Tennessee Titans should consider a short-term extension for Marcus Mariota

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 16: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans attempts a pass against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on December 16, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 16: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans attempts a pass against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on December 16, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

Signing Mariota to a short-term extension would improve the Titans 2019 cap situation and grant them additional time to make a decision on his future in Nashville.

On February 24, 2018, something happened that brought much joy to Titans fans: the Jaguars had extended Blake Bortles. On the surface, it seemed like a head-scratching move for the Jags. Bortles was one of the more underwhelming starting QBs in the NFL, and most people assumed that the Jaguars would have moved on from him after he played out his 5th year option.

However, dig a little deeper and you can see why the move made sense for Jacksonville. It also raises the question whether a similarly structured extension might benefit the Titans in regards to Marcus Mariota.

Once people got done laughing at seeing the words “Bortles” and “extension” in close proximity to each other they realized that it was a relatively team friendly deal. Robert Mays of the Ringer penned a good article at the time, explaining that the Jaguars were taking a calculated gamble on Bortles. The extension was for 3 years, $54M, but only $26.5M of that was guaranteed, with most of that being lumped in the first two years.

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Furthermore, his 2018 cap hit was set to be $19M thanks to his exercised 5th year option, but that figure was dropped down to $10M thanks to the extension. This gave the Jaguars more cap room to swing for the fences in free agency, allowing them to splurge on guard Andrew Norwell and other complimentary pieces. The Jaguars were banking on the fact that Bortles could be just good enough to allow their defense to carry them to the Super Bowl.

The Titans now find themselves in a tricky situation with their own young quarterback. His career up to this point is incredibly hard to judge; there have been plenty of highs and just as many lows. Bill Barnwell probably sums it up best:

"We’ve seen Mariota play four seasons as a pro quarterback. What we know is … well, not much. He is capable of great plays and has a knack for big conversions in the fourth quarter, but there also are games in which he looks out of sorts from the start. Mariota struggles with turnovers, as the Oregon product has a below-average interception rate and nine or more fumbles in three of his four seasons…What you can say with the utmost confidence, though, is that it’s difficult to count on Mariota to stay healthy for all 16 games. He has yet to do it as a pro, suffering a meaningful injury each year, though he has missed only eight games across four seasons."

The point of this post isn’t to start a debate on whether or not Mariota is “the guy”. No matter your opinion of him you can admit that there have been flashes of greatness, but also that inconsistency and injuries have been constant themes. It wouldn’t make sense for the Titans to sign him to a long-term deal, but he has shown too much promise to cut ties just yet.

Realistically, the Titans have 3 options when it comes to Marcus. The first would be to let him walk in 2020 if he continues his struggles with injuries and inconsistent play. The second option would be to franchise him if he plays well (and stays healthy) in 2019. This is convenient in terms of flexibility and lack of commitment, but that would mean approximately $47M in cap hits for Mariota over the next two seasons. I think the best option would be to sign Mariota to a short-term extension that would offer reduced cap hits and limited commitment.

Using the Bortles extension for inspiration, I drew up what a possible Mariota extension would look like. Assuming he would get more money that Bortles (due to better play and cap increase), a 3 year/$63M extension is probably in the ballpark of what we could expect.

YEAR      AGE        BASE SALARY               SIGNING                  CAP HIT                 DEAD CAP
2019        26             $6,500,000            $6,000,000        $12,500,000           $32,400,000

2020        27          $18,000,000            $6,000,000         $24,000,000          $20,100,000

POTENTIAL OUT: 2021, 2 YR, $41,900,000; $5,800,000 DEAD CAP

2021        28           $20,500,000           $6,000,000         $26,500,000             $5,800,000

$32.5M guaranteed at signing
$8M in base salary guaranteed in 2020

As you can see, the main reason the Titans would want to extend Mariota would be for cap purposes. In this scenario, Tennessee would gain about $9.4M in additional 2019 cap space. This significant cap boost would be extremely helpful in signing an expensive free agent (like Golden Tate), re-signing their own guys (like Kenny Vaccaro), or extending one of their players (like Kevin Byard).

The cap hit total for 2019-20 would be just over $36M, meaning the Titans could save over $10M during that time period if Mariota played on an extension instead of the franchise tag.

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Many people get scared at the thought of committing to three years of Mariota, but it’s important to remember that guaranteed money, not years, is what really matters. Even though there would be two more years tacked onto his contract, Marcus’s guaranteed money in this scenario would be just $11.6M more than his scheduled $20.9M cap hit in 2019. And what if Mariota regresses or suffers a severe injury in 2019?

Being forced to release him would be the worst case scenario, but it wouldn’t be debilitating it terms of the cap. At that point the Titans would probably be looking to draft a new franchise QB, and the rookie’s cheap contract would more than offset the cap hits left over from Mariota. This is how the Bortles contract situation played out, and the Jaguars are expected to draft a QB with their first pick this year.

Obviously, this all comes down to management and Mariota himself. Who knows what Robinson’s true opinion of Mariota is? He certainly didn’t give him a convincing answer when asked about his commitment to Marcus earlier this offseason.  Robinson didn’t draft Marcus, so he might be intent on hand-picking his own guy with strong QB drafts in 2020 and 2021. And, for all we know, the team doctors could be advising that Mariota’s nerve issue may threaten his career. But if there is any semblance of thought in the front office that Marcus could be the QB of the future, then a short-term extension makes a lot of sense. Not only are there cap benefits, but the Titans would get more time to make a decision about Marcus’s fate in Nashville.

As for Mariota, he could certainly turn down such an extension, but he might not have a ton of bargaining power. Few teams will jump at the chance to sign him if the Titans decide to move on; his unimpressive stats and a checkered injury history will be red flags for potential suitors.

However, if he is confident in his health and abilities, a short-term extension would provide him a path to earn almost $70M over the next 3 years and be a free agent at 29. At the very least he and his team would have to consider it.

Unfortunately, there is no simple or easy course of action when it comes to Mariota. Both the Titans and their fans wish they lived in alternate world where Mariota had established himself as the franchise QB and he was getting a long-term deal. But if the Titans front office would like additional cap in 2019 and an extra year or two to evaluate Mariota, then a short-term extension makes a lot of sense.