Debate: Could Marcus Mariota Be One of 2015’s Top Fantasy Quarterbacks?
I recently said on Twitter that Marcus Mariota has high-end QB1 upside in 2015, and that you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise.1 Fellow RotoViz writer Heith Krueger responded to say that he disagreed and that we should do a piece explaining our varying views.
While I don’t agree with Heith on Mariota, I did agree that his suggestion to do a piece on our differing views was a great idea. So here it is: Why Marcus Mariota may or may not be a high-end QB1 in 2015.
Justin Winn: I’d like to start with explaining the context for my tweet. RotoWorld recently published a blurb on Mariota where they cited comments from Ken Whisenhunt, who said Mariota would have opportunities for rushing plays like Russell Wilson. The blurb then concluded that Mariota has, “…low-end QB1 upside.” I think that’s underselling him, and that’s what inspired my original tweet.
I have previously written about how Mariota is one of the greatest QB prospects ever, for both NFL and fantasy purposes. In that piece I compared Mariota to both Wilson and Robert Griffin III. RG3 was QB5 in fantasy points per game in his rookie season. Wilson finished his rookie season as QB12 in FPPG, but he may have actually been more impressive than RG3. Over the last half of the season Wilson scored 25.9 FPPG. That’s a smaller sample, but that level of output would have made him QB2 on the whole season. And while I didn’t directly compare Mariota to Cam Newton, I think that’s fair comp as well. Newton finished his rookie season as QB4 overall. If those guys could put up high-end QB1 numbers, I don’t see why Mariota couldn’t.
Heith Krueger: My biggest concern when it comes to Mariota is the amount of development that has to occur before he is able to produce consistently and reliably at the NFL level. In terms of physical capabilities and potential, Mariota is one of the best we have seen in some time. However, he is coming from an offensive system that focused more on utilizing spread concepts. This is not abnormal for a college quarterback coming into the NFL in 2015, but it was his performance when performing in pro style concepts that is alarming. This video does a tremendous job of highlighting his deficiencies when forced to do so.
I bring this up as his development as a passer may keep him off the field early on. If Mariota is unable to develop as a passer fairly quickly, Zach Mettenberger may earn the starting job at the start of the season. If Mariota is able to beat out Mettenberger for the starting job in camp, we can assume the majority of his fantasy value will come from his rushing ability. Over the past two years in Tennessee, we do have a somewhat similar former Titans QB we can compare to: Jake Locker. In 2014 under Whisenhunt, Locker saw a total of 22 rushes in 309 snaps. If we average this out to a 1000 snap baseline,2 we get a total of 71.1 rushes. This number is more similar to that of Andrew Luck than to the prototypical rushing QBs such as Kaepernick, Wilson, or Newton.
JW: The offensive system that Mariota comes from doesn’t really worry me, especially given the Titans saw fit to spend the second overall pick on him. As an example, one of the main knocks against Bryce Petty was that he came from Baylor’s non-pro-style offense. He fell to the fourth round. Yet that didn’t stop fellow Baylor alumnus RG3 from being drafted with the second overall pick and finishing his rookie season as a high-end QB1. And as I pointed out in my original Mariota article, none of the other recent Oregon QBs put up the level of production that Mariota did or ended up being highly drafted.
As for Mettenberger beating out Mariota, that’s certainly possible on a temporary basis. However, 1) that doesn’t preclude Mariota from being a high-end QB1 when he does start and 2) that’s already a bit of a worst case scenario so it’s not necessarily reflective of his upside.
In one sense, the comparison to Jake Locker is a good one. Both QBs weigh more than 220 lbs. and run sub-4.60 forty yard dashes. But the idea that Locker is a talented rusher has little evidentiary support. In college he was an inefficient rusher who happened to have a lot of volume. He was an efficient rusher in the NFL, but he never saw much volume. He showed the ability to run a lot, or run well, but never both. In terms of volume, the cohort of RG3, Wilson, and Newton averaged 113 rushing attempts for 670 yards. I fail to see how that’s outside of Mariota’s realistic range of outcomes.
HK: You are correct in the fact that him not seeing the field early does not exclude from QB1 upside when he does become the starter, as Colin Kaepernick’s 2012 season displayed perfectly. However, looking back at the rookie seasons of RG3, Wilson, and Newton, I noticed a couple common threads that may be missing from the Titans offense. The first was the quality of run blocking from the offensive line. According to PFF’s offensive line rankings, the Panthers ranked as the 7th best run blocking offensive line in 2011, the Redskins were the 7th best in 2012, and the Seahawks ranked as the 12th best in 2012. While the Titans were ranked as the 16th run blocking OL in the NFL in 2014, the grades were far worse in comparison. The second and more relevant commonality amongst the three successful rushing QBs you mentioned was rushing volume.
In the quote from Ken Whisenhunt stated earlier, I feel the context is quite ambiguous. Is he speaking to the amount of freedom the quarterback will be given to dictate when to scramble? Is he speaking of the amount of designed runs that will be run with Mariota at QB? With both of these points, it would take a large change in Whisenhunt’s offensive tendencies to reach the levels of Russell Wilson. From 2012, Wilson has averaged 51 run plays and 102 total scrambles per season. In terms of team totals for every NFL team Whisenhunt has either been a head coach or offensive coordinator for, the highest run total was 25 in 2011 for the Cardinals and 47 total scrambles for the Titans in 2014. These stats are not to say Mariota will not be utilized differently as Mariota is the most capable rookie QB Whisenhunt has had to work with in his NFL career. However, if history holds any relevance to his play calling, Whisenhunt has had success with veteran pocket passing QBs and would alter his play calling towards this tendency.
JW: In regards to the offensive line, I’m not sure that’s a prerequisite. I’m also not sure whether or not that affects scrambles or if it only affects designed runs. And then I suspect that a rushing QB like Mariota might improve the run blocking. So even if there is causation, it may very well go the other way.
Whisenhunt may be the worst coach in the league. I’m not going to argue that. But in the quote he does specify that Mariota will get both designed runs and have license to scramble when plays break down. While it’s true that he hasn’t utilized his QBs as rushers in the past, those QBs have included famously immobile QBs like Philip Rivers and Zach Mettenberger. I don’t give Whisenhunt much credit but I believe he’ll use Mariota fundamentally differently at the very least.
In closing, I understand the reluctance to believe Mariota could finish as a top six QB. I’m not sure I’d even go so far to predict that result. But Wilson, Newton, and RG3 all give us reason to believe it’s possible. According to the Best Ball ADP App, Mariota is currently being drafted as QB23. I’m sure that will rise by the start of the season if he’s starting. I’m also sure it still won’t be high enough to properly account for his upside. I’ll let you have the last word Heith.
HK: You do make a compelling argument. The majority of my view on Mariota stems from, in my opinion, an extremely dire coaching and franchise situation posing a good possibility of inhibiting his development and damaging his confidence to the point where he plateaus early and is never able to fully utilize his physical capabilities. I find it highly unlikely, but not impossible, that he can produce as a top fantasy QB in his rookie season. Ultimately, there’s not a great reason to avoid him as his price is near nil given his ADP(barring roster slots being severely limited).