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Will Kelly trade up for Mariota? Don't count him out

When Chip Kelly lays his head down at night and counts seconds between snaps, what quarterback does he dream of?

Marcus Mariota. (Associated Press)
Marcus Mariota. (Associated Press)Read more

When Chip Kelly lays his head down at night and counts seconds between snaps, what quarterback does he dream of?

Of all the reasons given for why the Eagles could trade up and draft Marcus Mariota in Thursday's NFL draft, Kelly's seemingly unwavering belief that his former Oregon quarterback will be a transformative player is at the crux of any plausible argument.

"He might be the fastest guy on the field, but his mind is even faster," Kelly said of Mariota in January before the national championship. And then he added: "He thinks like Peyton Manning."

General managers, coaches, scouts, executives, analysts - both on the record and anonymously - have praised Mariota in the months before the draft, some going as far as to compare him to some pretty good quarterbacks. But no one has come even close to Kelly's evaluation.

They don't know him as well, but if Kelly's two years with the Eagles have taught us anything, it is that known commodities have an advantage in his eyes. For every other team, Mariota is a projection, in particular because he didn't play in a pro style offense in college.

"If he's in Chip's system he'll be rookie of the year and a Pro Bowler," a senior NFL executive said. "If he's in a traditional system he's a year or two away from being an effective player."

If the Titans were to draft Mariota second overall - presumably after the Buccaneers take Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first pick - coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Ruston Webster would conceivably have one to two years of good faith from a new ownership group, even though the owners might not be as patient as their predecessors.

But is Tennessee willing to gamble on a quarterback who would be a square peg in Whisenhunt's round offense and one who has exponentially more value for one team?

"Because of the players that are there and potentially there, we have to get value that will help our team not only now but in the future," Webster said on Tuesday.

In other words, "We're listening, but you'd better make it worth our time."

Last month, Kelly dismissed the notion and the months - years? - of speculation that he was prepared to do whatever it took to get Mariota. He said he wouldn't mortgage the future, knowing how much it would cost to move all the way up from the No. 20 pick. In fact, no team has ever jumped as far to select a quarterback in the draft.

And yet, many - including a variety of insiders around the league - don't believe him. What is Kelly's definition of "mortgaging the future?" No one knows. A poll of league executives, coaches and scouts found that while a slight majority had Mariota headed to the Titans, the Eagles were a close second ahead of the Browns.

"No doubt in my mind Eagles will make a serious run at Mariota," former Eagles executive Joe Banner said on Twitter. "Going from 20-2 is expensive, but let's not act like it can't happen."

So what is it going to take? The Eagles not only have to move up 18 spots - presuming they have to go that far - but they have to fend off other competitors. The Chargers were rumored to be interested in dealing 33-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers to the Titans, but reports out of Tennessee indicate that the smoke has cleared - for now.

There was a report Wednesday that the Browns had offered their two first-round selections - Nos. 12 and 19 - but that at the very least has to be just a starting point. It will require more. And there is still the belief that Cleveland prefers the Eagles' Sam Bradford.

If the Eagles could move Bradford - assuming he agrees to an extension - along with their second-round pick to the Browns for the No. 12 pick, it would satisfy the Titans' apparent need to stay in the top 17. Webster said Tennessee had about 16-17 prospects with first-round grades.

Since two first-round picks won't get it done, the Eagles will have to include their 2016 first-round pick and possibly an impact player from their roster. Defensive end Fletcher Cox would be the most valuable. The Eagles picked up Cox's fifth-year option, which would allow the Titans to have him under contract for two years, but his 2016 salary-cap number is a pricey $7.8 million.

The Eagles would rather offer expendable parts like linebacker Mychal Kendricks or cornerback Brandon Boykin or guard Evan Mathis. Kelly has dangled all three on the market, but it's unlikely the Eagles will get much in return. Kelly wants a second-round pick for Kendricks, but that is a lot to give up for someone entering the final year of his contract.

There is a potential kink in each scenario, but there is also a wild card that can explain away almost any doubt - Kelly. Perhaps that is why the Mariota speculation has had long legs. But Kelly, in his first offseason in charge of personnel, has made bold, radical decisions.

He traded LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles and let Jeremy Maclin walk. He acquired two players who missed all of last season with torn anterior cruciate ligaments and several more with extensive injury histories. He has gone outside the NFL's rigid box.

"There's a method to Chip's madness," another NFL executive said. "He's going to take advantage of everyone's archaic thinking."

While the rest of the quarterback-needy teams dream of another Manning or Tom Brady, Kelly looks to the future. Will Mariota be there? It would be foolish to think Kelly won't try to get him.