Tennessee Titans 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into 2017, the Titans looked like a potential breakout team. They finished the 2017 season 9-7, just missing the post-season, and finished 6th in the NFL in both first down rate differential at 1.59% and in offensive touchdown differential at +10, suggesting they were significantly better than their record suggested. They also had a lot of cap space to work with and had extra draft capital, including a pair of first round picks, thanks to their trade down with the Rams the previous year. The Titans did a good job using their cap space and draft capital to fill needs and they made the post-season and even won a playoff game, but they actually had a pretty disappointing season all things considered.

They fell all the way to 20th in first down rate differential at -0.88% and also had a negative point differential of -22. They only made the post-season because they went 6-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less and played in the easier of the two conferences with arguably the easiest schedule in the league. They also had the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Their playoff victory in Kansas City was pretty impressive, but they trailed by 21-3 at halftime before the Chiefs lost Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs were an overrated team all season.

The biggest reason for the Titans’ disappointing season was the disappointing season quarterback Marcus Mariota had. After completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in his 2nd season in the league in 2016, many expected the former #2 overall pick to take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league. Instead, he completed just 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.14 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Largely as a result of that, the Titans ranked just 20th in first down rate at 33.06%.

Probably the strangest thing about his disappointing season was much how he struggled with a clean pocket. Mariota had the 3rd best QB rating in the NFL under pressure, completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (82.7 QB rating), but completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions with a clean pocket, a clean pocket QB rating of 78.2 that ranked 36th among 40 eligible quarterbacks. His 13 clean pocket interceptions were tied with Deshone Kizer for the most in the NFL. He only had 2 interceptions dropped all season, fewest by anyone with at least 350 attempts, so that was partially bad luck, but it’s a concern that he threw so many interceptions without being pressured.

Mariota missed week 5 with a hamstring injury and many have blamed that injury lingering for his poor statistical performance. However, he didn’t get off to a great start before that, completing just 60.0% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his first 4 games of the season. His hamstring injury also didn’t really limit him on the ground. He took off just as many times as he did the previous season (60) and, though he had a career low in YPC, he still averaged just 5.20 YPC and rushed for a career high 5 touchdowns, so he didn’t look slowed by the injury.

Coaching and play calling were part of the issue as well. The Titans were coached for the past 3 seasons by Mike Mularkey, an old school offensive mind with a very vanilla playbook. Mularkey went 9-7 the past 2 seasons, but he largely underachieved with a talented roster and was just 18-39 in in 3 and a half seasons as a head coach prior to the past 2 seasons, so he was deservedly let go. He’ll be replaced by ex-Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, a former linebacker of the Steelers, Patriots, and Chiefs.

Vrabel is just 43 and only coordinated the Texans defense for one season, with veteran defensive mind Romeo Crennel helping him significantly, but he’s been on a head coaching fast track since retiring and the Titans are going in the opposite direction of their previous coach with a much younger coach. Vrabel also brings Matt LaFleur with him as offensive coordinator, which is most important for Mariota. LaFleur has never called plays in the NFL, but worked under Kyle Shanahan with the Falcons in 2016 and Sean McVay with the Rams in 2017, so he has experience on very successful offenses under bright offensive minds. He should give Mariota more of a chance to be successful.

Durability is a concern for him though, even if that wasn’t the main problem last season. Not only did he get hurt last season, but he’s never played more than 15 games or thrown more than 453 passes in 3 seasons in the league. Mariota takes more hits than an average quarterback because of how often he takes off and runs and, even if he wasn’t injury prone in college, injuries could be a problem for him in the NFL against bigger defenders. The Titans clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, worth 20.922 million guaranteed for injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, he still has a high upside and could develop into a franchise quarterback, but last year was definitely a disappointing year for him.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Part of the problem is that Marcus Mariota’s upgraded receiving corps were also a disappointment. The Titans used the 5th overall pick on wide receiver Corey Davis and signed veteran wide receiver Eric Decker to a 1-year deal worth 4 million in free agency, but Davis missed 5 games with injury and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 88th ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible on 517 snaps, with just a 34/375/0 slash line on 65 targets, while Decker lacked explosiveness and put up a mere 54/563/1 slash line in 16 games, despite playing 72.7% of the snaps.

Decker is no longer with the team and was not really replaced, so the Titans will go into 2018 with 2017 3rd round pick Taywan Taylor as their 3rd receiver. He played just 245 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, but could be better in his 2nd season in the league and is a natural fit on the slot. The Titans will also be hoping for more out of Davis, who was a surprise pick with the 5th overall selection. Only going into his age 23 season, he still has a high upside and could also be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league, but he was not regarded as a universal top-10 pick going into the draft and may end up proving to be a reach.

With a pair of second year players on the depth chart, veteran Rishard Matthews could once again led Titan wide receivers in yards, after doing so in 2016 with a 65/945/9 slash line and in 2017 with a 53/795/4 slash line. Matthews isn’t a big name, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 straight seasons and has averaged a 63/937/7 slash line per 16 games over the past 3 seasons, since first becoming a starter with the Dolphins. Matthews has exceeded the 3-year, 15 million dollar deal the Titans gave him in free agency two off-seasons ago and, still only in his age 29 season, could be in line for a higher paid extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his contract.

Matthews missed a couple games with injuries, so tight end Delanie Walker was actually the team leader in receiving yards, with a 74/807/3 slash line. Walker has earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 of his past 7 seasons, but he was a late bloomer, as he didn’t really become a starter until signing with the Titans after the 2012 season. Originally a 49er, Walker has 96 career starts in 175 career games in 12 seasons in the league, but 56 of them have come in the past 5 seasons with the Titans. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 34 season, but he’s been remarkably consistent over the past 4 seasons, topping 800 yards, playing at least 15 games, and finishing in the top-15 among tight ends on PFF in all 4 seasons. He may start to decline in 2018, but he could easily have another solid season or two left in the left.

Walker is also in the final year of his deal and could get a short-term extension this off-season, but the Titans also planned for his eventual departure by using a 3rd round pick on Jonnu Smith in last year’s draft, so they may be unwilling guarantee him much beyond 2018. Smith was a terrible run blocker as a rookie, finishing 63rd among 72 eligible tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade, but he was not bad as a receiver in a limited role and can improve as a blocker. The Titans may wait to see how he develops in his 2nd season in the league before deciding what to do with Walker long-term. The Titans didn’t add anything of note to this receiving corps this off-season, but they have some second year players who can be better in 2018 than they were as rookies.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Thought they didn’t add anything of note to their receiving corps, the Titans did make some big additions this off-season, as they once again entered the off-season with significant cap space. On offense, their biggest addition was running back Dion Lewis, formerly of the New England Patriots, who signed on a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll basically replace DeMarco Murray, who split carries in 2017 with Derrick Henry. Murray had slightly more carries (184 vs. 176) and played significantly more snaps (647 vs. 408) because of his passing down involvement, but Henry was by far the more explosive back, averaging 4.23 yards per carry vs. 3.58 yards per carry. Murray was a capable pass protector, but he was let go owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million this off-season and ultimately retired this off-season ahead of his age 30 season, after not finding an offer to his liking.

Lewis is a much better use of money. Prior to last season, he had never topped 100 carries in a season and he’s still never topped 200 carries in a season, but he has a career 4.81 YPC average and was one of the best running backs in the league last season on a per carry basis. He averaged 4.98 yards per carry (3rd in the NFL), picked up 3.17 yards per carry after contact (6th in the NFL), broke a tackle per 4.29 carries (best in the NFL), and had a carry success rate of 56% (4th in the NFL).

Despite starting last season as a backup, he was New England’s lead back by October, rushing for 797 yards and 5 touchdowns on 161 carries (4.95 YPC), while adding 25 catches for 172 yards and another 3 touchdowns through the air in his final 11 games of the season. Part of that was because he got to play on such a good offense with the Patriots, but also he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in overall grade. He’s undersized at 5-8 195 and has a pretty significant injury history with 58 games missed in 6 seasons prior to 2017, but he’s also still only going into his age 28 season and could easily continue being an explosive runner as part of a tandem with Henry if he can stay healthy.

Henry is a much more powerful back at 6-3 247. Henry averaged 4.45 yards per carry on 110 carries as a 2nd round rookie in 2016 and 4.23 yards per carry on 176 carries in his 2nd season in the league and looked poised for a huge role in his 3rd season in the league before the Lewis signing. Henry may still lead this team in carries and touchdowns, but Lewis will have a significant role as a speed back and will be the primary passing down back. Lewis isn’t as good of a pass protector as Murray was, but he’s earned a positive pass catching grade in 3 straight seasons from PFF, while Henry has just 24 catches in 2 seasons in the league. Both are talented backs and they complement each other well.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The one downside of the Titans winning a playoff game is talented young right tackle Jack Conklin tearing his ACL in their 2nd round loss in New England. The Titans were fortunate to avoid injuries for most of the season, but the timing of Conklin’s injury makes him a question mark for week 1 in 2018, as he’ll be less than 8 months removed from the injury. Even if he does return, he’s no guarantee to be 100%, which is a shame because his career has been off to a great start since the Titans took him 8th overall in 2016. He’s made all 32 regular season starts in 2 seasons in the league and finished 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and then 14th in his second season in the league last season. His backup is veteran journeyman Dennis Kelly, who has never earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 seasons in the league, so they’d really miss Conklin if he missed time.

When Conklin is healthy, the Titans have arguably the best young bookend tackles in the NFL, with Taylor Lewan on the left side, although Lewan is coming off of a down season. He still earned a positive grade for the 4th straight season to start his career, but fell to 27th among offensive tackles on PFF, after finishing 20th in 2015 and 8th in 2016. He still pass protected well, but struggled to open up holes on the ground and committed 10 penalties as well. Only going into his age 27 season, he has obvious bounce back potential. The 11th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Lewan is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could push Nate Solder (4 years, 62 million) as the highest paid offensive lineman in the league on his next deal. If the Titans can’t come to an agreement with him before free agency, he’ll likely be franchise tagged.

Their other three starting offensive linemen all earned above average grades from PFF as well, with Quinton Spain making 14 starts at left guard, Josh Kline making 16 starts at right tackle, and Ben Jones making 16 starts at center. None of the three was quite as good as they were in 2016 though. Spain and Kline finished 15th and 25th respectively among guards in 2016, while Jones finished 10th among centers, but Spain and Kline fell to 39th and 28th respectively in 2017, while Jones fell to 16th at his position.

Kline was re-signed this off-season on a 4-year deal worth 26 million. Originally undrafted in 2013, Kline struggled in his first full season as a starter with the Patriots in 2015, but he has proven to be a smart waiver pickup by the Titans, after New England released him. He could easily have another solid season. Spain’s play, on the other hand, was less consistent from 2016 to 2017 and he also struggled in 6 starts as an undrafted rookie in 2015. He should remain at least a solid starter, but he may never be as good as he was in 2016 again.

Jones is the proven most of the bunch, making 75 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, including all 64 over the past 4 seasons. The 2012 4th round pick started his career at guard, but has been better since moving to center over the past few seasons, first in 2015 with the Texans and then the past two seasons with the Titans. He’s been at least a league average starter in all 3 seasons and should have another solid season in 2018. Tackle is the strength of this offensive line, assuming Conklin makes it back close to 100% at some point, but the interior of this offensive line is not a weakness either.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Titans also had a pretty underwhelming defense in 2017, finishing 16th in first down rate allowed at 33.94%, despite an easy schedule. New head coach Mike Vrabel obviously comes from a defensive background, though his scheme will be similar to the 3-4 defense they ran under Dick LeBeau last season. The Titans tried to make an impact signing on the defensive line, going after Ndamukong Suh and Muhammad Wilkerson, but they ended up having to settle for signing Bennie Logan to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal.

Logan will replace Sylvester Williams, who played 349 snaps last season, primarily as a base package nose tackle. He was not bad against the run, but did not get any pass rush and was not worth his 5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. The 6-2 315 pound Logan is also a solid run stuffer as well, earning positive run grades from Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons, but he also has earned negative grades for his pass rush and has just 5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the past 4 seasons combined. He’s probably not a huge upgrade on Williams.

The Titans also gave defensive end Daquan Jones a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season, keeping the 2014 4th round pick around. Jones has never earned a positive pass rush grade for a season in any of his 4 seasons in the league, totaling just 6 sacks and 12 hits, but he’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons, while his best year coming in 2016, when he finished 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping grade. The massive 6-4 322 pounder was limited to just 436 snaps in 12 games by a biceps injury in 2017, but he’s played about 60% of the snaps over the past 3 seasons as a starter, primarily playing in base packages.

The Titans also have 2016 2nd round pick Austin Johnson in the mix. He played just 190 snaps as a rookie and 319 snaps in 2017, but he could have his biggest role yet in 2018. Unfortunately, he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher too at 6-4 314. He’s earned a positive run stuffing grade in both seasons in the league, but has been negative as a pass rusher in both seasons, totaling just 1.5 sacks, 1 hit, and 6 hurries on 281 pass rush snaps. He’ll need to play a role on a relatively thin defensive line, but he’s looked like purely a base package player thus far in his career.

Jurrell Casey is the only true every down defensive lineman they have, but he’s a good one. A 4th round pick in 2011, Casey has finished well above average in all 7 seasons in the league, but he’s especially excelled in the past 5 seasons as an every down player, on about 80% of the snaps. After playing well in a rotational role in his first 2 seasons in the league, Casey has made 77 starts over the past 5 seasons and has missed just 2 games due to injury. He’s finished in the top-9 at his position in all 5 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-5, and has totaled 34.5 sacks and 53 hits, while also dominating against the run. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Casey is the picture of consistency and durability and should continue his strong play in 2018. They lack another interior pass rusher inside next to him, but they should be pretty good against the run.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Titans also got great run defense from starting middle linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson last season. That combined with their defensive line is a big part of the reason why the Titans ranked 3.57 in yards per carry allowed (4th). Woodyard and Williamson ranked 8th and 2nd respectively among middle linebackers in run grade on Pro Football Focus, though both earned negative grades in coverage. Williamson was largely a base package player, playing just 60.0% snaps in 16 games, while Woodyard struggled mightily in coverage in an every down role, playing 93.2% of the snaps in 16 games. They used 5th round rookie Jayon Brown as a coverage linebacker in sub packages, but he also struggled, finishing 46th among 52 middle linebackers on PFF on 485 snaps, with 401 of them coming on coverage snaps.

The Titans let Williamson walk this off-season, as he signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Jets, and instead replaced him with first round rookie Rashaan Evans. Evans is probably immediately a downgrade against the run, but he also has the ability to play all three downs and has a much higher upside. He figures to play every down immediately, which will allow Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard to split snaps at the other middle linebacker spot.

Brown could be better in his second season in the league and has the athleticism to develop into a good coverage linebacker at 5-11 226, but he could also continue being a liability. Meanwhile, Woodyard is going into his age 32 season and close easily begin to decline. He’s earned a positive run stopping grade in 3 straight seasons, but, at this stage of his career, he needs to go back to being a part-time player like he was in 2015 (47.3% of the snaps) and 2016 (56.3%) of the snaps. This linebacking corps probably won’t be quite as good against the run in 2018, though they’ll hopefully be more athletic in coverage.

The Titans also used a 2nd round pick on a linebacker, trading up 16 spots in the 2nd round (giving up a 3rd round pick in the process) to select Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry with the 41st overall pick. Projected by many to be a first round pick, Landry fell because of concerns about durability and his ability to stop the run, but the 6-3 252 pounder is a natural edge rusher who could have an immediate role in passing situations. He reminds some of Atlanta’s Vic Beasley.

Starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are proven players, but they’re also in the final year of their deals. They used a 2nd rounder on an edge defender in 2016, taking Clemson’s Kevin Dodd 33rd overall, but he’s played just 271 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is reportedly on the roster bubble for 2017 after skipping voluntary off-season workouts. Veteran journeyman Erik Walden was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, but he struggled, finishing 34th among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on 582 snaps. It wouldn’t be hard for Landry to be an upgrade and he should play a similar amount of snaps.

Orakpo was the better of the two starters, finishing 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. A 9-year NFL veteran and first round selection by the Redskins in 2009, Orakpo has earned a positive season grade in 8 straight seasons. He missed 24 games with injury in 3 seasons from 2012 to 2014, but he hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons since. The concern with him is age, as he’s going into his age 32 season. He may start to decline soon.

Morgan is younger, only going into his age 29 season, but he hasn’t been as good as Orakpo in recent years, finishing below average on PFF in 2 of the past 3 seasons. He still earned a positive pass rush grade in 2017, his 5th straight season earning one, with the exception of an injury plagued 2015 season. He’s been relatively durable in his career and is still in the prime of his career, but he’s only a slightly above average starter. This is a solid linebacking corps, though they are relying on some young players.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Titans biggest free agent signing this off-season was cornerback Malcolm Butler, also a former New England Patriot. They signed him to a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal that makes him the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Butler was most recently seen sitting on the sidelines of Super Bowl 52 while his defense got torched, inexplicably never put into the game on defense by Bill Belichick, but, aside from that, he had a pretty successful tenure in New England and the Super Bowl did not seem to hurt his value this off-season.

After flashing on 197 regular season snaps as a rookie in 2014 and making a game saving play in that season’s Super Bowl, Butler made 47 starts from 2015-2017 and finished with positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. He finished 18th among cornerbacks in 2015 and 5th among cornerbacks in 2016, though he did fell to 48th in 2017. The list of free agents to leave New England and have the same success elsewhere isn’t long and Butler was passed on by the entire league on draft day before landing in New England, so there’s some uncertainty about how he’ll do with a new franchise, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and could easily have a bounce back season after struggling by his standards in 2017.

The Titans also added a pair of cornerbacks last off-season, signing another former Patriot Logan Ryan to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal and drafting USC’s Adoree Jackson with the 18th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Both earned positive grades as a starter in 2017, so the Titans now have three above average starting cornerbacks with Butler coming in. Expect them to run 3-cornerback sets with regularity and spend the majority of the snaps in sub packages.

Ryan should continue playing the slot, but he might not have a role in base packages when the Titans only use 2 cornerbacks. He played 90.0% of the snaps in 15 games last season, but I would expect that to go down this season. A 3rd round selection in 2013, Ryan has never been a dominant player, but he’s earned a positive grade in all 5 seasons in the league, excelling on the slot, and has started 42 games in the past 3 seasons combined. His best season came in 2015, when he finished 12th among cornerbacks, though he did fall to 56th in 2018. Still, he might be the top #3 cornerback in the NFL.

Jackson, meanwhile, finished 28th among cornerbacks last season as a rookie and made all 16 starts. He got off to a slow start, but got a lot better down the stretch. Considering he was thought of as very raw coming out of college, the fact that he was able to play so well down the stretch as a rookie is a good sign for his future. Only in his age 23 season, it’ll probably take him another 2-3 years to reach his potential and he’s still inexperienced, but he could easily continue improving in his second season in the league. He’s likely the favorite to start opposite Butler.

The Titans also made a significant addition at safety last off-season, signing ex-Jaguar John Cyprien to a deal worth 25 million over 4 years, but he struggled in his first season in Tennessee, finishing 83rd among 89 eligible safeties on PFF. That be shouldn’t a huge surprise, as Cyprien also struggled in his first 3 seasons in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Cyprien had a breakout year in his contract year in 2016, finishing 6th among safeties on PFF, but he also finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including bottom top-5 seasons in 2013 and 2015.

An injury may be part of the reason behind his struggles in 2017, as he went down with a knee injury week 1, missed the next 6 games, and struggled for the remainder of the season. Only going into his age 28 season, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was for the Jaguars in 2016. He’ll start again for lack of a better option, but will probably need to improve to keep his job past this season, as he’s owed 6 million non-guaranteed in 2019.

Cyprien did not pan out, but the Titans did get a breakout year from 2nd year safety Kevin Byard. A 2016 3rd round pick, Byard flashed on 655 snaps as a rookie, but took his game to a whole new level in 2017, playing all but 5 snaps, ranking 3rd among safeties on PFF, and intercepting a league leading 8 passes. He might not be quite as good again in 2018, but, then again, he’s going into his age 25 season and could keep developing into consistently one of the top safeties in the league if he stays healthy. With the addition of Malcolm Butler in free agency, this secondary is much improved. Cyprien is their one weakness, but they have a trio of starting caliber cornerbacks and a stud safety.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Titans are more talented and should be better coached than they were a year ago. On paper, they are one of the better teams in the AFC, as the AFC is easily the weaker of the two conferences. Their schedule and their division should be harder, especially with both Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson returning from injury, and they’ll likely have more injuries of their own, but this team should be very much in the running for the division title.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

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