Marcus Mariota Might Not Have as Much Fantasy Football Upside as You Think
When I was a kid, I had this blue action figure whom I so cleverly dubbed, "Blue Man." The creative juices weren't quite flowing yet in my three-year-old cranium.
Blue Man and I did everything together. We'd race toy cars on the window sill, dig in the sand, and bathe all in the course of a single day. I didn't need any other toys because I was so enamored with that one.
Then, one day, Blue Man was gone. Nowhere to be found.
That was such a devastating feeling. To have a toy so simple and so perfect in your grasp -- to know the joy it could bring you -- only to have that joy taken away is something that'll scar a kid for a lifetime to come.
That's what Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey is doing to us in holding back Marcus Mariota. He's taking away our prized plaything.
Last year, we got to experience the thrill-ride that is a fast, mobile quarterback as Mariota had a pair of days with 30-plus fantasy points. When he was healthy, homie could cook, and it was a ton of fun to watch.
Then this offseason came around, and the hope that we'd get to see a full season of the fun Mariota got squished with just one strange quote.
Mularkey: Says his old offensive system in Pitt, which he hopes to replicate, was known as "exotic smashmouth."
— John Glennon (@glennonsports) February 18, 2016
Exotic. Smashmouth. Release me from this hellish world.
Although we want to favor efficiency over volume from quarterbacks for fantasy, volume does still matter. When a team's head coach says he wants the offense to be a run-heavy unit -- and backs it up by trading for DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry -- it's hard to have faith that the volume will come. This is where we're at with Mariota right now.
However, we did see last year that Mariota is a talented individual, meaning it's worth it to dig a bit deeper to see whether or not all hope is truly dead. In order to do this, let's look back through the past couple of seasons at similar run-first offenses to see whether or not their quarterbacks were fantasy relevant. If we see a decent track record there, then maybe it'd be worthwhile to overlook the coach speak and buy into the skills. If not, I've got a nice blanket we can all hold while we suck our thumbs in the corner, mourning the loss of our beloved toy.
Investigating Run-Heavy Offenses
There's an interesting caveat with the Titans and this infatuation with rushing. It's hard to stick to the ground game when you're not a winning team, and Bovada currently has the Titans' win total this year at 5.5. This will change the way we do our research into the past.
Let's set two parameters for our search. First, we'll narrow the scope to below-.500 teams over the past five years. Obviously, the Titans could exceed that total, but our assumption right now should be that they will sit below it.
Second, we'll solely investigate the teams' pass-to-run ratios in the first half of games. That's the part of the game where a team can most easily dictate their gameplan before they either have to pass to close a deficit or rush to milk clock.
After snagging those pass-to-run ratios, we'll see how those teams' quarterbacks fared during that individual season. All rankings will come via FFToday.com, using full-team quarterback rankings so as to qualify for injuries that occur during the season.
To start with, we'll look at below-.500 teams with first-half pass-to-run ratios of 1.20 or lower, putting them in the 25th percentile or lower among all teams over that span (the league-wide average was 1.41). You'd assume this is roughly the range where an "exotic smashmouth" team would want to land in their first-half play-calling.
In our three-year sample, there were only 11 teams that met our rush-heavy, bad-team criteria, and as you can see below, the results were just straight blood.
|Team||Season||Pass-to-Run Ratio||Quarterback Ranking|
|New York Jets||2014||0.87||31|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||2015||1.05||17|
|St. Louis Rams||2013||1.06||30|
|St. Louis Rams||2014||1.08||28|
|St. Louis Rams||2015||1.20||32|
Four of the teams were 30th or worse, eight were 27th or worse, and only three teams cracked the top 20. Interestingly enough, the best team over that span was these same Titans, led by the duo of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jake Locker to a 13th-place finish. When the ceiling is 13th, though, that's more than a wee bit worrisome.
There is something else that sticks out here. A lot of the teams on the list were rushing for a reason: their quarterbacks were flaming garbage. When he was able to throw during his rookie season, Mariota was sneakily efficient, and the drafting of offensive lineman Jack Conklin in the first round this year should further that cause. Could Mariota exceed the historical precedent by simply being a quality passer?
Of those 11 teams, three had quarterbacks who finished in the top 15 in numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back for the season. Fitzpatrick was 14th in 2013, and Jay Cutler and Jameis Winston were both top-15 passers in 2015. Cutler missed a chunk of time, so the Chicago Bears' low ranking that season makes sense. Fitzpatrick and Winston, though, had two of the better performances on our list, finishing 13th and 17th, respectively, for fantasy. Can this be our one glimmer of hope?
It may actually be closer to the opposite. Even when these bad teams had decently-efficient passers, they still weren't able to churn out quarterback performances you'll want in a 12-team, one-quarterback league. That would seem to be a fairly major indictment of Mariota's ceiling, and the floor was also evident in that same list.
The Case for (Mild) Optimism
It has all been doom and gloom thus far in peeping Mariota's fantasy outlook for 2016. However, if we loosen our search, things may perk up ever so slightly.
Just beyond our threshold of a 1.20 pass-to-run ratio lies a team that finished the 2014 season with a 7-8-1 record, within the range of outcomes we're looking at for the Titans. That team was the Carolina Panthers, and they finished that year with the seventh-most points out of their quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Derek Anderson.
The similarities between the two are pretty clear here. Both Newton and Mariota add upside with their legs that we didn't see in our previous sample (outside of a brief stint of glory for Terrelle Pryor in 2013). If you're buying Mariota, his rushing abilities are likely a big reason for that faith, and Newton provides a glimpse of what can happen when things fall the right way.
That said, even using this as a justification for hope may be a stretch.
In our three-year sample, there were 28 teams that had a pass-to-run ratio lower than 1.60 and a below-.500 record. Those 2014 Panthers were the only team with a top-10 quarterback fantasy finish, and only five teams cracked the top 15. By looking at the 2014 Panthers, you're banking on Mariota conforming to the exception rather than the trend, and that's a losing proposition more often than not. Even in our mild reason for optimism, we see serious flaws that dampen the enthusiasm for Mariota.
There's no denying that Marcus Mariota is a talented individual, and his value as a real-world football player is immense. But when it comes to fantasy for 2016, it's hard to get too excited.
Run-heavy offenses with poor records have a horrendous track record of quarterback fantasy success. Even when we loosened the reins and looked at more pass-happy attacks, we still found only one truly successful fantasy quarterback situation. If they remain committed to their exotic smashmouth non-sense, it'd take an outlier season for Mariota to excel.
This isn't to say that Mariota's present draft stock is wildly inappropriate. He's currently the 18th quarterback off the board, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, and that seems to be around where he should be, given the numbers above. The issue is that the quarterbacks around him -- namely Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, and even Joe Flacco -- all face fewer restrictions via Vegas win totals and expected volume than Mariota. He's in a decent spot given the value he adds with his legs, but that still may not make him a better option than his peers who come at a similar cost.
We got to experience the highs of Mariota during his rookie season as he flashed the upside you'd expect the second-overall pick to carry. However, until the Titans give us our toy back and abandon their planned rush-heavy offense, we'll have to lumber on without expectations of fantasy greatness.