Marcus Mariota Ready to Take Next Step in Year Two

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Marcus Mariota's first NFL season was a big hit.

Based on the reviews, there's reason to believe the sequel will be even better.

"I saw an ascension of an NFL quarterback as the season went on," analyst Ron Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback who is now known for his film study with ESPN, said of Mariota. "I loved Mariota coming out, he was my No.1 ranked quarterback as I transitioned to the NFL.

"He showed me that he is going to have a long career in the National Football League."

Mariota Part II debuts Sunday when the Titans square off against the Minnesota Vikings at Nissan Stadium.

Selected second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Mariota enjoyed success for the Titans in his rookie season after entering the year with plenty of skeptics.

Mariota broke rookie records for most touchdowns (19), completions (230), passing yards (2,818) and passing attempts (370) in 2015, when he completed three or more touchdown passes on four different occasions during his rookie season. He joined Peyton Manning (four in 1998) as the only rookie to accomplish the feat.

His 91.5 passer rating ranked third in franchise history behind only Steve McNair's 2003 MVP season (100.4) and Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Moon's 1990 campaign (96.8).

Along the way he made believers out of fans and media, not to mention his teammates and coaches. Mariota also sent a message to opposing coaches, who will do their best to try and stop him in 2016, and in years to come.

"He is a nightmare for you,'' Colts coach Chuck Pagano said of Mariota. "He is wired the right way. His DNA is spot on. He is a winner, a tough guy, a competitor, and he's smart. All the intangibles are there for him to be a really good football player.

"What makes him tough is he can beat you in so many ways. He can beat you with his arm, and he can beat you with his feet. And he is going to do nothing but get better. And they're going to get better as a team."

Mariota ran for 252 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts as a rookie, including an 87-yard run for a touchdown against the Jaguars on December 6. He had three runs of 20-plus yards, including a 23-yard touchdown run in Jacksonville on November 19 on a Thursday night.

"I think his ability to extend plays is something that is a big concern,'' Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said of Mariota. "To come in as a rookie and play with the poise that he did. ... I think in the red zone, he had unbelievable success. The situational football deals that come up in a game, to see him perform at a high level, that's impressive. But he can really hurt you running the football.

"And it is only going to get better for him. But his ability to extend the play and make good decisions I think are his two highest qualities."

Now, everyone wants to see what's next for Mariota, and the Titans. The sneak preview during the preseason provided even more reasons for optimism.

After setting a franchise rookie record by completing 62.2 percent of his passes in 2015, Mariota worked more on his accuracy this offseason.

He also worked on his strength, and added extra bulk to make himself sturdier in the pocket after missing four games with injuries.

Meanwhile, the Titans worked to surround him with a better supporting cast. The team traded for veteran running back DeMarco Murray, and drafted Derrick Henry, last year's Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, to provide a one-two punch in the backfield. The Titans signed veteran free agent receiver Rishard Matthews, and picked a talented receiver in Tajae Sharpe in the draft. At the same time, the Titans built a sturdier offensive line in front of him, starting with the addition of former Texans center Ben Jones.

Mariota said his confidence is high, as so is his excitement for the 2016 season. He's coming off a preseason when he completed 74.2 percent of his passes while positing a passer rating of 104.1.

"I think it is a more comfortable situation now,'' Mariota said. "You have been in it for a year, and now it is an opportunity to use what you have learned the previous year.

"We've had some ups and downs (this preseason), but at the same time I feel we've had a lot more ups than we've had downs. I feel like we've built a solid resume up to this point going into the regular season.

"This is our opportunity now to kind of take what we've learned in the offseason and build upon it for the regular season."

Titans back-up quarterback Matt Cassel, an 11-year NFL veteran, said Mariota should benefit greatly from last year's experience.

"I think it should help him tremendously,'' Cassel said of Mariota. "Any time you come in as a rookie, you first have to get to know your teammates, but also the position he was in where he is the face of the franchise when you are drafted that high. It takes time for you to earn the respect of the guys and do all that, but he obviously performed well last year.

"So now it is just building off of that. I think he has the confidence and the backing of everybody in this locker room the way that he works, the way he prepares every single day. He should have a tremendous amount of confidence and it shows in his play, too. Every day he gets better and is more comfortable and it is exciting to watch."  

Mariota said himself he can hardly wait to get started.

Yes, there's no doubt the reviews from Year One were good.

Now, it's time for the sequel.

Get your popcorn ready.

"He is going to be vicious,'' quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., an analyst for ESPN who has worked with quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston in the past, said of Mariota. "Once he gets more experience where he can say, 'I've been in this scenario before, I've seen this defense before, I've beaten this team before' … I think it is going to bode well for him."

Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown agreed.

"The best thing about a rookie is they become second-year players, so he can take all that experience from last year and become a much better player and he will because he has the talent to do that,'' Brown said. "And with all the talent the Titans are going to get around him now, he is going to be able to do great things in the future. It's going to be fun for the fans here in Nashville to watch him grow."

TitansOnline.com looks back at the 2015 rookie season of Titans QB Marcus Mariota. (AP Photos)

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