If Jameis Winston doesn’t throw at NFL Combine, could his stock drop?
INDIANAPOLIS — One will throw. The other is still mulling whether to pass.
The decision about participating in Saturday’s NFL Scouting Combine workout marks yet another difference between the two top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.
Mariota confirmed during a Thursday news conference that he will partake in the session. His participation had been in question. Mariota is coming off a shoulder sprain from his junior season at Oregon. Other top prospects often skip the Combine in favor of "Pro Day" at their university as well as private workouts for individual teams.
Winston’s combine status is far less certain. He won’t meet with the media until Friday and even then an announcement might not be forthcoming.
Quarterbacks guru George Whitfield, who has helped Winston with his draft preparation since mid-January, said Thursday morning that there was no need to rush a decision because there remained ample time before the workout.
Whitfield said Winston and his representatives continue weighing whether it would be in his best long-term interest taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium along with the other 13 quarterbacks invited.
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said he hopes that Winston and Mariota throw as his franchise ponders which to choose with the No. 1 overall pick.
"It’s really cool there’s chatter they are going to both work out," Licht said Wednesday. "As different as those two are, there are a lot of similarities in terms of their winning pedigree and the Heisman (Trophy) obviously. They are both ultra-competitors so it will be cool just to see them compete against each other."
But if Winston declines to work out, will it cause the Buccaneers to sour on selecting him over Mariota? History has shown otherwise for teams in similar situations.
Long-time Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt said the first quarterback he remembers who declined to workout at the Combine was Peyton Manning in 1998. Manning was still drafted No. 1 overall just ahead of Ryan Leaf, who did participate in the event. Manning went on to become the top statistical passer in NFL history; Leaf was a draft bust.
Top quarterbacking prospects began following Manning’s lead. Whitfield said only nine of the last 21 quarterbacks drafted in the first round threw at the combine.
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 draft despite missing a regional combine because of a knee injury. Now the Denver Broncos’ general manager, Elway admitted Thursday that he wouldn’t have thrown at the combine if entering the draft today nor will he lower a prospect’s grade for skipping out.
While the players may be game to showcase their wares, many agents are far more reluctant. They believe any positives are outweighed by the possibility of a quarterback damaging his draft stock with a bad combine showing. The workout environment is far more comfortable and controlled at Pro Day.
Ex-Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik pointed to Josh Johnson as a quarterback whose draft stock fell because of a poor Combine workout in 2008. Johnson’s difficulty gripping an NFL football and the subsequent effect that had on his accuracy was exposed. Dominik initially had Johnson projected as a second- or third-round pick. The former University of San Diego standout instead was selected by the Buccaneers in the fifth round.
"I know a lot of agents would say you don’t have anything to gain," Whitfield said of the Combine workouts.
Whitfield, though, said he "kind of feels the opposite." Whitfield pointed to protege Cam Newton, who did participate in the 2011 combine drills and was later selected No. 1 that year by Carolina.
"If you’re a competitor and you’re prepared to do it, this is the ultimate scenario," Whitfield said. "All 32 teams are here. All the decision-makers are here. The stage is the brightest and biggest here. Guys who really, really want to come out and make a statement, it’s done here. Then you can back it up with your own pro day and see what happens."
There are significant differences between the formats of the Combine and Pro Day workouts, which serves as another NFL evaluation tool. Many of the routes thrown are the same â curl, post, comeback and the "go" amongst them. But the sequencing is different and more reflective of an actual game situation with greater time between combine tosses because more quarterbacks are participating.
Dominik said the Combine workout is more difficult for players to prepare for than the scripted pro day workout that "almost becomes muscle memory" because quarterbacks have spent at least a month practicing 60 set throws on a daily basis.
"It’s a different body of work mentally at the Combine where it doesn’t become the robotic, ‘I know I’m going to do this, this and this,’ at the pro days," Dominik said. "You don’t get to work with the same receiver every time you throw. It’s a different receiver each time so the timing element is really unique because you don’t know the guy and you don’t get to choose to throw to whoever you like the best.
"The guy you’re going to throw to might be a sixth-round receiver and his timing when he breaks off the route might be a little different. That makes it harder for the QBs. That’s what I like about the Combine because you really have to anticipate throwing guys open and doing it on the fly."
Mariota said Thursday that he has spent the past few weeks working with San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Kevin O’Connell, who was announced this week as Cleveland’s quarterbacks coach (FOX Sports broke the news of O’Connell’s imminent hiring in January).
"My goal is to make an impact from Day 1," said Mariota, who followed in Winston’s footsteps by winning the 2014 Heisman Trophy.
Dominik said Mariota’s willingness to participate in the combine workout should be considered an encouraging sign in his transition from playing in a spread offense at Oregon.
"All these questions everyone has about Mariota — Can he drop back? Can he make the throw on a five- step drop? Can he play in a pro-style system? — are because we’ve never seen it," Dominik said. "Some of this is going to get answered because he decided to throw at the Combine.
"What does that tell me? It tells me he’s feeling comfortable he could do this or he would wait. You might as well take the extra month (otherwise). You’ve seen that before."
Winston played in a more conventional offense at Florida State, which gives him a significant pre-draft edge over what is more of an NFL projection in Mariota. But there also are plenty of questions surrounding Winston, especially because of multiple off-field incidents while he was at Florida State.
One concern was answered Thursday when Winston tipped the scales at 231 pounds during the combine weigh-in. He was 17 pounds heavier in January with an unflattering shirtless photo from a workout recently making the internet rounds and raising questions about Winston’s work ethic.
Whitfield said Winston had reinjured his ankle in Florida State’s Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, which had prevented him from working out. Winston also has since changed his diet to emphasize more soda water and eliminate junk food.
Whitfield hopes Winston’s weigh-in will stop criticism that Winston is "JaMarcus 2.0," referring to 2007 draft bust JaMarcus Russell. Coincidentally, a flabby Russell didn’t work out at the combine and he was still selected No. 1 overall by Oakland.
Another way Winston could distance himself from Russell comparisons is by doing the Combine workout.
"I would love to see the competitive part of Winston come out and say, ‘I’m going to throw, too, and you’ll see that I throw fine and I actually throw better than you think,’" Dominik said. "That’s what you want to see."
We’ll see Saturday whether it happens.