This week ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Wells, Paul Kuharsky, Mike DiRocco and Tania Ganguli will give awards to the AFC South's top players and teams. We continue with our rookie of the year after Monday's reveal of the offensive player of the year, Tuesday’s defensive player of the year, and Wednesday’s All-AFC South Team.
Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles' big yardage and touchdown totals over 16 games won him the quarterback spot on our All-AFC South Team.
But it’s Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota who was the unquestioned rookie of the year in the division.
Mariota quickly quieted concerns about whether his skill set and experience at Oregon leading a spread offense would translate to the NFL.
The poised and unflappable quarterback proved to be a quick learner capable of giant games. He accounted for four touchdowns in a game three times and for three TDs in another.
Despite taking 38 sacks in 12 games, he never grumbled about protection or a lack of weapons, instead boosting his teammates at every chance and taking blame for things he couldn’t have possibly fixed. He missed four games because of two knee injuries, but still offered the Titans more than enough evidence that, for all the franchise’s troubles, they’ve got their quarterback.
Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco: It's a no-brainer to give Mariota the division's rookie of the year. He didn't throw for a lot of yards (2,818) but he did have nearly a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (19 TDs, 10 INTs), which is impressive considering what he went through. His offensive line struggled, especially early, and he was sacked 38 times. He had virtually no help from the running game (92.8 yards per game, 25th in the NFL). His top receiver was TE Delanie Walker, whose 1,088 receiving yards were nearly double that of the Titans' leading wide receiver (Dorial Green-Beckham had 549 yards). Mariota certainly answered the pre-draft questions about whether he could handle playing in pro offense, and now it looks like the AFC South has a good group of young quarterbacks -- with the exception of Houston, of course.
Texans reporter Tania Ganguli: Texans coach Bill O’Brien was very complimentary of Mariota heading into the last year’s draft, but the Texans weren’t in any kind of position to get him. Mariota showed this season he has the skills to be a good NFL quarterback. While the Texans' draft class had a solid year (led by cornerback Kevin Johnson, who played through injuries, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and receiver Jaelen Strong, all of whom made significant strides), none was given the kind of responsibility Mariota was. My only concern going forward will be how his body holds up at this level.
Colts reporter Mike Wells: The key to a team's success starts at quarterback; look no further than Indianapolis when Andrew Luck was lost for the season for proof of that. The Titans have that player in Mariota. Now all they have to do is put some better players around their franchise quarterback so they can close the gap between them and the other teams in the division.