The offseason hasn’t been kind to Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. Three of his top receivers from last year, Josh Huff, De’Anthony Thomas and Daryle Hawkins, entered the the NFL Draft. The fourth, Bralon Addison, tore an ACL in the spring and may miss the entire season. Although those losses are likely to have a negative impact on Mariota and the Ducks’ passing game, they pale in comparison to the loss of left tackle Tyler Johnstone. His injury will have a short and long-term impact on Mariota.
For a right-handed QB like Mariota, the left tackle is responsible for protecting the blind side in pass protection. Being hit on the blind side can easily create fumbles and cause injuries. These are two areas in which Mariota has seen his draft stock questioned. Yes, he played through the MCL injury last season, but he clearly wasn’t as dangerous of a runner. Over the final six games of the season, Mariota failed to rush for a touchdown.
Fumbles are an even bigger concern. Mariota fumbled 11 times in 13 games last year. The majority of those fumbles can be blamed on Mariota for scrambling with the ball unprotected or holding the ball rather than throwing it away. A new left tackle won’t help matters. Mariota will likely be forced to scramble even more and throw the ball even quicker. These are not his strong suits. Andre Yruretagoyena, the expected starter at left tackle, has performed well in relief duties, but he’s not the same talent Johnstone is.
The loss of Johnstone will hurt Oregon the most in the run game. Despite being right-handed, Mariota has preferred to run the ball left. He’s the best quarterback in college football at running to his weak side. This is a trait that only a handful of NFL quarterbacks possess. Russell Wilson is very similar to Mariota in this regard. Why would they prefer to run left? The presence of an elite left tackle. Whereas Wilson has Russell Okung, Mariota has Johnstone.
Johnstone has the right combination of strength and agility needed to play in Oregon’s offensive scheme. He has shown the ability to hold blocks long enough for Mariota to run past and can also get down field to block on the second or third level of the defense.
In losses to Arizona and Stanford, the Ducks were unable to prevent pressure from getting to Mariota. The pressure didn’t result in many sacks, however Mariota was unable to set his feet resulting in inaccurate throws from the pocket. Expect teams to blitz even more from the left side now that Johnstone is out. Mariota’s completion percentage dropped from 68.5 percent in 2012 to 63.5 percent in 2013. Another decline in completion percentage this year will certainly concern NFL teams.
There are several other factors that could cause Mariota’s draft stock to fall. Scheme, accuracy downfield or history of Oregon quarterbacks could all scare teams from drafting him over fellow quarterbacks Jameis Winston, Bryce Petty or Brett Hundley. In fact, many QB needy teams such as the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans all drafted one in 2014. Not every pick will work out, but those teams likely won’t be in the market for a QB early in the 2015 draft. As of now, only the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a potential need for a first-round QB, with the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams as lesser possibilities.
Every few years — 2009, 2010 and 2013 for example — an entire quarterback class can fall in the draft due to a lack of teams needing a starter. The 2015 draft is shaping up to be very similar. Losing Johnstone will expose Mariota’s two biggest weaknesses, ball protection and accuracy. Although he remains a top prospect, Mariota won’t be the first QB off the draft board. This could lead to an Aaron Rodgers or Geno Smith type fall in the draft.