Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota Are Heading in Opposite Directions

Winston and Mariota played well as rookies but are heading different directions in year two.

It’s not especially common to see quarterbacks taken with the first two selections of the NFL Draft. It’s only happened seven times in the Super Bowl era and only twice in back-to-back years. Even less common is seeing both quarterbacks being selected go on to have long, successful careers. The idea of Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb outplaying Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch isn’t exactly a predictive one, but it is an interesting trend to watch.

The two quarterbacks selected at the top of the 2015 Draft, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, have the potential to change that narrative. Of course, it’s only one season, and we would have been saying the same thing about Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III after 2012.

Winston and Mariota didn’t have the type of eye-popping rookie seasons like Luck and Griffin did. The 2015 duo was solid if unspectacular. The best thing about their rookie seasons was the potential for growth. Both showed the skills that warranted being a top-two selection but also showed those skills weren’t yet fully developed.

Rookie Success

Even in a league that’s evolved to make passing easier than ever, the list of rookie quarterbacks who played well is not long.

Over the past five seasons -- not including the most recent draft class -- there have been 13 quarterbacks selected in the first round and, of those 13, 11 had at least 100 drop backs in their rookie seasons. Johnny Manziel and Jake Locker are the exceptions.

Of those 11, only five rated positively by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric on a per-play basis, and only three of those five ranked in the top half of quarterbacks with at least 100 or more drop backs on the season.

For those new to NEP, check out our glossary.

Here are how the 11 fared in terms of Passing NEP per drop back as rookies.

Player Year Drop Backs Passing NEP/DB Rank
Robert Griffin III 2012 427 0.17 9 (of 39)
Jamies Winston 2015 562 0.13 16 (of 46)
Marcus Mariota 2015 409 0.07 28 (of 46)
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 441 0.05 22 (of 43)
Andrew Luck 2012 667 0.05 16 (of 39)
Brandon Weeden 2012 545 -0.04 27 (of 39)
Ryan Tannehill 2012 519 -0.04 29 (of 39)
Christian Ponder 2011 321 -0.10 35 (of 46)
EJ Manuel 2013 333 -0.14 42 (of 45)
Blake Bortles 2014 530 -0.18 42 (of 44)
Blaine Gabbert 2011 453 -0.19 43 (of 46)

Simply by Passing NEP per drop back, Winston and Mariota had the second- and third-best rookie seasons over the past five years. But the league-wide NEP rates have also been shifting during that time. The league-wide average, since 2011, has increased noticeably: 0.05, 0.06, 0.05, 0.08, 0.11.

Winston and Luck both finished 16th in the league by Passing NEP per drop back, but Winston was nearly twice as productive. Mariota had a higher Passing NEP per drop back than both Luck and Teddy Bridgewater, but both ranked higher than Mariota among quarterbacks in the given year.

So while the numbers look favorable for Winston and Mariota, they’re also more favorable for the rest of the league. Winston did, however, finish above the league average rate, something only Griffin did in the above table.

Taking Care

Where these two go from here is not only dependent on personal skill but also how their teams approach their developments.

Right now, it appears the Buccaneers and Titans are going in two different directions in that regard.

Tampa Bay appears to be doing everything they can to continue the development of Winston in an offense he found comfort in during his first year. That plan went as far as removing Lovie Smith as the head coach and replacing him with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter during the offseason. Winston is surrounded by gigantic pass catchers at both receiver and tight end, who provide a wide catch radius for his sometimes inaccurate throws.

But while Winston was among the league’s worst starters in completion percentage, he got the most out of the passes he did complete. Using our Success Rate metric -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- no qualified quarterback had a higher rate of successes per completion than Winston. The next step in Winston’s development is to keep that rate of efficiency on completions while also adding more completions.

Then there are the Titans, who seem to have made every decision this offseason in spite of last year’s number-two overall pick. First was the hiring of Mike Mularkey, allowing him to go from interim head coach to the permanent one. Mularkey hasn’t exactly been known to evolve with the current times in football and, in that vein, likened Mariota to Kordell Stewart.

The company line coming out of Tennessee now is how they would like to establish the run. That was echoed by the trade for DeMarco Murray and the selection of Derrick Henry in the second round of the draft. It even extends to the player under center. Mularkey has insisted he has no hesitation in letting Mariota be a running quarterback but has not shown much aptitude in adopting some spread principles that would help accentuate a mobile quarterback.

During Mariota’s first few games under Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee ran a few packaged plays similar to what the quarterback ran at Oregon. They were a heavy part of the game plan against Tampa Bay in Week 1.

Kendall Wright was the main recipient on these plays, and the duo connected for a touchdown later in the game. Whisenhunt was fired after Week 8, and Mularkey took over in the interim. In the next two games, there were some signs of packaged plays, but they disappeared from the game plan afterward.

There’s a play the Titans ran against the Panthers in Week 10 that should be the best of both worlds for Mariota’s strengths and whatever "exotic smashmouth" might be. Mariota is lined up in shotgun with 11 personnel -- three receivers, one tight end, one running back -- with Delanie Walker running in motion before the snap.

The first part of the play happens with a possible handoff. Mariota reads the defensive end, who crashes down on the running back, which signals to Mariota he should keep the ball. At this point, there are also three routes being run. To the left of the formation (top of the screen), there’s a bubble screen waiting with the second receiver to that side ready to block. On the right side, there’s a flat/curl combo from Walker and Dorial Green-Beckham. What that route combo also did was clear out defenders and leave a wide open space for Mariota to run should he want to keep the ball, which he does.

Moving Forward

While Tampa is embracing the big receivers Winston showed success throwing to last season, news from Tennessee seems to be burying the top two receivers from last season. It's been reported that Mularkey has been upset with Wright's injury, which has caused him to miss time in camp, and Green-Beckham's inconsistency appears to be sinking him on the depth chart.

Maybe both Mariota and Winston continue to grow in their second season and beyond. The talent is there.

Heading into 2016, though, it seems like only one quarterback’s team is recognizing his strengths and building an offense around it.