With teams throwing more than ever, quarterback breakouts seem to be occurring at a very high rate. It also doesn’t hurt that there are so many young signal callers around the league. Heck, last year alone Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor all made big strides in their games. All of them had played less than five years in the league. This year, there are two young quarterbacks who stand far and above the rest in terms of taking their games to the next level. Neither of them are surprise picks, but both will have their franchises fighting for playoff berths sooner than we might expect.
Jameis Winston, Buccaneers: Winston was one of the more hyped quarterback prospects in recent memory and he showed plenty of flashes why in his rookie year. However, I feel there are a lot of elements in place that will help him take his game to the next level in 2016. One thing that hurt Winston at times in 2015 was inconsistent mechanics. With a full offseason to improve and continuity in terms of their offensive scheme, the pieces are in place to improve in those facets of the game.
Like last season, Winston has weapons at his disposal who can win in the vertical passing game. Despite inconsistencies, Mike Evans is still one of the more promising young wideouts in the league, Vincent Jackson (who missed six games in 2015) returns and Austin Seferian-Jenkins with his head on straight has the physical skills to be an impact player at tight end. That doesn’t even include a dynamic backfield featuring Doug Martin and Charles Sims who went under the radar as a premier pass catching back. It’s also worth noting that second year tight end Cameron Brate has also reportedly developed a nice rapport with Winston and could be ahead of Seferian-Jenkins on the depth chart entering the season.
Besides the Panthers at the top, the NFC South is a division that’s completely wide open. With a young talented roster, there is no reason why the Buccaneers can’t be in the playoff mix come December. If Winston takes the steps that many including myself expect of him, the Buccaneers could be playing meaningful January games a lot sooner than their time table would have suggested.
Marcus Mariota, Titans: Being selected immediately after Winston, the careers of these two young signal callers will forever be linked. Despite some doubt he was a product of the Oregon system; Mariota came in and all things considered had an impressive rookie year. He showed the ability to win in the pocket and considering his physical gifts, ran far less than expected. While I’m not expecting Mariota to have the same type of pass attempt volume as Winston, my guess is he will have him beat by a wide margin in terms of efficiency.
Two of the best friends a young quarterback can ask for are an above average running game and a safety valve at tight end. Mariota has both of those. Mike Mularkey has mentioned the Titans will play a brand of football known as “exotic smashmouth” which while nobody knows what it means, fits their backfield well. Going out and getting DeMarco Murray raised some eyebrows, but it’s already apparent the Titans plan to use him more in the way the Cowboys did which means the production should be there. Rookie Derrick Henry from reports and preseason action also sounds like it will be extremely tough to not only bring down, but also take off the field due to his effectiveness.
This leads to Mariota likely throwing around 25 to 30 passes a game which is low compared to many of today’s offenses. However, with a seam stretcher in tight end Delanie Walker, an underrated wideout in Rishard Matthews and others such as Kendall Wright and Tajae Sharpe (whose emergence as a rookie in camp make Dorial Green-Beckham become expendable) a nice little supporting cast is there. With Mariota at the helm, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Titans more than double their 2015 win total and are considered one of the league’s top up and coming teams entering next offseason.