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People around Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston didn't really know what to make of the top two quarterbacks working out with each other before the combine, but the players were on board.
"You talk to them and they’re like, ‘No, I want to work with him,'" said Ryan Flaherty, who has been training both of them at Prolific Athletes in San Diego. "That’s the best part. They’re both wanting to be the guy and they’ll fight for it, but they’re pushing each other."
It hasn't been hard for the players who might go No. 1 and 2 overall in the draft to measure up against the other, because they have seen each other often in San Diego.
The NFL will hold its scouting combine Feb. 17-23. Although the combine isn't the ultimate audition for quarterbacks, it's one piece of the draft puzzle. And the Mariota-Winston debate is shaping up to be a good one.
There are already conflicting reports about who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prefer with the No. 1 pick, and it might take a while before we find out the real answer. There are things to like about each player. It's possible whoever doesn't go No. 1 will go No. 2 to the Tennessee Titans, or at some point very early in the first round.
Both are Heisman Trophy winners and have exceptional college stats and records. Flaherty said Mariota has put on 10 good pounds since coming to San Diego right after the national championship game, and is 6-4 and will weigh in at about 225 pounds at the combine. Winston has slimmed down a bit and is 6-4 and 230.
"He looks good, he looks lean," Flaherty said of Winston.
Mariota is, as Flaherty puts it, "a ridiculous athlete." Anyone who watched him play at Oregon won't disagree. He said he expects Mariota to run the 40-yard dash in about 4.4 seconds. Winston will run well too, he said, probably besting Blake Bortles' 4.91-second 40 time last year.
This week will also serve to start answering questions, because both quarterbacks have some coming into the draft.
Winston will be a popular interview subject at the combine, with teams and the media. Winston was accused of sexual assault at Florida State, although he was never charged due to lack of evidence and cleared in a Florida State code of conduct hearing last December. He also has lesser transgressions, such as stealing crab legs from a supermarket and yelling out a profanity in the student union mocking a viral Internet video. He was suspended by the baseball team for the former and by the football team for a game against Clemson for the latter. There will be questions about his character, although Flaherty said he has seen Winston working to move on from his mistakes to show he can be the face of a franchise.
Mariota's questions are entirely different. The shotgun spread offense he ran at Oregon will lead teams to wonder if he can transition into being a pocket progression quarterback in the pros. It's an important question considering the regression of players like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick as NFL defenses have gotten used to their style. Mariota's physical gifts aren't in question. Neither is his character.
"We were so proud of him,” football legend Archie Manning told Oregon's web site when Mariota won the Manning Award after last season. “We’ve had no finer person win this award.”
One thing Flaherty is convinced of after training both for the combine (they have worked out with separate quarterback coaches in California: Winston with famed guru George Whitfield and Mariota with former Patriots quarterback Kevin O'Connell, who will be the Browns' quarterbacks coach when he's done training Mariota) is both players have the drive to succeed in the NFL. Flaherty, a strength and conditioning coach, has worked with other top-level athletes like Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Serena Williams, to name a few, and he sees the same work ethic in Winston and Mariota.
"These guys, I have to kick them out," Flaherty said. "Their work ethic matches their talent."
They're also working hard to best each other. Flaherty has noticed little things – if one lifts a certain amount of weight in a drill, the other puts on a little extra for his drill, or if one quarterback does so many pushups, the other will try to do one more – that make it clear they're testing themselves against each other. Flaherty, who is also working with Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty before the combine, said Mariota and Winston pushed each other and rooted each other on in workouts, but the competition to be No. 1 is real.
"To have to compete and work daily next to a guy who is the best with you, you can see where you can improve," Flaherty said. "They’ve eaten it up. You want to see a guy who likes that challenge. That says a lot about them."
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