Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are perfect rivals on a path to join NFL's greats

Jay Asser 4/09/2017
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Remember the Titan: Marcus Mariota is quickly making his mark. Picture: Getty Images.

Seven. That’s how many occasions quarterbacks have been drafted one and two overall in the same NFL Draft in the league’s history.

Only one of those instances, when Jim Plunkett went first and Archie Manning was selected second in 1971, resulted in both players being relatively successful.

The most recent case is in its infancy, with the jury still out on 2016 draft classmates Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.

The others that can safely be considered one-sided? Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer in 1993, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf in 1998, Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb in 1999, and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012.

The remaining connection is, like Goff and Wentz, in its early stages, but as it stands, 23-year-olds Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have the potential to be the best cases of quarterbacks drafted 1-2 to both thrive for their respective teams.

Two years after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tabbed Winston first and the Tennessee Titans grabbed Mariota second, the young phenoms have gone from rookies getting their feet wet to poised signal-callers on the verge of joining the elite at their position.

While they presumably yearn to be mentioned in the same breath as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, the first peer to be associated with each will likely always be the other. Even if it’s to their chagrin.

“He’s an amazing guy, a very talented player, a great quarterback. I think he’d agree with me in saying this: We’re not trying to compete against each other. We’re trying to compete against the top-tier quarterbacks in this league,” Winston said on ESPN in early August.

“If we’re just trying to focus on each other and how good one another is, we’re limiting ourselves.”

But the connection between the two doesn’t begin or end with the 2015 draft.

Both were studs in college and earned the Heisman Trophy, the highest individual honour in college football, with Winston winning the award in 2013 at Florida State and Mariota being chosen in 2014 at Oregon.

Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston

Winston accomplished one goal Mariota never did by leading the Seminoles to a BCS national championship in the same year, but it was the Ducks quarterback who was victorious in the only collegiate meeting between the two, handing Winston the lone loss of his career as a starter in the 2015 Rose Bowl.

Since entering the NFL, the two, aside from fittingly facing each other in their first regular season game as pros – Mariota’s Titans won 42- 14 – have been steadily developing in opposite conferences.

In their sophomore campaigns, both improved their team record (six wins to nine for Winston, three wins to eight for Mariota), touchdown passes (22 to 28 for Winston, 19 to 26 for Mariota) and passer rating (84.2 to 86.1 for Winston, 91.5 to 95.6 for Mariota).

Yet while their upward trajectories have aligned, their differing personalities and varying styles of play make them perfect contrasts. When it comes to leadership, Winston and Mariota couldn’t be more opposed in their approaches.

If it wasn’t widely known before, Winston’s massive personality has been recognised now with the Buccaneers featured on this summer’s Hard Knocks on HBO.

Winston appeared on episodes, which go behind the scenes during training camp, as a fun-loving, vocal and supportive team-mate who has earned the respect of the rest of the team, from incoming rookies to established veterans.

“He’s somebody who’s always been charismatic,” Greg Auman, Buccaneers beat writer for the Tampa Bay Times, told Sport360°.

“It’s hard to command authority as a 21-year-old when he came into the league. But I think he’s done that very well. This is his team. He’s very vocal leading them in the huddle and leading them in the locker room. I think that’s only going to get easier for him as he gets older.”

Of course, the flip side of that outspoken personality has also seen a history of immaturity, but Auman believes Hard Knocks has had a positive impact on Winston’s attitude.

“I think Jameis feels like having the cameras around all the time has made him want to behave, want to be a good team-mate, a good leader, a good player, a good person all the time,” Auman said.

While viewers have been tuning in every Sunday night at 22:00 (EST) to watch Winston and the Buccaneers, Mariota has been unassumingly toiling away at Titans training camp, no different than the 30 other teams in the league.

But going under the radar is nothing new for the introvert, whose quiet demeanour ironically stands out even more in a league full of gregarious personalities.

“He’s a guy that really led by example, didn’t do a lot of talking, but when he spoke, [his team-mates] listened,” Darnell Arceneaux, who coached Mariota during his senior year at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, told Sport360°.

Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota

“He was a friend to the starting receiver and he was a friend to the ninth receiver in our rotation. “He was the young man you hope your daughter brings home when she says, ‘Hey mom and dad this is my boyfriend’.”

On the field, the discrepancies between Winston and Mariota continue. Coming out of Florida State, Winston was well-versed in a prostyle offence and wielded an arm capable of making all the throws.

While that reputation has come to fruition in the NFL with Winston making countless highlight plays, so has his rep as a risk-taker.

His interceptions rose from 15 in his rookie year to 18 in 2016, though his interception rate actually dropped from 4.2 per cent to 3.3, as calculated by Football Outsiders.

Going into year three, the onus placed on Winston from head coach Dirk Koetter and his staff to limit turnovers is as high as ever.

“There’s definitely more of a focus on him being mindful of when it’s good to take risks and when it’s bad to take risks,” Auman said.

“And that’s going to be an on-going process.” Mariota, meanwhile, has expanded his game since coming out of Oregon, where he benefitted from playing in a spread offence, almost always in shotgun, with simplified reads.

In Tennessee, he’s been under centre more than ever, but adapted well to their “exotic smash-mouth” attack, which features a heavy dose of the run game while still taking advantage of Mariota’s abilities as a passer and runner.

In addition to their own progression, potential breakout seasons for both Winston and Mariota this year could be helped by new weapons in their respective arsenals.

Tampa Bay signed free agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson – giving Winston a deep threat that has been sorely missing – and drafted rookie tight end O.J. Howard in the first round.

Mariota hasn’t been blessed with the most talented receiving corps through his first two seasons, but that could change this year with the additions of wideout Eric Decker – one of the league’s best red zone threats – and rookie receiver Corey Davis, drafted fifth overall.

Along with more playmakers should come more wins, and more wins should result in a push for the playoffs, where elite quarterbacks truly separate themselves from the best of the rest.

If Winston and Mariota are sick of being compared to each other instead of the game’s greats, it appears their time to create distance from one another is coming sooner than later.

SCOUTING REPORT

Breaking down the two quarterbacks in five key aspects and giving the edge to one in each, based on where they are at this point in their respective careers.

Accuracy

On the surface, Mariota appears to be the more accurate passer simply based on completion percentage. Diving deeper, however, reveals just how much of an edge he has when you look at his efficiency in high-leverage situations: third downs and in the red zone. Last season, Mariota completed 61.3 per cent of his third-down passes for a 105.9 passer rating, while in the red zone he has 33 TDs to no INTs since entering the league, the best ratio during that span.

Advantage: Mariota

Under pressure

It’s hard to expect any QB to be as effective under pressure, but that’s especially asking a lot for two young signal-callers. While Winston threw six INTs under pressure last season, compared to two by Mariota, he also was under pressure on 38.3 per cent of his dropbacks, ninth-most in the NFL. Mariota, meanwhile, was pressured only 29.6 per cent of the time and yet Winston still had a higher completion % (48.7 to 41.1) and a passer rating just 2.6 points lower (70.0 to 72.6).

Advantage: Winston

Decision making

It’s no secret this is where Winston’s weakness truly stands out. The Bucs cornerstone has a gunslinger mentality and known for trying to make difficult passes through tight windows, while Mariota has shown a penchant for living to fight another day more often. Sometimes it results in a jaw-dropping play for Winston, but many times it results in the other team getting the ball back. And while both QBs are elusive in and out of the pocket, they’ve had fumbling issues.

Advantage: Mariota

Deep passing

This is arguably the area with the least separation between the two. Winston had the edge last season in average air yards per attempt (4.77 to 4.65) and deep pass attempts (69), but Mariota had a better deep pass accuracy percentage (41.9 to 34.8) and deep pass passer rating (101.2 to 71.0). The script was flipped from their rookie seasons, when Winston was considerably better, but he regressed in 2016 while Mariota’s touch vastly improved.

Advantage: Mariota

Supporting cast

Obviously, context matters when comparing quarterbacks. Winston has arguably had better top-end weapons, namely Mike Evans, but Mariota has had a significantly better offensive line and running game to protect him. Both the Bucs and Titans bolstered their offences this offseason, with Tampa Bay adding speedster DeSean Jackson and rookie top prospect O.J. Howard, while Tennessee drafted wide receiver Corey Davis and signed wideout Eric Decker.

Advantage: Draw

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Cleveland Browns' Seth DeValve went where no other white NFL player had, but others need to follow

Jay Asser 22/08/2017
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Together: Cleveland Browns player kneel for prayer during the national anthem. Picture: Getty Images.

While progress, as slow as it’s been, is being made, the NFL still has a long way to go before the message behind the national anthem protests really hits home.

Seth DeValve just did his part to further the conversation, going further than any known white NFL player before him was willing to go.

The Cleveland Browns tight end showed solidarity with 11 of his teammates when he knelt in prayer during the national anthem before the preseason meeting with the New York Giants on Monday.

It was a breakthrough for a movement started by Colin Kaepernick a year ago and continued by players like Seattle’s Michael Bennett and Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch this season.

As encouraging as it was to see the Browns stage the largest anthem gesture yet, the most profound aspect was DeValve’s involvement.

There’s a reason why Bennett last week said he would like to see a white player follow suit during the anthem, because “you bring somebody who doesn’t really have to be a part of the conversation, making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a big jump”.

A day later, Philadelphia’s Chris Long – a white player – put his arm around Malcolm Jenkins, who raised his first during the anthem.

One day after that, Bennett’s white teammate Justin Britt stood next to him as he kneeled and put his arm on his shoulder.

Both gestures, by Long and Britt, were admirable. They were also half measures, done in a manner that showed support for their teammates – who are the ones opening themselves up to criticism and, in the wake of Kaepernick, possible unemployment – while remaining inoffensive to those who believe the anthem is too sacred for kneeling, sitting, or any other gesture they deem uncomfortable.

So, credit to Long and Britt because it’s certainly better than inaction, but DeValve went where they wouldn’t.

If you hadn’t heard of DeValve before now, you’re not the only one. He’s a second-year tight end who was drafted in the fourth round – not exactly bulletproof from being cut to avoid a distraction.

He also has an African American wife, Erica, which means he has stakes in the current social climate, for her and their future children.

It’s necessary for someone of DeValve’s skin colour to do what he did, but hopefully it will lead to other white players, who may have less personal reason to join in, to strengthen the cause.

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Dallas Cowboys equipped to survive Ezekiel Elliott's suspension on the field

Jay Asser 12/08/2017
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Shelved: Ezekiel Elliott. Picture: Getty Images.

As it stands, Ezekiel Elliott is set to miss the first six games of the Dallas Cowboys’ season. While an appeal may bring that number down, Dallas have to prepare for his extended absence to open the year.

Elliott may be one of the best running backs in the league and certainly one of the Cowboys’ best players, but Dallas are equipped to, at the very least, survive Elliott’s ban thanks to their assortment of weapons on offence.

When it comes to running the ball, few teams have been better or more efficient over the past three years, with the Cowboys ranking second in the NFL in total rushing yards and third in yards per attempt twice during that span.

In those prolific seasons, the workhorse running backs were Elliott (2016) and DeMarco Murray (2014), studs who are considering two of the best at their position. That’s made it difficult to discern how much credit for Dallas’ running game should go to the ball-carriers and how much should go to the offensive line.

After leaving Dallas for Philadelphia in 2015, Murray looked a shell of himself behind a shaky Eagle’s offensive line, totaling 702 yards on the ground on 193 attempts. He rebounded in a major way, however, with Tennessee last season as he racked up 1,287 yards on 293 carries.

Darren McFadden, on the other hand, had all of one season topping 1,000 rushing yards in his career before joining Dallas in 2015, when he ran for 1,089 yards on 239 carries. The Cowboys weren’t dominant that year running the ball like they were with Murray the season prior, but they still rushed for 4.6 yards per carry and 1,890 yards total – marks that ranked them fifth and ninth in the league, respectively.

So, the answer to the question of who deserves more credit for Dallas’ ground game likely is somewhere in the middle. The offensive line has been the bedrock of the team, but talented runners have extracted the most out of it. Just like running backs need their blockers to open up holes, offensive lines need ball-carriers to find those holes and not leave meat on the bone.

Elliott rarely left any meat on the bone last season, finishing with 1,631 yards on 322 carries – a 5.1 yards per attempt clip and the third-most total rushing yards for a rookie in NFL history. Coupled with his efficiency was big-play ability as he tied with Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy for 22 runs of 15-plus yards to pace the league.

It’s hard to be any better as a rookie and Elliott deservedly received the second-highest overall grade for running backs with 88.8 by Pro Football Focus, with Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell the only player ahead of him (91.9).

McFadden, who’s in line to receive a majority of the carries, will be hard-pressed to come close to Elliott’s gaudy numbers, but proved in 2015 he’s a more-than-capable stopgap.

Dallas also have Alfred Morris, who was Elliott before Elliott when he rushed for 1,613 yards on 335 attempts in his rookie campaign back in 2012. His effectiveness has diminished every season since, but the 28-year-old could still prove useful in small stretches.

The Cowboys’ offensive line, meanwhile, remains stacked with three All-Pros in left tackle Tyron Smith, centre Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin, but right tackle Doug Free has retired and left guard Ronald Leary is now in Denver. That means La’el Collins will move to right tackle and Jonathan Cooper will most likely take over at left guard, which leaves Dallas with question marks at those positions.

As such, Pro Football Focus pegs the Cowboys’ offensive line as the ninth best unit entering the season, which could put more onus on their running backs to help with the heavy lifting.

Speaking of more onus, quarterback Dak Prescott suddenly has added responsibility to shoulder in his sophomore season.

The beauty of Prescott’s situation last year was that he wasn’t asked to do too much, thanks to the dominant running game to lean on.

But Prescott was still more than a game manager, finishing with a 104.9 passer rating and tossing just four interceptions.

He’ll have to raise his game to another level if Dallas hope to match or better their 12 wins from last season and while defences will be better prepared against the second-year signal-caller, he should continue to improve.

Elliott’s suspension is a blow and certainly concerning off the field – there’s no doubting that. On the field though, the Cowboys can manage to stay afloat.

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