Marcus Mariota Is Becoming a Star

Mariota has been lights out over the past six weeks, particularly in the red zone, and his play this season is a big reason why the Titans are hanging around in the AFC playoff picture.

Marcus Mariota is having himself a breakout year. His talent was never in question, but the way the Tennessee Titans decided to build around him in the offseason raised some questions about how the second-year quarterback was going to be allowed to develop. Well, whether it’s because of or in spite of those decisions, Mariota is having quite the sophomore season.

The ascension continued in Week 10 during the Titans’ 44-25 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers. Mariota threw for 295 yards, 5 touchdowns and no interceptions against the Packers, and he was the best quarterback of the week, per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, on a per-drop-back basis.

Week 10 marked the second time Mariota has led quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back in a given week -- both within the past three weeks -- and he now has two of the top-six single game performances (we’ll go to six here because there is a tie at five.) No other quarterback has more than one game in the top 10.

Week Opponent Passing NEP/Drop Back
Marcus Mariota 8 Jaguars 0.98
Dak Prescott 9 Browns 0.78
Ben Roethlisberger 4 Chiefs 0.77
Matt Ryan 4 Panthers 0.70
Marcus Mariota 10 Packers 0.69
Matthew Stafford 6 Rams 0.69

Mariota’s Week 8 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars remains the best game of the season by quite a wide margin. And while his Week 10 out against Green Bay wasn’t near that, it was still enough to be tied for the fifth-best single game performance of the year through the first 10 weeks of the season. Those two teams aren't top-flight pass defenses -- Jacksonville does rank 12th against the pass, per our schedule-adjusted metrics -- but Mariota took advantage, which is what good quarterbacks should do against lesser competition.

He's also not just feasting on bad defenses, he's been playing at a high level for much of the year. Among the 35 quarterbacks who have dropped back at least 100 times this season, Mariota ranks ninth in Passing NEP per drop back. That’s a spot above popular MVP candidate Derek Carr. Mariota’s Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- is seventh among these quarterbacks.

We don't have to start throwing Mariota in the still-too-early MVP conversation, but by just about any measure, Mariota has performed like a top-10 quarterback through this point in 2016.

Continued Development

When he came into the league, Mariota was labeled as a spread quarterback because of the college system he came from at Oregon. The Ducks' offense was expected to make Mariota's transition to a pro-style attack a tough one. Now a little more than halfway through his second season, Mariota is showing big-time progress as a passer.

For example, let's look at the 32-yard touchdown pass to Rishard Matthews in the second quarter against the Packers on Sunday. Green Bay lined five men up along the line of scrimmage and sent all five. To counter, Tennessee left seven players in to block. While that gives the Titans the advantage in pass protection, it also gives Mariota limited options down the field -- a common occurrence for Tennessee.

After some pre-snap motion, the Titans lined up in a 2-by-1 set with tight end Delanie Walker as the lone receiver on the right side of the formation. Walker has been the biggest receiving threat in the Tennessee passing offense this season. He leads the team in targets, receiving yards and Reception NEP per target (0.76).

With a single high safety, Mariota does a great job luring him over to Walker’s side by keeping his eyes focused down the middle of the field. This opened up one-on-one coverage for both receivers on the left, and Mariota was able to help throw Matthews open against Micah Hyde in the end zone. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass)

Between the seven-step drop from under center, controlling the safety with his eyes and improved deep accuracy, the play is everything you’d want to see from an NFL quarterback.

Red Zone Monster

Where Mariota has really excelled this year is in the red zone. He’s been just about perfect from 20 yards and in this year, totaling 16 touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. There’s other players who have impressive touchdown-to-interception ratios in the red zone, but Mariota’s ability to avoid other negative plays like sacks or fumbles makes him the league’s most efficient quarterback in the red zone this season by a wide margin. Take a look how he compares to some of the other top quarterbacks this year who have similar raw statistics at this part of the field.

Drop Backs TD-INT Passing NEP/Drop Back
Marcus Mariota 46 16-0 0.72
Matthew Stafford 39 13-0 0.62
Drew Brees 58 19-1 0.49
Ben Roethlisberger 33 12-0 0.43
Aaron Rodgers 69 19-0 0.29
Matt Ryan 55 13-1 0.21

This isn’t anything new for Mariota as he excelled here last season, too. By comparison to this season, his 0.53 Passing NEP per drop back in the red zone a year ago seems low, but that’s still an impressive mark.

He was mistake free in the most important part of the field last season, too, with no interceptions and just two sacks taken. In 95 career attempts inside the 20, Mariota has yet to throw an interception. Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford are the only two other quarterbacks with at least 90 passes and no red zone interceptions over the past two seasons. Take passer rating for what you will, but Mariota is the second-highest rated passer in the red zone (behind Stafford) since the start of 2015, which, as a reminder, was his rookie year.

A New Hope

Mariota has been helped by a solid running game, but it's Tennessee's passing offense that's been more efficient. The Titans rank 14th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, and they’re 9th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play.

Tennessee is currently 18th, per our nERD rankings, which is the best ranking in the AFC South. The Titans are also the only team in their division with a positive point differential. However, they only have a 25.8% chance of making the playoffs and 19.3% chance of winning the division due to the wins the Houston Texans already have in the bank.

Still, the Titans are more competitive than many would have imagined this season, and even if they can’t get themselves into the playoffs this year, the team is trending upwards with an improving star at quarterback.