In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
Why Marcus Mariota is on the list
Marcus Mariota's first NFL pass, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener last year, encompassed, well, the worst of the Vince Young era in Tennessee. It was a wobbly, staccato mess of poor footwork and first-blitz fear that resulted in intended target Bishop Sankey getting blown up by a defender.
Two passes later? A fireball over the middle to Delanie Walker between two defenders. And the very next play? A quick flick to Kendall Wright for a 52-yard touchdown. The latter throw was perfectly emblematic of Mariota's cool. After a rocky start to his debut drive, he quickly noticed the mismatch between his speedy wideout and Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David. He pitched a strike mid-stride and converted his first touchdown in the NFL without so much as a fist-bump.
Mariota can battle like a veteran and already has off-the-charts poise. That is what we don't discuss enough about the 22-year-old signal caller. Sure, he is brilliant. He is mobile. He comes from a next-gen offense in college that opens the door for many possibilities at the NFL level. But mostly, he is an old quarterback soul in a young man's body.
When Mariota came out of college, the chatter from scouts and general managers all had a similar theme: If you want to win more games in your first season, draft Jameis Winston first overall. If you want to win more games over the next decade, draft Marcus Mariota. After watching nearly every one of his snaps from Year 1, we tend to agree.
Add in some interesting Mariota tidbits, compiled by the folks over at the Titans' official website, and his prospects become all the more enticing:
» He became the first player since Walter Payton (in 1983) to score touchdowns of 40-plus yards passing, running and receiving in the same season.
» He is the only player in NFL history to throw for more than 250 yards and three touchdowns in a game while also running for 100-plus yards.
» He tied Peyton Manning for most games (four) by a rookie with three-plus touchdown passes.
That's why Mariota is a prime candidate to make the leap in 2016.
Obstacles he'll face
Mariota's durability is certainly an issue. If the Titans are moving in the direction offensively that we think they are -- a hybrid of the systems employed last year by the Panthers, Chiefs, Eagles and Seahawks -- Mariota will find himself in the line of fire more often. That is, unless he can perfect the Alex Smith/Russell Wilson school of smartly emphasizing -- but not counting on -- quarterback mobility.
Not exactly an ideal proposition for a rail-thin, 6-foot-4 body, even if Mariota reportedly added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason to get in the 225-pound range.
Some of this will be negated by a coaching staff that is now well-aware of what might happen if risks are taken. Mariota was kept in a game after spraining his MCL early in the 2015 season. Then there was the matter of having him start off a game under center against the Carolina Panthers, a team that boasts one of the best defensive lines in football. And then there was the matter of having him run zone read in clear blitz situations behind the weaker of his two offensive tackles on a divoted, slippery field in Jacksonville during a Thursday night game.
There were all the typical rookie mistakes. He shoved certain passes into double coverage. He was slow getting out of the huddle at times, once getting flagged for delay of game inside the Titans' 5-yard line.
For each one of his setbacks, Mariota has a wonderful rebuttal -- and he's smart enough to hang around the NFL for a long time to come.
Expectations for 2016
If we projected Mariota's rookie stats out to a complete 2016, we would end up with roughly 3,757 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That is encouraging, no matter how anyone looks at it -- those numbers would be on par, in some respects, with Russell Wilson's early returns in Seattle. The next step is driving that comparison even further.
The Titans are not built to win as many games as the Seahawks in 2016, but we would like to see Mariota's fourth-quarter comebacks total (two) double this year. We would like to see his quarterback rating rise and his turnovers decrease. We would like to see him spread the ball around more. (Delanie Walker had almost twice as many targets as the next pass catcher on the roster last year.) The Titans should be less of a jumbled mess this year and hopefully will not fire a second straight coach in the middle of a season, further railroading Mariota's chance of having a consistent offense.
If it sounds like we're placing lofty expectations on Mariota's shoulders, it's because we believe he can handle them. There's no reason he cannot be a top-12 quarterback in 2016.