The NFL’s Overlooked Superstar Quarterback

Quinton Spain probably isn’t a name you know. Spain is a guard for the Tennessee Titans. He’s played a little bit over his two years in the league, starting more games than he sat in 2016, but even for guards he’s not a known name. Spain became the star for a fleeting moment during the Nashville Predators recent run to the Stanley Cup Finals. When the Titans offensive line got together to chug beer and hold up dead catfish in the stadium, Spain was standing front and center. Right there between Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan the way he is on the field. Shirtless, covered in beer, not the way he is on the field. Everyone noticed Spain. You couldn’t miss him. Not everyone noticed the guy off to the left, standing uncomfortably while waving a towel and wondering how long it was all going to last.

Marcus Mariota had rarely looked so out of place in Tennessee.

It’s unusual for any quarterback to be overshadowed by his offensive line, normally it works the other way around. It’s especially unusual for it to happen at a hockey game. If there was one quarterback it was going to happen to though, that was Mariota. The former Oregon prospect is a reserved character. He’s so reserved that when he was coming out of college one GM claimed Mariota’s red flag was that he had no red flags — a reach bigger than Randy Moss in the corner of the endzone. After his offensive line went viral, Mariota revealed that he has never taken a sip of alcohol in his life so the idea of him chugging a beer shirtless is even more absurd than whatever that GM was talking about.

During that draft process Mariota was pushed into the background by Jameis Winston. Winston went first overall in the 2015 draft, Mariota went second. Winston was considered a generational talent after a stellar couple of seasons at FSU. Mariota was widely regarded as a system quarterback who would struggle to transition to the NFL. He received lazy comparisons to Colin Kaepernick and other running quarterbacks simply because of his physical profile. Mariota can run. He’s obviously an excellent athlete. That doesn’t mean it was the most significant or even a significant part of his skill set.

Rather than compare Mariota to a quarterback such as Kaepernick, he should have been compared to a Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. He shared Brady’s quick release, outstanding ability to diagnose coverages in an instant and his precision on short/intermediate routes. He shared Roethlisberger’s ability to function effectively both inside and outside the pocket, extending passing plays and giving them every chance to succeed rather than dropping his eyes to run himself into trouble. The aesthetics of Mariota’s physical skill set distorted the view of his quality as a passer, setting the tone for how he would be covered early in his career.

Since entering the NFL, Mariota has proven his quality as a passer.

As early as Week 2 during his rookie season Mariota was making exceptionally difficult plays from the pocket. For Dorial Green-Beckham’s 13-yard touchdown against the Browns that week, Mariota initially looked to his left where he had two receivers covered tightly. He shuffled his feet, turned his shoulders and came back to the other side of the field as the pocket around him began to tighten. Mariota subtly moved backwards while pump faking to draw a linebacker out of the passing lane he wanted to attack. An edge defender arrived to hit Mariota as he began to release the ball. The quarterback’s release was so quick that the ball wasn’t affected. His mechanics stayed strong, he absorbed the hit and delivered the ball in perfect time to a perfect spot for Green-Beckham to catch the ball in the back of the endzone.

The now 23-year old threw 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt during his rookie season. Those numbers didn’t do his performances justice. Mariota played behind one of the worst pass-blocking lines in the league that season. He was regularly working from condensed pockets, buying time with subtle movements while keeping his eyes downfield. Without his quick release and poise in the pocket the Titans passing game wouldn’t have been functional. To compound those issues his receivers constantly left completions on the field. Mariota lost a completion on an accurate throw because of receiver error once every nine attempts that season. No other quarterback lost a completion that often and when adjusted for receiver error his yards per attempt lept to 8.9, the sixth-best adjusted yards per attempt in the league. Not only were his receivers ruining plays by dropping balls, they also struggled to get open. Relying on Harry Douglas, Dorial Green-Beckham and Justin Hunter meant that Mariota was constantly throwing receivers open with precision and anticipation into tight windows.

Jameis Winston was supposed to be the generational talent from his draft. He was supposed to be the guy who elevated everyone around him and played with consistency. Mariota did all of that without the major accuracy issues and turnover problems that Winston has had to this point in his career.

The Titans should have embraced Mariota’s obvious strengths after his rookie season. They should have set him up in a quick-passing, shotgun-heavy offense that featured three, four and five receivers as much as possible. Mike Mularkey has never emphasized those things. Mularkey has always relied on misdirection, heavy-set personnel packages and deep drops in the pocket that come with slow-developing, vertical releases for the receivers outside. It’s an offense that doesn’t give Mariota three or four options to attack the coverage on every play and it’s an offense that doesn’t let him get rid of the ball quickly. According to Football Outsiders, the Titans ranked second in the league in run percentage during the first half, fourth in the league in run percentage when trailing in the second half and used heavy packages on 43 percent of their plays, more often than any other team. 23 teams used shotgun/pistol formations more often than the Titans did. 26 teams used empy sets more often. Mularkey’s offense attempts to minimize the quarterback’s impact and responsiblity. It puts a greater emphasis on the design of the play and the execution of the supporting cast than the quarterback’s ability as a passer.

Despite his own scheme working against him, Mariota was even better during his second season.

Tajae Sharpe and Rishard Matthews struggled to create separation on Mularkey’s vertical routes. With more bodies staying in protection, they were regularly running into crowds so Mariota was forced to throw receivers open into tight windows at every level of the field.

He was still an above average passer to each level of the field except past 20 yards. Dak Prescott was the only quarterback 25 or younger to have better accuracy percentages than Mariota. Prescott’s numbers were enhanced by the types of throws he attempted and the conditions he played in. He could sit in the pocket and wait for wide open receivers. He rarely aggressively attacked tight coverages because he didn’t have to. Furthermore, Prescott threw the ball short at a much higher rate. 39.8 percent of Mariota’s passes travelled further than 10 yards downfield (fifth in the league), whereas 32.47 percent of Prescott’s passes travelled that far (18th).

Only three quarterbacks had a deeper average depth of target than Mariota’s 9.78 last season. A big reason for that was the team’s reluctance to throw screen passes. 6.21 percent of his attempts were screen passes and only 39.49 percent of his yards came after the catch. 28 quarterbacks benefited from more yards after the catch.

The only time Mariota really struggled last season was during the first four weeks. Even then he was still making spectacular plays. In Week 2 against the Detroit Lions he was accurate on 80.65 percent of his passes. One of those accurate attempts came late in the fourth quarter when he hit DeMarco Murray down the seam for a 22-yard gain against tight coverage. Mariota was hit as he released the ball but still threw Murray open to the perfect spot on the field. That play set up the game-winning touchdown for Andre Johnson when Mariota diagnosed the coverage instantly by recognizing the linebacker turning his back to the quarterback over the middle of the field. Recognizing the linebacker’s movement allowed Mariota to fit a touch pass between two defenders to a spot where only Johnson could catch it even though the receiver was completely covered. Those two plays were of the highest degree of difficulty for a quarterback. They were the types of plays Mariota made repeatedly after the first month of the season.

Mariota’s skill set is so wide and advanced that he didn’t have major weaknesses to work on after his rookie season. His only real weakness is his deep ball, something Mularkey tries to emphasize. That meant his second season was about developing greater consistency and adding layers to things he was already doing at a high level.

Throwing receivers open against tight coverage against impending hits is something Mariota does better than all but one quarterback in the league: Aaron Rodgers. There are a few more quarterbacks who are better than him at cycling through progressions to find soft spots in different coverages, they are all older, less mobile, future hall of famers who have been in the league for more than a decade. Mariota is catching up to those guys in terms of manipulating defenders to create throwing lanes from the pocket. You could see very clear examples of him moving linebackers with his eyes against the Chiefs and the Packers.

Having a quarterback who can do all of that from the pocket consistently and make plays with his feet when he’s forced out of the pocket is hugely valuable. Even when Mariota breaks the pocket his instinct isn’t to run. He keeps his eyes up to exhaust every passing option before crossing the line of scrimmage. He is a reluctant runner. This means he gives plays every chance to succeed instead of running for four yards when there’s an open receiver 40 yards downfield. He doesn’t leave pockets without good reason to and he doesn’t predetermine his decision to pass or run. Everything about Mariota’s skill set sets him up to react to what the defense does and punish them for it.

Even with Mariota’s skill set, playing in that type of aggressive passing game with a limited supporting cast should have led to more turnovers.

Mariota only threw nine interceptions last season — he threw 26 touchdowns — and his interception percentage was exactly two, the 12th-best rate among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts. It wasn’t luck. Mariota only threw 17 interceptable passes. A lowly 3.77 percent of his attempts were considered passes that should have been intercepted. In simpler terms: he should have been intercepted once every 26.53 attempts.

Only 11 quarterbacks had a better interceptable pass rate than Mariota. None of those players played in a scheme that was as aggressive as his and Prescott was the only one from the 25-and-younger club.

Even with his low interception total, Mariota was actually unlucky rather than lucky. On average each quarterback had 39.72 percent of his interceptable passes caught last year. 52.94 percent of Mariota’s interceptable passes were caught.

A quarterback who takes care of the ball while getting the most out of every play by attacking the defense in different ways and elevating his teammates is what every team in the league desperately wants. If Eric Decker can regain his health and Corey Davis erases the concerns about his speed to stretch the field, the Titans will have recievers who can create their own separation and adjust at the catch point for the first time in their young quarterback’s career.

That will help the Titans move closer to the playoffs.

It will help Mariota move closer to the spotlight.

It will help us acknowledge that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL…

…and the best young quarterback in the NFL.

Dak can’t match his precision into tight windows or his anticipation throws on intermediate routes. Winston can’t take care of the ball while creating opportunities for his receivers the way Mariota can. Wentz….Wentz shouldn’t even be mentioned in this conversation.

Even the recently-minted Derek Carr doesn’t have a broad enough skill set or consistent enough track record to challenge Mariota as the best young quarterback in the NFL.

Roster Construction, Derek Carr and Measuring the Value of a QB Contract

During the 2013 season, Russell Wilson accounted for 0.6 percent of the Seahawks cap space. Three of the team’s key additions that year — Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin — combined for 10.9 percent of the cap. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl that year. Bennett and Avril were key pieces of the defense all season long while Harvin made big contributions in the Super Bowl.

In 2016, Wilson’s cap hit accounted for 11.9 percent of the cap. Bennett and Avril are still on the roster but Pete Carroll and John Schneider have been forced to cut corners elsewhere.

No team in  the league spent as little on their offensive line as the Seahawks did last year. Even doubling their $6.3 million allocation wouldn’t have moved them off the bottom. The same is true this season. The Seahawks aren’t as far behind this time but they have still only allocated $15 million to their offensive line. Amazingly, Luke Joeckel accounts for almost half of that. [Numbers courtesy of Over The Cap]

While it’s not an ideal situation for the Seahawks to be in, it’s one they have chosen for a reason.

The Seahawks kept their defense in tact and prioritised putting weapons around Wilson because the quarterback doesn’t need ideal conditions in the pocket to be effective. He’s not the type of passer who will drop back and deliver the ball on time every play. Wilson is at his best when the play breaks down and he can create off the cuff, threatening the defense underneath with his feet while keeping his eyes up to punish them with precision deep passes if they move too soon.

It’s not necessarily that Wilson makes his offensive line better. He does allow the offense to function without a competent offensive line though.

The true measure of a contract is how it fits in your roster construction. Paying a quarterback more than $20 million per season should only be done when that quarterback is allowing you to save money elsewhere. He can do that by elevating his teammates. That’s going to be difficult for Derek Carr.

Carr just became the highest-paid player in the NFL. He plays on an offense with a dominant offensive line and dynamic wide receivers. That offensive line features the expensive contracts of Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson. That receiving corps features the expensive contract of Michael Crabtree and the soon-to-be expensive contract of Amari Cooper.

Nowhere on offense is the team saving money because of the quarterback. None of the pieces around Carr need to be elevated, instead they are setting the quarterback up with a perfect situation to thrive.

That is how Carr can justify his contract.

The Raiders are going to have to save money on the defensive side of the ball. That means the team’s identity will be similar to the New Orleans Saints team that last won a Super Bowl. Sean Payton and Drew Brees led a team with an offensive identity where the defense only needed to be a complementary unit that lived off of turnovers. With Drew Brees as your quarterback that was a viable approach. Carr needs to prove that true of himself.

Carr needs to consistently take advantage of the situations his offense puts him in. His offense needs to be one of the most consistent, most efficient, most explosive units in the league year in and year out.

Becoming a more accurate passer should be Carr’s first priority in 2017. Carr’s overall accuracy percentage of 70.94 percent ranked 25th in the league last year(via the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue). He was only slightly more accurate than Trevor Siemian, Carson Wentz and Blake Bortles.

Overall accuracy percentages can be misleading because each quarterback doesn’t throw the ball to the same levels of the field at the same rate. Carr was a top-10 passer on throws behind the line of scrimmage and ranked an impressive 14th on throws where the ball traveled further than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The problems for Carr came in the 1-20 ranges. Carr ranked 26th in the 1-5 yard range, 32nd in the 6-10 yard range, 28th in the 11-15 yard range and 26th in the 16-20 yard range.

Explaining the discrepancy between Carr’s short/deep accuracy and the other levels of the field is relatively easy. The big concern about Carr coming out of college was his footwork and how he reacted to pressure. He has a huge arm so it’s relatively easy for him to flick the ball to receivers in either flat without setting his feet. When he’s pushing the ball downfield there is less requirement for touch and timing, he can let the ball fly aggressively.

Throwing to short and intermediate routes past the line of scrimmage requires more placement, touch and timing because you are throwing into the thick of the coverage. Your footwork becomes more important on these throws because you have a much smaller margin for error.

On this play against the Denver Broncos in Week 9 Carr was lucky to avoid an interception. This is a difficult throw to make but it’s one he has the arm talent to make. Not only does he need to arch the ball over the trailing defender, the ball has to hit a moving window down the sideline where the receiver can catch the ball before going out of bounds.

It’s not that Carr missed this throw. Few quarterbacks can make this throw in the first place. It’s that he missed the throw by a huge distance. The ball should at worst reach the defender trailing his intended target.

The key for the result on this play is Carr’s left foot. When he plants it initially his left foot is in front of his right. He should be keeping that left foot ahead of his right to step into the throw and release the ball with authority. Instead his left foot begins to move backwards and by the time he releases the ball his weight is on his left foot but is pushed backwards before leaving the ground.

Carr faces very little pressure. On this occasion Von Miller was able to get close to him but he never hit him and he could only reach to try and disrupt the release of the ball.

Miller’s presence alone impacted Carr’s comfort delivering the ball. He had an opportunity to step forward if he didn’t feel like he could cleanly release the ball. That is an element of Carr’s play that is too common. He rushes to get rid of the ball instead of making use of the time he is given. On this play, his inability in the pocket led to the ball arriving significantly short of its intended destination.

Carr can fix some of his accuracy with better footwork, but his accuracy even when he sets his feet lacks the requisite timing and placement to be an upper-echelon player.

45.85 percent of Carr’s passes travelled between 0-10 yards past the line of scrimmage last year. 24 quarterbacks in the league threw more passes into that area of the field. The Raiders have receivers who can get open quickly and they spread the field with four and five receivers on a regular basis last season. Carr should have been able to work the short and intermediate routes more often than he did to get the most out of the diverse talents around him.

The Raiders have a new offensive coordinator, Todd Downing, but he’s a carryover after being the team’s quarterbacks coach previously. If Downing simply retains the principles and scheme of Bill Musgrave Carr’s skill set is unlikely to broaden.

Making that offense work against bad defenses is possible, the Raiders did it for the most part last year, but it makes winning games against good defenses immeasurably harder.

Save for hitting on defensive prospects at an unprecedented rate in the draft, the Raiders will be a team that is overly reliant on its offense moving forward. That means Carr can’t just be Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco or even Matthew Stafford. He will need to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, consistently playing to his potential each week.

 

Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Brock Osweiler and the Gaps in Evaluating Efficiency

Only one quarterback since 1960 has thrown 45 or more passes in a game for 300 or fewer yards with a completion percentage of 75 or greater. Derek Carr fit that criteria with his performance against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2 and Pro Football Reference confirmed that made him unique.

Unique performances for quarterbacks in the NFL aren’t unusual nowadays. As Robert Mays wrote for The Ringer recently, the NFL continues to move further away from run-oriented offenses. That is because coaches now see the value in relying more on a short-throw based, efficient passing game that takes advantage of modern rules that limit defensive backs.

Every quarterback appears more efficient now than he would have 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

That doesn’t mean that every quarterback is more efficient now than those who played 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Continue reading