Entering last season, the eyes of the NFL were focused on the league’s newest young quarterback prodigies as Tampa Bay Bucs’ rookie Jameis Winston and fellow first-year pro Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans were handed the reigns of their first NFL offenses.
But even after surviving a steep learning curve and avoiding all-out disaster in year one, both Winston and Mariota are still living life under the microscope as they attempt to turn promising rookie efforts into long-term NFL careers, all while attempting to guide a pair of sub-500 franchises out of the NFL’s basement.
As a rookie, Mariota was seen as a more stable option under center than Winston due largely to his quiet off-field demeanor, and on the field, the draft’s second overall selection didn’t disappoint, finishing the 2015 regular season with the fourth-most rookie passing yards per game [234.8] in NFL history.
While Mariota also impressed with totals of 19 touchdowns, 2,818 passing yards, and a respectable completion percentage of 62.2, the Titans finished fourth in the AFC South and tied the Cleveland Browns for dead-last in the NFL with a record of 3-13.
Without the services of even one previously established No. 1 wide receiver, Mariota wasn’t given an opportunity to begin building any chemistry with a traditional top target beyond what was developed with pass-catching tight end Delanie Walker. But in year two, things will be different.
Most notably, Mariota has begun to create that elusive chemistry with newly-signed wide receiver Rishard Matthews, who’s fresh off career highs in receptions, yards, and touchdowns with the Miami Dolphins, and rookie wideout Tajae Sharp, a fifth-round pick who led the nation with 111 receptions at Umass last season and a potential draft-day steal.
On Tuesday, Titans’ head coach Mike Mularkey told reporters that he’s pleased with the connection that Mariota has managed to make with both receivers.
”I’m pretty pleased,” said Mularkey via ESPN. ”I think Marcus has had a pretty solid camp. I’m pretty pleased with him. I think those guys [Matthews and Sharpe], there is nothing I can say is out of sync right now. It’s been pretty good.”
And in addition to returning wide receivers such as Dorial Green-Beckham, Kendall Wright, and Harry Douglas, Tennessee gave Mariota even more new weapons to work with during the off-season by drafting former Alabama running back Derrick Henry, signing veteran receiver Andre Johnson, and acquiring running back DeMarco Murray.
But while Mariota is getting used to his new weapons, Winston is gearing-up for another year with standout receiver Mike Evans, veteran wideout Vincent Jackson, running back Doug Martin, and a pair of promising pass-catching tight ends.
Last season, injuries limited Jackson to just ten games, and Evans caught only three touchdown passes all year. Yet, despite piloting a run-first offense that ranked fifth in rushing yards per game [135.1] as a rookie, Winston still connected with Evans enough to begin 2016 as one of the most potentially lethal young quarterback-receiver combos in the league.
Statistically, Winston actually totaled more passing yards [4,042] and touchdowns  than Mariota, despite tossing a worrisome 15 interceptions for the 6-10 Bucs while completing only 58.3 percent of his passes. But an offseason of hard work and dedication have Tampa Bay’s coaching staff confident that the NFL sophomore will play a more error-free brand of football in the upcoming campaign.
Along with becoming accustomed to new head coach Dirk Koetter–his third different head coach of the last three seasons including his final year at Florida State, Winston will also be attempting to find a spark with new starting tight end Cameron Brate and wideout Adam Humphries—who was just named as the team’s No. 3 receiver.
Koetter may be in his first year at the helm, but he brings a solid relationship with the unit’s on-field leader to the position after teaming with Winston to finish within the NFL’s top-five in total offense for the first time in franchise history.
While speaking to the media at the team’s training camp facility last week, Winston acknowledged Koetter’s ability to bring the best out of both himself, as well as the rest of his team.
”I think that you always have to have that rookie mentality,” said Winston via ESPN. ”You never have arrived and I know coach Koetter is going to pull that out of us every single time.”
Of course, this season’s duo of franchise-saving quarterbacks will steal some of the league spotlight as L.A. Rams’ rookie Jared Goff and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles take their first steps towards NFL stardom. But it’s the next step that Winston and Mariota are are now preparing for, and even if the playoffs aren’t in the plans for year two, both will be worth watching in 2016.
[Photo By-Joe Robbins/Getty Images]