Marcus Mariota wowed the country time and time again during his final season at Oregon on his way to becoming the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner. After throwing for 42 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, Mariota received the third-highest percentage of possible points (90.92) in Heisman history behind only Troy Smith and Reggie Bush. Despite his college dominance and his second-overall draft selection, many weren’t sold just yet, possibly envisioning an NFL career closer to Troy Smith’s than to John Elway’s.
While the jury is still out, no one can claim Mariota doesn’t know how to make an entrance. In Week 1 of last season, Mariota became the first player in NFL history to throw four TD passes in the first half of his NFL debut on the way to a 42-14 shellacking of the Buccaneers. A solid rookie campaign silenced some of the critics and has us excited for Mariota’s future, but what exactly can we expect from him in 2016?
Exotic Smashmouth = Home Movie Version of Adult Film
In case you’ve been living under a rock, back in mid-February, Mike Mularkey said this about the offense he hopes to run in Tennessee:
Mularkey: Says his old offensive system in Pitt, which he hopes to replicate, was known as "exotic smashmouth."
— John Glennon (@glennonsports) February 18, 2016
Mularkey and the Titans followed those comments up by trading for Demarco Murray and selecting Derrick Henry in the second round of April’s NFL Draft, so there’s little doubt the Titans would like to run the ball more in 2016. Further adding to the speculation, Mariota recently told Mularkey he would “hand the ball off 40 times” if that’s what it took to win games. This is all well and good, yet it remains to be seen whether they’ll accomplish these goals or not. Just like the famous poet Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
I have a feeling the ball will be aired out plenty by Mariota in 2016. Here’s why: First, the Titans ranked 28th in total rush attempts last year, so there’s really nowhere to go but up anyway. Second, their defense gave up the sixth-most points in the entire league last season and don’t project to be much better in 2016. Thirdly, Vegas has the Titans’ win total set at 5.5, tied with the 49ers for second-lowest, ahead of only the Cleveland Browns. You can’t really stick to a run-heavy approach when you’re trailing in the second half of games. Mind-blowing, I know. Add it all up, and the quality of the Titans’ “Exotic Smashmouth” will be just as poor as a homemade adult film.
Upgraded Supporting Cast
I apologize for having to do this to you. I hope you didn’t just finish eating. The second-most targeted player on the Titans last year was…drumroll please… Harry Douglas. I’m not even sure the Titans should be allowed to be an NFL franchise after that, to be perfectly honest. My twitter timeline hasn’t told me they’ve joined the CFL yet, so let’s continue. The Titans brought in wide receiver Rishard Matthews and, capable pass catcher out of the backfield, Demarco Murray, in free agency. They also drafted wide receiver Tajae Sharpe in the fifth round, who is currently listed as a starter heading into training camp (Classic Titans).
Those three additions join the trio of Delanie Walker, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Kendall Wright. Walker and Wright are reliable veterans, and if Tennessee ever lets Dorial Green-Beckham breathe, he should continue to develop in year two. Oh yeah, fantasy superstar Harry Douglas is still a Titan as well. How could I forget?
Out of all the new additions, Rishard Matthews should make the biggest impact. With Matthews essentially missing the final six games of last year due to injury, it’s easy to forget just how good he was. In his first year as a starting WR, Matthews did not disappoint. Let’s look at how he fared last season compared to his teammate, Jarvis Landry, who is currently being drafted 10 rounds higher according to Fantasy Football Calculator 12 Team PPR ADP. I also threw Harry Douglas in just for fun. Here’s what the RotoViz NFL Career Graphs App shows us:
Despite receiving fewer targets, Matthews still came close to matching Landry’s production in receiving yards per game. In fact, he bested Landry in some significant categories on his way to an efficient and productive season. As for Harry Douglas, well, you get the picture. These numbers certainly bring into question why the ADP gap between Landry and Matthews is so large, but that’s a different article for another day. For now, it’s a great visual to help us realize although Mariota’s pass catchers won’t set the world on fire, they’ve certainly been upgraded from last season.
Let’s look at some QB comparisons to Mariota’s rookie year via the Rotoviz QB Similarity Scores App:
There are some mediocre names on this list, but a lot of solid names as well. Cam Newton’s definitely jumped out at me. Let’s explore that comparison a bit further using the Rotoviz NFL Career Graphs App.
As you can see, Mariota’s rookie passing numbers compare favorably to Newton’s first four years in the league. In fact, Mariota’s rookie numbers were better across the board than Newton’s 2014 season, the year before Cam set the league on fire in 2015.
Where Newton has the edge over Mariota so far, and where he’s always excelled, is in the run game. Whether that continues to be the case in 2016 though, remains to be seen.
More Rushing Production? Yes, Please!
We all know how beneficial rushing production can be to a quarterback’s fantasy football success (see Tim Tebow’s 2011 season), so I’m surprised Mike Mularkey’s comments earlier this offseason didn’t generate more buzz (maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, as it was reported in the same story as “Exotic Smashmouth”). Mularkey stated the Titans have plans to use Mariota as a runner more often, and alluded to having extra blockers on the field for designed QB runs. If true, this could be a game-changer for Mariota’s 2016 fantasy potential. While at Oregon, Mariota showed us Cam Newton-esque rushing upside.
#Titans QB Marcus Mariota avgd 2.0 rush attempts/game under Ken Whisenhunt in 2015. Avgd 4.0 rush attempts in 6 full games under Mularkey.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) February 24, 2016
Not only is Mularkey talking about more runs for Mariota, his QB’s rush attempts doubled during the time he spent as head coach last season. Mariotta finished last season ninth in rushing yards by a QB, even though he only played in 12 games. If he stays healthy and runs the ball more in 2016, look out.
Versatility + Upside
Despite finishing last season 22nd among QBs in fantasy points, Mariota actually finished 10th in points per game (the same end-of-season rank Newton had in 2014). There is little doubt Mariota’s two 30+ point weeks aided his points-per-game ranking. Showing his versatility, Mariota eclipsed 30 fantasy points once while only rushing for five yards against the Saints in Week 9, and another time while rushing for 112 yards and a TD in Week 13 against the Jaguars. It’s awesome to see he has the ability to compile fantasy points in multiple ways, making his production somewhat independent of game script.
Top-12 QB Potential at a Discounted Price
Mariota is currently being drafted as the QB16 and QB17 in in our July 10- and 12-team redraft mocks, respectively. That seems like a fair price. Yet, digging a bit deeper, there is some value to exploit here. Despite Mariota finishing as a QB1 in points per game last season, he’s going nearly 30 picks later in our July mock drafts than fellow sophomore, Jameis Winston, who was recently profiled by Anthony Amico. Winston ran for six TDs in 2015, four more than Mariota, and still finished 10 spots behind Mariota in points per game. While it’s no guarantee by any means, if Mariota stays healthy and continues to run the ball more in 2016, drafters could be very happy with their return on investment. He’s definitely worth the investment at his current ADP, especially considering his upside.