We’ve talked about it. And talked about it. And almost as though it’s being spoken into existence, Marcus Mariota is now the betting favorite to end up as the Patriots starter at quarterback next season.
Will he actually be available? What would the Patriots have to give up to get him? And what might a team built around Mariota for 2021 look like?
Marcus Mariota is under contract with the Raiders for one more year. But he shouldn't be for long. Vegas just signed Nathan Peterman to a backup-quarterback deal, and Mariota's $10.6 million in salary is too expensive for someone who would be Derek Carr's backup.
The question is, when the Raiders move on, will they do a deal with another team for Mariota's services? Or will the No. 2 overall choice of the Titans back in 2015 be cut?
CAN HE PLAY?
What we saw from Mariota last as a full-time starter wasn't pretty. But it wasn't as bad as you think, either. Yes, he lost his job to Ryan Tannehill. But in 2019 he had a rating over 90.0, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 3-to-1, and his yards per attempt figure was 7.5. Those are competent.
In 2018, he was about a top-20 quarterback: 22nd in EPA, 16th in success rate and eighth in completion percentage over expected. Not bad for a guy who dealt with a lot of turnover on the offensive staff in Tennessee early in his career.
Though injuries helped lead to Mariota's demise in Tennessee, he looked healthy in the one appearance he made in 2020 when he completed 17 of 28 attempts for 226 yards (8.1 per attempt), one touchdown and one pick. He was accurate to all areas of the field in that one, and he showed off his athleticism running for 88 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
WOULD PATS FIND IT FEASIBLE?
Depends on what the Raiders are looking for in a trade, right? If they look at the prices paid for Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz and are using those as any kind of barometer for Mariota's value, it's hard to believe any team would find that feasible.
As much promise as Mariota still may carry at 27 years old, he was still a backup last year.
If the price is more reasonable -- a third or fourth-round pick, the kinds of selections involved in recent Teddy Bridgewater and Joe Flacco trades -- then the Patriots should have no issues with that.
They'll own one compensatory third this year -- comp picks haven't been made official just yet, but their third is for Tom Brady's free-agent departure -- and three fourths (two compensatory fourths).
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The Patriots would eat a cap hit of just about $11 million should Mariota be traded. Not bad for a veteran starter for one year.
But there's a catch: If Mariota starts for most of the season, he has some hefty incentives that could pay him upwards of $20 million. About half of that wouldn't hit the Patriots cap until 2022, though. Shouldn't be a deal-breaker, given the cap is expected to rise and the Patriots should have plenty of money to play with. (No team has fewer 2022 cap commitments than the Patriots do.)
For a veteran starter, $20 million for one year is about the going rate for the league's most inexpensive veteran starter (Bridgewater).
According to a recent NFL Media report, trade talks have cooled on Mariota because of his incentives. Teams likely weren't surprised by those incentives, though — they’ve been in his deal since last year — making the report a bit of a head-scratcher. Teams were hot on the idea of trading for him and now they aren’t?
Interested clubs could be trying to publicly drive the price down on Mariota by leaking that there isn't much interest. Or perhaps Mariota has made it known he's not open to adjusting his contract if he's dealt. The issue with that theory, though, if it were the case, is that Mariota could simply be released by Vegas in order to save the team cap space.
The good news for Mariota in that scenario would be that he could then choose his next destination. That's significant. The bad news? He may get less as a free agent in 2021 than he's scheduled to make right now on his current deal.
The going rate for reclamation-project quarterbacks is in the $7 million neighborhood. Would he want to take a haircut of $3 million or more in order to choose his next destination? Maybe he would.
But it seems as though he'd benefit from being traded to a team in need of a starter, keep his current base salary (even if it means re-working his incentives), play a lot, play well, and then hit the open market to see a bigger pay day in 2022.
THE BUILDING PLAN
Say Mariota lands in New England via trade. His 2021 cap hit might allow for an additional impact player on the Patriots roster when juxtaposed against a Jimmy Garoppolo-centric build.
Garoppolo's cap hit, if traded, would be more than double Mariota's. That could mean, in theory, the difference between going after T.Y. Hilton and Allen Robinson in free agency. It could be the difference of ending up with two of Mariota's former teammates -- free-agent receiver Corey Davis and free-agent tight end Jonnu Smith -- or just one.
The issue with dealing away draft capital for Mariota carries with it some risk, however. There's no guarantee Mariota can bottle up whatever it was he had going for him in his one brief appearance last season and bring it with him to Foxboro. Plus, spending a third-round pick on Mariota could make the Patriots wary of making a draft-day move for a passer.
The Patriots have their own first and second-round picks this year. Would they be willing to package those selections together to move up the board to select a promising rookie, and then go pickless in the third round because they'd already acquired Mariota? Allocating each of their first three picks in the draft to one position -- even a position as important as quarterback -- would be a steep price to pay for a little certainty at that spot.
LIKELIHOOD IT HAPPENS
Mariota is the betting favorite to land with the Patriots, and with good reason. From the Patriots point of view, he'd fulfill a number of requirements of a good bridge quarterback.
He has starting experience. He takes care of the football. When healthy, still well shy of 30, he has enough athleticism to force opponents to game plan for his legs. He's revered by teammates as a positive locker-room influence. He's relatively inexpensive.
What's more? He could be had via trade. That's key because if the Patriots want to attract offensive weapons to New England at the start of free agency, it'd benefit them to have a starting-caliber passer on the roster before free agents make their decisions.
While a trade couldn't be made official before the start of the new league year (when free agency opens), it could be announced, thereby alerting free-agent receivers and tight ends who may look at Foxboro as their next destination that there is a competent quarterback on the Patriots roster.
If a deal can't be swung for Mariota, then he'll be a free agent and Bill Belichick would likely have to do a little recruiting to land his buddy Chip Kelly's old pupil. Teams that aren’t in the top half of the draft but are in need of a quarterback — Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, maybe Pittsburgh — could create some competition in the marketplace.