rather easily if they agree to part ways with Rivers, a Whisenhunt favorite who sees no future with his current organization if they plan on uprooting and heading toward Los Angeles.

And if the Titans never get an offer they deem acceptable?

Sometimes you make the right decision and sometimes you make the decision right.

Tennessee can either bite the bullet, tell Whisenhunt to update the resume and proceed to pound the square peg in the round hole or take the best pure football player in this draft, Southern Cal defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

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