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Two-And-Eleven, Two-Of-A-Kind: Projecting the Best Fits for Mariota and Winston

A slew of 2-11 teams will be watching the Rose Bowl with special interest.

MariotaWinstonHeisma

(Image via ESPN.com)

To be succinct, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee’s first year in power was a total shit show. The posturing over the past few weeks ended up being exactly what the most cynical among us believed it to be—a made-for-TV, farcical ratings ploy. TCU’s reward for beating its opponent by 52 points was being dropped from third to sixth in the standings, a mere five days after the Horned Frogs were deemed worthy of being moved ahead of weekly underachiever Florida State. Baylor never sniffed the top-four despite beating TCU head-to-head, and the beneficiary of the committee’s reluctance to address the Bleeding Texas debate was Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, the team with the worst loss of any playoff contender.

But once the dust settled on the playoff committee’s decision, most admitted that these were the match-ups we would have most looked forward to. Meyer gets to face Nick Saban for the first time since the latter left Tim Tebow in tears, and the Rose Bowl pits the reigning Heisman winner against the sure-fire 2014 recipient in a battle of high-octane Oregon versus the rabbit’s foot-carrying, wishbone-breaking, pixie dust-drenched Seminoles.

Marcus Mariota—he of the absurd offensive efficiency—is considered the likely No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. We have seen passers more polished than him and scramblers more swift, but never before has a quarterback balanced the two traits better than the Ducks’ junior signal-caller. Mariota is more athletic than Andrew Luck, more seasoned than Cam Newton, and more instinctual a runner than Robert Griffin III. That doesn’t make him a better prospect than any one of those three, of course (without hindsight, his hype clearly trails even the tail-spinning Griffin’s), but Mariota is a tantalizing talent who couldn’t have entered the league at a better time for a player with his skillset.

I’ll refrain from spending more words rehashing the off-the-field troubles that have dogged Jameis Winston over the last 12 months, but it is something that will undoubtedly affect him during the draft process to some degree. Nevertheless, most are still projecting Winston to go somewhere in the top-five, as it’s hard to pass on a six-four, 235-pound 20-year-old with a rocket arm and a historically great résumé. The sophomore’s numbers have dipped from his Heisman-worthy 2013 campaign, but Winston has cut his sack total in half this year despite throwing more passes behind a worse offensive line. His pocket presence has been a silver lining amid a recent flurry of interceptions.

So while I’m excited to drop the politics and just watch Mariota and Winston square off next month, long-term implications surround the two in terms of their professional futures. In the NFL, the stars have aligned to produce five 2-11 teams through week 14, and unsurprisingly they represent five of the bottom-seven offenses in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

More importantly, four of them have serious question marks at the quarterback position and will be doing their due diligence on both prospects over the next several months. Let’s examine each team’s situation a little more in-depth and try to predict what they’ll do in the spring.

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville

 The Jaguars are the only franchise of the quintet that has their quarterback-of-the-future on the roster. That has a lot more to do with Blake Bortles’ draft spot that his performance, though; the rookie is at the bottom of the league (with Geno Smith) in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) and leads the league in interceptions despite not starting until week four.

Even so, Bortles was last year’s No. 3 pick and is Dave Caldwell’s crown jewel in Jacksonville’s latest rebuilding effort—he’s not going anywhere. So would the Jaguars give him Amari Cooper to throw to if they backed into the top of the draft, or would they place the pick on the trading block in hopes of landing an RG3-esque haul?

For entertainment’s sake, I hope they put it up for grabs. The massive egg on Washington’s face may leave other teams wary of parting with multiple firsts, but someone might covet Mariota enough to take the plunge. Would it be one of the other 2-11 teams who isn’t convinced that the Jaguars will take Cooper, or will a mid-tier squad like Houston or St. Louis think they’re a quarterback away from contention and sell the farm? Or, even better, would Mariota’s former college coach get Eagles’ management in on the bidding?

Again, I’m pulling for Jacksonville to lose these next three games. Most trades in the NFL are relatively benign in risk, involving declining veterans for conditional, late-round picks, so draft auctions like we saw in 2012 are the closest we can get to those zany deadline deals in MLB or the offseason mayhem of NBA free agency.

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New York

 This is the easiest call of the bunch. Depending on where they finish and which prospect they prefer, the Jets are heavy favorites to come away with either Mariota or Winston on April 30.

New York has needed a quality quarterback for … well, a long-ass time. Going by ANY/A+, a league-adjusted version of Football-Reference’s signature efficiency metric (where a 100 is average with standard deviations of 15), the Jets haven’t boasted a league-average passer since Chad Pennington in 2006. They haven’t received league-average passing from a non-Pennington player since Vinny Testaverde’s Pro Bowl season in 1998. That’s what happens when you draft two of the worst quarterbacks in football in a five-year span.

Geno Smith is certainly done as the team’s future, and Michael Vick is a free agent. John Idzik—if he is still around to make the pick—is taking a quarterback if the big two are still on the board. I don’t know which prospect the Jets will favor, but it’s a certainty that he will be called a bust by the masses the second the team picks him. Rex Ryan and his string of unimaginative coordinators should be gone by January, though, and whoever is hiring the new staff will hopefully surround that rookie with a creative mind and NFL-worthy talent on offense.

Detroit Lions v Oakland Raiders

Oakland

 If New York was a no-brainer to select a quarterback, the Raiders are a brain-buster.

There are arguments for and against keeping Derek Carr versus drafting a replacement. His 17-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio is decent enough on the surface, especially when taking into account the dearth of talent he has to throw to and what is up front blocking for him. His sack rate is particularly impressive—3.3 percent, good for fourth in the NFL this year.

But while sack percentage is a relatively sticky statistic in terms of seasonal carryover, so is yards-per-attempt (Y/A). Carr’s interception avoidance doesn’t really tell us much about how he’ll perform this year; turnovers are notoriously fickle among non-elite passers. The biggest strike against Carr is his historically terrible Y/A, which ranks as one of the ten-worst of all time when adjusted for era. In fact, the only rookies who fared worse than him in that department were Blaine Gabbert, Bruce Gradkowski, and someone named Jack Trudeau.

Y/A isn’t the end-all, be-all, catch-all metric of definitive analysis, but just take a look at that list. There aren’t many good (or even average) players who have a season of similar inefficiency on their résumés.

The Raiders have gaping holes basically everywhere but linebacker, so it’s understandable why fans would prefer a scenario where Oakland trades the No. 1 pick and rolls with Carr. The franchise will presumably have a new general manager and coaching staff in place, though—one that has no obligation to see Carr succeed. Those who support trading down will point out that it’s not simply a choice between Carr and Mariota or Winston, it’s Mariota or Winston against Carr and a bundle of talent, but in reality the decision will come down to how the new regime projects Carr’s long-term NFL future compared to that of the Heisman winners. If they see Carr as having an Alex Smith or Andy Dalton-esque ceiling and view Mariota or Winston as perennial Pro Bowlers, then no amount of return in a trade will be able to bridge the difference in value at the quarterback position. Remember, they want whomever they go with under center to be a 10-year fixture as the face of the franchise. The gap between Alex Smith and, say, Tony Romo or Philip Rivers over the course of a decade is worth far more than the combined output of Stedman Bailey, Janoris Jenkins, and Greg Robinson. And heck, what if the new brass sees one of the prospects as a future All-Pro?

That being said, Carr is coming off his most impressive game as a pro and seems to be the type of fiery, committed leader that any coach craves in their de facto captain. We’ll have a clearer picture after the Raiders play out their final three games and the prospects go through the glorified meat market known as the NFL draft process, but I’m glad I’m not the one who has to make the call on this one.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons

Tampa Bay

 The Buccaneers might be a slightly tougher call than the Jets only because of the man who coaches them. A Lovie Smith team has never spent a first-round pick on a quarterback—not when he coached the Bears (2004-2012), not when he was the defensive coordinator for the Rams (2001-2003), and not during his time as an assistant in Tampa when he was learning the ropes under Tony Dungy (1996-2000).

But that will almost assuredly change this spring. Josh McCown has been a total bust of a signing, as his record-breaking, ultra-fluky interception rate of 0.4 percent in 2013 has ballooned to an awful 4.4 percent away from Marc Trestman’s system, and Mike Glennon appears to be too inaccurate to inspire any confidence as a player worth building around. McCown will probably be cut to shave $4 million off Tampa’s salary cap, while Glennon sticks around as a cheap backup option and to serve as ostensible competition for the newcomer.

But which of Mariota and Winston will Tampa prefer? If Jeff Tedford had stuck around for 2015, I would have leaned toward Winston. The Seminole signal-caller fit Tedford’s mold of a big, drop-back quarterback, but the latter’s health complications forced Lovie and Co. to go separate ways with the first-year offensive coordinator. Now they’re free to bring a new philosophy into the fold, and there are a lot of minds on the market that would love to tailor their playbook to fit Mariota’s skillset.

So Tampa’s hand may be revealed when they name Tedford’s successor, but until then the media will likely run with the possibility of Winston staying home instate … where, you know, there are still people that actually like him. And if that comes to fruition, here’s to hoping he fares better than the last two college legends from Florida who donned a Bucs jersey.

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Tennessee

 Mettenberger or Mariota? Mettenberger or Winston? Do I want Mettenberger at all?

That’s the question that will cost Ken Whisenhunt hundreds of hours of sleep over the next five months.

The Titans are done with 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker, who only started 22 games in four years with the team due to a litany of injuries. That’s the easy part. But Locker gets to use the next three games as an audition for other franchises because rookie Zach Mettenberger is out for the season with a sprain in his throwing shoulder, and that makes Whisenhunt’s job all the more difficult going forward.

Mettenberger, a uniquely talented sixth-round pick who fell in the draft after a late-season ACL tear at LSU, only started six games and threw a mere 179 passes for Tennessee. That provides precious little data to judge him off of, and the results were decidedly mixed.

Completion % Y/A Y/C TD% INT% Sack % ANY/A
Mettenberger 59.8 7.9 13.2 4.5 3.9 9.1 5.7
League Rank 29 7 4 20 31 33 26

This is the statistical profile of a young bomber—lots of picks, lots of sacks, but an impressive amount of yardage on a per-pass basis due to a willingness to go deep. I was impressed by what I saw from Mettenberger in that Monday Night game against Pittsburgh, but a lot of the rookie’s stats have been accrued in garbage time after the Titans have gone down by multiple scores. I don’t put a ton of confidence in ESPN’s QBR metric, but it’s the main reason why he fares so poorly there (third-worst in the NFL) compared to the NFL’s traditional passer rating formula (25th of 35 quarterbacks who have thrown at least as many passes). 

Mettenberger is big, strong, and brave in the pocket, but he’s completely immobile in an era that incentivizes maneuverability more and more every year. Drew Bledsoe-esque statues only limit the playbook these days; even Mark Sanchez keeps a defender honest in the read-option.

Whisenhunt definitely has a type, though, and Mettenberger is it. Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Philip Rivers … the man puts a premium on size and less so on speed. Mariota doesn’t seem to match anything Whisenhunt has worked with in the past, but Winston—who’s earned comparisons to Big Ben for more than one reason now, but did so originally for his ability to shed off would-be tacklers in the pocket—appears to be the perfect fit.

Would Tennessee toss aside Mettenberger for Winston if they grade the latter highly? I think so. Not because Mettenberger has played poorly, but because he hasn’t played well enough as a sixth-round pick with what is now an extensive injury history to fend off the possibility of his team taking a quarterback in the top five. Politics play a part, too. If the Titans pass on a top prospect and tank again with Mettenberger, Whisenhunt is out of a job before next Christmas. If they take Winston, Whisenhunt likely buys himself at least two more years as the head man. Coaches absolutely weigh these scenarios.

For guys like Carr and Mettenberger, this sounds like a raw deal. You could have said the same for Jimmy Clausen ca. 2011, though, and I don’t think many Carolina fans are still badmouthing that decision.

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About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

1 Comment on Two-And-Eleven, Two-Of-A-Kind: Projecting the Best Fits for Mariota and Winston

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