The Titans have a problem. They’re stuck in the in-between.
Mike Vrabel’s team is good enough to sneak into the playoffs, but not advance beyond the Divisional Round. It’s bad enough to crash out of the postseason race with a 7-9 record, but not awful enough to claim a premier draft pick. It’s the same competitive limbo in which the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks were trapped from 2002 to 2015 — hovering around .500 with no clear path to prosperity.
And at the heart of this football purgatory is Marcus Mariota.
Mariota has been an inconsistent presence behind center for the Titans, lighting up opponents some weeks and deflating like a popped Barney balloon in several others. As he finishes up his age-25 season, there’s a chance he may never realize the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
But Mariota is also an occasional stud in a league where quarterback play is more important than ever. On Monday night, he completed 22 of 23 passes for 303 yards and a pair of touchdowns, albeit in a losing effort. His 93.9 career passer rating in the postseason is higher than Peyton Manning’s or Ben Roethlisberger.
There’s clearly something there, but the Titans’ efforts to mine it have only struck oil in fits and spurts. And with Mariota set to play out the fifth and final year of his rookie contract next fall, Tennessee will have to make a decision. Will the team sign up for another four years of Mariota at a much higher price? Or will it take a wait-and-see approach that risks eventually losing a young quarterback who has yet to reach his peak as a pro?
To understand where the Titans might go with this franchise-altering decision, you have to look back at the path that got them there.
Seriously, what the hell is Marcus Mariota?
Mariota’s rookie year set the stage for big things. His first regular season start was a 13-for-15, four-touchdown performance that carried the Titans to a 42-14 win over the Buccaneers and the one player selected ahead of Mariota that spring, Jameis Winston. There were 11 games in 2015 where Mariota took the bulk of his team’s snaps behind center; he had 3+ touchdown passes in four of them.
A sophomore slump loomed over the first half of his 2016, but a strong finish — eight touchdowns, just one interception, and a 4-1 record over his final five full games — built hope for his future. It also gave way to another narrative that’s runs parallel to his talent; Mariota has been unable to stay 100 percent healthy for a full season since joining the league.
A broken leg ended his 2016 after 14.5 games, one year after an MCL sprain kept him from the field to end 2015. He’d sit out a game and a half in 2017 thanks to a hamstring injury that pushed Matt Cassel into the lineup for a loss that was nearly the difference between the Titans making and missing the postseason. An elbow injury and a stinger led to three different 2018 games where Blaine Gabbert was forced to throw the bulk of Tennessee’s passes. The Titans are 1-2 in those games.
Those injury concerns, each nagging and unique in their own ways but none specifically chronic, put a major dent in his development in 2017 and 2018. Mariota’s third season represented a significant regression. While his team won nine games and rallied to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, this was more a function of a weak AFC South and his team’s tight rushing defense, which ranked fourth in the league in rushing efficiency. Mariota threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13) and had more games where he threw for fewer than 200 yards (five) than games where he threw for 300+ yards (two).
That didn’t deter the Titans from locking into his fifth-year contract at a cost of $20.9 million for 2019. It was a worthy investment for a 24-year-old quarterback who, warts aside, had brought the franchise its first postseason win since 2003. That gave him another year to prove himself to Tennessee, and another 16 games for the Titans to decide whether he’s worthy of a nine-figure contract extension.
What’s Mariota done in 2018?
The Tennessee quarterback’s most recent season has been a microcosm of his career. There have been nagging injuries, missed games, great performances, and underwhelming Sundays in a season when the 5-6 Titans have notched huge wins and baffling losses.
He’s been uneven on the field, playing through injury behind an offensive game plan that’s emphasized shorter passes. While that’s led to a career high 70.3 percent completion rate, it’s not exactly moving the chains. His 5.2 aerial yards per completed pass puts him on the lower end of the league’s spectrum alongside quarterbacks like Blake Bortles, C.J. Beathard, and Josh Allen (but also Ben Roethlisberger and Dak Prescott). His touchdown and interception rates have stabilized after career worsts in 2017, but they still haven’t gotten back to the levels they were at in his first two seasons as a pro.
While the league has seen a rising tide of aerial offenses and receiving yards, Mariota’s output as a passer has declined in each year as a pro. He’s never been further behind the NFL average than he is this fall.
Marcus Mariota’s passing output vs. NFL averages, 2015-2018
|Passing yards per game||Marcus Mariota||League Avg||Difference|
|Passing yards per game||Marcus Mariota||League Avg||Difference|
There are caveats behind Mariota’s lack of development as a passer. He’s never had a single Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver in the lineup over three-plus seasons as Tennessee’s starting quarterback. Although Delanie Walker emerged as an important safety valve, Mariota’s most targeted wideout from 2016 to 2017 was Rishard Matthews (currently has zero receptions for the Jets), and in 2015 was Dorial Green-Beckham (out of the NFL since 2016).
That’s changed in 2018 thanks to the hotly anticipated emergence of Corey Davis, whose playmaking has been vital in a season where Walker has been limited to a single game due to badly fractured ankle.
But the rest of his receiving corps remains lacking. Tajae Sharpe, who has started 10 games this fall opposite Davis, is on pace for a 32-catch, 377-yard season. Jonnu Smith, starting in Walker’s absence, has three touchdowns but has typically been less effective than Sharpe. Mariota’s numbers are down, but it’s not like he’s flush with options who can bail him out of tight spots. Dion Lewis is doubling his receiving output from 2017 but is still on pace for just 450 yards.
Mariota’s been an effective game manager quarterback in a league that’s leaning harder and harder into high-octane passing offenses. He’s a solid option behind center when healthy, but has yet to play a full 16-game season in the NFL. He’s a valuable scrambler who can extend plays and drives with his legs, but he’s also prone to lower body injuries and occasionally runs into traffic.
Mariota, like Tennessee itself, is trapped in the NFL’s middle ground. He’s good enough to rally the Titans to the playoffs, make an epic comeback to beat the Chiefs, and even catch his own dang touchdown passes in the process:
But not good enough to make Tennessee a believable Super Bowl contender on his own, and he’s 3-6 as a starter in 2018. This leaves the Titans with one hell of a decision to make moving forward.
What’s Mariota going to cost the Titans in 2019 (or someone else in 2020)?
Mariota’s $7.7 million cap hit created approximately $7.3 million in surplus value for the Titans in 2018 — a free agent playing at roughly his level could be expected to take up roughly $15 million in cap space. The club used that savings, in part, to hand giant contracts to Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis, two underwhelming Tennessee players who celebrated the league’s 13th year of failing to learn from the David Patten example (which is: don’t overpay overachieving Patriots).
Those savings evaporate in 2019. Mariota’s fifth-year option means he’ll be paid $20.9 million, a moderate overpay at his current level of play but a slight underpay if he’s a borderline top-10 quarterback like he was in 2016. If the team hasn’t extended him by then, it can retain his rights via the franchise tag, which would likely keep him around at an overpay of ~$27 million (the average annual salary of the league’s top five highest-paid QBs) but also give the Titans one extra year to decide whether or not he’s worth a massive long-term extension.
And that’s the question with Mariota — is he worth top dollar based on the potential to which he occasionally rises?
Blake Bortles kinda/sorta pressed this query last offseason. He was coming off his finest season as an NFL quarterback after leading the Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game, posting career bests in both completion and interception rates and racking up an impressively competent 91.0 postseason passer rating. He gave Jacksonville something to think on after carving up the Patriots for 293 yards and a touchdown in a narrow defeat one step from the Super Bowl.
For a minute, it looked like he might be a commodity on the open market. Like Mariota is in 2019, Bortles was set to play out the fifth-year option of his rookie contract and potentially hit free agency. Instead of taking that risk, the Jags found a middle ground, signing their homegrown quarterback to an extension that replaced the final season of his rookie deal with a three-year, $54 million pact with $26.5 million guaranteed — about $7.5 million more in guarantees than allowing him to play 2018 as a pending free agent would have cost.
That gambit hasn’t worked out well for Jacksonville, but it represents the lower bound of what Mariota could expect from a reticent Titans offer. Mariota will have good reason to refuse — Bortles had a much more concerning past than the Tennessee passer does — but it may not make sense for him to hold his breath waiting for a nine-figure contract.
Between his fifth-year option and the 2020 franchise tag, Tennessee could keep him the next two seasons for a roughly $48 million investment. That’s pricy, but the upside is the team could cut ties free and clear in 2021 without any concern of dead cap money (Bortles, for example, will still count $16.5m against the cap next season if he’s released).
Of course, there’s always the chance the Titans look at the similar scenario the Buccaneers are facing with Winston, realize things could be much worse, and sign on for four more years of Mariota knowing he’ll be a good citizen even if sidelined. If Mariota can convince the team he’s the player he was in 2016, he’d be looking at something similar to the four-year, $77 million deal Ryan Tannehill got back in ‘15. Adjusted for inflation, that number would look something like four years and $88 million with $47.5 million guaranteed.
That’s actually less locked-in cash than it would cost to retain him the next two seasons without a long-term contract, so expect Mariota’s representatives to drive for more or, at the very least, a larger guarantee up front. But if the team’s not convinced, he could be looking at a year-to-year slog where he’s forced to prove he can consistently tear up opponents before locking in a longer deal. Given his past in Nashville, that could be the prudent for a Titans team looking to escape limbo.
Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 12:
Derwin James, S, Chargers (7 tackles, 1 INT in win over Cardinals)
Previously in rookie contract heroes:
Week 1: Michael Thomas
Week 2: Matt Breida
Week 3: Myles Garrett
Week 5: T.J. Watt
Week 6: Saquon Barkley
Week 7: Darius Leonard
Week 8: James Conner
Week 9: Marcus Peters
Week 10: Mitchell Trubisky
Week 11: Jadeveon Clowney
- With Tom Brady’s Future in Play, N.F.L. Free Agency Is Set to Begin
- Prisco's NFL Mock Draft 5.0: Bills take Trubisky, Texans roll dice on Davis Webb
- NFL Mock Draft: Garoppolo to Browns, Sherman to Patriots in wild three-way trade
- Chiefs Defeat 49ers in Stunning Super Bowl Comeback
What should the Titans do with Marcus Mariota? have 2110 words, post on www.sbnation.com at November 29, 2018. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.