The top two picks of the 2015 draft — Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston and Tennessee's Marcus Mariota — put together some pretty good performances for rookie quarterbacks last year. As we get ready for the 2016 season, we will take a quick look back at each player’s season and the offseason moves of each player’s team to bolster their respective supporting casts, in order to determine which is primed for the better 2016 campaign.
Winston’s 2015 season
Like most rookies, Winston had some good and some bad to his performance last season. However, following a very poor Week 1 performance, the good easily outweighed the bad. Winston finished the season with a cumulative overall grade that ranked 13th among quarterbacks and earned him PFF's Rookie of the Year award. He also got better as the season went on, ranking eighth over the final seven weeks of the season and earned a below-average grade in a game just once after Week 8.
Winston’s 27 turnover-worthy plays (TWP)—plays with a -1 or worse grade—were fourth-most by a QB last year, but his 35 big-time throws (BTT)—plays with a +1 or better grade—ranked tied for seventh with Tom Brady. When not pressured, Winston had the eighth-highest passing grade in the league. Being consistently accurate is one area he could still improve, however. His 69.2 accuracy percentage ranked 34th out of 37 quarterbacks in 2015.
Buccaneers offseason moves
Tampa Bay made two pricey signings in free agency on the offensive side of the ball. The first was re-signing RB Doug Martin, who had a resurgent season in his contract year, earning the second-highest per-snap grade among running backs behind only Le'Veon Bell. While some thought Charles Sims could have taken over the lead role, and he probably would have done well, having two solid options at the position should be the best for Tampa, especially when the two complement each other as well as Martin and Sims.
Guard Logan Mankins’ unexpected retirement was a significant loss for the Buccaneers. Mankins was their only offensive lineman to grade positively in both pass protection and as a run blocker, and his overall grade ranked 16th in the league among all guards.
In an attempt to replace Mankins, Tampa Bay gave J.R. Sweezy a boat-load of money to leave Seattle. Sweezy will make some of the most impressive run blocks one will see, but he’s far too inconsistent on a play-to-play basis in the run game. As for pass protection, Sweezy has ranked 64th and 75th out of 82 and 78 qualifying guards, respectively, in the last two years, and allowed 72 total pressures in a Seattle offense that generally runs the ball more than most teams. Sweezy may still be improving considering he’s played just four seasons on the offensive line, but it still seems unlikely he will meet or exceed Mankins’ level of performance from last year.
Mariota's 2015 season
Mariota had a good NFL debut in Week 1, although it may have been a little overstated compared to his perfect passer rating. He finished the season with a near-average overall grade, which ranked 21st in the league, which was far better than the negative grade the Titans’ quarterbacks combined for in 2014.
Mariota bested Winston in both overall accuracy percentage and accuracy percentage when under pressure, with Mariota tied for ninth in the league in the latter category. Mariota was remarkably effective on intermediate throws from 11-20 yards downfield, where he had the eighth-highest grade in the league. However, he struggled on deep passes (20-plus yards downfield) as the lowest-graded quarterback and last in deep passing accuracy at 20.4 percent. He also had just 12 BTTs compared to 20 TWPs.
Still, Mariota was a success in his rookie campaign. Out of the 10 rookie quarterbacks with significant playing time over the past three seasons, Mariota earned the third-highest overall grade and was just one of three to not earn a negative grade as a rookie.
Titans offensive moves
The Titans focused their offseason on surrounding Mariota with better talent on offense. After trading draft picks a couple of times in the first round, the Titans landed former Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin at pick No. 8, who should step in immediately as the starting right tackle. Tennessee signed free agent center Ben Jones away from the Texans. Jones finished an overall grade a little below average in his first season moving from guard to center last year, but he should still be an upgrade over Brian Schwenke, who cannot seem to stay healthy, and a definite upgrade over Andy Gallik, who graded as one of the worst centers in the league despite starting only half the season last year.
As for the skill positions, the Titans brought in WR Rishard Matthews from Miami. The former seventh-round pick was having the best season of his career and on pace to crack the 1,000 receiving yard mark before missing the final quarter of the season due to injury.
Perhaps the team's biggest move was trading for RB DeMarco Murray. After finishing 2014 as our second-highest graded runner, Murray struggled in his first and only year in Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia. While he may never again reach the level of performance he had with Dallas in 2014, we don’t believe he is as poor as he was with the Eagles, where the scheme fit and offensive line issues did Murray no favors. We have reservations on what second-round pick and Alabama's Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s value was in the draft and how big his role should be in the NFL, but we do believe he can be an effective downhill runner while splitting time with Murray.
In all, there was a lot to like from both quarterbacks as rookies. As expected, both have considerable room for improvement, but they also showed why they were picked No. 1 and No. 2 in last year’s draft. Surrounding Mariota with better talent has been the Titans’ priority this offseason, as has been an increased emphasis on the run game to help take a bit off Mariota’s shoulders and open up the passing game. The Titans upgraded at wide receiver, running back, and along the offensive line while bringing back one of the league’s best tight ends in Delanie Walker, so the improved supporting cast around Mariota should help him in Year 2.
But while Winston needs to cut back on his mistakes, ultimately he was the better quarterback overall last year. He performed better on both intermediate and deep throws, and when not pressured, while both players graded similarly when under pressure. Both players are set up to have better seasons than they did as rookies, but Winston is primed to have the better season in 2016.