Marcus Mariota Is Still Incredibly Underrated
Carson Wentz. Jared Goff. Derek Carr. Deshaun Watson. These are the kinds of names that get thrown around as the NFL's great next class of quarterbacks. Not often enough does Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota’s name get brought up in that wide scale conversation.
He deserves it, though.
The former second-overall pick has been playing just as well -- or better -- than the players above who are normally getting the most headlines.
Top of the League
When Net Expected Points (NEP) as the barometer, Mariota has been one of the league's best quarterbacks this season on a per-drop back basis. Not one of the best young quarterbacks, one of the best in the league overall. Among the 32 signal callers who have dropped back at least 100 times, Mariota ranks fifth in Passing NEP per drop back behind only Tom Brady, Alex Smith, Drew Brees, and Wentz.
Mariota is also one of the best quarterbacks in Success Rate -- the percentage of passes that positively impact NEP -- this season. He ranks third behind Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston while being just one of four quarterbacks with a Success Rate above 50 percent.
If you took a quick composite score by taking these quarterbacks’ ranks in Passing NEP per drop back and Success Rate and dividing by two, Mariota ties for first along with Smith and Brees -- two quarterbacks regularly brought up as the best in the league, at least in 2017. The below table displays the top 10.
|QB||Passing NEP Per Drop Back Rank||Success Rate Rank||Avg. Rank|
Maybe it’s a surprise to some how well Mariota has played this season, though less so for others. What is most shocking is the way he’s played to this level so far, and that’s not considering he’s played without first-round pick Corey Davis and is currently dealing with a hamstring injury.
While Mariota is fifth in Passing NEP per drop back, not many of those points have come by throwing touchdowns. Through his five games played, he’s thrown only four touchdowns for a rate of just 2.8 percent. That’s currently the fifth-lowest rate in the league, but also well below the 5.1 and 5.8 percent rates he put up in his first two seasons, respectively.
It’s important for quarterbacks to throw touchdown passes, but that Mariota has done so well in NEP without doing what brings the most points is equally as impressive. Despite missing about a game and a half, Mariota has the 6th-best Passing NEP on non-touchdown throws and is 11th in Passing NEP overall.
And since the young signal caller's touchdown rate is well below his career norms, we can safely expect an increased number of touchdowns going forward in the season.
Another thing that Mariota has excelled at is controlling the pocket. He's considered a mobile quarterback, though rarely does he run just to run. He is successful when he takes off -- fifth among quarterbacks in Rushing NEP -- but that’s not what he looks to do when plays break down. Often for quarterbacks who can move, they can run their way into sacks, but not Mariota -- his current 2.1 percent sack rate is the lowest in the league.
It's also worth noting how little the sacks he's taken have impacted the offense. He's lost a total of just six yards off three sacks, one of which came Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts when he slid just a yard behind the line of scrimmage to give himself up on a scramble.
This isn’t just a Tennessee offensive line thing, either. The Titans have allowed the fifth-lowest pressure rate on offense per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, but that wasn’t enough to save Matt Cassel, who has been sacked eight times on 50 drop backs (16 percent sack rate). That’s atrocious, but one would expect even a statue like Cassel to have a better rate if you’re also going to give the line credit for keeping Mariota upright.
The reality is, Mariota can avoid pressure and isn’t afraid to step up into a throw when a hit is coming.
What you see above is an eight-yard gain on 3rd-and-6 with pressure from a corner blitz in his face and an eventual hit around the edge after the throw.
Mariota is avoiding sacks better than Drew Brees, who has the sixth-quickest average time to throw per the NFL’s Next-Gen Stats and the league’s second-best offensive line in pressure rate allowed, per Football Outsiders.
Next up, the Tennessee quarterback gets to face the Cleveland Browns, who have been one of the worst defenses in the league (30th by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and 31st by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play).
Every quarterback who has played against the Browns this season has thrown for at least one touchdown, with five of the six having thrown for at least two. The worst quarterback performance against the Browns came from Josh McCown, who was the only one to fail posting a Passing NEP per drop back of at least 0.10. The league average for quarterbacks this season is 0.07. Mariota and the Titans should have no problem through the air on Sunday.
|QB vs. CLE||TD:INT||Passing NEP Per Drop Back|
After Cleveland, Tennessee gets a bye, which should allow his hamstring to get back to full health if it’s not already. After the bye, Mariota and the Titans face a stretch of the other AFC North teams who can actually play defense. Tennessee hosts the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals before going on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Weeks 9, 10, and 11.
That’s not an easy stretch, but if Mariota continues to play the way he has so far this season, there might not be a stretch of defenses too much for him to handle.