Is Marcus Mariota a Top-5 Fantasy Quarterback in 2017?
When I first moved to Minnesota, I had no idea that a startling amount of subtle pop culture referenced the Twin Cities. I was especially stunned to find out the movie The Mighty Ducks was set in Minneapolis and its wealthy suburb Edina.
If you’re unfamiliar, The Mighty Ducks is about a hockey team of scrappy upstart kids who struggle with trust in themselves, trust in each other, and trust in their washed-up coach. With a few quirky personalities, some unconventional tactics, and good old-fashioned suspension of disbelief, they go on to win the championship against all odds.
A mere 25 years after this movie came out, another young Duck is in the exact same position -- just in a totally different sport.
Former Oregon Duck -- now Tennessee Titans quarterback -- Marcus Mariota is on the rise in the National Football League. He is surrounded by a cast of young characters, some wizened veterans, and his formerly distrusted head coach Mike Mularkey, whose unconventional tactics were scoffed at by many.
Mariota is entering his third year in the pros, in a young and rising offense. Is it time that we stop expecting him to triple-deke us out and trust him as a top-tier fantasy quarterback?
What we know about Marcus Mariota is that he was a dynamic hybrid quarterback out at Oregon, and when he came to the pros -- drafted by the Tennessee Titans second overall in 2015 -- he was put into an offense that branded itself as “exotic smashmouth" heading into last season.
A heavy emphasis on the run meant that the passing attack wouldn’t be the focal point, allowing Mariota to develop in the NFL at his own pace without needing to carry the team in every game.
The Titans’ reliance on the ground game is certainly unusual in today’s pass-happy league, but has it helped Mariota grow?
We can observe this development by examining numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) analytic. NEP is an analytic that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
The table below shows Mariota’s 2015 and 2016 Passing NEP production on a per-drop back basis, as well as his Passing Success Rate (the percent of drop backs converted to positive value). We can see if he’s grown since his first year in the league through this.
|Year||Drop Backs||Pass NEP||Pass NEP/P||Pass Success Rate|
Sure enough, despite getting injured again to end the year, Mariota’s passing acumen jumped forward by leaps and bounds. He more than doubled the value per drop back, and slightly increased his consistency.
Adding to that, the versatile Mariota amped up his Rushing Success Rate from just over 50 percent in his rookie season to a stellar 66.0 percent in his second year. His Rushing NEP per attempt dropped from 0.50 to 0.18, but he also rushed 17 more times and simply had fewer monster gains like this one from his rookie year.
Mariota is on a growth path to becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the league on a per-play basis, after already ranking 11th by Passing NEP per drop back among the 39 passers to drop back at least 100 times last year. The value increases -- and consistency gains -- he’s demonstrating show the hallmarks of a flourishing star, and confirm that the Titans are building the offense around him the right way.
But can he rise to the elite tier in fantasy football as well?
Fantasy football, as we who play it know, is a totally different beast from the NFL. Some things hold up between the two -- players who produce more yards and touchdowns tend to be good at both -- but the gridiron doesn’t always value the same skill sets as the fantasy field. A few years ago, I looked into what statistics provided the most fantasy value to quarterbacks, and easily the strongest relationship leading to fantasy points was with the volume of touches a player saw.
Mariota, while extremely efficient, still plays in a run-first offense that actively tries to keep him from throwing more than he has to. Over the last two years, in fact, Mariota was 24th and 25th respectively in total opportunities (drop backs plus rushes) among starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
Adding another extremely prolific red-zone receiver in Eric Decker is certainly a boon to Mariota; over the last two seasons (in which Decker played just 18 of a possible 32 games) Decker has been the eighth-most targeted NFL receiver inside the 10-yard line and is tied for fifth-most touchdowns in close. Still, though, the Titans may not be able to get much better in that regard: over the same span of time, they have been the best passing team inside the 10, with a 27.0 percent touchdown rate (best) and 2.0 percent interception rate (seventh-best).
In addition, rookie wideouts Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor are the types of players who will be great additions to the offense when they decide to open things up. All the groundwork is laid for a Mariota blossoming, but until he adds more volume to complement his value, he won’t be a top-tier fantasy quarterback. Mariota’s average 483.5 opportunities over the last two seasons are well below the 595-touch average since 2000 to even turn in a 250-point fantasy season -- and 250 points in 2016 would have just earned a spot inside the top-20 at the position.
To become a top-five option at quarterback, with around 300 fantasy points in a year, the average passer has needed around 621 combined passes and rushes. Only four players have achieved that mark with fewer than 550 touches:
|Player||Year||Team||Games||FPTS||Att||Comp%||Pass Yd||Pass TD||Int||Rush||Rush Yds||Rush TD|
Like Mariota, two of these hyper-efficient fantasy players were prolific rushers, and another was quite mobile as well: Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, and Aaron Rodgers all rushed at least 60 times during their insanely efficient top-tier seasons. Also fortunate for Mariota's profile is that none of them attempted over 500 passes, but did limit interceptions to a maximum rate of 2.32 percent. This kind of ball control and protection is where Mariota excels; he had just a 2.00 percent pick rate in 2016.
Mariota is likely going to be a great NFL quarterback when all is said and done. He can use those tools to become an excellent fantasy passer as well, and a top-tier season or two is not impossible for his upside, but the 2017 season is likely going to be another one where the Titans move the ball primarily on the ground.
Our models project him as the 11th-best quarterback for fantasy this year, and that seems appropriate for his current career path: bordering on greatness, but biding his time for now.