Thursday night's game between Tennessee and Jacksonville, two teams that came in with five wins between them, didn't hold huge national appeal. But watching the two young quarterbacks, rookie Marcus Mariota and second-year pro Blake Bortles, interested me. Since both are on struggling teams, we typically only see them in national games where they are overmatched or playing some future Hall of Fame QB -- hardly a fair comparison. What made this matchup interesting is where these two young guns are in their development and how they would perform against comparable talent.
By comparison, the game was fairly inconclusive. Bortles' and Mariota's numbers were similar, as both completed over 60 percent of their passes for better than 230 yards. Both were sacked four times. Mariota did not throw a single touchdown or interception, while Bortles threw one of each, making their ratios very much the same. Both orchestrated long scoring drives (10-plus plays) but each resulted in only a field goal.
We witnessed the physical skills that made these two quarterbacks high picks (Bortles the No. 3 overall in 2014, Mariota the No. 2 in '15), but also saw that they are still adjusting to the pro game -- especially Mariota, who is a season behind Bortles. Both show a smooth and fluid throwing action and have the athletic ability to extend the play with their movement. Mariota had the Titans' only touchdown on a 23-yard run, executing the read option to perfection. Ultimately, it was a punt return that proved the difference in the game.
Bortles was of particular interest to me because of where he is in his development -- his second year. The legendary Bill Walsh said that you will know if a player is going to be good enough to thrive in this league by the midway point of his sophomore season -- or, in other words, the 24th or 25th start. If the player did not show his true potential by this point, or earlier, he likely was not going to be the guy you need to win with.
This got me thinking about the recent poster boys who were starting under center from Day 1 -- Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco -- and seeing how they compared in their early development to the quarterback class of 2014. Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32 overall selection) and Derek Carr (No. 36) all started as rookies. I took all of those guys' numbers over 16 games (as though it were a total season), beginning with the midway point of their rookie year through their 24th start. The stats are telling:
» Ryan: 10-6 record while completing 294 of 482 passes (61 percent) for 3,539 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 18 interceptions and 17 sacks.
» Flacco: 10-6 record while completing 302 of 485 passes (62 percent) for 3,572 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions and 33 sacks.
» Bortles: 5-11 record while completing 323 of 590 passes (55 percent) for 3,658 yards and 22 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions and 64 sacks.
» Bridgewater: 10-6 record while completing 303 of 459 passes (66 percent) for 3,408 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions and 45 sacks.
» Carr: 7-9 record while completing 345 of 578 passes (60 percent) for 3,763 yards and 29 touchdowns, with nine interceptions and 25 sacks.
Ryan, Flacco and Bridgewater all went to relatively good teams and were not asked to attempt more than 500 throws during that time frame. Each has a solid completion percentage, threw for roughly the same yards and equitable touchdown-to-interception ratios. Each had a solid running game -- with Michael Turner (Atlanta), Ray Rice (Baltimore) and Adrian Peterson (Minnesota) -- that sparked top-10 rushing totals. Flacco had a defense that was in the top three over this span, while the current Vikings D is a top-10 unit in 2015. Interestingly, all three of their teams went 10-6 during this pseudo season.
As I've said many times before, one of the toughest things to do when evaluating a quarterback is separating him from what is going on around him, both good and bad. Bortles and Carr are on teams that have not fared as well, thus forcing each to attempt well over 500 passes. Both have similar output in total yards and have thrown more than 20 touchdown passes. Bortles, as evidenced by the sack totals, has been under constant pressure due to a suspect offensive line, and Carr is now benefiting from support players like Amari Cooper and Latavius Murray.
The point is that even though the Jaguars have struggled as a team, which is odd to say considering they are only a half-game back in the division, Bortles looks to me like a quarterback who Walsh would say is coming into his own at the critical 24th start. He is beginning to move around more like what we saw when he was at Central Florida and the physical skills are apparent. In every nine throws, Bortles is producing one explosive play (20-plus yards), but he needs to get better on third down (the Jaguarsrank 25th in the league). He was also just 1-for-5 in red-zone efficiency against the Titans, something Jacksonville signed Julius Thomas specifically for and have yet to capitalize on.
For his part, Mariota looks like he, even in his rookie year, is producing at a level that could have him finishing the season well above the numbers we see above. If you take his seven starts and extend them into a full season, he would have 500-plus throws, for better than 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. His weakness? He is producing explosive plays at an unattractive rate of one in every 11 attempts, and the Titans rank 29th in the NFL in third-down conversions.
In a world where first-round busts are a 50/50 proposition, particularly at the quarterback position, it looks like Tennessee and Jacksonville may well have found their guys.