Tennessee Titans 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans have been the worst team in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, in terms of record, going just 5-27 in 2014 and 2015 combined. However, things are definitely looking up for them and they could become a factor in the playoff race once again this season. They won just 3 games last season, but 6 of their losses came by a touchdown or less and 4 of them came by a field goal or less, so they were coming close. They finished 28th in rate of moving the chains differential, which isn’t great, but it’s a little bit better than their record suggests.

Because of their record, they ended up with the #1 overall pick in the draft and were able to get a king’s ransom for it when the Rams decided they needed to have quarterback Jared Goff. Along with the #1 pick, they sent a 4th and 6th rounder to Los Angeles and got picks 15, 43, 45, and 76, along with a 1st and 3rd rounder in 2017. That will allow them to add a lot of young, cheap talent through the draft in 2016 and 2017. This comes after getting the #2 overall pick in 2015 and adding quarterback Marcus Mariota out of Oregon.

Mariota was promising as a rookie, despite the team’s record. Not only could the Titans have won a couple more games had a few plays gone the other way, they also could have won a couple more games had Mariota stayed healthy, as he missed essentially 5 games with injury. In those 5 games, they moved the chains at a mere 58.09% rate (losing all 5), as opposed to 72.78% in their other 11 games, actually above average. Mariota faced an easier slate of games than his backup, but still completed 62.2% of his passes for an average of 7.62 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 252 yards and 2 additional touchdowns on 34 carries (7.41 YPC). He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league and, if he can stay healthy, the Titans could have a pretty solid offense in 2016.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Obviously, it greatly increases Mariota’s chances of staying healthy if the Titans don’t lead the NFL in sacks allowed again, as they did in 2015, when they allowed 54. Some of that was the fault of the quarterbacks holding the ball too long, but the Titans also had major issues in pass protection. The Titans addressed the offensive line in the first round, moving back up to the 8th overall pick (sending the 16th pick, a 3rd round pick, and a 2017 2nd round pick to Cleveland to do so) and taking Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who will be immediately plugged in at right tackle.

Even though the Titans allowed a lot of sacks as a whole, they didn’t actually get bad play at left tackle, where 2014 1st round pick Taylor Lewan flourished in his 2nd year in the league. After flashing in 6 starts as a rookie, Lewan started in all 15 games he played in 2015 and finished 12th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Going into his 3rd year in the league in 2016, Lewan’s best football could still be yet to come. He and Conklin are a pair of recent first round picks with very bright futures.

Along with right tackle, center and left guard were positions of weakness upfront for the Titans in 2015. The Titans addressed the center position in free agency by signing ex-Texans center Ben Jones. Jones has graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons he’s been in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, but is coming off of a career best 2015 season in which he finished 18th at his position. He also has the versatility to play guard, as he made his first 27 career starts at guard, before kicking inside to center in 2015. A collegiate center at the University of Georgia, the Titans plan to keep him there. He’s a capable starter and a noticeable upgrade.

The Titans did not add any left guards in free agency this off-season though, nor did they draft one until the 6th round, when they took Arkansas’s Sebastian Tretola. The Titans’ depth at the guard position got worse when veteran Byron Bell suffered a season ending ankle injury after the draft. Bell has never been a good offensive lineman, but he was capable last season at both right tackle and left guard. He likely would have been the favorite at left guard had he been healthy, so it was a little bit more than a minor loss. In his absence, 2nd year player Quinton Spain will start. Spain started the final 6 games of last season, but that doesn’t mean much, as he was merely the last option on a rotating door of mediocrity. The 2015 undrafted free agent didn’t show much on 383 snaps last season. Despite being a late round pick, Tretola could push him for snaps down the stretch.

Rounding out the offensive line is right guard Chance Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Warmack hasn’t lived up to his potential yet, finishing a career high 40th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 2015. He could be better in 2016, still only going into his age 25 season and possessing plenty of upside, but he’s been underwhelming throughout his career thus far. He’s part of an offensive line that’s still very much a work in progress, but they’re young and improving. They also added two new starters this off-season.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Titans also added at the running back position this off-season, much needed after last season. At first glance, they weren’t bad on the ground last season, averaging 4.00 yards per carry, 17th in the NFL, but much of that was because of quarterback Marcus Mariota, who averaged 7.41 yards per carry. Outside of him, the Titans averaged just 3.66 yards per carry and  that’s despite the fact that passing down back Dexter McCluster averaged 4.49 yards per carry. If you exclude McCluster, who is no longer even with the team, they averaged just 3.50 yards per carry.

Early down types like Antonio Andrews, David Cobb, and Bishop Sankey averaged 3.64, 2.81, and 4.11 yards per carry respectively on 143, 52, and 47 carries respectively, meaning they really needed to add better runners this off-season. The Titans attempted to do so by trading for veteran running back DeMarco Murray and using a 2nd round pick on Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Murray led the league in rushing in 2014, but that was largely because of the Cowboys’ dominant offensive line and his high usage. He finished 5th among running backs in 2014, which is still good, but he fell to 67th out of 69 eligible in 2015 in his first and only year in Philadelphia, after signing a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season.

While many expected a drop off for Murray, just how much he dropped off is shocking. Even though 2014 was easily the best season of his career, he wasn’t bad in the 3 years prior to 2014, after going in the 3rd round in 2011. From 2011-2013, he rushed for 2681 yards and 15 touchdowns on 542 carries (4.95 YPC) and added 114 catches for another 784 yards and 1 touchdown through the air. He’s unlikely to be that good this season because he doesn’t have Dallas’ offensive line blocking for him anymore, but he’s an obvious bounce back candidate in his new home in Tennessee.

Credit the Eagles for getting anything for him and not having to pay him 7 million guaranteed in 2016, but also credit the Titans for getting him for next to nothing and convincing him to sign a much discounted deal that will only pay him 25.5 million over the next 4 years, rather than 32.9 million, as he was originally scheduled to make (the remaining 7.4 million can be earned back through incentives). The upside for Murray is he’ll be guaranteed 12 million over the next 2 seasons, so it’s an increase in guaranteed money for him.

Even after adding Murray, the Titans still used a 2nd round pick on Derrick Henry, as I mentioned before, a luxury they could afford after trading away the #1 pick for a king’s ransom. Considering how bad Murray looked last season and the fact that he’s missed 12 games in 5 years in the league with injury, it’s not a bad idea to have an insurance policy like Henry. How much work Henry sees will be dependant on how Murray runs the ball this season and whether or not he’s healthy, but those two should split the early down work. If Murray struggles, it’s definitely not out of the question that Henry surpasses him as the lead back by season’s end. It’s a much improved group of backs.

Grade: B-

Wide Receiver

The Titans also added at wide receiver this off-season, signing ex-Dolphin Rishard Matthews to a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. Matthews, a 7th round pick in 2012, made just 6 career starts in his first 3 years in the league, but won the starting job in 2015 with the Dolphins, ahead of higher profile players like Devante Parker, Kenny Stills, and Greg Jennings. Matthews started all 11 games he played in 2015 (he missed the final 5 games of the season with broken ribs) and caught 43 passes for 662 yards and 4 touchdowns. That extrapolates to 63 catches for 962 yards and 6 touchdowns over 16 games, on a Miami offense that was otherwise pretty bad. As a result, he finished 35th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s still a one year wonder, but the Titans didn’t pay him much, so he has a real chance to be a value signing. He’s the only Titan wide receiver who is locked into a role and could lead the position in targets.

Kendall Wright has plenty of starting experience, making 37 starts in 55 career games in 4 years in the league, since going in the first round in 2012, but he’s not locked into a starting job. Wright seemingly had a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2013, catching 94 passes for 1079 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 18th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he’s caught just 93 passes for 1123 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2 seasons since. He’s graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, with the exception coming in 2013. He also missed 6 games with injury last season. If he can stay healthy, he has some bounce back potential, but that’s far from a guarantee. He’s likely guaranteed to at least be the slot receiver, but he has a shot to keep a starting job.

Second year player Dorial Green-Beckham looked like a starter going into the off-season, after flashing on 580 snaps as a rookie, but struggled this off-season, which got him benched and ultimately shipped to the Eagles for a reserve offensive lineman, a very strange move from Tennessee’s perspective. Tajae Sharpe, who had a strong off-season, is expected to be one of the Titans’ top-3 wide receivers with Green-Beckham gone, playing outside opposite Matthews in 3-wide receiver sets. Despite looking good thus far, he’s a mere 5th round rookie, so it’s hard to have high expectations for him.

Tight end Delanie Walker was easily the Titans’ best pass catcher in 2015, catching 94 passes (most among tight ends) for 1088 yards (3rd most among tight ends) and 6 touchdowns. It helped that he received 10 more targets than any other tight end in the league, something that’s unlikely to continue with improved wide receivers around him in 2016, but the all-around talented 6-2 248 pound tight end finished 2nd among tight ends overall on Pro Football Focus in 2015, after coming in 7th in 2014.

He’s been a late bloomer for the Titans, after spending most of his career as a #2 tight end in San Francisco. The past 2 seasons are the first two seasons in his career in which he’s graded out above average as a pass catcher since 2008, when he played just 143 snaps. He’s caught 157 passes for 1978 yards and 10 touchdowns over that two year span. He’ll see fewer targets and his age is becoming a concern going into his age 32 season, but with Mariota healthy, he could post solid numbers again on an offense that’s overall looking up. He should also get more red zone opportunities. Veteran #2 tight end Anthony Fasano remains as the #2 tight end. He’s a solid blocker, but little else, as he heads into his age 32 season. Fortunately, he won’t have to see a ton of action. Like the rest of this offense, the Titans’ receiving corps is looking up.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Titans also added to their defensive line this off-season, drafting Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson in the 2nd round. The big 6-4 314 pounder could start at nose tackle immediately. He just needs to beat out incumbent Al Woods, a smaller player at 6-4 307 who struggled on 356 snaps last season and who has graded out below average in all 6 seasons he’s been in the league, since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2010. The Titans gave him a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar contract this off-season to keep him in Tennessee, ahead of his age 29 season, but Johnson is the future and likely the present at the position, while Woods will probably slot in as a reserve at all 3 spots on Tennessee’s 3-man defensive line.

Whichever player wins the job will play in base packages in between incumbent starting defensive ends DaQuan Jones and Jurrell Casey. Jones, a 4th round pick in 2014, had a breakout 2015 season in his first year as a starter. Jones played just 143 nondescript snaps as a rookie, but played 679 snaps in 16 starts in 2015 and finished 30th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, well above average. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and his best football is likely still to come.

Casey is far more proven and much better, as he’s been quietly dominant on some bad Titan teams in recent years. Casey has played both 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end over the past 4 years and has finished in the top-8 at his position in all 4 years. Only going into his age 27 season and his 6th year in the league, Casey is in the prime of his career. The Titans made a wise decision locking him up for 36 million over 4 years two off-seasons ago, considering a comparable player like Malik Jackson got 90 million over 6 years from division rival Jacksonville this off-season.

Casey and Jones make a strong bookend in base packages, while top reserve Karl Klug is a solid player as well, grading out above average as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. The 6-3 278 pounder played 331 snaps as primarily a sub package rusher in 2015 and should have a similar role this season (his career high is 435 snaps in a season). He complements Jones well as the 6-4 322 pound Jones is best against the run and plays primarily in base packages; 376 of his 679 snaps in 2015 were on run plays. The Titans were smart to keep Klug on a 2-year, 3.8 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent. It’s an underrated defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Titans also have a deep bunch at outside linebacker, especially after using a 2nd round pick on Clemson’s Kevin Dodd. They had major depth issues at the position last season, which became a big problem when starter Derrick Morgan missed the final 6 games of the season with injury. Morgan had a down year in general too, finishing just 49th out of 110 eligible edge defenders, above average, but not what we’re used to from him. He finished 5th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, 11th in 2013, and 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014. Still only going into his age 27 season, he has a good chance to bounce back if he can stay healthy this year.

Brian Orakpo remains as the starter opposite him. He was much better than Morgan last season, finishing 25th among edge defenders. Most importantly, he was healthier than Morgan, playing all 16 games. That’s huge for Orakpo, considering injuries had limited him to a combined 24 games in the previous 3 seasons. As a result of his injury history, the Titans were able to get him for 32 million over 4 years in free agency last off-season, well worth it if he stays healthy. He was even better in 2011 and 2013 than he was last season, finishing 7th and 4th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers in those two seasons. Prior to 2015, those were his last 2 healthy seasons. His injury history is still a concern, especially as he heads into his age 30 season, but he should still be a major asset for this team as long as he can stay on the field.

Inside, Avery Williamson remains one of the two starters. A steal of a 5th round pick, Williamson has made 27 starts in 2 years in the league. He was much better as a rookie than in his 2nd year in the league, ranking 17th among middle linebackers as a rookie in 2014, but falling all the way to 59th among 97 eligible linebackers in 2015. Even in a disappointing 2015 season, he still wasn’t terrible and a bounce back year is certainly a possibility. He’s locked in as a starter regardless.

At the other middle linebacker spot, veteran holdover Wesley Woodyard will compete with veteran free agent acquisition Sean Spence. Woodyard, an experienced veteran with 68 career starts, split snaps with free agent departure Zach Brown in 2015, but was fantastic in limited action, finishing 9th among linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 499 snaps. Purely playing in a base package role, Woodyard excelled against the run and wasn’t terrible in coverage either. Woodyard should at least keep the base package job and could be an every down player in 2016, as he’s been before in his career.

The soon-to-be-30-year-old Woodyard has graded out below average in 3 of the last 5 seasons though, since he became a starter, so expectations shouldn’t be too high for him. Spence isn’t very good either, but the Titans paid him 2.5 million on a 1-year deal, which isn’t chump change. He previously played under ex-Steelers/now-Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. Spence played 510 snaps for LeBeau’s Steeler defense in 2014, but graded out 41st out of 60 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He only saw 270 snaps in 2015 and didn’t play well on those snaps either. He shouldn’t be anything more than a backup. Woodyard is a superior player. He’s also arguably the worst starter in a linebacking corps that looks strong going into 2016, especially with Morgan healthy and Dodd coming in.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The problem area on defense in 2015 for the Titans was the secondary, as the Titans finished 24th in rate of moving the chains allowed despite pretty decent front 7 play. Injuries to starting cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox left the Titans incredibly thin at cornerback for most of the season. McCourty missed 12 games, while Cox missed 3 games. They played in the same game just twice all season and, even when McCourty played, he was not healthy, as groin problems hampered him all season.

Prior to 2014, McCourty was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. From 2010-2013, he finished 20th, 8th, 6th, and 11th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A lot of that had to do with his strong play against the run, but he still graded out 15th, 32nd, 23rd, and 17th respectively in those 4 seasons in coverage grade (all above average) and the fact that he was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL against the run in those 4 seasons was just a cherry on top. However, in 2014, he graded out below average for the first time since his rookie year in 2009 and then he had last season’s miserable year. There’s still bounce back potential with him if he can stay healthy in 2015, but, going into his age 29 season, two years removed from his last good season, it’s also very possible his best days are now behind him.

Cox was a lot better than McCourty in 2015 when he was healthy, grading out just slightly below average. He’s been a solid cornerback whenever he’s been on the field throughout his career, including a rookie year in which he graded out above average in 2010 and a strong 2014 season in which he finished 35th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Off-the-field issues derailed his career early, as he played just 249 snaps from 2011-2013, but he’s stayed out of trouble for a few years and has made the most of his second chance on the field. He’s a capable starter at the very least.

With all their injuries, Coty Sensabaugh actually led the team in snaps played by a cornerback with 1005. He was signed by the Rams this off-season, but he really didn’t play well last season, so he won’t be a huge loss. However, the player the Titans signed to replace him, Brice McCain, is not really any better. McCain finished 70th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and has graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2009. Already going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be any better this season. It was weird that the Titans did not address the cornerback position prior to the 5th round, when they drafted Southern Utah’s Leshaun Sims. At one point, prior to the Rams trading up to 1, it looked like the Titans might take Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey #1 overall.

The Titans also had a whole at safety to address in the draft and they did so fairly early, taking Middle Tennessee State’s Kevin Byard in the 3rd round. Byard is unlikely to begin the season as the starter, but could see playing time down the stretch. Veteran Rashad Johnson is expected to start, after signing a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal this off-season. Johnson has made 51 career starts in 7 years in the league, but was primarily a reserve for most of his career, as 30 of those starts have come in the last 2 seasons. He’s struggled in both seasons, finishing 77th out of 87 eligible safeties in 2014 and 50th out of 89 eligible in 2015. He’d be best off back in a reserve role and he’s unlikely to improve going into his age 30 season.

At the other safety spot, Da’Norris Searcy was easily the Titans’ best defensive back last season, in the first year of a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal. It was a risky deal at the time because Searcy had never played more than 753 snaps in a season and had just 23 career starts. However, Searcy was Pro Football Focus 18th ranked safety on 666 snaps in 2014 and jumped to 12th in 2015 on a career high 886 snaps. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2011 4th round pick has put together back-to-back strong seasons and looks poised for a 3rd. He headlines a secondary that could be better in 2016 if it can stay healthier.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Titans have won just 5 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons, but they’re closer than you’d think. Injuries kept them down on both sides of the ball last season, including 5 games missed by quarterback Marcus Mariota, but they still came close in a lot of their losses (4 losses by a field goal or less, 6 losses by a touchdown or less). If Mariota can stay healthy and take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league, it’ll be a big boost for this team. They’ve also done a good job improving the talent around Mariota, adding a couple solid free agents and adding a great return for the #1 pick in the draft, which allowed them to add a lot of young talent this year and gives them a stockpile of picks for next year. A young team with 23 million in cap space unused going into the season, the Titans might be a year away from being a real threat, but figure to be in the mix to win the wide open AFC South for at least most of the season.

Prediction: 8-8 1st in AFC South

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