Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota both flamed out with their original teams.  George Walker IV / Tennessean.com, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

How 2015 draft failure weirdly benefited Bucs, Titans

Five years after being selected first and second overall, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have gone from the 2015 draft’s top prospects to backups. And their respective failures with the Buccaneers and Titans, which ironically have helped those franchises, also further tie together their careers.

So while the 2013 and ’14 Heisman winners try to reboot elsewhere after five uneven seasons, their former teams, rather than suffering the consequences of missing on quarterbacks in prime draft slots, are, at worst, fringe Super Bowl contenders. In a league defined by quarterback investments, Tampa Bay's and Tennessee’s quick rebounds stand out.

The Titans’ trade and subsequent extension for Ryan Tannehill and the Bucs’ Tom Brady coup have each franchise in better shape at quarterback than either has been in at least 15 years. Tannehill piloted the Titans to their first AFC championship game in 17 seasons. Brady booked the Bucs into five 2020 prime-time games and lured Rob Gronkowski to Tampa, forming the greatest pass-catching stable in franchise history.

Winston’s 30-interception season cemented the Bucs as a franchise trapped. Despite a 34-62 record during Jason Licht’s GM tenure and the franchise carrying an NFC-worst 12-season playoff drought, the Bucs found an all-time escape hatch in Brady. 

A broken leg on Christmas Eve 2016 sidetracked Mariota’s career, and his subsequent durability and performance issues restricted the Titans. Their 2019 flier on Tannehill, a player just as injury-prone in that span, transformed them from a 2-4 team into the first 9-7 wild-card squad to advance to the conference championship round in 10 years.

The 2015 draft included a common draft-era-low seven quarterbacks. Because of their first-round status, Winston and Mariota were the only ones whose contracts contained fifth-year options. Since the 2011 CBA introduced this clause, they are the only two QBs to see their options exercised, playing out their contracts.

Twenty quarterbacks have been eligible for the one-year contract add-on. Six signed extensions. This includes Tannehill, whom the Dolphins extended in 2015. Five saw their options declined. Three passers were released before their rookie deals expired. One signal-caller (Jaguars 2011 draftee Blaine Gabbert) was traded during his rookie contract. The Chiefs and Texans just exercised options on 2017 first-rounders Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson; the Bears passed on Mitchell Trubisky’s.

The team-friendlier rookie wage scale introduced in 2011 changed the game for QB investments. With the salary cap at $102 million in 2006, Vince Young signed a six-year, $48M Titans deal as the No. 3 overall pick. As 2015’s No. 2 choice nine years later — on a $143.2M cap — Mariota signed for four years and $24.2M. Cost-controlled contracts have made stomaching below-average quarterback play easier.

It did help that neither the Bucs nor Titans were true title contenders during Winston's and Mariota’s starter stays. Other teams in higher-stakes circumstances saw Super Bowl windows close because of poor quarterback foresight.

The Jaguars picking Blake Bortles third overall in 2014 (and giving him an ill-advised extension four years later) sunk what eventually became a championship-caliber defense, leading to its dismantling. The Broncos’ 2016 misfire on Paxton Lynch did the most to derail their post-Peyton Manning reload effort. With their Trubisky-over-Mahomes (and Watson) pick aging as poorly as the 1984 Portland Trail Blazers’ Sam Bowie-over-Michael Jordan move, the Bears have held their top-five defense hostage. Conversely, the Bucs and Titans reside in higher NFL society because Winston and Mariota left them without long-term plans.

In a normal offseason — and not one featuring the best quarterback group in free agency’s 28-year history — the Bucs may have needed to recommit to Winston. The Titans reworked Tannehill’s contract after acquiring him last year, making him a 2020 free agent. His shocking season provided the team an excuse not to use valuable draft capital to replace Mariota this year.

Had Tampa Bay backtracked on Winston's guaranteed-for-injury-only option in 2019 and dived into last year’s draft to replace him, Brady lands elsewhere and the 2020 Buccaneers are considerably less relevant. The Titans hedging their Mariota bet with Tannehill last year — instead of a 2019 draft investment keeping them out of quarterback markets for the foreseeable future — worked out so well the Bears are basically copying the plan via their Nick Foles acquisition.

The Bucs and Titans are also bonded by their new blueprints’ risk. The two guaranteed seasons on Tannehill’s four-year, $118 million extension place the Titans in the same boat as the Bucs, who gave Brady a fully guaranteed two-year, $50M deal. Brady’s ability to sell bad jerseys aside, the future Hall of Famer's Total QBR figure fell from sixth in 2018 to 17th last season. He will be 43 in August, has been tasked with learning a new system for the first time in ages and is doing so away from the Bucs’ facility amid COVID-19. Tannehill missed 25 games from 2016-18 because of two ACL tears and a shoulder malady. These are not automatic bets.

Grading Winston's and Mariota’s careers will depend on their work in New Orleans and Las Vegas and beyond. These assessments will be measured against Tampa Bay's and Tennessee's succession strategies.

Although the Bucs and Titans would trade their present realities for Winston and Mariota having become franchise quarterbacks, their high-end stopgap plans should give them a say in the Super Bowl LV chase.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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