There are certain people who, when they tweet something, it should be noted well. Jeremy Hardt, the former host of the RotoViz Mailbag show, is in my honest opinion, one such person. It was a tweet about his erstwhile show that caught my eye this week.
If I were to write a puff piece, it’d be all about the Tenn Titans despite the slow historical pace and lack of fantasy production to date.— Sashi Hinkie (@FantasyGumshoe) July 4, 2019
I try to avoid writing puff pieces if it can be avoided. But after reading this tweet, I began to look closer at the Titans through a fantasy lens. This closer inspection led me to believe that the entire roster is not one that seems ripe for the plucking. There is one player however who warrants some positive vibes being committed to paper. That player is Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The First Four Seasons
Mariota is playing out the 2019 season of a fifth-year option. The same is true of Jameis Winston, the man taken one pick before Mariota in the 2015 NFL Draft. They are the only two first-round quarterbacks since 2011 of whom this can be said. The players that were taken before them, and indeed at least one after them (Carson Wentz of the Eagles) all either secured a new deal before the fifth season or were already out on their ears before the fifth year started.
The RotoViz Screener app shows us how closely Mariota compares to other first-round QBs since 2011 in their first four seasons, and he actually comes out quite well.
Winston is the only player with a higher yard per attempt mark than Mariota’s 7.5. Only Winston and Andrew Luck have thrown touchdowns at a higher rate than Mariota’s 4.3%. The games played is an obvious downer, with Mariota missing eight games in his first four seasons, but on the whole, not a terrible look for the former Oregon signal-caller.
A Career of Two Halves
It must be pointed out of course that Mariota’s first two seasons were unquestionably more successful than his last two. Indeed, the splits between 2015-16 and 2017-18 are quite stark in their viewing.
Mariota has still been able to keep amassing yards through the air at a decent rate. A 7.4 yard-per-attempt average is nothing to be sneezed at. But his touchdowns per game has halved since his first two years in the league. Of the 24 QBs to have attempted at least 700 passes in the last two seasons, no QB has thrown his touchdowns at a lower rate than Mariota’s 3.1%.
While missing eight games in four seasons doesn’t seem bad on paper, Mariota has not helped himself by playing through injury in other games. This also has led to his numbers taking a major hit. We should also remember that continuity is not something that Mariota, or the Titans, have enjoyed a great deal of, especially not in the offensive coordinator position. Between 2015 and 2018, Mariota has played under three head coaches and three different offensive coordinators.
A Player on the Up?
All of these factors would seem to suggest why Mariota’s current ADP of QB28 over at FanBall, not to mention his spot at QB24 here at RotoViz is somewhat justified. However, there are a whole host of other factors that I believe will help him outperform these lowly expectations, and make him something of a late-round player to target, not ignore, in drafts this season.
As much as Mariota’s career can seemingly be looked at as two distinct entities, the same can be said for his 2018 season. From Week 9 to Week 16, Mariota began to look something like his old self. He was, arguably, completely healthy for the first time all season.
As a result, during this time Mariota led the Titans to a 6-2 record, including wins over the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys and Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Mariota completed 71.3% of his passes during this time and posted an 8:3 touchdown to interception ratio.1 His splits over this run make for encouraging reading.
Now, I grant you that these are not superstar numbers. He finished as the QB15 during this span, after all. But his yards per attempt was bettered only by Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Deshaun Watson during this span. Plus, his touchdown rate was up to 4.4%.
The return of Mariota, not to mention an increased emphasis on the ground game, led to the Titans offense practically exploding during this late-season surge. The Titans nearly doubled their points per drive mark from 1.37 to 2.21.
The Titans should still be a run-first team in 2019, with contract year running back Derrick Henry hoping to build on his ridiculously strong finish to last season. But the Titans have gone out of their way to upgrade the receiving weapons around Mariota, hoping to build on his efficiency rather than overwhelm him with volume. This will certainly come in handy, considering the Titans face the fourth toughest rushing schedule in the NFL in 2019, according to Sharp Football.
Wide Receivers? Since When?
WR production, on the whole, is not something the Titans have enjoyed during Mariota’s run with the team.
No Titans WR has caught more than 75 passes since 2014, while no Titans WR has reeled in more than five touchdowns in the last two seasons. Corey Davis boasted the eighth highest target share among all WRs in the NFL last season, enjoying a 26.4% piece of the Titans pie. But he converted this into a mere 65/891/4 line.
After getting practically zero production out of the slot last season, the Titans brought in Adam Humphries in free agency. Humphries posted a devilish 666 yards out of the slot for the Buccaneers last season, while all the Titans WRs combined delivered 575. The Titans also spent a second-round draft pick on WR A.J. Brown out of Mississippi. Brown is a capable pass-catcher, with the fourth most receptions and second most yards in college football over the last two seasons (160-2572). But he was able to catch the eye of many with his measurables at the NFL Scouting Combine.
There are a host of names that have invited discussions re similarity to Brown too. Although there are also some names that we can only hope Brown does better than.
The numbers do not suggest that Brown is a carbon copy of the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alshon Jeffery or Mike Evans, of course. But nor do they say he is the second coming of Sammie Coates. But as a range of possible outcomes, they make him an exciting player to have around Mariota. He is also a player we at RotoViz are much higher on, in comparison to best ballplayers. His current ADP at FanBall is WR74. He is the WR47 in our redraft rankings, while he is as high as WR31 in our dynasty ranks.
An Old Friend Returns
We can also not forget that Mariota will be reunited with his most trusted ally this season. I speak of course of tight end Delanie Walker. Walker has received the most targets of any player from Mariota (276). While only Rishard Matthews and Taywan Taylor (remember them?) can boast a higher AYA when targeted by him.
Mariota has seen his numbers drop appreciably whenever Walker has been out of the lineup.
It may be a lot to expect of a 35-year-old TE coming off a serious injury to help his QB recapture past glories. But his return, plus the elevation of former Titans TE coach Arthur Smith to the role of offensive coordinator (Yep, another one) should enable the Titans to develop some form of continuity to a time or times when their offense worked. Smith was on the staff last season. While he wasn’t calling the plays, one would expect he will continue to lean on Henry as a workhorse, allowing Mariota to make plays when needed.
This may not sound like a perfect recipe for a successful season, and I don’t argue that. I am not here to suggest that Mariota will be in the conversation for the overall QB1 at the end of the year. But I am suggesting that, if he can stay healthy, he will make for an excellent early season streaming option. Or maybe an ideal second QB in the super-flex format. Hey, if the Titans can trust him with $20.9m this season, surely you can give him a look late in drafts, or on the waiver wire heading into Week 1, right?
Image Credit: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire.
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