Marcus Mariota’s first two seasons were among the best of any quarterback since the year 2000. His third season, well, not so much.
His loss is your gain though, as Mariota’s down year in 2017 has created a buying opportunity for one of the best young QBs we’ve seen in years. Currently being selected as the QB14 in best ball drafts, and the QB12 in dynasty startups, Mariota is the perfect candidate to break out of the middle tier of QBs and become a top asset in both formats.
The Superstar Start
Mariota’s career got off to an amazing start, but injuries that ended his first couple seasons early kept his season finishes under the radar. As an age-22 rookie he finished as the QB8 in points per game, and followed that up with a QB10 finish at age 23. The list of QBs to score more points per game in their first two seasons1 has only two names on it: Cam Newton and Robert Griffin.
What makes Mariota’s start even more amazing though is that he managed to put up so many points while playing in such a restrictive offense.
Despite being second best in efficiency in both passing and rushing, Mariota had less opportunity to produce fantasy points than any of his peers. The Titans ranked 28th and 22nd in offensive plays per game in Mariota’s first two seasons and focused much of their slow-paced attack on the running game.
This is the part where I tell you that Mike Mularkey and his Exotic Smashmouth offense were hot garbage. According to Sharp Football Stats, no team in the NFL ran a higher percentage of plays with two or fewer wide receivers than the Titans did over the past two seasons. In a league that is trending consistently towards passing the ball, varying formations and play calls on the fly, and generally opening up the field, Mularkey insisted on a slow-paced offense with condensed formations. Having a coach fired after just two years, despite taking his team to the playoffs and winning a game, signals that management might have gotten wise to what everyone else was already saying: the team was winning in spite of Mularkey’s offense, not because of it.
So What Happened?
Which leads into the question, after such an amazing start, what the hell happened in year three? If Mariota was able to succeed in spite of Exotic Smashmouth for two seasons, why did he fail in 2017?
While some fault may lie with Mariota himself and the injuries that slowed him during parts of the year, it’s possible that opposing defenses just caught on to the fact that the Titans were running the same predictable offense. The Titans were again among the slowest teams in the league coming in at 29th in total plays run, and the main cog of their running game, DeMarco Murray, was ailing all year.
However Mariota’s completion percentage was right in line with his career numbers, and his yards per completion didn’t take a drastic hit. The biggest blow to Mariota’s scoring came from his drop in passing TDs, a stat which is naturally subject to a lot of variance. However there is a reasonable explanation, other than the Titans’ inability to score TDs in general.
The Titans threw a league-worst 34 percent of the time when inside the 10-yard line in 2017, with a meager 19 pass attempts. While his rushing inside the 10 did salvage some of his scoring, Mariota simply wasn’t in position often enough to score a lot of points. And though Mariota was due for some regression in his passing TD success in that part of the field, he went from leading the league in his first two seasons to being one of the worst in the league.
We can’t totally ignore the fact that Mariota had a forgettable year in 2017, but with three dominant seasons in college and two of the best seasons to start a pro career we have ever seen, it’s not unreasonable to think that his true talent level is closer to what we saw in 2015 and 2016 rather than what he showed last year.
Reasons for Optimism
While it remains to be seen exactly what the new Tennessee offense will look like, new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has been a part of some dynamic units thus far in his NFL career. LaFleur’s first big job was as the QB coach under Kyle Shanahan mentoring Griffin and Kirk Cousins in Washington. He followed Shanahan to Atlanta for the 2015-2016 seasons where he was the QB coach for Matt Ryan during his ridiculously strong Super Bowl run. Last year, he was the offensive coordinator for the dynamic Rams offense that took the league by storm.
Much of the Rams offensive success last year is attributed to head coach Sean McVay, so this may be the first time LaFleur really gets to implement an offense of his own design working for a defensive coach in Mike Vrabel. What we do know is that in his only season as an offensive coordinator, LaFleur ran the offense with the fastest neutral situation playcalling in the NFL, only slowing down once they were sitting on a large lead.
Mariota doesn’t even need a Rams-like turnaround to be a huge fantasy value. If he can get anywhere close to his efficiency from the first two years of his career while getting more opportunity thanks to a faster paced, more innovative offense, he could easily surpass his QB8 PPG finish from 2015 and end up as a top-six option at the position. Even if he doesn’t break out, all he needs to do is stay healthy and a faster offense should ensure he at least meets expectations at his ADP.
Mariota has been efficient in the past. His offensive opportunity has nowhere to go but up. All the ingredients are in place for a post-hype breakout, and with an ADP a full round after current hype-darling Jimmy Garoppolo, his price is too good to pass up.
- Since the year 2000. (back)