With the draft rapidly approaching and the football world gone totally wacky in free agency, there’s little certainty as to where our beloved Marcus may end up, and the dapper Duck’s future seems hidden in the smoke as our late season and early offseason predictions come down in flames. Nonetheless, there’s a picture taking shape in the wake of the first wave of free agency, and we’re starting to get an idea of where the kid may end up. Below I’ve put together a list of the top 5 locations for Mariota’s new nest, with likelihood of landing percentages. Let’s just say I’m 99% sure he ends up with one of them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, #1 Overall (35%)
The situation at QB in Tampa is dire at best, and absurd at worst. The team invested and ultimately wasted an inordinate amount of time and money on the development of Josh Freeman, whose single winning season as a starter clearly fooled the organization as badly as his pro-day. Freeman’s impressive four season flop was immediately succeeded (though I hesitate to use the word) by a similarly disappointing campaign by Mike Glennon, and a year later by a desperate finger in the dam named Josh McCown, whom the team released earlier this offseason. The Bucs need a quarterback possibly worse than any other team in the league. They have few defensive weapons and a modicum of talent at the offensive skill positions that has been hamstrung by bad offensive line play and even worse quarterback struggles. The team was lucky to finish with 2 wins last season, and needs something, anything, to pull its fan base and its team out of an all-too-familiar gloom that has haunted Tampa since the departure of John Gruden.
THE GOOD: Mariota and Jameis Winston are both on Lovie Smith’s radar, and one of them will almost definitely be the pick. Most sources currently point to Winston, but Mariota would offer a few advantages for Tampa Bay that Winston would not. First, he’s more demonstrative of the new wave of hyper-mobile QBs who can create outside the pocket, and whoever ends up under center in Raymond James is going to need that ability in order to avoid ending up under a defensive tackle or linebacker. The Bucs have one decent lineman in Logan Mankins. That’s it. And while Winston’s heavier build may make him more likely to be able to shake off arm tackles, Mariota is going to be able to create plays even with two or three defenders bearing down on him and force defensive linemen to play contain rather than pinning their ears back, a crutch Tampa badly needs. Second, Mariota is simply more mature. He’s got 0 off the field issues, was a 3 year starter with a redshirt season to boot in Oregon, and has consistently shown a wisdom in terms of leadership, discipline and work ethic that far outclasses Winston’s checkered career.
THE BAD: Tampa Bay runs an old-school pro offense, one that’s much more similar to FSU than to Oregon. Jameis is significantly more qualified to start in that system right now, something the Bucs desperately need, while Mariota would probably need at least several games, maybe even an entire season or more, to adjust. Furthermore, Marcus has shown a tendency to see the rush a little too much, a habit which drops his eyes and causes close plays with a chance for success to break down, and the best Tampa can supply to mentor Mariota’s development is Mike Glennon, a young and largely failed pro quarterback who will probably be just as lost as Marcus on Day 1. With the Bucs’ porous line and no veteran presence, that habit could get worse and put a serious damper on Mariota’s career prospects.
Tenessee Titans, #2 Overall (30%)
Like the Bucs, the Titans are coming off a failed season, and have little hope for the future without some kind of bolt from the blue. Also like the Bucs, Tennessee saw its investment in a quarterback of the future go the way of the Beanie Baby when Jake Locker retired earlier this month. Worst of all, the Titans didn’t even have the relative defensive talent that Tampa had to stand, however latently, behind its anemic offense last year. The newly shaken up front office has done its best to solve that problem with the signing of Brian Orakpo, but it’s only a start. The offense needs to get going in a hurry, and the best way to do that in the National Football League is with a star starting quarterback.
THE GOOD: The Titans seem to have been preparing to draft a quarterback by picking up solid targets like Anthony Fasano in free agency and using most of the team’s resources in free agency reaching for established talent on defense and special teams. Tennessee has to address quite a few needs this offseason, and it seems to be filling in the gaps around rather than at QB first, at least until the draft. The team obviously doesn’t want to put all its eggs in the Zach Mettenberger basket, and Mariota may be the perfect guy to put pressure on him and be there for insurance should Mettenberger be injured or fail to work out as a starter. That gives Marcus himself time to learn and develop, and the team a chance for that firecracker guy who could drag the team back into relevance should he show up during the preseason.
THE BAD: Mariota may not be the best value for Tennessee at #2. He’s definitely one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft, but he probably isn’t one of the top two players, and the Titans may be putting an emphasis on one of their other needs this early. The team also doesn’t have a solid running back like Tampa’s Doug Martin to carry Marcus if he becomes inconsistent, or keep defenses honest in the rush. That hamstrings the offensive coordinator should he try to start with the option game to take advantage of Mariota’s strengths and keep him comfortable, and puts a lot of pressure on Tennessee’s mediocre offensive line.
New York Jets, #6 Overall (20%)
The Jets have burned down what remained of Rex Ryan’s failing organization, and may be looking to start over with a fresh face for the offense to go with their shiny new front office. Geno Smith is clearly not the answer, and Michael Vick does not have many more seasons in the tank, even if he can recapture some of his old electricity. Todd Bowles is an unknown in terms of offensive scheme, and might be willing to start his tenure with a shakeup that includes some tempo on offense.
THE GOOD: The Desperate Duo of Geno Smith and Michael Vick provides the perfect landing pad for a young Mariota: a floundering starter with fading upside and no proven success and an aging veteran mentor with extensive experience who practically invented the mobile NFL quarterback. The team is looking for leadership, and one of its few strengths is a very good offensive line capable of leading the way for an excellent run game. If the Jets need to go back to ground and pound, they can, but the city is looking for a spark, and if Mariota feels safe behind Nick Mangold and the Road-Graders up front, he might have that opportunity.
THE BAD: We’re all familiar with the gauntlet in New York that somehow seems to ruin every quarterback prospect that comes its way. Something about the pressure of the city and the atmosphere of the AFC East makes it nearly impossible for a young passer to succeed, and we should all be worried for Marcus should he dive into that Charlie Foxtrot. Bill Belichick and his scheme-snapping Patriots are right next door, and last season’s focus on defense made them all the more intimidating to veteran QBs, let alone rookies. Further, the organization is well aware of its QB crushing nature, and may give Geno Smith another shot under a new head coach.
Eagles, #20 Overall (10%)
Unlike Tennessee and Tampa, Chip Kelly’s Eagles do not need a messianic rookie with a golden arm to save them. Philadelphia is already sitting on proven talent all over the field, including the quarterback position, and had a respectable season last year under the guidance of its rock-star head coach. The team didn’t really NEED to make any huge changes this offseason to remain relevant, but stayed true to Kelly’s trademark controlled chaos and perpetual motion by making a plethora of conference-shaking moves that proved him once again at least marginally insane.
THE GOOD: Mariota has already played under Chip Kelly for a year (two if you count his redshirt season), and knows his system inside and out. The kid excels in the tempo offense, which perfectly utilizes his speed, judgment and release, and has proven success in the hurry-up style. That familiarity would ease Mariota’s transition into the NFL and cut down on the extra learning he’d have to do along with his adjustment to the faster, harder hitting game. He could probably start right away, and would be a welcome edition to Kelly’s clubhouse in terms of culture and chemistry. Philidelphia is probably the best fit for Mariota, of all his possible destinations.
THE BAD: Philly already has a solid quarterback, and will probably look to fill other needs even if Mariota falls to the 20th spot (which he almost definitely won’t), meaning the only really plausible scenario in which the team takes him is if it decides to trade up with Sam Bradford. That would require a lot of things falling perfectly into place, including a team higher on the board wanting Bradford and a pick or two more than it wanted Mariota, and Philly itself wanting Mariota more than the opportunity to fill another gap and retain a still adequate signal caller. Moreover, the Eagles have already traded for quite a bit of injury-prone talent this offseason, and should be leery of compounding that risk by investing too many resources in a wiry, scrambling quarterback who illicits all too much comparison to RG III.
Chicago Bears, #7 Overall (5%)
Chicago’s love/hate relationship with Jay Cutler tipped disproportionately into hate last year (in part because of an article from The Onion, somewhat embarrassingly), and the Bears may be regretting his recent and relatively hefty contract extension. Last year’s potential-laden season tanked hard down the stretch, and Cutler himself showed little of his oft-remembered upside, instead mirroring Matt Schaub’s 2014 collapse with an interception laden slump of his own.
THE GOOD: If the Bears do give in to their disgruntled fan base and move away from Cutler this season, whether in the preseason or down the stretch, they need a bargain alternative with a lot of upside, and that means going to the draft and relying on the rookie wage scale to bail them out. Chicago has only $15 million left in total cap space after Cutler’s $16.5 million hit, and has other needs to fill as well. No one already in the league with the talent to carry as much weight as Cutler has behind the Bears’ porous O-line is going to fit nicely into that, but a rookie very well could. Mariota further fits the bill of a creative kid with the mobility to survive an NFC North pass rush, and could even create a fairly interesting option threat with Matt Forte, who headlines a talented roster that could prove a comfortable incubator for Mariota’s career.
THE BAD: If history is any indication, the Bears are going to stick with Jay Cutler. He has a strong rapport with the team and the organization, and has rebounded well in the past. Further, the team is likely to blame most of last year’s struggles on the O-line and coaching, which left much to be desired. The Bears just aren’t an organization that often takes big risks on new-wave styles like Mariota’s, and are probably more than aware that it only takes one big hit from Nick Fairley or from Clay Matthews in the frozen tundra to ruin a light-framed kid like him for good. Jay Cutler himself came into Chicago as a kid with a golden arm and no protection, and the team is none too pleased with the result.
Top Photo: Kevin Cline