With more than half of the NFL season in the books it’s time to take a look at the two rookie quarterbacks earning any playing time – the first two picks of the draft – Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota of the Titans.
Both players have clearly lifted their teams and dragged them to wins this season they wouldn’t have had a year ago, and both players have flashed big-time ability, but both have also had ugly performances and neither player is grading above average on the season. Mariota (No. 21) and Winston (No. 28) are both in the bottom half of our PFF grades among NFL quarterbacks, but what matters is less how they are faring compared to the rest of the NFL starters at the position, and more how they compare to rookies over previous seasons.
Last season there were four rookies to see significant playing time: Teddy Bridgewater, Zach Mettenberger, Derek Carr and Blake Bortles. Only Bridgewater ended the season with a positive grade, and both Carr and Bortles had disastrous marks from their time starting despite relatively healthy overall statistics in Carr’s case.
At this point in the season, however, none of the group was grading positively. Bridgewater’s good form all came in a final five-game stretch to the year that was good enough to rival any quarterback in the league, but at this point in the year his grade looked a lot like Mariota's, and the Titan has posted significantly better statistics.
To find a group of rookie quarterbacks that outperformed this year’s pair, you need to go back to the ridiculous class of 2012. Brandon Weeden aside, that group featured spectacular debut seasons from Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, as well as a solid rookie season by Ryan Tannehill. At this point of the season all four of those players were grading firmly above average, with RG III and Wilson threatening the league’s better marks.
RG III’s numbers were very comparable to those of Mariota, except he was being employed far more as a rushing threat, a role that would ultimately contribute to the unraveling of his career once injury struck. The Titans have been receiving criticism in some areas for not making more of Mariota as a rushing threat, but if they need something to back up their caution they need look no further than Griffin and the 2012 season.
PFF has been grading games since 2007, and that year is by far the strongest when it comes to rookie quarterback play, and a massive outlier in grading terms. Matt Ryan had a solid debut year in 2008, and Cam Newton showed an erratic but full of potential season in 2011, but the baseline for rookie quarterback play is not high, so what we are seeing from Winston and Mariota needs to be taken in that context.
Mariota’s biggest weapon so far has been his efficiency. The very thing he was criticized for by some before the draft has been his most impressive attribute, and he has completed 71.9 percent of his passes when he has had a clean pocket to work with. His passer rating on those plays is 104.3, and he has gained 8.2 yards per attempt. Those are all excellent numbers, and it is just as encouraging that his figures remain high when blitzed. They drop across the board when he is pressured, but as a rookie that is hardly unexpected. He has been the model of efficiency at quarterback, even if the Titans haven’t asked him to carry the offense the way some other teams have.
Winston, on the other hand, has been spectacularly inconsistent. His rookie year has featured excellent games and some of the poorer grades we have given out this season. Just take a look at this graph of his game grades so far this season, with some very bad red grades and very good green games back to back:
What makes him so exciting is his ceiling, which he regularly demonstrates is off the charts. He makes throws that only the very best players at the position can make, but too often follows them up or precedes them with plays that don’t belong being made by the same player. Tampa Bay will simply be hoping that he can iron out his play over the second half of the year and start to move his baseline closer to his ceiling.
Where do Mariota and Winston sit compared to other rookies of the PFF era? They aren't on the same level as the stars of the 2012 class, but so far they may rival any other year over 10 weeks.