Though he has shown flashes of brilliance, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 is now midway through his fourth season, and his statistics have declined sharply since 2016.
The Titans, with a new coaching regime led by Mike Vrabel and a new offensive coordinator (Matt LaFleur), exercised Mariota’s fifth-year option this past offseason. It would pay Mariota $20.9 million next season if they don’t give him a contract extension. If they let him play out the option next season, he could become a free agent in 2020 or Tennessee could use a tag (the franchise tag was $23.2 million for quarterbacks in 2018) to try to keep him.
That gives Mariota nine weeks, beginning on Monday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), to reaffirm for the Titans that he’s worth a lucrative, long-term commitment in 2019.
Hall of Fame quarterback and ESPN NFL analyst Steve Young said Mariota’s situation makes it hard to get a true evaluation.
“To me, Marcus Mariota is in one of those places that I don’t really like as a quarterback, so I don’t really know how to judge it,” Young said. “I don’t know whether to say all of these issues are Mariota or maybe he’s not going to be an elite player. I don’t know. I just know the thing is not working. I feel like he’s a dynamic player. I would like to see him in other systems, but I don’t get to. I see him in Tennessee, and until further notice, I am just going to hold off. I am not sure who to blame for all of the ups and downs right now.”
The Titans, of course, aren’t in position to hold off on evaluating Mariota. Here is a look at his first three-plus seasons and some pros and cons that could impact the franchise’s decision.
After throwing 19 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 12 games as a rookie, Mariota made a big jump in 2016, throwing for 3,426 yards with 26 passing TDs, two rushing and just nine interceptions. The future looked bright.
In 2017, he led the Titans to a road win against Kansas City in the playoffs but finished the season with 13 TD passes and 15 interceptions. The postseason victory was Tennessee’s first since 2003, and he rushed for five TDs, but Mariota’s drop in production was worrisome.
More worrisome is that he continues to be hampered by injuries. The four games he missed as a rookie were because of a sprained right knee, and in 2016, he broke his right fibula in Week 16. In 2017, he battled nagging hamstring issues that cost him one game.
This season, an injury to his right elbow in the opener has affected his grip and caused him to miss the Week 2 win against Houston and part of the Week 3 win in Jacksonville. Through six games played, he has three TD passes, five interceptions and the lowest passer ratings of his career.
Reasons to commit long term
Despite the sagging statistics the past two seasons, Mariota has played well in the clutch. Including the playoffs, he is among the NFL leaders with six game-winning drives over the past two seasons. In the fourth quarter and overtime this season, he is 29-of-43 (67.4 percent) for 257 yards with all three of his TD passes and no interceptions.
“He’s the Comeback Kid for sure,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “Having a guy like [Mariota] back there, he’s going to put us in a position to win.”
Mariota is often at his best when the stakes are high, something Vrabel wants to see from the opening kickoff.
“We have to recreate the fourth-quarter passing — that type of mentality — throughout the game,” Vrabel said.
Quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara echoed Vrabel and loves Mariota’s ability to remain calm when times get tough.
“He’s a competitive, athletic guy,” O’Hara said. “I like Marcus’ demeanor when things aren’t going well versus when things are going well. He’s the same calm and cool guy.”
Nothing seems to rattle Mariota, who after leading the Titans to an overtime win against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4, said: “Back home in Hawaii, there are so many ups and downs; you just go with it. They call it the ‘Aloha Spirit.'”
In addition to his clutch play, Mariota is a real dual threat. Defenses have to account for his ability to gain chunks of yards on the ground in addition to what he can do with his arm. Pass-rushers have to be more disciplined when they come after him, because if he finds a lane, he can break off a long run. Those off-schedule, unscripted plays put extra stress on defensive backs, who are forced to run with receivers for longer than usual.
Reasons to move on
A new staff, a new scheme and the elbow injury have contributed to Mariota’s slow start this season, but there are other issues. He tends to stare down receivers, and getting the ball out on time is something the Titans are working to improve.
The Baltimore Ravens harassed Mariota during their 21-0 win in Tennessee in Week 6, sacking him 11 times. The offensive line deserves some of the blame, but Mariota also held the ball too long at times.
“It’s a process; you have to get to that point where you trust it,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said of Mariota. “The really good ones have so much trust and faith in their ability, in their eyes, they don’t care what the result is at the end of the day because of their self-belief and trust.”
“Until further notice, I am just going to hold off. I am not sure who to blame for all of the ups and downs right now.”
ESPN’s Steve Young, on evaluating Marcus Mariota
It’s hard to trust the process after being subject to the kind of punishment Mariota endured against Baltimore. The good thing is he didn’t get rattled and had a solid game the next week, leading a comeback that fell just short against the Los Angeles Chargers in London.
“I was pleased when you look at how he bounced back from the Baltimore game,” LaFleur said. “The tendency is for a quarterback … if you get hit a bunch of times in a game, it has ramifications and can spill over to the next game. I didn’t feel that. I thought he did a good job in the pocket. The ball was coming out quick. He was on time with his reads and able to progress through reads.”
Mariota also needs a better rapport with the receivers, said ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck.
“Look at the chemistry that guys like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers have with their receivers, tight ends, and running backs; it feels like they practice that part of their game,” Hasselbeck said. “That’s part of the reason Aaron Rodgers is so great. He and his receivers always seemed to know what each other is thinking.
“There’s a psychology that goes with how you handle those split-second decisions on the football field. Sometimes you don’t figure it out right away. I am curious to see when it clicks for Marcus and this offense.”
It’s unlikely Tennessee will find a free-agent quarterback who is a clear upgrade over Mariota. All of the options in the chart above could be less expensive, but aside from Tyrod Taylor, these potential free agents would bring just as much, if not more, uncertainty to the position for Tennessee.
It’s a case of risk versus reward, and Mariota presents more upside than any free agents who will likely be available.
Sam Bradford quickly fell out of favor in Arizona and was released last week. He is a precision passer who can effectively operate an offense, but his injury history and losing his job to rookie Josh Rosen are reasons to stay clear of him.
Teddy Bridgewater is intriguing after his strong play in the preseason for the New York Jets. It’s possible the Saints will keep him around to be the heir apparent to Drew Brees, who isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. If Bridgewater is available, he’d be a low-risk option.
Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a two-year deal with the Titans in 2013, but was released a year later. His recent success with Tampa Bay could drum up some interest, but at best he would be a stop-gap option while the Titans groom a young replacement.
Taylor led the Buffalo Bills to a playoff appearance in 2017 and would likely be the best option in free agency. His athleticism and vertical passing are a good match for LaFleur’s play-action passing scheme.
In the 2019 NFL draft, Justin Herbert (Oregon) might require a top-five pick, though ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has him ranked 17th in his latest top 32. Titans general manager Jon Robinson has shown in the past that he’s willing to wheel and deal, but only time will tell if he would warrant mortgaging significant draft capital to trade up.
Tyree Jackson (Buffalo) is the wild card of the bunch. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, he has a big arm. His ability to push the ball vertically would stretch opposing defenses, but how long will it take for him to be ready to win in the NFL?
Mariota’s contract is obviously a huge part of the equation for Tennessee, and the recent NFL deal that best matches what the Titans might have to pay belongs to Redskins quarterback Alex Smith (four years, $94 million).
Like Mariota, Smith’s game was limited by playing for multiple offensive coordinators early in his career. Both tend to be overly protective of the ball, which hurts them when they need to put it in a tight window. Smith broke out of his safe tendencies and began to take more shots when he played for Andy Reid in Kansas City. The Titans hope to see the same kind of progress from Mariota under LaFleur.
The conclusion: Sign him
The Titans won’t fare better in free agency than what they already have in Mariota. They have invested enough resources and should continue to surround him with talent. With a defense playing championship-caliber football, it’s hard to make a case for hitting the reset button and trying to find another quarterback in the draft. That would force the organization to again to endure the growing pains associated with having a rookie under center.
The addition of LaFleur was done with Mariota in mind. Quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, and Jared Goff all had their best seasons with LaFleur as their position coach. The system LaFleur employs is a fit for a player with Mariota’s skills, but it’s a work in progress.
Keeping Mariota in the same scheme next season should only help him. As he begins to feel more comfortable in the offense, he should start to trust his reads and hesitate less.
With his explosive rushing ability and the skill set to make plays with his arm, there is plenty to like about his game.
The type of player he can evolve into once he gets settled is something that still piques everyone’s curiosity, though Orlovsky says the time has come for Mariota to put everything together.
“This is a big stretch where it’s time to put up,” Orlovsky said. “You are not going to become the player you can be by hesitating. At some point, you have to go.”