Back in 2015, Jameis Winston edged out fellow quarterback Marcus Mariota to become the top pick in the NFL draft, winning over NFL talent evaluators with his personality and upside. However, with both now in their third NFL seasons, Winston trails Mariota in the areas that matter most at the game's most important position.
Quarterbacks from the same draft class never escape one another in the national consciousness. The vaunted 1983 class of John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino provided fodder for countless debates, articles and even a two-hour documentary. In more recent times, pundits continue to compare Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, all alumni of the 2004 NFL Draft. Broadcasters still bring up the six signal-callers selected ahead of Tom Brady in 2000. Likewise, Winston and Mariota will remain intertwined for the duration of their playing careers and beyond.
As it stands, both Winston's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Mariota's Tennessee Titans feel content with their respective QB selections. Both players have improved with every season, and each looks likely to provide genuine long-term stability under center. Between the two, fans respond more strongly to Winston, a charismatic personality with a list of accolades comparable to anyone's at the same age. However, despite the hype generated by Winston's background as a collegiate national champion, former No. 1 overall pick, and the breakout star of this year's edition of Hard Knocks, he has fallen behind the less-heralded Mariota as the top quarterback from the 2015 draft class.
Winston possesses immense talent and one of the highest ceilings among the NFL's young quarterbacks. He also continues to commit head-scratching blunders befitting a rookie. On Sunday, he tossed a trio of interceptions that buried the Buccaneers in a 34-17 loss to the Vikings. While one of those turnovers bounced off the hands of intended receiver Mike Evans, Winston nearly threw more, including a wild throw nearly picked off by Minnesota safety Andrew Sendejo. Where a more restrained signal-caller would have tossed the football harmlessly out of bounds, Winston tried to force action and almost gave the Vikings a chance to score again before halftime.
Mariota largely avoids such mistakes. Facing off against the Seahawks defense without the help of ultra-talented wideout Corey Davis, Mariota smartly refrained from dangerous throws down the seams. Instead, he favored proverbial layups -- passes into the flats and soft spots in zone coverages -- to chip away at field position and minimize risk against a defense specializing in takeaways.
Of course, no offense can play check-down football all game, and the Titans' quarterback executed his deep shots when necessary. With the game still in the balance late in the third, Mariota faked a handoff and an end around to draw the defense in, allowing tight end Jonnu Smith to slip behind the coverage for a 24-yard touchdown reception.
Just as importantly, Mariota remained calm under duress, shaking off drops by his receivers and a 3-for-10 first quarter to complete 17 of his final 22 attempts. He also led an impressive eight-play, 47-yard scoring drive with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. In all, he displayed a kind of resilience evident in the league's premier passers.
Sunday doesn't represent a one-off performance either. Mariota's play has trended in this direction over the last 13 months, highlighted by superb games against the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions and Seattle, all playoff teams last season. The Titans' low profile has kept Mariota's ascension out of the spotlight. However, he has developed into the NFL's most exciting young signal-caller, moving ahead of Winston in the quarterback hierarchy as a result.
If not for a broken bone, perhaps Mariota might have separated himself from Winston even sooner. Last season during a Week 15 tilt with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mariota fractured his right fibula, immediately ending his season and halting the Titans' playoff run. At the time of the injury, the team possessed an 8-6 record and control of their playoff destiny. Tennessee effectively yielded the AFC South crown to the Houston Texans with Mariota sidelined, overshadowing the progress he made throughout the year.
Mariota might hold a commanding lead over his Tampa Bay counterpart, but plenty of time remains for Winston to bridge the gap. As Matt Ryan's 2016 MVP season demonstrates, quarterbacks can continue to iron out flaws late into their careers. Perhaps down the line, the Buccaneers will find a way to rein in their quarterback's worst impulses and prove they made the correct choice back in 2015.
But before that can happen, Winston must first catch up with Mariota, whose development shows no signs of slowing down.