Every now and then a professional sports draft pits two players against each other in a way that will see them compared throughout the remainder of their careers. In the NFL, we’ve seen it recently through Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III—no longer comparable, and yet still grouped together frequently in discussions. In the NBA, we’ve seen it through LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, or to a lesser extent Kevin Durant and Greg Oden (at least before Oden’s career was cut short due to injury). And sometimes, we even see it when two players merely emerge at the same time rather than literally in the same draft, such as with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in the MLB.
It happened again this past season in the NFL when Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota went first and second to the Bucs and Titans, respectively. These two battled for statistical supremacy, Heisman Trophies, and even national championships in their time in college, and entered the NFL as arguably the two most exciting quarterback prospects since Andrew Luck in 2012.
So with their rookie season nearly complete, who’s off to a faster start in the NFL? There actually isn’t a clear answer, as the two have had remarkably similar statistics through the season thus far.
Looking at the total passing stats for NFL quarterbacks, Winston ranks slightly higher due to his 3,059 yards heading into Week 15 (compared to Mariota’s 2,786). But Mariota has slim leads in other categories, including a 62.4 completion percentage (to Winston’s 58.4), 19 passing touchdowns (to Winston’s 18), and 10 interceptions (to Winston’s 11). Mariota’s 91.9 passer rating is also superior to Winston’s 85.4, though Winston has been far better at avoiding sacks, with just 24 to Mariota’s 35.
As for whose team has been better, there’s really no debate. The Bucs have had a better season than most anticipated, and at 6-7 are second to the undefeated Carolina Panthers in the NFC South. There’s actually an outside chance Winston could still lead them to the playoffs, though he’s had a great deal of help from a resurgent Doug Martin, a better-than-expected offensive line, and an improving defense. By contrast, the Titans are one of the three worst teams in the NFL and Mariota has had relatively little help. He does have one of the more reliable tight ends in the league in Delanie Walker (whereas Winston’s big target Austin Sefarian-Jenkins has missed the bulk of the season due to injury), and a potential star in fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham. But there are two ways to read the fact that Winston plays for a better team: yes, he’s had more help whereas Mariot
a has little to work with. But on the other hand, Winston’s been playing within a more disciplined, conservative offense. He has still put up comparable numbers to Mariota, who’s been in more of a position to go for big plays.
Really, the team situations don’t make things any clearer than the head-to-head statistics. Yes, the Bucs are significantly better than the Titans, and it’s in part because of Winston’s steady play. In the past four weeks, the rookie quarterback has averaged 225 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions (as well as one touchdown on the ground). In that same span, Mariota has managed 247 yards per game with six touchdowns (plus two on the ground) and four interceptions. Again, there’s not a huge difference. But as the two gain more experience we’re beginning to see a slight contrast, with Winston perhaps a more dependable option and Mariota more of a high risk/high reward quarterback.
And that’s where we might begin to see some distinction. The idea of Winston as dependable and Mariota capable of bigger numbers with more risk implies that Mariota may have a higher ceiling in his best games. But that may not be entirely true. For perspective on the big game ceiling of these players, it’s worth looking back at Andrew Luck—the last QB who was hyped to the same extent of Winston and Mariota. Luck entered this season as an MVP candidate and a clear favorite to lead the league in passing yards, in just his fourth NFL season. He’s the perfect example of a great college quarterback living up to the hype. In his rookie campaign, his most productive game was an early December game against the Lions in which he managed 391 yards and four touchdowns (but completed only 44.4% of his passes and also threw three picks).
By contrast, Mariota’s biggest game was a sensational 371-yard effort with a 71.8 completion percentage and four touchdowns without a pick – albeit against the miserable Saints defense. Winston’s biggest game? Even better: The Bucs rookie lit up the Eagles for 246 yards and five touchdowns without throwing a pick. That tied a rookie QB record set in 1937 and duplicated only once previously, by Matthew Stafford in 2009. It’s just one game, but it proved that on a good day even the more conservative Winston can light up the stat sheet every bit as effectively as Mariota—or even Luck.
All things considered, it appears Mariota may have slightly better statistics, aside from pure passing yards. However, Winston may have had the slightly superior season to date. And as for which is better suited for NFL success moving forward, there are a few key details working in Winston’s favor.
The first of these factors comes from Winston’s agents’ willingness to structure a rookie contract that assured the Bucs of their new quarterback’s focus on football. No one doubted Winston’s playing ability or competitive drive heading into the 2015 draft, but there were a few minor doubts about his focus, some of which stemmed from his side career as a college baseball star. Agent Greg Genske worked with the Bucs, however, and structured a deal that prohibits Winston from pursuing professional baseball for as long as he’s a part of the Tampa Bay organization, at least under his current contract. This shouldn’t have any major bearing on his career, but it does address one of the concerns that some had regarding his focus.
Additionally, Winston has stayed out of trouble. In his two-year college career, Winston found the spotlight for a lot of the wrong reasons, including shoplifting and sexual assault allegations as well as some unfortunate comments made in a public space. Some believed Winston was immature and might be a risk for off-field issues, but he’s been disciplined and issue-free for the Bucs thus far.
If you’d told most people that Winston was a guarantee to be focused and disciplined and that he’d achieve the kind of consistency we’ve seen lately, he would have been the clear number-one pick over Mariota. And it’s looking like he was the correct selection at No. 1. He’ll never be as flashy a player as Mariota, and may not put up the pure passing numbers of his counterpart over time. But he finds a way to win and he’s as capable a young QB as we’ve seen since Luck.
These two remain neck-and-neck, and it’s looking like their rivalry could be very entertaining for a very long time. But right now, Winston has the slimmest of edges.