NFL

Why Marcus Mariota Is the Late-Round Quarterback Worth Taking A Chance On

Can Marcus Mariota provide the right bang for your buck in fantasy football drafts this season?

Every season, a "Mr. Irrelevant" is selected to the NFL, a title bestowed to the last pick of the annual NFL Draft.

And in every league, a "Mr. Irrelevant" is picked in fantasy football drafts as well. Typically it's a kicker or a defense, sometimes a backup tight end.

But in one of my long-time leagues -- made up of good friends that I've known since my college days and of which I've been a part of for more than a decade now -- this wasn't the case for the 2011 season. Oh no. Even to this day I still remember "Mr. Irrelevant" for that league very well.

That's because that year my close friend, Cliff, selected Carolina Panthers then-rookie quarterback Cam Newton.

As soon as the draft ended, I sent Cliff a message to tell him that the computer wasted his last pick by autodrafting Newton for him. And I'll never forget his response.

"It wasn't the computer that picked Cam, and it wasn't a waste."

Boy, was he right.

If you asked any 10 people prior to the start of the 2011 season what they thought of Cam Newton for fantasy football, nine of them would have told you that he shouldn't be drafted. He was playing on a team whose offense the year prior ranked dead-last in total offense, scored just 12.2 points per game, and whose offensive line gave up the second-most sacks in the league with 50.

And because of this situation, despite a dominant performance in his first and only year in Auburn and having just won a National Championship and Heisman Trophy with them, Newton was still being selected 167th overall in drafts that year.

Yet, when it was all said and done, Newton finished the year as the third-ranked quarterback in the league, throwing for more than 4,000 yards, picking up another 700-plus on the ground, and amassing 35 total touchdowns to boot.

I bring up this story because whenever I look into Marcus Mariota's situation in Tennessee, hear the debates about what to expect from him in his rookie year, and see him being taken 176th overall in drafts, I can't help but remember that just four years ago, Cam Newton was in a pretty similar situation. And as we'll soon discuss, just like Newton, Mariota has the skill set and physical tools in place to prove all the doubters wrong and greatly reward managers willing to take a chance on him at the end of their drafts.

Getting A READ On the Situation

When I say Marcus Mariota and his situation reminds me a lot of Cam Newton during his rookie year, I'm not the only one.

Using our READ algorithm, which takes into account a player's athletic profile and team situation to identify which current NFL players he most closely resembles, we find that Mariota actually demonstrates a 93.6% similarity to Newton.

NameSimilarityYearQB Rk
Jake Locker94.87%201142nd
Andrew Luck94.18%201210th
Cam Newton93.60%20113rd
Christian Ponder93.20%201128th
Russell Wilson92.17%20129th

In all fairness, however, this same algorithm which listed Newton as having a 93.6% similarity to Mariota also has Jake Locker at the top of the pile with a 94.9% mark, and Christian Ponder sitting just ahead of Russell Wilson at 93.2%.

I don't have to tell you that this is quite a wide range of possibilities for Mariota. And this spread is actually one of the big reasons why our own Associate Editor Brandon Gdula thinks Mariota has boom-or-bust potential for the Titans this year.

But I argue there's one crucial trait that separates the top-10 performers on this list from the replacement-level talents, and one that groups Mariota more closely to the Newtons and Wilsons than the Lockers and Ponders.

That trait is quarterback mobility.

And as Mariota has demonstrated during his days at Oregon, he can run with the best of them.

Rumble, Young Man! Rumble!

When we look at the collegiate track record for these quarterbacks, we see that Mariota ranks at the top of the list in terms of career averages for yards per carry, running for an impressive 6.6 yards per attempt. And in terms of yards per game averages, Mariota is second only to Newton with a mark of 57 over his three year career. Indeed, Mariota rushed for at least 700 yards in every one of his seasons as an Oregon Duck.

NameSchoolSeasonsRuYds/Att
Marcus MariotaORE2012-20146.6
Andrew LuckSTAN2009-20115.9
Cam NewtonAUB2010*5.6
Jake LockerWAS2007-20104.3
Russell WilsonWIS2011*4.3
Christian PonderFSU2007-20102.8

*Transfer Season

While the players at the top of the list above were all gifted athletes in college, in terms of translating this success on the ground over to the NFL, no one did it better than Cam Newton his rookie season. In 2011, Newton ran for 705 yards on 126 attempts for a 5.5 yards per carry average, crossing the goal line an impressive 14 times.

It's therefore reassuring when considering Mariota's prospects of making the leap to the pros to see that the former Oregon Duck shares more than just a Heisman Trophy and BCS National title with the Panthers' quarterback. Other than weight, Mariota is a near carbon copy of Newton in every other category including length, athleticism, and explosiveness.

YearNameHghtWghtArmsHands40 ydVertBroad3Cone20 ss
2015M. Mariota6' 4"22232"9⅞"4.5236"121"6.874.11
2011C. Newton6' 5"24833¾"9⅞"4.5635"126"6.924.18

Sporting nearly identical agility scores in the 3-cone drill and 20-yard short shuttle to Newton, being just a hair faster on the 40-yard dash, and with comparable power measures in the vertical leap and broad jump categories, Mariota looks to at least have the physical tools necessary to run on defenses in his rookie year the way Newton did back in 2011.

Those skeptical of the Titans plans to use Mariota's 4.52 wheels in the offensive gameplan need only see that head coach Ken Whisenhunt has already made statements suggesting the Titans plan to deploy Mariota in the same capacity that the Seahawks use Russell Wilson.

By drawing up designed plays for their rookie quarterback while also giving him the green light to use his legs to "extend the play" on occassions "when the play breaks down," the added yardage on the ground would not only provide a nice floor for Mariota's value, but would also keep drives alive and increase his team's (and more importantly, at least from a fantasy perspective, Mariota's) scoring opportunities. Indeed, in Wilson's and Newton's rookie seasons, those two signal-callers added an estimated 28.8 and 50.3 points to their respective offenses on the ground according to our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which are high marks for quarterbacks.

A Titanic Task

The biggest Mariota doubters will point to the ineptitude of the Tennessee offense last season as their reason for staying away from the Titans' rookie quarterback for 2015.

And no matter how you spin it, there's no way to sugarcoat this one. The Titans offense was bad last year. Okay, they were downright awful.

In terms of adjusted per play averages for Total NEP, Passing NEP, and Rushing NEP, Tennessee ranked 29th, 30th, and 23rd, respectively, last season.

Pretty bad spot for a rookie quarterback to come into, right? Well, they don't give you the number-two overall pick in the draft for nothing. But as bad as this was, you know who had it worse?

You guessed it, Cam Newton.

YearTeamAdj NEP/P (Rk)Adj PNEP/P (Rk)Adj RNEP/P (Rk)
2014TEN-0.06 (29th)-0.06 (30th)--0.04 (23rd)
2010CAR-0.19 (31st)-0.23 (32nd)-0.12 (32nd)

In 2010, the year prior to Newton's arrival in Carolina, the Panthers ranked second-to-last in adjusted per play averages for total NEP and dead-last in adjusted averages for Passing and Rushing NEP.

So whatever Mariota's situation is going into the 2015 season, Newton's situation was even worse.

But once the team put Newton under center, the Panthers offense quickly rose from the depths of the league in 2010 to ranking 4th, 13th and 1st in adjusted per play averages for Total, Passing, and Rushing NEP, respectively, in 2011.

And there's reason to believe that the insertion of Mariota into the Titans lineup should have the same effects on Tennessee's offense.

As I alluded to above, Mariota's running game could be the tide that lifts all boats. Much has already been written about how mobile quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III make the running game that much easier for backs like LeSean McCoy and Alfred Morris, so I won't go into too much detail on that here.

But overall, the boost Mariota's running ability gives the Titans offense was probably best described by Titans center Fernando Velasco (who, by the way, played with Newton in Carolina last year) when he said "a running quarterback keeps the defense guessing because they have to defend all 11 guys instead of just 10... it's unbelievable how much of a benefit that can be."

On top of all this, Mariota can also help the Titans move the ball with his arm, too. With a career 66.8% completion rate over his three year career at Oregon, coaches and teammates have already started praising Mariota for his accuracy during their offseason work with him. And it's this precision that will help Mariota utilize possession receiver Kendall Wright and tight end Delanie Walker in the short-to-intermediate range to move the chains through the air.

If you ask me, a mobile quarterback with great passing accuracy is a defense's worst nightmare. He can use this skill set to take pressure off his entire offense, compensate for a bad offensive line, help make something out of nothing, and perhaps, just like Newton did for fantasy owners back in 2011, turn a mediocre fantasy squad into a title contender.

Take A Chance

Low risk and high reward. Fantasy football managers are obsessed with these two things in every draft. Going undrafted in most 10- and 12-team leagues, and with the type of potential we've described above, the rookie out of Oregon finds himself at the perfect intersection between these two categories to reward fantasy football managers willing to use a roster spot on him. With that being said, I'll be looking to grab Mariota in the last round of almost every draft I'm in. That is, of course, unless Cliff beats me to it again.