Marcus Mariota is a Must-Have Quarterback (Fantasy Football)
Quarterback is a deep position, namely in traditional single-QB formats. According to ESPN standard scoring settings, there was only one quarterback who broke 300 fantasy points last year, but it was tightly congested after that. Six quarterbacks scored 275 points or more, another half-dozen quarterbacks who eclipsed 250 fantasy points, and 22 quarterbacks who tallied 200 or more fantasy points.
Just under 54 fantasy points separated QB12, Jared Goff (255.3 fantasy points) from QB22, Jameis Winston (201.7 fantasy points). Over the course of 17 games, that breaks down to a pinch over three fantasy points per game separating QB12 from QB22 last year — and, yes, I’m aware that Winston missed three games, but I’m talking strictly about the point totals. Kirk Cousins finished as the sixth highest scoring quarterback with 277.6 points, and the gap in per-game scoring between the QB6 total and QB22 total was 4.44 points per game.
The scoring gaps and tiers at running back and receiver are far steeper, and that adds to the appeal of loading up at those positions early in drafts and waiting at quarterback. I’m a proponent of waiting at quarterback, with the caveat that my draft strategy is never so rigid that I’ll bypass a stud quarterback who falls too far. Having said that, I’m more inclined to double dip (or even triple dip) on quarterbacks after pick 100 when the position is drafted fairly similar to their ADP. With that in mind, there’s a cheap quarterback who I’m going to be aggressively drafting this year as either my starter or part of a mix-and-match quarterback combo on my rosters.
Marcus Mariota is criminally underrated. Last year was easily Mariota’s worst season in his three years as a pro. Yet, even in his worst season, he finished 18th at the position in scoring, per ESPN’s standard scoring settings. The second pick in the 2015 NFL Draft has already shown an ability to play better than he did last year, and there are plenty of reasons to expect the best is yet to come.
My primary reason for optimism in Mariota making a leap in production centers around Tennessee’s changing of the guard with their coaching staff. The club moved on from Mike Mularkey. With Mularkey no longer the head coach, the team has also dispatched of his stale “exotic smashmouth” offensive philosophy.
The organization hired defensive-minded first-time head coach Mike Vrabel, but they also brought in an exciting new offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur. LaFleur served in the same position with the Rams last season, but he’ll now be responsible for play calling, something he’s never done at the NFL level.
The 38-year-old OC has a solid coaching resume at the NFL level, as you can see here. He served as the quarterback coach in Washington during Robert Griffin III’s first two years in the NFL. Among quarterbacks who had a minimum of 500 passing attempts during that two-year stretch (2012-13), Griffin ranked 11th in Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) at 6.44, 11th in completion percentage (62.66%), tied for 19th in passing touchdowns (36), tied for the fifth fewest interceptions (17), and was 13th in Quarterback Rating (91.5), per Pro-Football-Reference’s Play Index.
The passing numbers are mostly ho-hum, but coupled with RGIII’s excellence as a runner, he played well in fantasy leagues. Using the same 500-pass attempt criteria for the 2012-13 seasons, RGIII ranked first in rushing yards per attempt (6.33), rushing yards per game (46.6), and fourth in rushing touchdowns (seven).
Like RGIII, Mariota is a running threat who’s averaged 21.7 yards rushing per game, 5.9 yards per attempt, and scored nine rushing touchdowns in his career. After watching RGIII get hurt in Washington, LaFleur may not have Mariota rush as often as his previous dual-threat pupil did, but he could pull from that experience and help Mariota build on his already strong running foundation.
LaFleur has also coached up his quarterbacks as passers, too. He was the quarterback coach for the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 and 2016, and Matt Ryan won the NFL MVP in a career year in 2016. During that two-year run, among quarterbacks who attempted at least 500 passes, Ryan ranked fourth in completion percentage (67.94%), eighth in touchdown passes (59), second in Quarterback Rating (102.1) and ANY/A (7.61), and third in passing yards per game (298.0).
Last year might have been his most impressive work, though. After face planting in his rookie season, Jared Goff torched opposing defenses in an electric 2017 season in which the Rams jumped from dead last in scoring offense in 2016 to first. Among qualified passers last year, Goff ranked 17th in completion percentage (62.1%), tied for fifth in touchdown passes (28), tied for fourth in interception percentage (1.5%), fifth in Quarterback Rating (100.5), 10th in passing yards per game (253.6), and first in ANY/A (7.72).
Mariota flashed top-10 passer ability in 2016. Among qualified quarterbacks that year, he ranked 20th in completion percentage (61.2%), tied for 10th in passing touchdowns (26), tied for 12th in interception percentage (2.0%), 10th in Quarterback Rating (95.6), and eighth in ANY/A (7.14). A lack of passing volume that year resulted in Mariota ranking only 25th in passing yards per game (228.4), though. Mariota’s abilities with his legs actually give him a higher scoring ceiling than either of LaFleur’s two most recent success stories at quarterback, and 2016 offers a glimpse of what passing skills the fourth-year pro already has showcased.
In addition to coaching changes providing optimism for Mariota making the leap in 2018, personnel changes should help his cause, too. The Titans inexplicably force fed DeMarco Murray 184 carries, and he rewarded them with a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. He wasn’t a total dud in the passing game, reeling in 39 receptions on 47 targets for 266 yards receiving, but it was foolish of the team to give Murray more than 200 touches last year.
Derrick Henry was the far better back. He remains in Tennessee’s backfield, which now includes Dion Lewis. The former Patriot is coming off of a career year in which he averaged 56.0 yards rushing per game at 5.0 yards per attempt, scored six times on the ground, and beat teams through the air by hauling in 32 receptions on 35 targets for 214 yards receiving and three scores. He offers Mariota a safety blanket out of the backfield, and the combo of Henry/Lewis will help the offense move the ball and score points, which also enhances the signal caller’s ceiling.
The team also retains some talented pass catchers who will help Mariota move the ball through the air. Delanie Walker is one of the game’s best pass-catching tight ends, and Rishard Matthews is quietly good — which I’ve previously discussed here. One wild card who could enhance Mariota’s chances of kicking his play up to the next level in 2018 is Corey Davis. The Titans used the fifth pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Davis, and he disappointed in his first year. He did play at his best in the postseason, though, and could build on that play in a less stale offense this season. Mariota’s ceiling in 2018 is leaps and bounds ahead of his ADP, and if 2017 is his floor, there’s plenty of room between his floor and ceiling for him to outproduce his cost of acquisition in fantasy leagues.