Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota should be entering the primes of their careers right now.
The top two picks in the 2015 draft were expected to be the faces of the franchise in Tampa Bay and Tennessee, and the star quarterbacks.
Instead they are entering their sixth seasons in the NFL as backups in New Orleans and Las Vegas, with many questioning whether they can ever get back on the track they were expected to take when drafted.
“Can they get back? Of course,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. “Will they get back is all about, to be honest with you, getting lucky. They have to get on the field. … Their stories aren’t written yet. But they need to continue to stay impatiently patient, meaning they have to keep on their grind and know or hope, fingers crossed, that that opportunity will present itself. And when it does, strike.”
Being cast aside by their original team is not usual for quarterbacks taken so high in the draft. Of the 27 QBs drafted in the top two before Winston and Mariota since the 1970 merger, 17 began their sixth season in the NFL on the same franchise they had been on for the entire careers, including John Elway and Eli Manning, who were traded during their drafts.
Four of those quarterbacks — Rick Norton, Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell — never played again after their fifth seasons.
Winston and Mariota join six others that changed teams, along with players like David Carr, Rick Mirer and Robert Griffin III, who never became consistent starters in their new homes, and others such as Jeff George and Sam Bradford that bounced around various spots.
The one success story in that group is Jim Plunkett, the No. 1 overall pick by New England in 1971, who revived his career with the Raiders in 1980.
Plunkett was mostly mediocre in his five seasons with the Patriots and found little success in two seasons with San Francisco. Then, after spending the 1979 season as a backup in Oakland, Plunkett regained the starting role midway through the next season — and led the Raiders to two Super Bowl title in four seasons.
Winston and Mariota now want to follow that path.
“I’d say the biggest thing for both of them right now is they can learn playing the position and learn playing the position at a high level without having the pressure of you have to go win us football games,” Orlovsky said. “I’ve said that for a long time. That is so hard on young quarterbacks: ‘Hey man. You’ve got to not only learn this playbook, but then you have to go execute on the field, and learn the defensive playbook and execute it against what they’re doing in three seconds — really well, 65 straight times. And also you have the pressure of winning the football game because if you don’t you’re going to get handled in the media and by the fans.’ That’s a lot to sink in.”
Winston is trying to resurrect his career in New Orleans, where he can learn from one of the game’s most respected offensive coaches in Sean Payton. And see firsthand how a proven passer like Drew Brees approaches everything from practice to how he dissects certain coverages.
His tenure in Tampa was up and down, with a three-game suspension in 2018 for allegedly making unwanted sexual advances on an Uber driver and his 30 interceptions last season the low points.
But Winston also threw 33 TD passes and led the league with 5,109 yards passing last season, a sign that talent isn’t the issue when it comes to his career.
“You have to be a student of the game,” he said earlier this offseason. “So, now I actually get a chance to dive into that more and I actually have a (presumptive) Hall of Fame quarterback that I’m learning from as opposed to trying to learn by myself or use Google.”
Mariota lost his starting job last year in Tennessee to a former, discarded first-round pick in Ryan Tannehill. While Winston’s problems were being too careless, Mariota might have been too careful.
He was sacked on a league-worst 11%-plus of his dropbacks the past two seasons as he sometimes appeared too hesitant to get rid of the ball.
Now he gets to play behind a quarterback who is one of the fastest to throw in Derek Carr, and learn from an accomplished offensive coach like Jon Gruden.
“He’s interesting,” Gruden said last week. “He took off a couple times today and it really fired me up. He’s been hurt, but looks like the ankle really turned a corner. He’s a dazzling playmaker with his feet and that’s the key to his game. I saw glimpses of that today, it’s exciting.”