Is Mariota Really an Instant Upgrade Over Smith?

New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith is the scapegoat of many of the franchise’s shortcomings in the past two seasons, and the Jets are looking to upgrade at quarterback. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is a prime candidate to take the reigns in New York, but he may not be as much of a major, instant upgrade as he is perceived.

In two seasons with the Jets, Geno Smith has posted an 11-18 record as a starter and has thrown only 25 touchdowns compared to 34 interceptions. Smith is a below-average quarterback and with the current roster the Jets cannot reasonably contend with him under center.

The Jets have numerous options to find a new signal-caller, whether through trade, free agency, or the draft. None of these options are surefire home runs however, and new general manager Mike Maccagnan will have to weigh these options carefully to shape a better future for the Jets.

One of the most commonly occurring names for the Jets’ next quarterback is Oregon star Marcus Mariota. The 21-year-old won the Heisman trophy and a plethora of other accolades in his junior season with the Ducks, and looks to make a smooth transition to the NFL. Ideally, he would still be available and selected by the Jets with the sixth pick in this year’s draft.

Fundamentally, there are many similarities between the two quarterbacks, which begs the question, how much of an upgrade would Mariota really be? Rookie seasons in the NFL can often be ugly (*cough Johnny Manziel cough*). While Mariota may be a better long term option for the Jets, would he be their opening day starter if drafted?

Courtesy of Reuters
Courtesy of Reuters

Experience

Smith has a subpar 11-18 career record, as mentioned, but also has 29 starts in the New York spotlight under his belt. Smith has played in the Jets system for a couple years, and in a head-to-head potential preseason battle with Mariota, this would give Smith an early upper hand.

However, Mariota has a better pedigree coming out of college than Smith did. Smith compiled a respectable 26-13 record in his years as a college starter, while Mariota has racked up an insane 36-5 record. This may not translate quickly to NFL success, but is a good indicator that Mariota is a winner.

The NFL learning curve is steep for some, and Mariota would have to adjust to New York both on and off the football field. Growing up in Hawaii and playing college football at a university only recognized for positive football accomplishments, Mariota may experience growing pains playing in the big market of New York.

Mariota had by far a better college career than Smith, and would most likely perform better as a rookie than Smith did. However, in terms of the 2015-2016 season, Smith’s in-game experience gives him a slight edge over Mariota.

Courtesy of the Associated Press
Courtesy of the Associated Press

Passing

At West Virginia, Smith was incredibly accurate, connecting on over 71% of his passes in his final season and 67.4% over the course of his career. He also took threw 98 touchdowns to only 21 interceptions. Sadly, this hasn’t translated well to the NFL, where Smith hits on only 57.5% of his passes and throws many errant passes leading to turnovers.

Smith is showing signs of improvement in his accuracy though. From his rookie to sophomore seasons, Smith both increased his completion percentage and touchdowns thrown as well as cut down on interceptions. Still, a 1:1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions is inexcusable by a professional quarterback, and Smith will need to continue to rectify this to be a starting quarterback in this league.

Ball control has been one of Mariota’s strengths throughout his college career. Leading the Pac-12 in completion percentage his first year as a starter, Mariota finished with a 66.8% career completion rate. He complemented his 105 touchdown passes with a mere 14 interceptions. And while Smith had currents Rams wideout Tavon Austin catching passes, Mariota has never possessed a true star at wide receiver.

A knock on Mariota may be his reliance on quick, short passes to pad his completion percentage. Some go as far to say the Oregon product is a system quarterback and his skill set won’t allow him to be starting NFL quarterback. While Mariota did benefit from Oregon’s system, he did not rely on it. That being said, Oregon’s system is unique and Mariota will have to have study and adapt to a typical NFL playbook.

Courtesy of Getty Images
Courtesy of Getty Images

Rushing

In college, Smith was not actually a very prolific rusher, accumulating 342 yards and 4 touchdowns on 1.4 yards per carry through his college career. The Jets liked Smith’s 4.59 40 yard dash time though, and he has evolved into much more of a dual threat quarterback in the NFL.

This includes 604 yards and 7 TD along with 4.6 yards per carry in Smith’s young professional career. The bulk of these numbers came in Smith’s rookie season, but he has still showcased the speed and awareness to get by defenders and sometimes into the end zone. While no Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson or Cam Newton, the ability to rush when in trouble is a valuable asset that Smith has.

Mariota was a true dual-threat quarterback at Oregon, rushing for 2,237 yards and 29 touchdowns, while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. This was another way Oregon’s system benefited Mariota has designed runs gave him a chance to showcase his speed. Mariota again showcased this speed at the recent combine, where he ran 4.52 40 yard dash. Mariota is quicker than Smith and smarter when knowing when to scramble.

Each quarterback has the speed necessary to rush from time to time in the NFL. Mariota is quicker and smarter on the ground though, and could allow the Jets to implement more designed runs into their offense. When the read option is working well, it benefits both the quarterback and the running back. The Jets offense could become much more multi-dimensional with Mariota at the helm.

Courtesy of Getty Images
Courtesy of Getty Images

Intangibles

The Jets have rarely had a confident leader calling the shots under the center. Outside of the offensive line, the Jets lack an identity on offense.

Smith showed some poise as a rookie but obviously had his confidence shaken in Rex Ryan’s final season with the Jets. The threat of Michael Vick taking over for a play, drive, or game didn’t motivate Smith, it shook his confidence and his play regressed. Once anointed the Jets starter at the season’s start, the Jets didn’t need to surrender plays to an aging veteran, they should have allowed their young quarterback to work through his problems.

While his ability to command an NFL locker room is still much in question, Mariota was an effective leader at Oregon. Leading a winning culture and high octane offense was no small task for a kid out of Hawaii, and Mariota handled this role very well. Mariota has no off the field concerns, and the reigning Heisman trophy winner would enter the preseason huddle with preliminary respect from his teammates. Yes, he would have to produce and continue to lead to keep this respect, but he enters with a good pedigree of winning and confidence.

As previously mentioned, experience is an area that also features intangible elements. Will the transition to a big market on the east coast rattle Mariota? Or will he embrace it and let his play do the talking? One area where Smith holds the upper hand is definitely his experience in the New York market.

Verdict

Marucs Mariota could be the long term solution at quarterback for the New York Jets. And while he may not very far ahead of Geno Smith next season, he has shown enough to warrant a starting spot next season. Mariota’s ball control, football IQ, and leadership all surpass what Smith had in his rookie season and also surpass what he has now. If Mariota falls to the Jets at number six, they should take him and they should start him.

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