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Marcus Mariota Is the Wild Card of the Offseason QB Carousel

The Raiders’ backup showed competence and upside in his one game this season. He could have earned a shot as a starter for another team.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2021 offseason hasn’t officially started yet, but the Las Vegas Raiders are once again rumored to be receiving trade inquiries for one of their quarterbacks—not for the quarterback you’re thinking of, though.

Marcus Mariota is the wild card in the offseason QB market. The Raiders signed the former Titans signal-caller to a two-year, $17.6 million contract last year to back up—and perhaps compete with—starter Derek Carr. Last offseason, there were rumors of a market for Carr, whose current deal carries only $2.5 million in dead cap if he were moved. However, following a strong 2020 campaign, the Raiders have reportedly denied teams who’ve shown interest in Carr. Meanwhile, Mariota, who has one non-guaranteed season left on his deal, will cost nothing against Vegas’s cap if he’s moved, and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport noted last week that Mariota has generated “legitimate interest” from potential suitors.

Both Carr and Mariota would be sensible additions for any QB-needy team. And the Raiders, entering a pivotal offseason in the Jon Gruden era, are positioned to move on from one of them. Mariota seems the most likely to go. As Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer pointed out, the Raiders’ decision to sign Kyle Sloter to a futures deal and re-sign backup Nathan Peterman suggests that Vegas is gearing up to move on from one of their veteran signal-callers.

The case for keeping Carr is obvious. Last season, he set a career high in passing yards (4,103) while completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 27 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He also posted career highs in adjusted yards per attempt (8.2), yards per completion (11.8), and QBR (71). He wasn’t the reason Vegas finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs—the Raiders’ 27.1 points per game ranked 10th in the league. Carr’s performance put him among the top 10 in efficient QB play last year.

That leaves us with Mariota. It looked like Mariota’s days as a starter were done when he signed on to back up Carr, but one performance this season may have changed how teams around the league perceive the former Titans quarterback. The 27-year-old made a spot appearance for Carr in Week 15, when Carr suffered a groin injury in the first quarter of an overtime loss to the Chargers. Mariota was impressive, completing 17 of 28 passes for 226 yards, one touchdown, and one pick. He also recorded nine carries for 88 yards and one score. The former no. 2 pick looked comfortable guiding Vegas’s offense and using his legs on designed carries and to extend plays.

After his outing, Mariota delivered a quote that captures his standing in the Raiders’ QB situation. “This is Derek’s team,” Mariota said after the loss. “For me, I just try to come in and help these guys and try to get a win. But Derek’s a great leader and somebody that this team can look to.”

If the Raiders do indeed stick with Carr and try to move on from Mariota, the question facing the rest of the league will be how much this one performance matters, especially when stacked against Mariota’s previous four and a half seasons of mediocrity with the Titans. Can the former Oregon standout prove himself to be a late bloomer, à la Ryan Tannehill, the man who replaced him in Tennessee?

Mariota’s Week 15 performance was good enough that it could turn doubters into believers. What really stood out was his aggressiveness. Early in Mariota’s career, he caught flak for playing with a lack of energy, but he displayed plenty of motor during his Week 15 spot appearance. He showed clear decisiveness both as a passer and a runner. According to Next Gen Stats, Mariota made a tight-coverage throw (when a defender is within 1 yard or less of a target) on 17.9 percent of his passes during his outing, which would have ranked for his highest since his second NFL season (20 percent), when the data was first tracked.

One of the knocks on Mariota coming out of Oregon was that he was a slow processor who benefited from an offensive scheme that simplified his reads. Based on his comments following the game—and Carr’s own past comments suggesting that Gruden’s scheme is difficult to pick up—the Raiders adjusted their play-calling to cater to Mariota’s strengths, allowing him to get out of the pocket and make use of his athleticism.

Mariota’s mobility is what makes him such an intriguing QB option. With more NFL offenses incorporating their signal-caller’s mobility as a function of scheme rather than a fail-safe, Mariota’s proven effectiveness as a scrambler could help him become a solid player in the right scheme. The biggest question mark is Mariota’s durability. In his six-year NFL career, Mariota has sprained an MCL, broken his fibula, and sprained his elbow, in addition to pulling his hamstring and suffering a neck stinger. Mariota began his Raiders career on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, but was activated by Vegas in late October. Mariota was gracious toward the Raiders staff in helping him recover and rebuild his self-confidence.

“To be truthful, it’s been a long journey,” Mariota said, reflecting on his career after his Week 15 appearance. “I’ve been through … kind of everything. From injuries, to surgeries, to mental lapses and the confidence thing, I just truly appreciate the Raiders and the entire organization for kind of helping me through that. I was trying to kind of find my way again and they gave me an opportunity to kind of take some time, they were patient with me. I just appreciate that they were willing to do that.”

A trade could be the right move for both the team and quarterback. Mariota surely wants to be a starter again, and the Raiders may need to lose the quarterback anyway to shed salary. Las Vegas is projected to be more than $18 million over the salary cap this offseason, per Over the Cap, which will force the team to make some roster cuts. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, wideout Tyrell Williams will likely be released. Williams, 29, signed a four-year, $44.3 million deal in 2019, but has appeared only in 14 games—he missed all of the 2020 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Cutting Williams will free $11.6 million in space for Vegas, getting it closer to the cap threshold. Williams was scheduled to be the Raiders’ third-highest earner in 2021; Carr is first and Mariota is fourth. The Raiders defense needs to improve after ranking 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and a departure from Mariota makes a ton of sense.

What happens with Mariota is one of the most fascinating questions of this offseason. Of course, it will come down to fit. But for the teams who miss out on any of the other top QB options in this offseason’s carousel, Mariota has shown that he may be ready for a new chapter.