Is Marcus Mariota One of the Best QB Prospects Ever?
Last year Shawn Siegele ran the 2014 quarterback class through a number of screens and came to the conclusion that Johnny Manziel was one of the best QB prospects of all time. So far the returns have been negative. But it’s important to keep two things in mind. The first is that Manziel has only attempted 35 passes in his career, which is basically one game’s worth.1 The second, more important, point is that a player’s quality as a prospect doesn’t always translate to their quality as an NFL player. If Manziel does end up being a bust it doesn’t retroactively mean that he was a bad prospect.
I’m not going to go through the whole class, but I am going to explain to you why Marcus Mariota is not only one of the best real life QB prospects of all time, but maybe the single best fantasy QB prospect of all time.
His Age, Or Rather, His Youth
It may seem strange to start with his age and not his passing performance. But age provides the very context we need to understand his passing performance. QBs who play their final season at age 23 or above almost never make an NFL impact. Additionally, QBs who are drafted at a younger age outperform on average those who are drafted at an older age. The best age to be as a rookie is 21. Mariota just turned 21 at the end of October.
There are probably two principle reasons for these age differences. The first is that QBs who are expected to be drafted early are incentivized to declare for the draft at a younger age. If a QB doesn’t enter the draft until he “has to”, that’s not a great sign. The other reason is that old QBs are by their very nature older than a lot of their competitors, giving them strength and experience advantages that make them look better in college, an advantage they lose as soon as they enter the NFL.
Adjusted yards per attempt2 is my stat of choice for evaluating college QB play. You want a QB to throw for at least 9.0 AY/A in their final season. Marcus Mariota threw for 9.1 AY/A… as a freshman. As a sophomore, that number rose to 10.6. As a junior this year he threw for 11.5 AY/A. According to Sports Reference, that’s the sixth most efficient college QB season of all time. Mariota’s career AY/A is also the fourth most efficient of all time according to Sports Reference. It’s worth mentioning that Mariota threw 1,167 passes in his college career and the only two QBs ahead of him on either of those lists to attempt more passes are Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. The former had the best rookie QB season of all time and the latter won the Super Bowl as a sophomore NFL QB. Moving on…
It should go without saying that accuracy is an important quality in NFL QBs. It turns out that college QBs who complete less than 60 percent of their throws don’t become accurate in the NFL. Fortunately, Mariota has a career 66.8 completion rate, so that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.
Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo also dug into Mariota’s play. One element I find critical to playing QB in the NFL, and one I’m not sure can be developed if it wasn’t learned in college, is the ability to play under pressure. Mariota threw for 11.7 yards per attempt when pressured- more than his normal 10.1 Y/A. Palazzolo also whipped up this nifty chart comparing Mariota (and Jameis Winston) to some of 2014’s NFL QBs:
The chart shows that Mariota takes a high frequency of big throws, but few of those are turnover worthy, which is backed up by the fact that he only had two interceptions on the season at the time that chart was made.
Now, that last point is where the criticisms of Mariota start to creep in. A lot of people are skeptical of him because of the system he plays in at Oregon. They contend that he doesn’t throw interceptions because his receivers are always open and that the system just makes his numbers gaudy in general. Some people also contend his numbers are only good because he plays against low quality defenses. I have no doubt that Mariota’s numbers would be worse in a different system, but does that really matter? All teams use an offensive system, so what they’re really saying is either that A) he’s only good because of the system or B) the things that make him good in Oregon’s system won’t translate to the NFL.
This is where I’ll point out that Mariota is not the only college QB to ever play in this system. QBs Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas also started for Oregon under Chip Kelly, and both were far less efficient than Mariota, and neither were legitimate NFL prospects. If Mariota was nothing more than just a system QB, would he really be in contention for the number one overall pick of the NFL Draft? In other words, QBs can still be good or bad, within a system.
Even if Mariota is a system QB, wouldn’t that basically make him the greatest system QB of all time? Who’s to say that wouldn’t translate to the NFL? Even if his receivers are always open, is there something about the Oregon system that prevents him from making bad decisions or inaccurate throws? Of couse not. I honestly think Mariota gets criticism because he makes it look so easy. If you look at the chart above you’ll see that Jameis Winston made more turnover worthy throws despite the fact his throws were higher percentage throws in general. Yet his proponents will wave that off by pointing out he plays in a pro-style offense. Think about that: There are actually people who prefer Winston to Mariota because Winston has worse numbers. If Mariota’s numbers were worse there might actually be less concern that he was solely benefitting from the Oregon system.
One thing Mariota has definitely not benefited from is having a high-quality, go-to receiver. His lead receiver for the 2012 and 2013 seasons was Josh Huff. Here’s his College Career Graph:
Even in his best season, Huff only accounted for 30 percent of Oregon’s receiving yards. Oregon’s leading receiver this year has been Byron Marshall, who has only accounted for 19 percent of Oregon’s receiving yards and 12 percent of their receiving TDs. If those numbers seem unusually low, that’s probably because Marshall is a RB and not a WR. Oregon has suffered from a rash of injuries to their offensive line and receivers all throughout the season, and despite it all, Mariota has posted one of the best passing seasons of all time.
Size, Athleticism, Rushing Ability
At 6’4″ and 220 lbs., Mariota has the kind of size you like to see in an NFL QB. Keeping in mind he just turned 21, he’s likely to add some size over time as well.
As dangerous as Mariota has been as a passer in college, he’s possibly been even more dangerous as a rusher. For his career, he’s rushed for 6.7 yards per carry on 327 attempts. As impressive as that sounds, college rushing data also includes sacks. That his per attempt efficiency number is so high likely suggests he does not take many sacks, or at least not many big sacks, while also suggesting that he gains more than 6.6 yards per carry on true rushing attempts.
Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly3 likes to use a metric called Highlight Yards to evaluate rushing production for RBs and QBs. Highlight Yards is basically a metric that shows how many yards per carry a player gets once they’re already five yards past the line of scrimmage.4 Mariota’s Highlight Yards per opportunity for the 2013 season was 9.35. That basically means that assuming Mariota got five yards on a carry, he was going to get 14.35 on average. Connelly also keeps track of a player’s opportunity rate, or how often they got at least five yards on a carry. Mariota’s rate was 66.7 percent meaning that on plays where he ran the ball (Connelly does not include sacks) he got at least five yards a full two-thirds of the time.
If he’s truly as gifted a runner and athlete as the numbers suggest (29 career rushing TDs and 2 receiving TDs for good measure) the additional value that provides for fantasy is obvious. But the effect that has on his passing performance might not be so obvious. QB rushing is associated with NFL passing efficiency in ways that not everyone appreciates. To quote:
Perhaps a competing explanation is that the PFF graders are correctly assigning value for “passing accomplishments,” but the running QBs make their own lives easier just by virtue of their dual threat abilities. Those QBs might be seeing softer defenses that are just as worried about the run as they are the pass. They might also be cutting down on enough mistakes to raise their AYA because not every play has to end with either a pass attempt or a sack.
You could probably replace “PFF graders” in that block quote with “draft scouts” and see why I’m not worried about Mariota’s ability to transition to the NFL.
One thing we’ll really need to see are his combine results. His timed athleticism will go a long way towards gauging his NFL rushing upside, and other factors such as hand size will also be helpful to know.
Another is how early he’ll end up being drafted. If he falls I won’t be worried about it potentially reflecting shortcomings in his game because QBs have been falling on average in the NFL Draft anyway the last couple of years. But it will matter because it will determine how invested a team is in him, which could determine how many opportunities he get and if he is put in a position to succeed. It can also determine how soon he sees the playing field.
The most important question is who will draft him? Tampa Bay currently has the number one overall pick, Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and just hired Dirk Koetter as their offensive coordinator, who has a history with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. That would be an ideal spot. If he goes somewhere with a mediocre supporting cast, an unstable organization, or somewhere where he’ll have to sit for awhile, that would have an adverse effect on his fantasy value.
Overall, Marcus Mariota is everything I want in a QB prospect. He’s young, he’s consistently improved throughout his career, he’s a highly efficient passer, he’s accurate, and he also offers great rushing upside. I don’t see a single red flag when evaluating him.
So is Marcus Mariota one of the best QB prospects of all time? I believe that he is. His ceiling is clearly sky-high and I believe he’s unusually safe for a QB prospect. I do believe he’s the greatest fantasy QB prospect of all time. Even RG3 didn’t emerge as a truly great passer until his junior year and was far less efficient as a runner. Will Mariota end up being one of the greatest NFL QBs of all time? Only time will tell.
Subscribe for a constant stream of league-beating articles available only with a Premium Pass.
- Also Mike Pettine never seemed to want him. (back)
- A version of yards per attempt that incorporates TDs and INTs (back)
- A recent guest on RotoViz Radio (back)
- If you want a more thorough explanation I recommend clicking the earlier link, but I’ll go ahead and note that highlight yards actually subtracts some additional yards as well (back)