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NFL Draft

Is Marcus Mariota Truly A Threat To Derek Carr?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 7, 2020
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In order to decide if and how Marcus Mariota threatens Derek Carr’s role as the Las Vegas Raiders’ starting quarterback, we have to first decide if Carr’s job is even in jeopardy. It probably is, but should it be if Mariota is the next-best option for head coach Jon Gruden?

CONTRACTUAL FACTORS

Firstly, Mariota’s contract indicates that he has a chance to start this season. He’s guaranteed $7.5M in this season alone, but adds $150k for every game in which he plays at least 60% of the snaps, and can hit further incentives with regular-season wins and a playoff berth. The contract wouldn’t be constructed in that fashion if there wasn’t a chance that Mariota starts a game. The second year of the deal—$10.1M, all of it currently unguaranteed—serves that function as well.

The Raiders aren’t going to pay eight figures to Mariota if he doesn’t start a single game in 2020. Should Carr prove in 2020 that he’s worth further run in 2021, then the Raiders will likely cut Mariota and get the money back. But Carr is due $22.1M in 2021, and all but $2.5M of that can be recovered by cutting him before the 2021 season. 

Now, Mariota’s contract has tons more escalators for 2021 that are yet unspecified, so there’s a chance that his figure could rise to an equivalent number as Carr’s big 2021 cap hit—but if the Raiders are in a reloading phase in which they’re adding a rookie quarterback, then Mariota’s base salary is half of Carr’s, and he could be a preferable option to transition the offense to a new passer. 

So contractually, Mariota looks like a threat to Carr this season, and next season as well. The numbers work. Does the on-field play?

ON-FIELD FACTORS

The best answer here is a shrug and a “not really.” Neither Carr nor Mariota is a thrilling option, though Mariota has the edge in the anecdotal arguments of draft capital, playoff experience, and the renewed vigor of a new offense. How convincing those arguments are is up to you, but they don’t really move the needle for me.

The sensation of Mariota in the Gruden-led, modern-era Raiders offense is an important one to unpack. We have to start with the relationship between Gruden and Carr, which definitely isn’t perfect—otherwise, Mariota’s taking a lot less money to be a lot less interesting backup somewhere else. Michael Lombardi for The Athletic wrote about the potential of the Raiders moving on from Carr in the 2020 offseason, in which he shared his thoughts on the Gruden-Carr relationship here: 

Gruden and Carr will play nice; they will say all the positives about one another. Still, having been around Gruden for many of those good years in Oakland, I know what he loves in quarterbacks: the toughness, the grit, the willingness to sacrifice, and most of a competitive drive to match his own. Carr makes too many mistakes with the ball, and whether it’s a fair assessment of his ability or not, he never displays the fire that would remind anyone of former quarterback Rich Gannon. Too many times he refuses to hold on for one more second, knowing he might get hit before releasing the ball. In fairness, Carr has improved under Gruden. In the past, he would take a check down immediately and his yards per attempt never got over seven. In two seasons with Gruden, he averages 7.5 yards per attempt, the highest in his career.

This quote stands out in the general zeitgeist of Gruden-Carr animosity, which is that Gruden wants Carr to push the ball further down the field. At the end of last season, when asked about the prototype of quarterback he prefers (an aggressive, risk-prone big play passer or a safer, nickel-and-dime passer), Gruden gave this quote:

https://twitter.com/VinnyBonsignore/status/1207465347101544453

This isn’t specifically directed at Carr, nor was the quote Gruden gave last offseason when discussing changes to his offense in Year 2 on the job. Again from the Athletic, Gruden affirmed his commitment to throwing to Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, and Darren Waller down the field after a season in which his top target getters were Jared Cook, a 33-year-old Jordy Nelson, and running back Jalen Richard.

“We got to throw the ball down the field and if it’s incomplete or we get the catch, we can always challenge (Al) Riveron (the senior vice president of officiating) in New York and see what he thinks,” Gruden said, referring to the new NFL rule in which coaches can request replay reviews for pass interference. “It’s going to be a very, very subjective call this year, but we are trying to be more aggressive.”

It’s clear that Gruden wants his offense to be more explosive, but much of the discussion around that has been dropped on Carr’s shoulders despite Gruden placing it largely on the offensive personnel as a whole. 

As Lombardi noted in the above quote, Carr is actually a more efficient passer than he ever was. His 2019 7.25 adjusted net yards/attempt (ANY/A) and 7.9 yards/attempt are both career-highs. But he’s doing that without pushing the ball downfield as frequently. Carr has seen fewer than 10% of his passes go more than 20 yards down the field in each of the last two seasons—those are the two lowest marks of his career. 

Since Gruden’s offense came to Oakland and now Las Vegas, Carr has targeted the short/intermediate areas of the field more frequently, and accordingly become a more efficient passer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Gruden doesn’t want to go deep more, or that Carr isn’t a timid passer—both are still true. It just means that Carr and Gruden seem to fit rather nicely together on paper; so why is there rumored dissonance? And why has Mariota been thrown into the mix?

Mariota is just as dedicated to the short game as Carr is. While Mariota’s depth of target (7.5 yards over the last two years) is a little bit deeper than Carr’s (6.5), both numbers are below league average. Meanwhile, he’s been just as hesitant to throw deep bombs, also averaging under 10% of his attempts going beyond 20 yards over the last two seasons combined. Accordingly, his yards/attempt is lower than Carr’s and his ANY/A is significantly lower than Carr’s, largely because of how many sacks he takes and how few touchdowns he throws. Carr is criticized for getting to his check-down too quickly, and rightfully so, but Mariota gets to his check-down too late, regularly working through prolonged reads in the pocket, which leads to his high sack total without returning the value of a strong deep passing profile and explosive plays.

Consider last season, in which Mariota had the third-highest rate of dropbacks lasting longer than 2.5 seconds: he had a 56.3% completion percentage, a 1:2 TD:INT ratio, and a passer ration of 77.1. When Ryan Tannehill took the reins, he led the league with 63.3% of his dropbacks lasting more than 2.5 seconds, but had a 69.1% completion percentage, a 13:2 TD:INT ratio, and a passer rating of 125.1.

Tannehill’s numbers will regress, but he made hanging in the pocket worth it. Mariota doesn’t.

So, if you’re looking for a passer more willing to hang in the pocket and ignore his check-down, Mariota’s your guy—but your offense won’t be very good. It seems like you’re still going to have a shallow depth of target, you’re going to take a lot more sacks, and you’re going to get riskier throws with the football without the payoff of explosive plays. Any case that Mariota will bring more juice to the offense relies on the idea that Mariota’s best fragments of play across multiple seasons of various offense systems can be pieced together into one whole starting quarterback. This fictional reconstruction is fool’s gold, often chased in highly-drafted reclamation projects that never pan out. Inconsistent and unreliable players, even when they play well, are still inconsistent and unreliable players.

And if you’re looking for an efficient quick game offense, and have talked yourself into Mariota as a better player for that system than Carr, you’re just plain wrong. He’s arguably equivalent, but Carr has been getting better while Mariota has been getting worse, so I struggle to buy that argument as well. 

CONCLUSION

So why is Mariota here? Is he really a threat? When I look at roster construction, I try to parse through talking points and training camp notes and locker room rumors. I also look at the money and the draft capital. Those are the things that really communicate value in this league, and Mariota was a higher-drafted QB than Carr who just got paid too much money to be a regular old backup.

So perhaps Carr continues to captain a milquetoast offense, goes 3-4, and the Raiders throw Mariota in there to shock the system; and maybe it even works. We’ve seen crazier things in the National Football League. But if Carr isn’t the answer for the Raiders long-term, it seems far more likely to me that a yet unidentified rookie quarterback is the solution to that problem, not Mariota. As the old adage goes: if you have two potential starting quarterbacks, you have no potential starting quarterbacks.

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