Marcus Mariota May Be Ready to Do What No Pick Can: Make the Titans Super

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterApril 21, 2017

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo. The Tennessee Titans are on the verge of a record-tying turnaround and quite possibly the franchise’s biggest game in years. All they have to do is beat reeling Jacksonville on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016 to make them a reality. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Please allow me to interrupt your NFL draft coverage with an interesting insight about what current player might make the biggest splash next season. We're not talking about who'll have the biggest impact, but who will make the biggest leap from last season to next. 

Would you guess Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans?

That's what at least one AFC head coach believes, and he said it without hesitation.

"By the time next season is over," the coach said, "he'll be viewed as a top-five quarterback. Maybe even top three or four."

To me, the best quarterbacks in football are Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson. I know the Wilson bashers will take exception. And if you want to say Andrew Luck or Derek Carr or Dak Prescott or Ben Roethlisberger, hey, do you.

The larger point is that while most would agree Mariota is good, a leap into the top five would be a significant development. It would be one of the bigger jumps any player has made in recent NFL history.

While the draft is obviously vital, it's possible one of the more important developments for next season won't be in Philadelphia. It's happening in Tennessee as Mariota recovers from a broken leg, and maybe takes an historic leap that propels him and the Titans to a place the franchise hasn't been since Steve McNair took the team to a Super Bowl. 

Could it happen? Sure. But it would represent a seismic shift in the NFL landscape. And it also would mean the Titans were likely not just in the playoffs but probably had advanced pretty far. Of the top five quarterbacks in ESPN's QBR ratings from last season, two—Brady and Ryan—went to the Super Bowl, Prescott went to the divisional round and Rodgers went to the NFC title game. Brees, ranked fifth, was the only quarterback of that top five who didn't make the postseason.

The aforementioned coach wasn't the only one to think Mariota is due for something bigger next season. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, while not as high on Mariota, said he believes the Titans QB can also keep growing, and quickly.

"The only thing [Mariota] hasn’t been able to do, in my opinion, is stay healthy, and that is a challenge he has to meet, and I hope he does that," Gruden said this week. "But as they continue to improve that roster I suspect he will continue to improve.

Marcus Mariota's season came to a sudden end when he broke his leg against the Jaguars last December.
Marcus Mariota's season came to a sudden end when he broke his leg against the Jaguars last December.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

"I think he can be a great, front-line Pro Bowl quarterback in the league, I don't have any doubts about that if he can stay healthy and they can add a few pieces to their receiving corps. He just has all the intangibles and all the qualities I am looking for personally."

There's a general feeling I've found in my talks with people around the sport that Mariota is about to undergo a significant transformation, and that has made the Titans a popular sleeper to make the Super Bowl.

This seems overly...optimistic, particularly since there's a man named Tom Brady in the AFC. But it could happen. Here’s how:

First, as Gruden said, Mariota must stay healthy. The chances of that are probably pretty good. The chances of him suffering a catastrophic injury in consecutive seasons are slim (hopefully). It just rarely happens to quarterbacks.

Also of help is a weak AFC South, the worst division in the sport. The Texans will be monstrous on defense, but they don't have a decent quarterback. The Jaguars likely will be, again, the Jaguars. Andrew Luck is terrific but offered little clarity in recently discussing his timeline to return after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder in January. That leaves the Titans as the team best set up to take a dramatic step forward in the division.

It wouldn't require too much of a stretch, to be honest. They went from 3-13 in 2015 to nine wins last season and were tied with the Texans atop the division heading into Week 16 before Mariota shattered his leg and Houston got the playoff spot by virtue of a tiebreaker. As Geoffrey C. Arnold of The Oregonian outlined, Tennessee improved from 25th in rushing two seasons ago to third in 2016, which coincided with a boost in scoring and total offense from 28th and 30th, respectively, in 2015 to 14th and 11th last season.

With an improved Mariota and the addition of DeMarco Murray, the Titans had one of the most prolific running games in the NFL last season.
With an improved Mariota and the addition of DeMarco Murray, the Titans had one of the most prolific running games in the NFL last season.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

What happened to the Titans was pretty simple: The offensive line played better and the running game improved, but those things got better because Mariota got better. He threw for 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a 95.6 passer rating, 10th in the league. His improved play forced defenses to play the entirety of the Titans offense and not practically ignore Mariota as they did in 2015.

And if he improves as much as some around the league think, a move into the top five may only be a step on his way to something greater.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.