It is a great honor to be picked early in the NFL draft. You get the bigger check, more publicity and the celebrity status. However, it also comes with more pressure; particularly for the top two overall picks. These two players will be tied together for the entirety of their career. Cam Newton vs Von Miller was a popular storyline two years ago at the Super Bowl for two of the best at their respective positions. And these type of conversations are much more frequent when the top two picks play the same position, especially for quarterbacks.
Since 1970 a pair of quarterbacks have been the top two overall picks seven times. Some of the notable pairs include Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch/Donovan McNabb, and Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin. As you may have put together, in these cases one of the players turns out to be very good and the other turns out to be a massive disappointment. This as been the case for nearly fifty years, with the last pair of successful quarterbacks to be drafted with the top two picks were Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning in 1971. However, it finally seems like a pair of young stars are ready to break that trend.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were drafted first and second overall respectively in 2015. Now, after two seasons, these two ascending stars seem destined for greatness. And while these two seem certain to go down as the best pair of top quarterbacks ever drafted, people will still look to compare them as they do with all top draft choices. So, fair or not, here’s how the two stack up after two years.
First we have to aknowledge that these are two very different quarterbacks who are asked to do different things within their offense. For example, Winston plays in a down field passing attack where he is the focal point of the offense. Whereas Mariota plays in a more conservative offense that revolves around a strong rushing attack and requires him to be more efficient. These varying styles play well into each quarterbacks skillset. However, it will also tilt various stats in favor of one or the other. For this reason, we have to look at the overall picture and skills, not just blind statistics.
Without question, Mariota has the edge in this area. This is not just because he has a higher completion percentage; he plays in an offense that provides him with a lot of short to mid range, high percentage throws. It is because his ball placement is more often than not excellent. Even on the deep throws Mariota is much more accurate, despite Winston’s offense putting him in position to complete deep passes more often. In the end, this Mariota’s greatest strength and probably Winston’s greatest weakness.
If you’re just looking at turnovers, then the numbers favor Mariota. However, Winston is asked to do more in the passing game and just looking at turnovers might not be a fair measurement. Instead, I like to look at turnovers compared to touchdowns. In this area, the two are pretty close to equal. Mariota is +16 in this area with 49 total touchdowns (45 passing, 4 rushing) and 33 turnovers (19 interceptions and 14 lost fumbles). Winston’s overall numbers are bigger in both categories (57 touchdowns and 42 turnovers), but his overall differential s very similar at +15. It doesn’t get much closer than that.
Both guys have quickly become leaders in different ways. Mariota quietly goes about his business and lets his actions do most of the talking. He seems well-liked and respected by those around him. Winston is much more of a vocal leader. He holds his teammates accountable, even established stars, and has turned the team into a unified family. However, by leadership I don’t just mean as a locker room presence. I also look at which guy makes his teammates better. In this area I have to give the nod to Winston. He has elevated the play of everyone on his offense. Whether it’s undrafted players like Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries, or his ability to move in the pocket and bail out an offensive line that does a poor job of protecting him; Winston makes everyone better.
Both players have proven that they are more than capable of reading the opposing defense. On the other hand, both still have room to grow. Winston’s decision making has to improve in order for him to cut down on his turnovers. It usually isn’t a matter of him not reading the defense, but rather trying to do too much and force the play. For Mariota it’s more a matter of improving his pocket awareness. He often struggles to feel pressure coming at him and will also get happy feet in a clean pocket at times. Improving this awareness would also help cutting down on turnovers.
It’s important to remember that situational football can make or break an offense. For me, the two biggest situations are in the redzone and when the game is on the line. In terms of the red zone, both guys have been fantastic. Mariota has been little short of perfect in this area, throwing 33 scores and no interceptions. Winston is right there with him, throwing one more interception and one more touchdown than Mariota. The numbers are also strikingly similar in “winning time”. Both guys have thrown for five touchdowns when trailing by seven or less in the fourth quarter. The turnover numbers are pretty close too, with Mariota throwing one more interception in these moments. Overall, these two are pretty even here.
Let me start by saying that I put very little stock (basically none at all) into QB wins as a stat. But for those of you who do, Winston has led his team to 15-17 overall record where Mariota has a 12-15 record. However, I do put a little more stock into how a quarterback plays against his division. In these games Winston has a 7-5 record, where Mariota is just 2-6 (with both wins coming against the Jags). So take it for what it’s worth, which isn’t much in my book, but Winston is clearly ahead in this area.
It’s still way too early to judge these guys fairly. After just two years they’ve both shown more than most have at this stage in their career, yet they both have room to grow and take their game to the next level. I’m not sure I can even say that one is better than the other because the each run their team’s offense so well. Here’s what I will say. If you want a guy with pinpoint accuracy who is going to consistently make the smart throws to help is team win, Mariota is your man. If you’re looking for a quarterback who can put the team on his back and make things happen, Winston is the better choice. Regardless of what you want to see, both are great players who are only going to get better from here.