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Here’s the question I have to convince myself of the answer on… Is Marcus Mariota the future of NFL quarterbacking?
Scouting Mariota, scouting any quarterback is wrought with bias. Scouting bias. Every scout and fan battles with this. I am a ‘Tom Brady guy’. Watching him play quarterback, to me, is poetry; it’s looking at fine art. By contrast, I don’t like mobile quarterbacks who can’t read the field as well, but make plays scrambling from trouble. I’m completely turned off by Cam Newton. Nor do I like those I deem ‘gimmick’ quarterbacks. I scoff when Derek Carr throws for 5,000+ yards and 50 TDs in a college season, throwing the ball on every play with most everything being quick hitter screens and slants.
I’m a ‘purist’. I like my quarterbacks to sit back in the pocket and dissect defenses. I marvel as they make multiple reads while standing firm in the pocket, throwing at the very last moment, and fitting it into a narrow window of opportunity. So when I look at/scout a quarterback, I consciously/subconsciously use Tom Brady as a measuring stick.
The problem is that the era of Tom Brady-like quarterbacks is dying. Young QBs are no longer shackled by five- and seven-step drop passing games. High schools and colleges have turned to a shotgun snap, ‘five wide’ alignment, quick decisions on the mismatch, one step and fire. Rapid pace and high efficiency. Death by a thousand paper cuts without huddling.
It’s time for me to change my thinking on NFL quarterback prospects. It’s time to expand my mind. When I was first introduced to it, I thought texting looked like the stupidest thing ever invented. Now, it’s a way of life. I can evolve. I know it…
I just watched most of Marcus Mariota’s snaps from his 2015 debut season. All I could do is marvel. It’s not the style I prefer, but to watch him run a fast-paced spread passing attack is just a different form of poetry in motion…when I drop my ‘Tom Brady’ pretenses.
Mariota just sits tall in the shotgun, takes the snap, and before you know it he’s made a bullet pass to one of his receiving options – the decision is made so quickly, the defenders don’t have time to react to where he’s going with the ball. And the pass rushers’ efforts are futile. On some occasions, Mariota rolls out while constantly scanning down field. He’s running back-fast on his feet, so he outmaneuvers the pass rush to buy more time looking for options. If needed, he can take off running with 4.5+ speed.
I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know there. What I do want to advance is – Mariota runs this new-style offense better than anyone in this genre. Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Colin Kaepernick (a few examples)…they all play a version of this new-style of passing game. Some of them better than others. Marcus Mariota is simply better at it than anyone at this point in time. The reason Chip Kelly was ready to trade half the Eagles’ roster to Tennessee to draft Mariota was because of Mariota’s brilliance within this style. Chip Kelly cannot manufacture great quarterbacks; his NFL career has shown that. He can try to ‘make do’, but Marcus Mariota ‘completes him‘. Kelly needs Mariota, but Mariota doesn’t necessarily need Kelly at this stage of their careers.
I watched Mariota 2015, and you have to know he’s a master craftsman. He makes great decisions within a rapid tempo. He’s probably been playing the high-speed, spread style for 5+ years, going back to high school. He’s a very smart quarterback, and distributes the ball like an NBA point guard. He’s got the height to see and throw over the tops of defenses. He has elite foot speed, for a quarterback, to be a menace running the ball as needed. Mariota has it all for the spread concept.
You either believe this style of offense is the future of the NFL, and is going to succeed…or you don’t. Taking the opposite side of the bet is NOT crazy. The NFL has seen gimmicks come and go. I’m not sure this is a gimmick that’s going away anytime soon. When every high school and college quarterback is running this style, they’re going to have to run it in the NFL by default. However, you can’t rule out that NFL defensive coaches figure out a way to derail it soon.
Converting safeties to hybrid linebackers, and essentially putting 7–8 DBs on the field at one time could be a way to stop the spread pass-game menace. Not rushing the QB, dropping linemen back into coverage/clogging up the quick passing lanes, could become more of a thing too. The NFL might figure out a counterbalance to the spread in due time. But that time is not now. There are not enough Marcus Mariotas in the league to defend for a team to completely overhaul its overall defense to stop this one style. There’s more old-school styles to work against, so old-school defenses should still rule. Sure, they’ll throw in a few wrinkles to try and halt the spread, if they face it in a given week, but installing a couple of clever wrinkles on Wednesday of game week to try to stop a quarterback who’s mastered a certain style of offense for 5+ years… ‘Advantage’ talented quarterback.
One of the knocks I had on Mariota coming out of Oregon was that he was not that good throwing the ball downfield. All his numbers came from short passes and slants, and he struggled when forced into medium and long throws. I was anti-Mariota’s style as much as anything else. You can pretty much throw that pre-Draft scouting in the trash. I just watched most of his 2015, and he was just fine throwing medium in the passes – not the greatest, but not the worst. He’s fine, better than fine. You put Mariota in 3rd and long, and its kryptonite, to a degree. It takes away a lot of the possible deception within the spread. However, most QBs are less efficient on 3rd and 7+, so it’s not a massive disqualifier.
Mariota is not Tom Brady. His style is to make quick decisions as soon as he gets the ball in his hands. That style is going to lead to some interceptions, when he guesses wrong. Mariota’s not going to lead the league in fewest turnovers. However, he’s going to bring a lot more positive results than negatives running the spread in the NFL. In his NFL debut game against Tampa Bay, he dropped four TD passes on the Bucs in about 2.5 quarters of play…and coasted the rest of the way. He threw for three or more TD passes in 4 of 11 games played last season. The teams that are confused on defending him, and cannot force him into longer third downs, are going to get Ginsued by Mariota.
Also, consider that Mariota was on a pace to produce 4,200+ passing yards and 29 TD passes (based on 10.5 actual games played), while throwing to injured Kendall Wright, actual starter on purpose Harry Douglas, and confused Dorial Green-Beckham as his main WR options, while the team purposely had a cinder block as their main ballcarrier at running back for much of the season (Antonio Andrews). The Titans had one of the most pathetic group of running backs and wide receivers in the entire NFL last season, one of the worst of the past decade – and Mariota still put up numbers…and did so as a ‘green’ rookie with two head coaches to deal with.
Because of the pace of the offense, and the confusion it creates with most NFL defenses in this day and age, Mariota is going to put up decent passer numbers. It won’t be a constant stream of 300+ yard games, but there will be a lot of 250+ yard efforts with 2–3+ TD passes. The fantasy opportunity is not so much with Mariota as a passer – it’s what he’s going to add to the passing numbers with his feet. He has the power to be a very dangerous weapon on the run. Last season, he didn’t run all that much. His lack of running early on helped Ken Whisenhunt get fired early in the season. Mariota then got banged up midseason, and wasn’t running the ball as much. Later in the season, he started to flex his running skills (two rushing TDs in his final four full games, including an 87-yard TD run).
As Mariota improves, interpreting the speed of the game at the NFL level and incorporating a little more running into the game plan, he may shock the world in fantasy scoring in 2016.
If this spread style of offense is the future of the NFL, even just the next 2–3 years before it gets figured out, the quarterback who does it the best is Marcus Mariota. If you buy into the spread offense confounding the NFL in the near term, then Mariota is your golden goose for Fantasy…a cheap one at today’s ADP levels.
*Our Dynasty Rookie Draft (+IDP) top-100+ prospects with thousands of words of commentary and draft strategy discussion is now posted at College Football Metrics.com. We’ll post 10-15+ versions of our Dynasty Rookie Draft rankings throughout the preseason, as well as adding in a few of the bigger names from 2017 for a preview into the future.