NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Having their highest selection since 1984, the Tennessee Titans came into the NFL Draft weekend with an opportunity to grab a franchise-changing collegiate star and potentially thrust themselves back into NFL relevancy.
As the spotlight centered around Tennessee, the club predictably chose a high-profile player that — while passing every angle of the proverbial Eye Test — could become another in a long line of draft choices failing to meet lofty expectations.
By selecting Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the Titans had a chance to dramatically change their fortune. The problem is, they might have invested in a quarterback who, by some accounts, might not fit head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s offensive system.
Mariota was a fantastic quarterback at the college level — no argument there. He finished his career at Oregon with a 36-5 record, a nearly 8/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and captured more individual awards than you can fit into a comically oversized duffel bag.
"We kind of went through every step with him along the way," said Titans general manager Ruston Webster. "From going through the season and watching him play to the combine, visits and those type of things. From us flying out there in the middle of free agency and then him coming in here. It went well.
"Every minute we spent with him, it just felt better and better. I think our whole room, coaching staff and scouts all were extremely excited."
His passing completion rate with the Ducks nestled right under 67 percent — good enough to land Mariota at 29th in college football’s all-time passing completion leaders.
As for overall yards? Oh, just a measly 10,796 — slotting Mariota (in just three short years) just behind Ben Roethlisberger on the all-time list.
On paper, Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston stand head-and-shoulders above the other QB prospects in this class.
"I think (Mariota) has many, many strengths," said Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "He throws the ball well. He is an excellent decision-maker. I think his intelligence, which is very important for the decision, was clear from the first time we met him and spent time with him. He’s an accurate passer.
"He has the ability to avoid the rush and make plays on his own; turn a bad play into a good play," said Mariota. "I think just his character and his leadership is also strong. He has a lot of good points, that’s the thing with the guy. There wasn’t a lot of issues with him physically. Plus he had the intelligence to play the position."
On the flip side, there are some red flags with Mariota’s long-term pro potential.
For starters, Mariota — a spread-offense passer at Oregon — will have to assimilate quickly to the Titans’ pro-style offense (the brainchild of Whisenhunt and his staff).
At Oregon, Mariota (779 completions last year) often had the luxury of finding wide-open targets, running vertical and horizontal routes — thanks to a superior offensive line.
In the pros, though, even if Tennessee’s offensive line can keep their quarterback upright, Mariota must be fearless when throwing into tight spaces. In most cases, tossing to receivers who aren’t immediately open.
That’s a positive way of looking at the Titans’ offensive line. Here’s the reality: In 2014, Tennesse allowed the sixth-most sacks in the NFL.
The offensive line, over time, couldn’t protect Jake Locker — a first-round quarterback from just four years ago. (The oft-injured Locker retired during the offseason.)
They couldn’t protect rookie Zach Mettenberger, whose rookie year in 2014 came to a screeching halt thanks to a season-ending shoulder injury.
Can Mariota survive long enough outside the pocket to make the appropriate adjustment and either find an open receiver or gain enough ground running the ball to inch closer to a first down?
Mariota had plenty of success in college pinpointing a receiver down the field and landing the perfect pass. On the plus side, the Titans were adept at holding onto the ball dropping only 17 balls in 505 attempts last season (or 3.4 percent), per SportingCharts.com.
How will Mariota respond to the pressures caused by varying defenses at the NFL level compared to college? Earlier this month, Peter King from Sports Illustrated wrote about how Mariota was sacked 23 percent of the time during pressures — a rate that was sixth-highest among QBs in his draft class.
None of that bodes well coming to a team that allowed 126 sacks over the previous three seasons — excluding the amount of plays where the roulette of quarterbacks for the Titans were pressured and forced to release the ball.
Another wrinkle to consider: How will the Mariota selection affect Mettenberger — a promising quarterback who might have been the face of the franchise?
"I think one of the things that was important for Zach to understand is he built a lot of good equity with what he did," said Whisenhunt. "There’s a lot of good potential there and we’re excited about Zach.
"The way this league is going now, very seldom you get a quarterback that goes through the whole season. So, Zach will get an opportunity at some point. When he does, he’s got to be ready to take advantage of that."
Contrary to Whisenhunt’s statement, 17 different quarterbacks finished the season last year after playing all 16 games.
Of the 12 teams to make the playoffs last season, only three started more than one quarterback along the way: the Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals — with only Arizona having to inject a backup for more than one or two games.
The last time a Tennessee QB started all 16 games? You would have to rewind all the way back to 2002, when the legendary Steve McNair brought the Titans to the AFC title game (losing to the Raiders).
If Whisenhunt expects Mettenberger to take first-team reps during the regular season, a big problem (but not necessarily ‘bad’) may loom ahead for the Titans.
USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams (taken 6th overall by the Jets), could have been a key component for a defense that was on the field for more than 32 minutes a game last season — fourth-worst in the league.
"We just felt strongly about Marcus, and that’s the direction we needed to go," said Webster. "There wasn’t enough reason for us not to take him."
In drafting Mariota, there are now more questions over what his potential weaknesses are than how well he may perform.
Tennessee has failed to make the playoffs every season since 2008. With four months until opening kickoff, the Titans are already taking the difficult route in attempting to make the postseason in 2015.