It's hard to avoid hyperbole when evaluating the professional progress of the 2015 draft's first two picks. The tape shows that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are playing beyond expectation in their first seasons and on track to be successful quarterbacks for years to come
Full disclosure: there was a strong temptation to sensationalize this article’s thesis. Analyzing Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota two-thirds through their rookie seasons, the following angles were legitimately considered:
• This is the best pair of quarterbacks to enter the NFL since 2004 (Manning-Rivers-Roethlisberger—mix and match them how you wish.)
• These are the two quarterbacks you’d most want to build your team around long-term aside from Andrew Luck and maybe Cam Newton (Russell Wilson fans, fetch your pitchforks).
• Mariota is the most overachieving rookie the NFL has seen this decade, Titans record be damned.
• Winston is the best pure first-year pocket passer of the 2000s.
All of these angles are within the hemisphere of reasonable, but it’s much too early to formally declare any of them.
But that these can even be flirted with tells you where this piece is going. So here is this article’s unsexy but important thesis: Winston, drafted first overall and Mariota, drafted second, have so far been everything their respective teams could have reasonably wished for—if not more.
Let’s examine the why and how.
Though Winston was picked first and has his Bucs at 5-6 and on the fringe of the NFC wild-card picture, let’s start with Mariota. We knew Winston would sink or swim from the pocket. With Mariota, no one had an idea whether he could even function here.
No modern era mobility-based quarterback has ever come from a college spread system and immediately been a quality NFL pocket passer. Until now. We’ve seen other mobile quarterbacks burst on the scene in recent years, but not in the same fashion as Mariota. Cam Newton as a rookie was better from the pocket than expected, but he had done some of that at Auburn. Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick (who appeared in his second season) both flourished out of the gates but in systems that had been heavily tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. And yes, Russell Wilson has had extraordinary achievements as a run-around, out of-pocket quarterback, but he’s had a time-tested advantage that will always breed success: a strong running game paired with an utterly dominant defense.
The Titans, with less talent around Mariota, have had him conform to what they do—but not in a rigid way. For a litany of reasons, the pro game requires at least a decent foundation of pocket passing. Some of the reasons are obvious: for example, defenders are too fast to consistently just run away from. Other reasons are more obscure: the hash marks and field numbers in the pro game are tighter to the middle of the field, changing the game’s geometry.
Tennessee’s head coach to start the season, Ken Whisenhunt, has always understood the significance and nuances of professional pocket passing. The fact that he helped get Mariota so far along so quickly makes his firing completely unjust. Interim head coach Mike Mularkey has continued to build on the foundation that Whisenhunt laid, only with a few scale-backs. Mariota is still asked to make timing-based throws from the pocket, though more of those throws are coming out of multi-tight end and multi-back sets, as opposed to three- and four-receiver groupings. This is partly a function of Mularkey’s philosophy; a former tight end himself, he’s always preferred base personnel. And it’s likely also a function of Tennessee’s resources. Their running backs are mediocre at best, and their wideouts are a week-to-week proposition. Same with their offensive line. Going with more big bodies aligned tight to the formation is a way to camouflage this.
Mularkey has also expanded Tennessee’s approach by making greater usage of Mariota’s legs. Just because you’re trying to develop a mobile quarterback into a pocket passer doesn’t mean you should completely ignore his running prowess. Mariota’s wheels are a gift; Mularkey has capitalized with more moving pocket and read-option concepts.
To be clear, just because Mariota is playing from the pocket doesn’t mean he’s playing great overall. On a big-picture “lauding scale,” his play toggles somewhere between “well” and “very well.” Statistics can be misleading, but not enough to change the fact that Mariota’s numbers—16 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 62.8 completion percentage and 249 yards passing a game—are good but not great.
Stats are all but guaranteed to be diminished when you join a rebuilding club that’s coming off a two-win season. (The most recent case in point: Andrew Luck in his rookie year, taking over a 2-14 Colts team that had turned over more than half its roster, had a passer rating of 76.5.) When evaluating a rookie quarterback on a rebuilding team, and particularly a quarterback who’s playing under a whole new approach, you need to weigh his raw attributes more than his results. Mariota’s attributes are tantalizing: a quick release that propagates velocity and precision accuracy; balanced, steady footwork; a sense for subtle movement (which is the difference between mid-level and high-level pocket passing) and, most importantly, the willingness and toughness to stay in a pocket that’s closing down (which, in the NFL, happens regularly….especially with an O-line like Tennessee’s). That willingness is especially rare in quarterbacks who have always been able to run away from people.
Whisenhunt and especially Mularkey, with the tighter base personnel formations, have, to their credit, met Mariota halfway. Many of Tennessee’s pocket designs present the quarterback with a defined read. Here’s an example.
Mariota has also shown at times that he can make full-field reads.
Mariota’s game will eventually expand into regular full-field reads as he becomes more familiar playing from the pocket. This is what Winston, an experienced pocket passer coming out of Florida State, is undergoing in Tampa Bay.
As his college head coach Jimbo Fisher told Robert Klemko last week, the Bucs are asking Winston to make full-field reads before the snap and half-field reads after it. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has always been outstanding with this type of design. How it works, in the most basic terms: if Winston diagnoses man coverage before the snap, he works the man-beater route combinations that are installed on one side of the field. If he diagnoses zone, there are zone-beater routes to work on the other side. This concept also applies to common coverage variations—most notably single-high safety coverage versus two-high safety coverage.
When a quarterback learns to diagnose coverages and split his own field in half, a complex passing game can be made to feel simple. This is why the Bucs have developed one of the league’s more vertical passing games, despite having a so-so offensive line and wide receivers who are big but not particularly quick and fast.
While Mariota is often asked to get the ball out promptly, Winston operates under a lot under five-step timing. (Some of these dropbacks are physically only three steps, but the timing of the play and Winston’s launch point, which is what counts, is five-step. Two of the dropback’s “steps” are accounted for by the shotgun formation.)
Winston has responded to Koetter’s system remarkably well. Remember the concerns about Winston’s interceptions coming into the league? Aside from two poor zone-attacking throws that were picked off by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath, Winston has just one interception since Oct. 4.
Winston’s ball security has not come at the expense of his willingness to sling throws into tight windows. He doesn’t necessarily have a Cam Newton cannon for making these throws, but like Andrew Luck, Winston's arm consistently produces whatever amount of juice a throw demands. Plus, Winston is a heady anticipation passer which, when mixed with at least decent arm strength, leaves him capable of “making all the throws.” Anticipation passing, by the way, is the best indicator of pocket comfort. It requires not just an ability to diagnose a defense, but also an intrinsic understanding of how the routes in your play design relate to the coverage. Here’s an example.
Besides building on these solid traits, the next step for Winston is the one that Newton has recently made: increased work in the presnap phase at the line of scrimmage. Winston could be functioning at a high level here before 2017. Or perhaps even earlier. Koetter’s previous quarterback, Matt Ryan, was a lot like Winston: good enough arm, natural sense for anticipation, accurate pocket passing and a high football IQ. Ryan became viable at the line of scrimmage very early in his career. And last year he also developed functional mobility, showing he can run around when need be. Winston has been surprisingly effective in this regard, as well.
As pleasantly surprising as his play outside the pocket has been, it’s inside the pocket where Winston’s career will be made. While he has positive mental traits here, there are still a few questions about his physical traits. Winston delivers the ball with a bit of a windup motion and an exaggerated stride when stepping into a throw. Contrast this with the compactness of Mariota. Winston needs a wider radius of space in order to operate. That’s not always realistic in pro football. But there’s hope for tightening Winston’s mechanics because, for the most part, he’s proven immune to pass-rush pressure, showing ample willingness to step into throws with defenders bearing down and rarely shifting his eyes from downfield to oncoming defenders.
You can’t overemphasize the fact that Winston has improved in all facets over the course of his first season. Mariota has not ascended quite as steadily, but he also has not regressed as opponents see more of him on film. That’s a positive given how white-hot he was out of the gates—Winston and the Bucs surely remember that.
If both young quarterbacks can keep matriculating and, occasionally accelerating, down their current paths, then four or five years from now, this article might very well be debating which of the two is the best in all of football. There’s your sensationalism.
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