In 2015, the Tennessee Titans were one of the worst teams in the NFL. They finished tied with Cleveland for the worst record in the league at 3-13 and won just one game in front of the home fans. To casual observers, this would look like a season-opening walk in the park for the Minnesota Vikings, but there is a new look going on in Tennessee producing reason for optimism, despite having a team that was near the bottom in most offensive and defensive categories last season.
Much of the offensive hopes are being pinned on quarterback Marcus Mariota, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft. He started 12 games last year and showed flashes of being special, despite some critics believing his learning curve was going to be a bit longer because of the up-tempo gimmick offense he played in at Oregon. He had three games last season with three or more TD passes and was the team’s second-leading rusher, posting the only 100-yard rushing game the Titans had last year. Mariota wasn’t a rush-for-rushing’s-sake type of QB last year. Most of his runs came to avoid sacks, which the Titans had plenty of last year (54).
To take the heat off Mariota, the Titans made a big splash to overhaul the running game. Gone are three of a four-headed committee Tennessee used last year (Bishop Sankey, David Cobb and Dexter McCluster). They have been replaced by a pair of power backs – former NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray, acquired in trade from an Eagles team looking to completely erase the memory of all moves made by Chip Kelly, and Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama taken in the second round. Don’t be surprised to see the Titans try to ground and pound both of them, because they have invested heavily in the offensive line to get that done.
Over the last four seasons, Tennessee has used a first-round pick on the offensive line three times – taking right guard Chance Warmack in 2013, left tackle Taylor Lewan in 2014 and right tackle Jack Conklin this season. With former Texan Ben Jones installed at center, the Titans are building an offensive line that could be its foundation for years to come.
Change has also come at wide receiver, where the Titans have made a big push to get Mariota more weapons. The team made a free-agent splash signing Miami wide receiver Rishard Matthews, who is stepping into a starting spot, as well as signing veterans Andre Johnson and Harry Douglas, a couple of guys nearing the end of their careers but who still have some gas in the tank to do some damage. The talk of the preseason was fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharpe, who went from being receiver depth to being a starter after putting on a show every day during training camp. Former first-rounder Kendall Wright is still in the mix, as is Marc Mariani, but Mariani’s contribution is more in terms of special teams.
The guys to keep an eye on, however, may well be the tight ends. Delanie Walker caught 94 passes last year and quickly became Mariota’s go-to guy. Former Chief Anthony Fasano is primarily a blocker and the Titans hope to reclaim the career of former Jet Jace Amaro, who did nothing in his time with New York and was released this preseason. All three of them could be part of Terry Robiskie’s offensive game plan, especially in the red zone.
The biggest hindrance preventing Tennessee from potentially making a big jump is a defense devoid of elite talent. They have good players, just not the kind of guys who make the big plays consistently to get the defense off the field.
They are strong up front with Pro Bowler DaQuan Jones and Jurrell Casey bracketing nose tackle Al Woods in Tennessee’s 3-4 defense. There is also decent depth with fifth-year vet Karl Klug on the outside and second-round rookie Austin Johnson backing up Woods at the nose. Between them, they can control the line of scrimmage, but weren’t overly impressive in sack numbers, which is needed with a suspect back-eight of the defense.
When healthy, outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan were an impressive pairing, but neither of them has been able to consistently stay healthy, to the point that the Titans felt obligated to select Kevin Dodd in the second round of this year’s draft. On the inside, former Bronco Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williams are solid, but not elite. They make the plays they’re supposed to, but don’t blow plays up or create turnovers, which linebackers in a 3-4 are required to do.
The secondary is a hodgepodge of players brought in from other teams. The best news they have is that veteran Jason McCourty is back after missing 12 games at cornerback, but injuries have been catching up with him in recent years. Former 49er Perrish Cox is at the other corner spot and he is suspect in coverage and gets beat over the top too often. Another pair of imports are the starting safeties – Rashad Johnson, who signed a big offseason deal to leave Arizona, and Da’Norris Searcy. However, you can see defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s fingerprints on the secondary as he brought in a pair of his former players from Pittsburgh – cornerback Antwon Blake and cornerback Brice McCain – to provide depth.
The Titans are a team looking to climb out of Ground Zero that was their 2015 season. They hit bottom at 3-13 and are looking to build through the draft, thanks to trading out of the No. 1 spot to Los Angeles to stockpile draft picks, and through outside free agents. It may take a little time for all of the new component pieces to work together, but the Vikings can’t go into Tennessee merely expecting a creampuff victory in the season opener. They did that last year at San Francisco and got burned.