Winston, Mariota offer sleeper appeal in 2016 fantasy


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After we profiled sophomore running backs and wide receivers last week, it's time to get to the big dogs: quarterbacks. Fortunately for me, my job was made easy as there were only two rookie quarterbacks from 2015 worth studying -- Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. As the first and second overall picks in last year's draft, each carried heavy expectations for their respective franchises, and for the most part they both delivered. Neither carried their team to the playoffs, but they both grew as the season went on and posted solid statistical and fantasy campaigns.

But what should we expect in Year 2, as each of these passers looks to take the next step in becoming the face of their franchise (and potentially your fantasy franchise)? I went to the tape and sifted through offseason reports and coach speak to see what I could find out. Let's just say, the future looks bright for this pair of young signal-callers.

Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jameis Winston carried the hopes of the entire Buccaneers franchise and fanbase on his shoulders. Even after just one year, his performance should have everyone optimistic about the future, as Winston posted solid totals in his first foray into the NFL with over 4,000 passing yards, 28 total touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Winston finished as the QB13 in standard leagues, averaging a respectable 17.2 fantasy points per game. Heading into Year 2 Winston is improving his focus and conditioning, spending extra time building a better rapport with No. 1 wide receiver Mike Evans, and will be given more control in Dirk Koetter's offense. At the start of last year, the team limited Winston's pre-snap duties and reads on the field to help acclimate him to the speed of the NFL. Now, Winston will have more on his shoulders at the line of scrimmage and is expected to run Koetter's no-huddle offense more often. The Bucs ranked ninth in no huddle plays in 2015 (127), while Koetter called the 11th most no huddle plays as the OC of Atlanta from 2012 to 2014 (121 on average per year). Perhaps this increased focus pushes the team into the 200-300 range with teams like Carolina (227) or San Diego (251).

On the field, Winston got off to an inauspicious start when his first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. After that, the Florida State product settled into the position and played pretty well, with expected ups-and-downs typical of any young passer. Winston has a great arm and can sling the rock all over the field, and later in the season showed more confidence and accuracy on more difficult throws to the boundary and up the seam. Improved fitness and conditioning could help Winston be more elusive in the pocket and in the open field, as he occasionally struggled in both of those areas. The talent and potential are evident, so what does all of this mean for Winston's fantasy stock in 2016?

As of June, he's being drafted as the QB14 in in best ball leagues on, and as the QB17 on Increased control at the line of scrimmage and an improved rapport with Evans could be the two biggest factors in projecting a jump by Winston in Year 2. The quarterback waters get murky after the top 12 or so, but Winston makes for an excellent late-round selection for those who wish to wait on a quarterback until the very end of drafts. In fact, I did just that in a recent draft for the Football Diehards magazine, where he was my first quarterback taken in Round 14. I backed him up with Matthew Stafford, but I was content to nab Winston and hope he makes the leap as a sophomore. The offense around him is loaded with talent and he possesses the necessary physical tools to be a successful NFL and fantasy quarterback. It'll just be up to him if he puts it all together this fall.

Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

We might never see a better first impression in the NFL than what Marcus Mariota gave us with his four-touchdown performance in Week 1 of last year (against Winston, no less). However, that game was a perfect storm of good fortune and execution for Mariota, as those four scores came on a mere 15 pass attempts. The rest of his rookie season went as one would expect -- flashes of brilliance surrounded by mistakes and growing pains. Those flashes were quite bright, though, as his four games with three or more touchdowns tied Peyton Manning (1998) as the most ever by a rookie signal-caller. Mariota is already one of the more accurate passers while on the move in the NFL, but as a rookie (especially early on) he took too many chances throwing back across his body and was fortunate to not walk away with more interceptions. The Oregon product is a pretty accurate passer from the pocket, too, but if there's one specter hanging over his play on the field it's his inability to connect on deep passes. Overall, Mariota completed just nine of 47 passes of 20-plus air yards for three touchdowns and four interceptions, but when you take out the middle of the field (5-of-9 passing, two scores, zero picks) his numbers fall to an abysmal 4-of-38 passing with one touchdown and four interceptions. So far this offseason, the returns haven't been great on his deep attempts in practice, but let's not over-analyze this -- we are talking about practice, after all. Still, it's a part of his game that desperately needs improvement as he grows as a passer. Perhaps an improved receiving corps will help him take the next step in 2016.

The Titans front office made strides this offseason to give Mariota the necessary weapons on the perimeter and in the backfield to punish opposing defenses. They signed Rishard Matthews coming off a career year in Miami, and drafted Tajae Sharpe, a summer sensation who could already be pushing for a starting job. They traded for DeMarco Murray and added Derrick Henry in the draft to give Mariota a reliable running game (his backs averaged a measly 3.7 yards per carry in 2015, collectively). Last but not least, Kendall Wright, Delanie Walker and Dorial Green-Beckham should all be healthy and ready to rock. Can all of these pieces gel with their young signal-caller to help him take the next step as a fantasy signal-caller? We'll have to wait and see. But their presence is a reason to be optimistic about Mariota's fantasy fortunes this fall, despite his deep ball struggles.

Speaking of this upcoming season, new head coach Mike Mularkey wants to bring his "exotic smashmouth" style of offense to Tennessee, an approach that could feature Mariota more as a runner than what we saw last year. Mariota ranked 17th in rushing attempts among quarterbacks, but was ninth in yards (thanks in large part to his epic, 87-yard scamper against the Jaguars in Week 13). Kordell Stewart, Mularkey's main quarterback in Pittsburgh during the "exotic smashmouth" years, averaged roughly six rushes per game (or 96 per year) from 2001-2003. Even a modest uptick in carries for Mariota from his 34 in 2015 could net him a healthy amount of extra fantasy points, and elevate his weekly scoring floor. Yet, this is peak offseason coach speak right here. Mularkey made those comments prior to signing Murray and drafting Henry, two moves that would suggest the team plans to keep the ground game more in the hands of running backs than the face of their franchise. Nevertheless, Mariota's ability on the ground (even just on scrambles) and through the air, coupled with the improved skill position players around him slots him as another late-round quarterback to target with breakout potential.

So which of these young signal-callers would I take first? After completing this study, I think I'll have Winston ranked ever-so-slightly ahead of Mariota for 2016. While Mariota has the wheels, I'll take Winston's proficiency as a passer and the talent around him over Mariota's. Winston already has an elite wide receiver (Mike Evans) and proven, young running back duo (Doug Martin and Charles Sims). Mariota's top receiving option, Dorial Green-Beckham, is being surpassed on the depth chart by a fifth-round rookie, and we still aren't certain if DeMarco Murray has lost a step and if Derrick Henry can produce at the NFL level. It's close, but I'll give the edge to the former first-overall pick when it comes to finding a late-round fantasy signal-caller. Who's your pick? Let me know on Twitter @AlexGelhar to keep the conversation going.

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