Mariota speculation headlines NFL Draft

(SportsNetwork.com) – The bright lights will be swaying in a little bit of
wind Thursday as the 80th annual NFL Draft kicks off from the Second City’s
Auditorium Theatre.

It’s the first time in 50 years that the draft has moved out of New York City
and the first time since 2006 that the event has not been housed in Radio
City Music Hall.

The Auditorium Theatre, which is on the campus of Roosevelt University in
Chicago, is famous for hosting performances by the Joffrey Ballet but a
different kind of interpretive dance will be the story this time from the
Windy City.

The draft itself will take place at the theatre and, for the first time,
expand outside to adjacent parks. Congress Plaza will host Selection Square,
home of the 32 team draft tables, and Grant Park will be transformed into
Draft Town, a free, three-day outdoor interactive fan football festival.

Round 1 will take place Thursday night and will include prospects walking the
red carpet on Michigan Avenue before heading into the theatre.

Thirty-two former players from the NFL Legends community, one representing
each team, will be on hand for Round 2 presented on Friday, while Rounds 4-7
on Saturday with feature a draft first, teams will announce their selections
at their own facilities or other locations in their home cities.

Twenty-five top prospects, who are expected to be selected on Thursday or
Friday night, are scheduled to attend, including potential top five selections
Leonard Williams, a defensive lineman out of Southern California, edge
defender Dante Fowler of Florida, and wide receiver Kevin White of West
Virginia.

Two names not on the docket, however, are quarterbacks Jameis Winston of
Florida State and Marcus Mariota of Oregon, the last two Heisman Trophy
winners who are expected to go first and second overall respectively.

About the only thing we really know about Thursday night is that the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers will bat at the top of the order and keep the controversial Winston
from lugging all of his baggage out of the Sunshine State.

And even that thesis has been challenged by some Mariota supporters who insist
that the Bucs brought in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and quarterbacks
coach Mike Bajakian because they have experience with the spread offense and
could help Tampa Bay take advantage of Mariota’s gifts.

Over-thinking, however, can lead to issues that never really existed in the
first place so if you’re scoring at home, take the gimme (Winston to Tampa)
and then start in on the calculus (trying to figure out where Mariota ends
up).

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.

Tennessee has the second overall pick and for weeks the conventional wisdom
was that the Titans, who 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 have done everything possible to dispel that notion in an effort to
make a leverage play so the question now becomes whether anyone has real
interest in trading up to draft Mariota.

The most likely candidates remain the Jets at No. 6 and Chicago at seventh
overall, 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 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
struck out badly in the first round of the draft and is in further hot water
for the embarrassing text-gate scandal, facts that could mean Farmer is
looking to make a splash to save his job.

Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, meanwhile, has a well-known history with
Mariota and 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 veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, a Whisenhunt
favorite who sees no future with his current organization if they plan on
uprooting and heading toward Los Angeles.

The top-tier prospects who will be in Chicago on Thursday are rangy Oregon
defensive lineman Arik Armstead, Clemson edge rusher Vic Beasley, Alabama
safety Landon Collins, fast-rising Kentucky pass rusher Bud Dupree, versatile
Florida State O-Lineman Cameron Erving, Wisconsin bell cow Melvin Gordon,
Nebraska pass rusher Randy Gregory, Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Florida
OT D.J. Humphries, Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson, athletic UConn corner
Byron Jones, Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney, Louisville
receiver DeVante Parker, Stanford left tackle Andrus Peat, Central Florida
speed demon Breshad Perriman, Missouri hybrid-defender Shane Ray, Iowa OL
Brandon Scherff, Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton, Ohio State
receiver Devin Smith, Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong, Duke guard Laken
Tomlinson and Michigan State corner Trae Waynes.

As always controversy is surrounding some of the potential picks. The
aforementioned Winston has had a host of off-the-field issues at FSU while
Gregory and Ray, once considered possible top 10 candidates, are dealing with
marijuana-related red flags. And LSU offensive lineman La’el Collins is
embroiled in something far darker.

Collins, who was scheduled to be at the draft, was forced to leave Chicago
Wednesday to meet with Louisiana authorities regarding an investigation into
the death of his former girlfriend, Brittany Mills, who was eight months
pregnant when she was killed.

“He’s not a suspect, but we are seeking to question him,” Corporal Don Coppola
told NFL Media’s Albert Breer. “He knew the victim. We’re not sure of the
exact nature of the relationship. But for the investigation and through the
investigation, we’re exhausting all avenues to locate this young lady’s
killer.”

Collins’ lawyer, Jim Boren, has already hired a private investigative firm to
try to clear his client but the damage is likely already done.

“We have identified where La’el was the day the lady was murdered to establish
he was nowhere around,” Boren told ESPN. “We have offered to give names,
witnesses who can vouch for his whereabouts that day until after the woman’s
body was discovered. We believe that when (police) have verified that
information, that they will rule him out as a suspect in the homicide.”

There will be 256 overall selections in this year’s draft, including 32
compensatory choices that have been awarded to 14 teams that suffered a net
loss of certain quality unrestricted free agents in ’14.

The Arizona Cardinals will have the honor of selecting this year’s “Mr.
Irrelevant,” a tongue-in-cheek title bestowed annually upon the last player
chosen in the process.

The Browns (Nos. 12 and 19) and Saints (Nos. 13 and 31) each have two
selections in the first round while Buffalo and Seattle do not have first-
round picks.

Teams are permitted 10 minutes per selection in the first round, seven
minutes for Round 2, five minutes to make their choices in Rounds 3 through 6
and four minutes for seventh-round selections. Similarly, the time for all
compensatory selections, which cannot be traded, was reduced to four minutes.

DRAFT DAY DISH:

-When Alabama receiver Amari Cooper is selected, likely in the top five of the
draft, it will mark the seventh straight year that the Crimson Tide have had a
player taken in the first round, matching Pittsburgh (1983-1989), Ohio State
(1991-1997) and Florida (1997-2003) for the third-longest streak since the
advent of the common draft in 1967. Miami-Florida (1995-2008) owns the longest
such streak with at least one first-round pick in 14 consecutive drafts.

-If Winston and Mariota do go off the board 1-2, it will be the sixth time
that QBs have been taken with both of the top two selections. Most recently,
Andrew Luck of Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III of Washington were selected
with the top two picks of the ’12 draft.

-Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams is the son of former first-round pick Brian
Williams (1989, New York Giants). If the younger Williams is selected in the
first round, it would mark the eighth father-son combination to be drafted in
the first round in the common draft era. The last father-son duo was cemented
when Pittsburgh selected Cameron Heyward in ’11, the son of Craig Heyward (New
Orleans, 1988).