Remember when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota formed a strong 1-2 quarterback punch to open the 2015 NFL Draft? When Winston (Florida State) and Mariota (Oregon) entered the league after accomplished, Heisman Trohpy-winning college careers, many thought both would be franchise starting QBs in the NFL for a long time.
Five years later, Winston remains a free agent upon the expiration of his rookie contract, replaced by Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. Mariota, who lost his No. 1 job to Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee in the middle of last season, is now Derek Carr’s backup in Las Vegas.
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The QB class wasn’t all that strong in 2015. Winston and Mariota were the only two first-rounders among seven QBs selected. After they went off the board, in order, it was Garrett Grayson (third round), Sean Mannion (third round), Bryce Petty (fourth round), Brett Hundley (fifth round) and Trevor Siemian (seventh round).
Now imagine the Bucs and Titans going in other directions at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, and creating ripple effects throughout the league.
Here’s playing “what if” and revisiting what could have happened differently in the top 10 of the 2015 NFL Draft — based on who were considered the best first-round prospects then, and not on what we know now.
1. Buccaneers draft EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.
The Bucs had a pretty good draft after Winston, landing left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet and linebacker Kwon Alexander. They also signed wide receiver Adam Humphries as an undrafted free agent.
Had they not taken Winston, they likely would have passed on one of the consensus top two wide recevers, Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White, because they had Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.
The logical choice, then, would have been Fowler, who would have boosted their middling pass rush for defensive-minded coach Lovie Smith. Fowler, the Florida product, went No. 3 to the Jaguars, but the St. Petersburg native would have been much closer to home to fill a void with the Bucs.
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As a situational player in Jacksonville, Fowler had limited production early in his career, but after getting traded to the Rams in 2018, he blossomed into a 11.5-sack producer in 2019 before signing a lucrative deal to join the Falcons in 2020.
Mike Glennon, who didn’t see any action during Winston’s rookie season, would have been Tampa Bay’s starter in 2015 in the wake of Josh McCown’s release. The Bucs finished 6-10. Had they finished three games worse without Winston, they could have been in the top two again to get either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz.
Had the Bucs stayed at No. 11, they might have fallen into the trap of reaching for massive bust Paxton Lynch.
2. Titans draft WR Amari Cooper
The Titans made a horrendous second-round pick after Mariota with their selection of Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham at No. 40 overall. That also indicated they were focused on wide receiver help, confirmed by their also taking then-William & Mary sleeper Tre McBride in the seventh round.
Logic suggests the Titans would have landed Cooper, who had immediate success with the Raiders before exploding into a well-compensated No. 1 target for the Cowboys. Cooper would have complemented tight end Delanie Walker well, and the Titans also wouldn’t have used the No. 5 overall pick in 2017 on Corey Davis.
The Titans still had the worst record in the NFL in 2015 with a rookie Mariota, finishing 3-13. That would not have changed with more of Zach Mettenberger or a veteran bridge. They would have kept their 2016 No. 1 pick instead of trading it to the Rams, and they would have taken either Goff or Wentz to be their franchise QB.
Offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who left for the Browns in 2020 free agency, also would have never been a Titan in this scenario.
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3. Jaguars draft DT Leonard Williams
With Fowler gone, the Jaguars wouldn’t have taken Winston or Mariota because they used the No. 3 pick on Blake Bortles in 2014. They also wouldn’t have gone wide receiver after landing Allen Robinson in the second round in 2014 and signing Allen Hurns as an undrafted free agent that same year.
The Jaguars would have still addressed the defensive line with Williams, who was taken by the Jets and later traded to the Giants. In addition to being a massive versatile upgrade up front, Williams would have set the tone for the Jaguars to make a lot of plays on the second level.
Imagine Williams being an initial building block for that elite Jaguars defense in 2017 that carried them to the AFC championship game. He likely would have kept the team from signing former Bronco and future Eagle Malik Jackson in free agency.
4. Raiders draft WR Kevin White
The Raiders also wouldn’t have gone for Winston or Mariota after using a second-round pick on Derek Carr in 2014. They would have still gone wide receiver had Cooper been off the board, only with disastrous results.
White shot up board because of his dazzling athleticism to go with prolific college production. There were strong feelings the Raiders preferred him over Cooper, but they wisely went the other way. Cooper made the Pro Bowl with 72 catches for 1,070 yards and 6 TDs as a rookie catching passes from Carr in 2015. Unfortunately for White, drafted by the Bears three picks later, he suffered a shin injury that wiped out his entire rookie season.
That began a serious of injury issues, including a season-ending fractured fibula in 2016 and a season-ending fractured shoulder blade in 2017. White played only five games for the Bears in four seasons before landing with the Cardinals in 2019.
5. Redskins draft QB Jameis Winston
The Redskins did use the No. 2 pick on Robert Griffin III in 2012, a year in which they also took Kirk Cousins in the fourth round. But by 2014, Griffin’s durability issues were in full force, and Cousins looked rather shaky filling in for him before settling in as a solid replacement starter in 2015.
Doug Williams, who went from Washington’s Super Bowl 22 MVP QB to a key personnel role in the front office, was an early NFL mentor to Winston. In his five seasons in Tampa Bay, where Williams also used to play, Winston was rather durable and had shown steady improvement, save for the interceptions that caused his efficiency regression in 2019.
Had the Redskins taken Winston, Griffin’s fate wouldn’t have changed too much given they released him in March of 2016. Cousins was open to a trade ahead of the 2014 season, which Colt McCoy finished as Washington’s best QB option. There’s a good chance he would have landed back with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta to back up Matt Ryan before getting his starting shot with Shanahan in San Francisco in 2017, instead of the 49ers trading for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Given Cousins’ resurgence as a pocket passer in Jay Gruden’s offense, perhaps Winston would have put together three strong seasons to start his career, too, and still be in Washington as the starter. The Redskins then wouldn’t have traded for Alex Smith in 2018 or drafted Dwayne Haskins in the first round in 2019.
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6. Jets draft QB Marcus Mariota
The Jets traded for Ryan Fitzpatrick to be their bridge QB in 2015 and also drafted Petty. With Williams and the those other players off the board, there’s a good chance they would have taken Mariota. They failed miserably by using a second-rounder on Christian Hackenberg in 2016, which ensured their need to take Sam Darnold at No. 3 in 2018.
Although a big knock on Mariota was durability during his time with the Titans, he also had three head coaches and four offensive coordinators in five seasons. A lack of continuity is a good way to limit the growth of a talented QB.
Mariota would have been a better fit with Chan Gailey, a veteran coach known for adjusting his schemes to QBs. Gailey is now back with Fitzpatrick in Miami and is likely to be charged with developing either Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert in 2020.
The Titans did their best to get the best out of Mariota with his athleticism and spread offense sensibilities, but their supporting personnel and mostly conservative nature hurt him, as he also missed a lot of chances to make big plays passing and running. We don’t know if it would have worked out better for Mariota with the Jets, but it would have been fun to find out.
7. Bears draft RB Todd Gurley
A running back was on the Bears’ radar in the 2015 NFL Draft, as they took Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford in the fourth round. Although Matt Forte was coming off a seventh consecutive productive season for the team, his sudden decline in 2015 was expected given his mileage and the fact that he was nearing 30.
Gurley was dynamic for the Rams before his knee injury issues kept him from living up to production expectations in relation to his lucrative second contract. He is still only 25, and there’s hope he can have a rebound season with his new team, the Falcons, in 2020.
Gurley would have replaced Forte as the featured, three-down back in Chicago and carried on an elite running back tradition. A Forte-Langford committee pounded out 2,103 scrimmage yards and 14 TDs in 2015. Jordan Howard, a fourth-round pick of the Bears, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2016, followed by two solid seasons before being traded to the Eagles.
Gurley would have had the opportunity, support and commitment to be the same explosive, all-purpose runner he was early in his career. With him on the roster, Langford, Howard and 2019 third-rounder David Montgomery would not have been drafted by the Bears. And Gurley definitely would have given them more offensively than White did.
8. Falcons still draft DE Vic Beasley Jr.
The Falcons probably would have stuck with his pick with all of those players gone ahead of them. At the time, Beasley, a Clemson product, was expected to be a dominant, quick-twitch pass rusher in the NFL. He also exploded for a monster second season in 2016, leading the league with 15.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles.
Beasley transitioned to outside linebacker, and although he was still somewhat productive in getting to the quarterback, he didn’t expand his pass-rush moves and didn’t deliver as much as expected as a versatile playmaker. The Falcons got what they could out of him in five seasons before he signed with the Titans in 2020, replaced by Fowler.
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9. Giants draft G Brandon Scherff
The Giants in reality took offensive tackle Ereck Flowers, who never lived up to his athletic expectations on the left side. Flowers revived his career playing inside at left guard with the rival Redskins in 2019 — where Scherff, the Redskins’ actual No. 5 overall pick in 2015, remains one of the game’s top right guards.
Scherff got franchise-tagged this offseason on the heels of three Pro Bowl trips, while Flowers cashed in with the Dolphins in free agency. The Giants recovered by trading for Kevin Zeitler to play right guard in 2019 after drafting Will Hernandez in the second round to play left guard in 2018.
But had the Giants had taken Scherff, he would have immediately started on the right side, flanking 2013 first-round left guard Justin Pugh. Strangely, without Scherff, the need for Zeitler made it easier to execute the Odell Beckham Jr.-Olivier Vernon trade with the Browns, which also brought the Giants safety Jabrill Peppers. Flowers did start for three seasons on the left side for the Giants, but his ineffectiveness prompted their signing of former Patriot Nate Solder to a big deal in 2018.
So much for Flowers being a decade-long rock in front of Eli Manning and Daniel Jones. Now the Giants are back to having offensive tackle as a high priority for the 2020 NFL Draft, with a shaky right side and Solder turning 32.
10. Rams draft RB Melvin Gordon
Gordon went No. 15 to the other eventual Los Angeles team, the Chargers. Even though that was five picks later — with the Vikings (CB Trae Waynes), Browns (DT Danny Shelton), Saints (G Andrus Peat) and Dolphins (WR DeVante Parker) following the Rams’ real pick of Gurley — it’s reasonable to suggest the Rams would have taken Gordon out of Wisconsin with Gurley off the board.
Gordon’s five seasons with the Chargers can be described as a roller-coaster. He failed to score a touchdown and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie. He then averaged 1,457 yards from scrimmage with 38 total TDs his next three years, establishing himself as a strong scoring and receiving back. But there also was a combination of injuries that cut short a couple of a seasons, plus an ill-advised holdout to begin the 2019 season.
Although Gordon put up some numbers with the Chargers, he didn’t stand out as a special, take-over-games type of back that Gurley has been when healthy. In the end, Austin Ekeler was the preferred dynamic back for the Chargers with Gordon settling for a lesser free-agent deal than expected with the Broncos in 2020.
Had the Rams taken Gordon in 2015, the Chargers could have recovered by taking David Johnson in the third round at No. 83, three spots before he really did go to the Cardinals. The Rams’ offense wouldn’t have hit the same gear with Gordon instead of Gurley.
Even though Gurley is now with the Falcons, the Rams can’t have any regrets about drafting the straw who stirred their explosive offense with Sean McVay to get to a Super Bowl.