NFL1000 Scouting Notebook: Has Marcus Mariota Officially Arrived?

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2016

CHICAGO, IL- NOVEMBER 27:  Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans warms up before the game against the Chicago Bears on November 27, 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 Scouting Notebook, a weekly series where we'll use the power of the 16-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you fresh insights into the league and explain some of the more interesting (and potentially controversial) grades we give players every week.  

The full list of NFL1000 grades will be released Thursday, and we will attempt to preview some of what we are seeing in our film analysis here. 

We will look at Ndamukong Suh's recent dominance and Justin Tucker's huge week, and scouts will answer questions on this week's hot topics. But first, let's start out with some film analysis of Marcus Mariota's recent string of impressive performances.

   

The All-22: Has Marcus Mariota Officially Arrived?

Written by Cian Fahey

CHICAGO, IL- NOVEMBER 27: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans plays against the Chicago Bears during the third quarter on November 27, 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

Marcus Mariota struggled early on this season. He wasn't fitting the ball into tighter windows and pushing the ball downfield the way head coach Mike Mularkey's offense required him to. The second-year quarterback hadn't proved that he was a capable deep passer during his rookie season or during his days in college. He had proved that he could throw intermediate and short passes with precision, but vertical routes that pushed farther than 20 yards downfield were problematic.

Over recent weeks, Mariota has emulated the great Marreese Speights by extending his range. Unlike Mo Buckets, Mariota isn't just a role player. Adding this deep passing element to his game could push Mariota into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks.

Credit: NFL Gamepass

Against the Chicago Bears this past weekend, Mariota showcased his renewed ability to push the ball downfield on a couple of occasions. In the above image, you can see the Tennessee Titans are facing a third-down situation with two receivers, one tight end and two running backs on the field. The Bears are sitting deep with their secondary, anticipating a shot-play design because of the two backs in the backfield and the down and distance.

The Titans like to use seven-man protections to push the ball downfield. Tajae Sharpe scored a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11 on a play of this kind.

Credit: NFL Gamepass

With just three receivers releasing downfield, the Titans are running a play that the Bears were anticipating. Mariota has time and space in the pocket because of the extra protection. He uses that time to manipulate the right-side deep safety. Mariota trains his eyes on that safety and uses his stare to push him wider to that side of the field. What Mariota is doing is creating an opening between the two safeties whom he knows he can come back to.

Rishard Matthews is running a post route from the opposite side of the field. Mariota has to time his actions in the pocket so that they sync with the breaks of Matthews' route.

Credit: NFL Gamepass

It's not just that Mariota splits the two safeties to get the ball to Matthews in the end zone. He purposely pushes the ball deeper into the end zone so Matthews is led away from the recovering safety and toward space. It makes Matthews' reception slightly tougher, but it also assures him of getting an uncontested opportunity to pull the ball in.

This ability to lead receivers to space is something that Mariota has always had on shorter routes. It's obviously much tougher to do when pushing the ball 30 or 40 yards downfield, but the same principles are there, so the ability can translate. What makes this play more notable is the type of route that Mariota threw to and where it was on the field. He essentially threw the ball vertically, meaning he didn't have an angle to work with when trying to measure his accuracy.

Hitting vertical routes rather than hitting deep routes has been Mariota's real issue. He can hit deep crossing routes and lead his tight ends to space down the seam when he has a clear angle to work with. When he's throwing between the hashmarks or throwing to a receiver who is running vertically down either sideline, he has struggled.

Credit: NFL Gamepass

Later in the game against the Bears, the Titans came out with five receivers spread wide. Harry Douglas is lined up in the slot to the top of the screen. He is going to run a sideline route from the slot. Douglas runs that route from the slot so he has more room to run into, and the cornerback can't squeeze him out over the sideline.

Even with that space, Douglas is still small and slow. He doesn't offer his quarterback any margin for error at the catch point or any separation through his route.

Credit: NFL Gamepass

Mariota fits the ball over the defensive back and into Douglas' waiting hands. He hits his receiver in stride without giving the defender, who is in perfect coverage, any opportunity to impact the flight of the ball. That is a difficult throw to make, and Mariota made it look as easy as anyone could.

Neither the Green Bay Packers nor Jacksonville Jaguars offered up much resistance to Mariota when he pushed the ball downfield. He was completing passes against those defenders, but they were relatively easy completions. That can't be said about what he did in this game. Many of the throws Mariota made were of a high degree of difficulty and showcased his potential to become a truly special player.

    

Is Ndamukong Suh Back to Being One of the NFL's Most Feared Defenders?

Written by Charles McDonald

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Ndamukong Suh #93 of the Miami Dolphins reacts after sacking quarterback Jared Goff #16 of the Los Angeles Rams during the second quarter of the game at Los Angeles Coliseum on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Harry How/Getty Images

Ndamukong Suh's career with the Miami Dolphins started off a little slowly in 2015, but he's been on a tear this season, consistently wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines. That trend continued against the San Francisco 49ers, where he was mainly matched up against rookie Joshua Garnett. Garnett played fairly well versus Suh, but it's impossible to shut down a player of Suh's caliber for a full game.

Suh has arguably the most devastating bull rush in the league. He's an elite athlete for his size and routinely explodes through interior offensive linemen on his way to the quarterback. 

Interior defensive linemen have two reads they need to make on every play. They have to read and maintain the relationship between their visual key (the lineman directly across from where their hand is down) and their pressure key (the offensive lineman next to the visual key who creates the gap).

On this play, Suh is lined up as the 1-technique in between the right guard and the center. Suh is shaded over the right guard, making the guard his visual key and the center his pressure key. His first reaction is to the right guard, who steps away from him on a reach block toward the crashing defensive end. Once his visual key goes away, he needs to immediately shift his eyes and movement toward the pressure key to maintain strong gap integrity.

The reaction time for Suh is outstanding here. Before he gets his second foot in the ground, he's already moved on to the center (his pressure key) trying to reach-block him.

Suh gets his hands in perfect position: left hand on the left shoulder pad and right hand on the center's chest. Now that Suh has established an ideal "half man" relationship, he's free to shed the block and find the ball. After he locates the ball-carrier, he slings the center to the ground and punishes the running back. This is the type of textbook, physical play that has made Suh one of the elite defensive tackles in the game today.

On the final play of the game, Suh was the reason why Kaepernick failed to reach the end zone. San Francisco's protection scheme was shifted toward Earl Mitchell, leaving Suh one-on-one with rookie guard Garnett. Once the center turned his back to Suh, Suh realized he had a two-way go in regard to his pass rush. He opted to go inside with a nasty club-swim move. He easily gets past the guard and flushes Kaepernick from the pocket.

His pursuit is what ultimately ended the play. Suh took a great angle on Kaepernick that allowed him to tackle the mobile quarterback after Jelani Jenkins funneled him back toward the middle of the defense. Suh snatches Kaepernick from behind, which allows Kiko Alonso to crush Kaepernick, ending the game.

Suh is one of the elite defensive players in the game today, and his game against the 49ers continued to show that. There were a handful of plays to choose from in this matchup, but these were the three that stood out the most and helped the Dolphins notch their sixth straight win.

    

Scouting with Schofield: Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman

Written by Mark Schofield

The San Diego Chargers suffered numerous injuries to start the season, many of which came at offensive skill positions. They lost Stevie Johnson, Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead to season-ending injuries early in the year, drastically reducing the offensive firepower at their disposal.

But this opened up some opportunities for two young receivers, Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman. In their second and third years, respectively, the two young pass-catchers are developing into reliable targets for QB Philip Rivers, and their growth this season has been impressive. Thanks to their footwork, route running, ability at the catch point and awareness, this pair of wide receivers has given Chargers fans something big to cheer for this season.

The above video looks at three plays from each receiver, highlighting a number of traits critical to success at the wide receiver position.

    

Justin Tucker Blowing Away the Competition at Kicker

Written by Chuck Zodda

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 27: Kicker Justin Tucker #9 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after kicking a field goal in the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smit
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In 2012 and 2013, a young Justin Tucker emerged as one of the top kickers in the NFL, missing just three kicks each year while also going 10-of-11 on attempts of 50 or more yards. Unlike many kicking prospects, who require time with the dreaded NFL "K ball" before succeeding, Tucker performed at an elite level instantly.

However, 2014 and 2015 were a different story for the Ravens kicker. Tucker posted declining accuracies of 85.3 percent and 82.5 percent in those seasons, as well as going just 8-of-19 from greater than 50 yards. While he remained perfect on the longer extra points instituted by the NFL prior to the 2015 season, there were some questions in the offseason when the Baltimore Ravens signed Tucker to a contract featuring the highest guaranteed dollar amount ever given to a kicker.

Tucker's 2016 campaign has been a return to the form of his rookie and sophomore seasons. He is 27-of-27 on field goals, including 7-of-7 from over 50 yards and 11-of-11 from 40 to 49 yards. His Week 12 showing was one of the top two games by a kicker this year (Dan Bailey in Week 1 being the other), as Tucker went 4-of-4 on field goals, including strikes from 54, 57 and 52 yards.

To this point, this is the finest season of Tucker's career and the best performance by a kicker through Week 12 this year. With the quality of NFL kickers as high as it has ever been (Week 11 extra points notwithstanding), Tucker blowing away the competition thus far is incredibly impressive. 

Tucker's 2014 and 2015 seasons showed him struggling with his balance and timing through his swing. In order to be successful, a kicker attempts to replicate the same swing on every kick. Unlike wide receivers or running backs, creativity and innovation are generally shunned by kickers, as variations in their mechanics create space for flaws to creep in.

Tucker's previous two years showed significant variations from kick to kick. One of the most frequent issues I observed was a lengthening of his swing, similar to a hitter in baseball taking a looping path to the ball rather than the most direct line possible. This looping motion threw off other aspects of Tucker's timing, resulting in him pulling off the ball before his leg came through the kicking zone in a number of cases, slicing the ball wide right.

This year, Tucker has a much cleaner and more direct path through the kicking zone, and the result has been outstanding. Tucker's mechanics are synced up perfectly, resulting in a follow-through that goes directly through the target at all times, with the ball clearing the uprights shortly after.

Why did it take two years for Tucker to get to this point and clean things up? As mentioned earlier, kicking is based on the repetition of the same motion on every kick. Tucker's decline did not happen overnight, and the time required to rebuild the muscle memory and construct a new motion does not happen quickly, either. But Tucker does appear comfortable, and Ravens fans can rest easy knowing the money spent in the offseason on their kicker was money well spent.

    

Ask the Scouts

Question: Two of the NFL's most feared pass-rushers played on national TV on Sunday night, and both put up huge numbers. Justin Houston (KC) and Von Miller (DEN) each had three sacks. Who do you think had the better game overall? And who would you rather have on your team moving forward?

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 20: Outside linebacker Justin Houston #50 of the Kansas City Chiefs enters the field for his first game of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneersat Arrowhead Stadium during the game on November 20, 2016 in Kansas City, Miss
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Answer from Zach Kruse, OLB Scout: First things first, Sunday night's showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos featured the best 3-4 outside linebacker play of the entire 2016 season. Houston and Miller were spectacular, but Tamba Hali, DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray were also good on the edge.

Anyone who wants to learn more about playing the position should pop in the tape from Sunday night and watch the edges. The veteran group put on a clinic for how the position can completely disrupt a game by rushing the passer and setting the edge against the run.

Back to the original question. Miller graded out slightly higher in our Week 12 evaluations, but the difference only came down to a few points in coverage (an underrated part of Miller's game) and tackling. Houston and Miller both produced the top scores in pass rushing and run defense, and their respective overall grades now rank as the two best at the position this season.

Miller won big points for dropping into coverage and covering Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on a few snaps, and some of his tackles—including an open-field stop on Tyreek Hill—gave him a slight edge over Houston in that category. But again, these are minimal differences. Miller and Houston were both dominant in ways we don't see from the 3-4 OLB position on a week-to-week basis.

Picking one over the other is tough. Both are ridiculously talented at rushing the passer and disrupting the run game. If you had to pick, though, Miller is probably the choice. He has a better all-around game, and we've seen the Super Bowl 50 MVP do big things on the biggest of stages. But you can't go wrong with either. Miller and Houston are the gold standard at the position. We saw that firsthand Sunday night.

    

Question: In this week's NFL1000, the Cincinnati Bengals' Darqueze Dennard has the lowest score in the league with a 45/100. What happened to Dennard this week, and just how bad was this performance? 

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Darqueze Dennard #21 of the Cincinnati Bengals in action against the Denver Broncos during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Broncos defeated the Bengals 29-17. (Photo by Joe Robbi
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Answer from Kyle Posey, CB Scout: This was Dennard's first true "extended action" of the season, as he saw the most snaps he's played all year. Dennard played 50 snaps, and they were predominantly in the slot.

To put it frankly, he looked lost out there. Like a deer in headlights. He gave up six catches on six targets for 81 yards. He was only in position to make a play on two of those. There are plenty of guys who give up tons of yards and catches on a weekly basis, but for Dennard, it was how.

There was a play where Dennard got caught up in a bunch formation. By the time he realized his man was crossing the field, it was too late, and boom, 20-plus-yard reception. Then there's a less extreme example where it's a simple in route, and Dennard's feet looked like they were stuck in mud the way he was slow to react to the throw.

It was the first time Dennard was thrown into the slot on a full-time basis, and you can tell. His skill set is best suited as a perimeter cornerback, as he doesn't have the quickness to shadow receivers in the slot. It was a rough go for him Sunday, and even though it was due to injuries, hopefully the Cincinnati Bengals kick him back outside.

          

Question: Derek Carr called Khalil Mack "one of the best football players this game has ever seen" this week after he posted yet another huge game. With 29 tackles, eight sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown in his past six games, what do you make of Mack's potential as an all-time great? Do you see that type of ceiling?

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 27:  Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates with Derek Carr #4 after scoring on an interception of Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers in the second quarter of their NFL game on November 27, 2016 in Oakland, California
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Answer from Joe Goodberry, DE Scout: Is Mack on the trajectory to be one of the best ever? I thought this was obvious. Sure, he started off slow, but the last half of the Raiders' season has shown exactly the type of talent Mack is.

There's nothing holding him back athletically. He's quick, agile, strong and finishes every play with passion. If he had more help on the Oakland defense, his numbers would be even better. If you were to swap Mack with Von Miller, you wouldn't notice a difference. In my mind, those are the two best edge-defenders in the NFL. As the wins continue in Oakland, Mack's notoriety will grow.