NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Saints quarterback Drew Brees witnessed Marcus Mariota's heroics in person.
Brees was on the opposing sideline when Mariota engineered a game-winning drive in overtime to beat the Saints in November of 2015. It was Mariota's rookie year with the Titans.
"He's impressive,'' Brees said of Mariota. "And the way he's kept improving, I think he has a really bright future. From all accounts, he's a guy who loves football, he's a great competitor, and he is extremely talented both running and throwing the football.
"Now he just has to keep grinding, and continue to find ways to get better every offseason. But I think Mariota has a really bright future, and I think they are building a really good team around him as well."
In his second NFL season, Mariota completed 276-of-451 passes for 3,426 yards, 26 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 95.6 passer in 2016 before suffering a fractured fibula in a Week 16 contest at Jacksonville. The quarterback added 60 rushing attempts for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
Mariota's 95.6 passer rating ranks third in franchise history for a single season, behind only Warren Moon's 96.8 in 1990, when he was the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year, and Steve McNair's 100.4 in 2003, when he was the NFL's Co-MVP.
Mariota would've played in the Pro Bowl if he hadn't suffered the injury.
At the Pro Bowl, Titans Online asked three different Pro Bowl quarterbacks about Mariota.
"He is a talented player,'' Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. "He's a guy that can run, that can throw, and can really do it all. And I have talked to some of the other Titans about him, guys like Delanie Walker, and asking him about what he is like as a teammate, and he said what I thought: Marcus carries himself like a professional and works hard, and is a great teammate.
"He is definitely fun to watch because there's so many plays he is able to make, either throwing it or running it."
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith saw Mariota up close and personal this past December, at Arrowhead Stadium.
Mariota guided the Titans to a come-from-behind win that day, orchestrating a last-minute drive that was capped off by a 53-yard field goal from kicker Ryan Succop.
"He is such a unique talent,'' Smith said of Mariota. "I think this past year he really grew, and took a step in the right direction. Just playing quarterback, so many games are different. Some games you throw it 18 times, other games you throw it 40 times, and being able to handle everything in between is a part of it. You have to find a way to right the ship on days when maybe the running game isn't working as well as it does some days. Just looking from afar, it seems like he balanced all of that really well. He put the team in a position to win a lot more games."
Smith said he got a chance to talk to Mariota a little bit on December 18, after Tennessee's 19-17 win in Kansas City.
"He's a good kid,'' Smith said. "I am a fan of his from afar. I just like the way he carries himself, and his mentality. It seems like he works hard and does things the right way."
Mariota is currently recovering from surgery.
While his availability for the offseason work remains uncertain, Mariota is expected to be ready for training camp.
Dalton, like Brees, said Mariota just needs to keep finding ways to improve each year as the league studies him even more, and looks for ways to slow him down.
"But the more you play, the more comfortable you get,'' Dalton said. "Marcus is a guy who is so talented, and he had a great year. I hate he had the injury at the end, but I know he is a guy who is going to work hard and keep getting better, I have no doubt about that."
TitansOnline.com looks back at Marcus Mariota's second NFL season in 2016. (AP Photos)