Tennessee Titans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans were arguably the most improved team in the league last season, going 9-7 after winning a combined 5 games in the previous 2 seasons. Going into week 16, it looked like the Titans had a good chance to make the playoffs, but then they had a week from hell. Not only did they suffer their biggest loss of the season, losing 38-17 against a 2-12 Jacksonville team (previously their biggest loss this season was by 9), but they also saw starting quarterback Marcus Mariota break his leg. That loss coupled with Houston’s week 16 victory eliminated the Titans from the playoffs and made Tennessee’s week 17 matchup with the Texans meaningless.

It’s really a shame because a healthy Titans team could have been some noise in the post-season. They finished 6th in first down rate margin, second among non-playoff teams behind the Cardinals, and had 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, also the 6th best margin in the NFL. They were equally good on both sides of the ball, finishing 14th in first down rate and 12th in first down rate allowed, joining the Patriots, Cardinals, and Steelers as the only teams in the league with that kind of balance. They could have put up much more of a fight in New England than the Texans, who won the division on a tiebreaker despite finishing 26th in first down rate differential and then lost 34-16 in New England.

There are a number of reasons why the Titans have been able to turn things around so quickly, but the Titans started their rebuild by selecting quarterback Marcus Mariota 2nd overall in 2015. He has solidified the quarterback position and been a massive upgrade over the likes of Jake Locker and Zach Mettenberger, which has helped this team immensely. In 2 seasons in the league, Mariota has completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 45 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, while adding 601 yards and 4 touchdowns on 94 carries (6.39 YPC) on the ground.

He hasn’t finished in the top-20 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus yet, but he is developing nicely and could break into the middle tier of quarterbacks in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. The one concern with him is injuries, especially given that he is a mobile quarterback who takes some hits in the open field. In addition to the broken leg he suffered at the end of last season, he also missed essentially 5 games with injury as a rookie. The good news is Mariota is ahead of schedule in his recovery and will participate in OTAs with his teammates. That improves his chances of a 2017 breakout year.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The five games Mariota missed with injury as a rookie might have actually been a blessing in disguise. The Titans lost all 5 of those games, which, combined with 4 close losses (within a touchdown) when Mariota was in the lineup, dropped them to 3-13, despite not being nearly as bad as they were the year before when they went 2-14. Unlike most 3-13 teams, the Titans didn’t have the need for a quarterback #1 overall, so they sent the pick to the Rams for a king’s ransom, getting #15, #43, #45, #76, and the Rams’ first and third rounders in 2017 for #1, #113, and #177.

The Titans then packaged #15 and #76 with a 2017 2nd round pick to move back up to #8 with the Browns to grab Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who plugged in immediately at right tackle. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got most of the attention of the offensive rookies, but Jack Conklin was just as impressive, finishing 6th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. As important as Mariota was to this team last season, he got a lot of help from a strong offensive line and running game and Conklin was a big part of both of those.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan was also a big part of both of those, finishing 7th among offensive tackles right behind Conklin. Lewan and Conklin are arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL and they are only going into their age 26 and 23 seasons respectively. Like Conklin, Lewan was a first round pick, going 11th overall in 2014. Lewan was eased in as a rookie, but flashed in 6 starts and then finished 11th among offensive tackles in 15 starts in a breakout 2015 season. He then continued that high level of play into 2016. The Titans made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year option for 2018 this off-season and will work to reach a long-term extension with him over the next calendar year. He deserves to be one of the highest paid offensive linemen in the league.

The Titans are also solid on the interior of the offensive line. Left guard Quinton Spain, center Ben Jones, and right guard Josh Kline were all basically new starters in 2016 (Spain started the final 6 games of 2015) and all 3 graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Jones is the most experienced on the bunch with 59 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, including all 48 over the past 3 seasons. A 2012 4th round pick, Jones started his career at guard, but graded out below average in all 3 seasons at that position. He converted to center before the 2015 season and it has been a great move for his career, as he’s finished 18th and 9th respectively among centers in the past 2 seasons, both above average. He should continue to give them solid play on the pivot. A former Houston Texan, Jones was a wise signing on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal last off-season.

Kline also has some experience, starting 32 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 27 over the past 2 seasons. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots in 2013, Kline flashed as a reserve in the first 2 seasons of his career and then graded out above average in 13 starts in 2015. Kline was signed to a 2-year, 3.3 million dollar extension by the Patriots following that season, but he was inexplicably made a final cut by New England after losing his starting job to rookie Joe Thuney. The Titans claimed Kline off waivers and he improved on his 2015 season, finishing 26th among guards in 14 starts. New England’s loss has been the Titans’ gain. They could look to lock him up on another extension this off-season. He’s owed 1.575 million in the final year of that 2-year extension in 2017, with incentives worth up to 2.375 million based on playing time.

On the other side, Spain is one of two holdovers from Tennessee’s 2015 offensive line, along with Lewan. Spain started the final 6 games of the season at left guard after the Titans had tried a number of different options. Spain was unimpressive, but won the job again in training camp last off-season and then broke out with an 18th ranked season among guards on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts in 2016. He’s still a one-year wonder, but the 2015 undrafted free agent looks like one of many smart additions the Titans have made in the past 3 off-seasons. The Titans quietly have one of the best offensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As mentioned, in addition to a strong offensive line, the Titans also have a strong running game. They finished last season 4th in carries (476), 3rd in rushing yards (2,187), and 4th in YPC (4.59). The offensive line was a big part of that, as was quarterback Marcus Mariota’s scrambling, but the Titans also have talented running backs. Their lead back was DeMarco Murray, who is another one of their recent smart additions. Murray led the league with 1,845 rushing yards on 393 carries (4.70 YPC) with the Cowboys in 2014 and finished 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, but was a major disappointment in 2015 in the first year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles. A poor fit for Chip Kelly’s offense, Murray rushed for just 702 yards and 6 touchdowns on 193 carries (3.64 YPC) and fell to 66th out of 67 eligible running backs.

The Titans took a shot on him, swapping 4th round picks with the Eagles and bringing in Murray on a renegotiated deal with less base salary, but more guaranteed money and incentives that would allow him to earn his base salary back. The move paid off in a big way as Murray showed his old form, rushing for 1287 yards and 9 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.39 YPC), adding 53 catches for 377 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, and finishing 9th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Murray had a reputation for being injury prone early in his career, but has played in all but 1 game in the past 3 seasons, despite totalling 1,032 touches over that time period. Even with his disappointing 2015 season thrown in, Murray still has an impressive 4.59 career average and 207 catches over the past 4 seasons. His age is starting to become an issue as he goes into his age 29 season, so the Titans will probably seek to lessen his workload to keep him fresh and on the field, but he has a good chance to still be a major asset for this offense. He’ll make 6.25 million in 2017 with another 700k available in incentives.

If the Titans need to give Murray more breathers in 2017, they’ll be in good hands with backup Derrick Henry, a 2016 2nd round pick who rushed for 490 yards and 5 touchdowns on 110 (4.45 YPC) carries behind Murray as a rookie. Henry doesn’t add much through the air and isn’t as good as Murray, finishing 32nd out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The Titans figure to run the ball a lot again in 2016, especially if they are playing with more leads, so Henry is a good bet for at least 150 carries behind Murray if he stays healthy. Murray and Henry could be a two-headed monster at running back.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

With so many good players signed to value deals or still on rookie deals, the Titans entered the off-season with among the most cap space in the league, despite coming off of a good season. They needed to save some of that cap space so they can re-sign young players long-term without making their cap distribution too top heavy, but it was a bit surprising that the Titans didn’t add a single wide receiver in free agency. Rishard Matthews is a solid starter, but 5th round rookie Tajae Sharpe predictably struggled as the other starting receiver last season, catching just 41 passes for 522 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 95th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Wide receiver was a huge need for them and it was a good free agent class for wide receivers with guys like Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Terrelle Pryor all available at reasonable prices.

The Titans did address the position in the draft. Thanks to their trade with the Rams, the Titans had the 5th pick in the draft this year, in addition to their own 19th pick. They used that 5th pick to select a wide receiver, making a shocking pick by selecting Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. It was a weak wide receiver class to begin with overall and most didn’t expect a wide receiver to go in the top-5. Davis was expected by many to be the 3rd receiver off the board behind Clemson’s Mike Williams and Washington’s John Ross and possibly not a lock for the first round at all, considering he was coming from a small school and hadn’t been able to work out for teams because of an ankle injury.

Even though the pick was surprising, it was not a bad one, especially considering the Titans’ need at the position. Davis could struggle to transition to the NFL initially, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked draft prospect and has all the tools of a future #1 receiver. Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Sammy Watkins have had big rookie years in recent years, but first round receivers often struggle as rookies, as guys like Devante Parker, Phillip Dorsett, Nelson Agholor, Will Fuller, and Laquon Treadwell have in the past 2 seasons.

Davis could be a secondary target to the veteran Matthews as a rookie. Matthews led the team last season with 108 targets and could hit that number again in 2017 because he is so reliable. Matthews isn’t the biggest name, but the 2012 7th round pick has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Dolphins and Titans. In 2015 and 2016, he finished 35th and 24th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and his per game averages over 27 games translate to a 64/952/8 slash line over a 16-game season. Signed to just a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, Matthews was a great signing by the Titans last off-season.

Tight end Delanie Walker was second on the team with 102 targets last season and he too was a reliable target for Mariota, catching 65 passes for 800 yards and 7 touchdowns and finishing 9th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. A late bloomer, Walker has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons and graded out above average in all 3 seasons, including back-to-back top-9 finishes. His age is a concern, as he’s going into his age 33 season, but he could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Titans drafted Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith in the 3rd round as insurance and a potential long-term replacement. Smith is raw though and may spend his rookie year as the 3rd tight end behind mediocre veteran journeyman Phillip Supernaw.

Tajae Sharpe will likely be the 3rd receiver, which is a better role for him after he looked overwhelmed as a starter in 2016. The 2016 5th round pick flashed in the pre-season and could still develop into a useful receiver down the line, but he has yet to show it in a regular season game. He’ll be pushed for playing time by 3rd round rookie Taywan Taylor. Matthews, Davis, and Walker figure to see the majority of the balls in 2017 and the Titans figure to run the ball frequently as well, as Sharpe likely won’t see the ball that often even if he does win the #3 receiver job. Matthews and Walker are reliable options, but if Corey Davis can provide them a legitimate deep threat as a rookie, that could take this offense to another level.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Titans also got solid play from their defense last season, especially in the front 7. Their best defensive player is Jurrell Casey, who plays defensive end in their base 3-4 defense and then rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages. A starter since he was a 4th round rookie in 2011, Casey has made 92 starts in 94 of a possible 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the past 5 seasons, including a 2016 season in which he finished 2nd at his position. Still only going into his age 28 season, Casey is in the prime of his career and should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

DaQuan Jones remains as the starter opposite him. After barely playing as a 4th round rookie in 2014, Jones has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-19 among 3-4 defensive ends in both seasons. At 6-4 322, Jones is a much better run stuffer than pass rusher and frequently comes off the field for interior pass rush specialist Karl Klug, who has graded out above average in a situational role in 5 straight seasons. Unfortunately, Klug tore his achilles late last season, which leaves his status for 2017 in doubt. Even if he returns early in the season, he could easily be less than 100%.

Free agent acquisition Sylvester Williams is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-3 313 and will slot in at nose tackle in Tennessee’s 3-4, the same role he filled for the Broncos over the past three seasons. Even though he played on some great Denver defenses, Williams himself is far from a great player. He’s made 44 starts over the past 3 seasons, but has graded out below average in all 4 seasons of his career, including 98th out of 127 eligible interior defenders in 2016. Williams was a first round pick in 2013, but is already going into his age 29 season, so he’s unlikely to get much better. There’s a reason the Broncos declined his 5th year option. He figures to struggle in a situational role and will likely prove to be an overpay on a 3-year, 17.5 million dollar contract.

With Klug’s status in doubt for the start of the season, the Titans’ depth is questionable. They used a 2nd round pick on Austin Johnson in 2016, but he struggled on 190 snaps as a rookie and is also a better run stuffer at 6-4 314. Angelo Blackson could also be in the mix for snaps, but the 2015 4th round pick has struggled in limited action thus far in his career and also isn’t much of a pass rusher at 6-4 318. The Titans have one of the best defensive linemen in football and some adequate run stuffers, but need Karl Klug to be healthy to fill a valuable situational role. If he is, this is one of the better 3-4 defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Veteran edge defenders Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are also big parts of this defense. They finished 19th and 16th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, which is pretty par for the course for both of them. Morgan had an injury plagued season in 2015, missing 6 games and finishing just above average, but he was a top-11 player at his position in the previous 3 seasons and played 15 games in a bounce back season last season. Despite going into his 8th season in the league, the 2009 1st round pick is still only going into his age 28 season and should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons. Outside of the 6 games he missed in 2015, he’s missed just 3 games since his rookie year.

Orakpo has a more extensive injury history, but he has played all 32 games in the past 2 seasons and has been worth every penny of the 4-year, 32 million dollar deal the Titans signed him to after the 2014 season. Orakpo was a high level player in Washington prior to signing with the Titans, but was available for relatively cheap because he had been limited to 24 games with injury in the previous 3 seasons combined. He’s been a top-16 player at his position in each of his past 4 healthy seasons (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016).

The one concern is he’s going into his age 31 season, so his best days might be behind him, but, if he can continue to stay healthy, he could easily still be a productive player over the final 2 seasons of his contract. The Titans drafted Kevin Dodd in the 2nd round last year for depth purposes, but he struggled on 179 snaps as a rookie. He will likely have a larger role as a reserve this season and could still be seen as a future starter by the organization because he was a high selection with high upside.

Avery Williamson remains as an every down middle linebacker, after making 43 starts in the first 3 seasons of his career. The 2014 5th round pick hasn’t matched his rookie season, when he finished 17th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he has graded out about average in each of the past 2 seasons and has vastly exceeded his draft slot. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Williamson is going to get a significant contract from someone in the next year if he keeps it up.

Wesley Woodyard was the other base package middle linebacker last season and he actually graded out higher than Williamson among middle linebackers, but he only played 615 snaps in a rotational role, coming off the field for coverage linebacker Sean Spence in sub packages. Woodyard has excelled in that role in each of the past 2 seasons, but is going into his age 31 season and could struggle if forced into a larger role with Spence signing in Indianapolis this off-season.

Prior to the last 2 seasons, Woodyard played in more or less an every down role with the Broncos from 2011-2014, but graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons and now is on the wrong side of 30. The Titans drafted Jayon Brown in the 5th round and he could play as a coverage specialist linebacker as a rookie, but the Titans also have good depth at safety and could drop either Da’Norris Searcy (5-11 2017) or John Cyprien (6-0 217) down to linebacker in sub packages. Despite questions at middle linebacker, this is still a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B+

Secondary

With Searcy and Cyprien both being better fits as box safeties, 2nd year player Kevin Byard is expected to be the primary deep safety. The 2016 3rd round pick actually led all Titan safeties in snaps played last season with 657 and graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. He has the upside to develop into a solid every down safety long-term. Cyprien, meanwhile, is probably their best safety. He signed a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal with the Titans this off-season, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career with the Jaguars, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013.

If Cyprien plays like he did last season, when he finished 7th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, he will be worth every penny of that deal. However, the 2013 2nd round pick graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and was one of the worst safeties in the league in both 2013 and 2015, so he’s the definition of a one-year wonder. The big difference between 2015 and 2016 for him was that he lined up close to the line of scrimmage much more often in 2016 as a pure box safety. Cyprien is not good in deep coverage, but can fly around and make plays near the line of scrimmage, which is why trying him at linebacker is an option.

Searcy has experience as a linebacker from his days as a hybrid player with the Bills and could move back into a hybrid role behind Byard and Cyprien in 2017, after a disappointing 2016 season. Searcy was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2014 and their 12th ranked safety in 2015, but fell to 63rd out of 90 eligible last season and only played 552 snaps in 14 games in largely a rotational role. Still only going into his age 29 season, Searcy has bounce back potential and could be valuable for them in the right role. Signed to a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal by the Titans two off-seasons ago, he agreed to cut his base salary from 5.625 million to 3.4 million this off-season in order to ensure his roster spot. They should have better safety play this year than last year, when Daimion Stafford and Rashad Johnson struggled mightily in rotational roles.

The Titans should also be much improved at cornerback, which, along with wide receiver and safety, were their big weaknesses last season. While the Titans did not make a splash free agent signing at wide receiver, they did at cornerback, signing ex-Patriot Logan Ryan to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Ryan has been the #2 guy opposite Malcolm Butler the last 2 seasons, but will be counted on as the #1 guy in Tennessee. Ryan has been solid throughout his career and finished 22nd and 16th among cornerbacks over the past 2 seasons. The 2013 3rd round pick has made 40 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has never missed a game with injury. It’s unclear if he can be the same player as the top cornerback and outside of New England’s system, but he was still one of the best available free agent cornerbacks and was signed to a reasonable deal. He’ll be a massive upgrade on Perrish Cox, who was Pro Football Focus’ second worst ranked cornerback last season.

The Titans also used their other first round pick on a cornerback, taking USC’s Adoree Jackson at 18. Jackson is an incredible athlete and a weapon with the ball in his hands who can also return kicks, punts, and play some wide receiver, but he’s unrefined as a cornerback and could struggle a little bit as a rookie. He’ll replace Jason McCourty, who was a league average cornerback in 14 starts last season, but ended up getting cut this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2017. McCourty has been their best cornerback for years, so I think he will be missed, but the Titans seem confident in both Jackson and slot cornerback Brice McCain.

McCain had a surprisingly solid season in 2016, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on 844 snaps. At 5-9 190, McCain is best as a pure slot cornerback. That’s all the Titans really need him to be, but he’s also only graded out above average twice in 8 seasons in the league. The 2009 6th round pick is going into his age 31 season too, so he’s even older than McCourty. He’s highly unlikely to match last season’s performance. Given that and how raw Jackson is as a prospect, the Titans should have kept McCourty around as insurance and they had the cap space to do it, but this should still be a much improved secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The AFC was lucky the Titans didn’t make the playoffs last season as they could have been a threat with a healthy Marcus Mariota. Their 9-7 record is not indicative of how good they were. They had a -7 margin in return touchdowns, but that’s more of a fluke than anything. They scored 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents and finished 6th in the NFL in first down rate differential. This off-season, they addressed their only few positions of need, wide receiver, cornerback, and safety, and come into the 2017 season without an obvious weakness on either side of the ball. If Marcus Mariota can take the next step as a quarterback in his 3rd season in the league, with an improved receiving corps, this team could be a Super Bowl contender. They have done an incredible job of rebuilding in a hurry over the past 3 off-seasons. GM Jon Robinson, who took over in January of 2016, deserves a lot of the credit. 

Final update: The Titans further improved their receiving corps by adding Eric Decker, after he was released by the Jets. He suddenly gives them a dangerous top-3 at wide receiver, with Taywan Taylor providing depth. The Titans enter the season healthy and with arguably the most complete roster in the league. They can be a legitimate Super Bowl contender if Marcus Mariota can take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league.

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC South

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