Tennessee Titans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s not often a team goes into an off-season with backup quarterback near the top of their needs list, but that was the case for the Titans this off-season. Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota has never made it through a 16 game season in 4 seasons in the league and the Titans have never had a competent backup behind him, turning to the likes of Zach Mettenberger, Matt Cassel, and Blaine Gabbert when Mariota has missed time in his career. 

That need was filled this off-season when the Titans made a deal with the Dolphins for their former starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, sending a 2020 4th round pick to Miami, who will pay 5 million of the 7 million dollar reduced salary that Tannehill agreed to as part of the deal (none of his 18.75 million dollar salary was guaranteed for 2019). Tannehill was a failed starter in Miami, but he’s made 88 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has a career 87.0 QB rating, so he’s as good as backup quarterbacks come. 

Some have suggested that Tannehill might be a legitimate contender for the starting job, but there are no real indications the Titans plan on benching Mariota, at least not for week 1. Mariota hasn’t played badly when on the field, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions in 55 career starts, while adding 1270 yards and 11 touchdowns on 218 carries (5.83 YPC), numbers that would have been better if Mariota hadn’t played so many games at less than 100%.

Last season, Mariota got off to a horrible start after suffering a week 1 injury to his throwing arm and the Titans were just 3-4 heading into their bye, but he completed 71.3% of his passes for an average of 8.28 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his final 8 starts (6-2), before being knocked out for a week 17 game that the Titans ended up losing, eliminating them from post-season contention. Mariota actually was knocked out of 3 separate games with his neck/arm injury last season and missed week 2 and part of week 3, as well as week 17. In 2017, he missed 1 game and was limited in others with a hamstring injury. In 2016, he broke his leg week 16, ending the Titans’ playoff chances that season as well. And as a rookie, he missed four games and was limited in others with knee injuries.

Going into his 5th season in the league, the Titans are coming to a crossroads with Mariota, who was originally the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Mariota gets a big pay raise to 20.922 million this season on his 5th year option and could cost a similar amount annually on a long-term extension, going into the final year of his rookie deal. Some players are more injury prone than others and Mariota just might be one of those players, especially since he’s a quarterback who likes to take off and run, which leads to him taking extra hits. The Titans will have to decide how that factors into his value long-term, especially since he’s been a middling starter even when healthy. He can earn a lot of money with a strong 2019 season and, even if he gets hurt again, the Titans at least have a better backup option this time around.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Marcus Mariota’s improved play is a big part of the reason why the Titans were able to go on that 6-2 run last season, but they also were a better running team in the second half of the season as well, especially after deciding to give more work to Derrick Henry in the final 6 weeks of the season. Henry and Dion Lewis split carries pretty evenly for the first 10 weeks of the season, 110 and 122 respectively, but Henry had 105 carries to 33 for Lewis in the final 6 weeks of the season.

It’s hard to believe it took the Titans that long to make that decision. By season’s end, Derrick Henry had 1,059 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.93 YPC) and had a 51% carry success rate, while Lewis had 517 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on 155 carries (3.34 YPC) and had a 34% carry success rate. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Henry had always had a lot of talent as a runner and seemed to break out down the stretch last season, rushing for 655 yards and 8 touchdowns on 105 carries (6.24 YPC) in those final 6 games of the season. Even if he regresses a little in 2019, he still has a career 4.58 YPC average on 501 carries, with 3.52 yards per carry after contact and 93 career broken tackles. He should be the clear lead back in 2019.

Dion Lewis will still be involved though, especially in the passing game. Lewis had a 59/400/1 slash line as a receiver last season and has caught 144 passes in his last 46 games, while Henry has just 39 catches for his career and is unlikely to suddenly become a big threat in the passing game. Lewis will still have a role on the ground too, even as he clear #2 back, as this will likely remain a run heavy team, in part to try to hide Marcus Mariota. Lewis struggled mightily on the ground last season, but averaged 4.82 yards per carry on 293 carries in 3 seasons in New England prior to joining the Titans on a 4-year, 19.8 million dollar deal last off-season and has some bounce back potential. This is a solid running back tandem, especially if Henry continues to get the majority of the carries.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even though this will likely remain a run heavy team, the Titans did make some moves this of-season to try to open up their passing game, adding ex-Buccaneers slot receiver Adam Humphries on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal and using their 2nd round pick on Mississippi wide receiver AJ Brown. They were needed additions for a wide receiver group that only had one player top 500 yards receiving last season. 

Corey Davis led the way last season with a 65/891/4 slash line, but he’ll likely see fewer targets this season, after receiving the ball on 26.4% of pass attempts last season. His 112 targets were 24th in the NFL, even though the Titans had the 2nd fewest pass attempts of any team last season. If Davis wants to improve on last season’s numbers, he’ll need to take a step forward as a player and do it on fewer targets. The 5th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Davis certainly has the talent to do so. 

Humphries could push Davis for the team lead in receiving yards. He’s had slash lines of 55/622/2, 61/631/1, and 76/816/5 in the past 3 seasons respectively and is still only going into his age 26 season. He’s purely a slot receiver though and might not see much action in two wide receiver sets. AJ Brown could be the nominal #2 receiver, playing outside opposite Davis in two-wide receiver sets, but he could be pushed for snaps by holdovers Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe.

Taylor is the better of the two and the 2017 3rd round pick flashed last season on 446 snaps, averaging 1.87 yards per route run and finishing 2nd on the team in receiving yards with a 37/466/1 slash line. Sharpe, meanwhile, has averaged just 1.03 yards per route run in his career and probably isn’t a lock for this final roster. At the very least, Taylor will provide solid depth for a wide receiver group that got a lot deeper during the off-season.

The Titans also get tight end Delanie Walker back from a broken ankle that cost him all but one game last season. Walker is going into his age 35 season and coming off of a significant injury, but he averaged a 74/896/5 slash line from 2014-2017. He likely won’t come close to those numbers on a run heavy team with other passing game targets, but he’s always been a solid run blocker and could still be a significant part of this offense even without putting up huge passing game numbers. Even at less than his best, he’ll be a welcome re-addition for a team that didn’t have much at tight end in his absence.

In Walker’s absence last season, second year tight end Jonnu Smith led the team with 611 snaps played in 13 games before suffering his own injury. He was an obvious downgrade, averaging just 1.04 yards per route run with a 20/258/3 slash line and struggling as a blocker as well. The 2017 3rd round pick likely still has the inside track on the #2 tight end job behind Walker, but he hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league. As long as Walker is healthy, Smith will primarily be a blocking specialist on a team that should have more passing game options in 2019.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Offensive line play was also a problem last season, as Marcus Mariota took 42 sacks, 8th most in the NFL, which isn’t ideal for a quarterback as injury prone as Mariota. Part of that is Mariota’s fault, as he led the league by taking a sack on 29.8% of his pressured dropbacks, but offensive line play deserves some of the blame as well. On top of that, the Titans lost their starting guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline this off-season, Spain signing with the Bills as a free agent and Kline being released ahead of a 6.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing with the Vikings. 

The Titans did add Rodger Saffold in free agency and he’ll likely be better than both Spain or Kline. Saffold had injury problems early in his career, but he’s made 46 of 48 possible starts at left guard in the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-8 among guards on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, and the Titans are paying a lot for his services, making him the 6th highest paid guard in the league in average annual value with a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal, but he should have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank, even if he does start to decline.

Right guard is still a question mark though. The Titans used a 3rd round pick on UNC Charlotte’s Nate Davis, but it’s unclear if he’ll be able to start as a rookie. Their only other experienced option is veteran journeyman Kevin Pamphile, who has 35 career starts, including 29 from 2016-2017, but he finished 78th out of 85 qualifying guards and 49th out of 92 qualifying guards on PFF in those two seasons respectively and would be a very underwhelming starting option in 2019.

Former first round picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin remain the starters at left and right tackle respectively. They used to be one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL and Lewan is still one of the best left tackles in the league, finishing in the top-22 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons (62 starts), but Conklin’s career has kind of been derailed by injury. The 8th overall pick in 2016, Conklin finished 31st and 18th among offensive tackles on PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively, but he tore his ACL in their playoff loss in New England in January 2018. 

Conklin didn’t make his 2018 season debut until week 4 and was limited to 498 underwhelming snaps in 9 games by subsequent knee injuries. He’s still not healthy this off-season, and had his 5th year option for 2020 declined, even though it’s guaranteed for injury only, which is not a good sign. There’s no indication his status for week 1 is in doubt and he could still get a significant contract next off-season if he can stay healthy in 2019, but the Titans didn’t want to take the risk with an option worth 12.866 million, which would have put him among the 3 highest paid right tackles in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but might not be the same player he was in 2016-2017. If he misses time with injury again, the Titans would likely turn to Dennis Kelly, a career journeyman with 27 career starts.

Center Ben Jones also remains as the starter. He’s started all 80 games over the past 5 seasons and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 12th among centers. Jones is going into his age 30 season, but centers can have long careers and I see no reason to expect him to suddenly fall off in 2019. He should have another solid season on an offensive line that looks strong except for right guard. 

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Unlike the Titans’ offense, which struggled, ranking 24th in first down rate at 34.12%, the Titans’ defense played well, allowing the 4th lowest first down rate in the league at 32.77%. Their one weakness was their edge rush, as they didn’t have a single edge defender with more than 4.5 sacks. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan were the nominal starters, starting 13 games and 12 games respectively, but they had just 1.5 sacks and 0.5 sacks respectively. Orakpo and Morgan were both free agents this off-season, giving the Titans an opportunity to upgrade.

In free agency, the Titans signed long-time Dolphin Cameron Wake to a 3-year, 23 million dollar contract. A 10-year veteran (all with Miami), Wake has had 98 sacks, 151 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate in his career. Now going into his age 37 season, his age is a significant concern, but he was still an effective rusher as a part-time player last season, with 6 sacks, 10 hits, and a ridiculous 17.3% pressure rate. He’s unlikely to significantly top the 517 snaps he played in 2018 and, at his age. his abilities could fall off a cliff at any point, but he could continue being effective in a situational role. 

With Morgan and Orakpo both missing time with injury last season, rookie Harold Landry actually led Titan edge defenders with 592 snaps played last season. He didn’t show much, with 4.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate on the season, but he’ll still likely play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league in 2019 and the 2nd round pick has the talent to make a leap from year 1 to year 2. 

With Landry and Wake working as the primary edge rushers, reserves Kamalei Correa and Sharif Finch will be situational run stoppers. Correa has never topped 323 snaps in a season and has just a career 6.7% pressure rate, but the 2016 2nd round pick has developed into a solid run stopper and could set a new career high in snaps in 2019, still only in his age 25 season. Finch, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed on 206 rookie year snaps. He looks deserving of a larger role. The addition of Cameron Wake will probably give the Titans more edge rush than last season, but that’s not a guarantee at his age, and the Titans lack a standout edge defender.

Grade: B- 

Interior Defenders

Arguably the Titans’ best defensive player is interior defender Jurrell Casey, who plays defensive end in their base 3-4 defense. Just a 4th round pick 2011, Casey has started 123 of 128 starts since entering the league and has finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, including 2 seasons in the top-10 and a 17th ranked season in 2018. Casey is going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and would still be one of the better interior defenders in the league even if he started to decline a little.

Casey will be an every down player and will start alongside nose tackle Austin Johnson and fellow starting defensive end Daquan Jones in base packages. The 6-4 314 pound Johnson is a pure nose tackle and played just 399 snaps total in 2018, actually a career high. He was a 2nd round pick in 2016 and is a solid run stuffer, but has just a 2.7% pressure rate in his career and is only a situational player. He seems unlikely to develop into much more.

Daquan Jones is also a much better run stuffer than pass rusher, earning an above average run stuffing grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, but managing just a 5.7% pressure rate for his career. He plays more than Johnson, averaging 592 snaps per game during those 4 seasons, but he’ll likely come off the field frequently in passing situations for free agent addition Brent Urban, who was a situational pass rusher with the Ravens last season.

Urban has just a career 6.7% pressure rate though and has missed 39 of a possible 80 games, since going in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL draft. He’s an underwhelming signing for a team that doesn’t have another interior pass rusher. The Titans could also get first round pick Jeffrey Simmons back late in the season, but he’s considered highly questionable to play at all as a rookie because of a torn ACL suffered in the pre-draft process in February and wouldn’t be back until December at the earliest. This group will be stout against the run again, but Jurrell Casey can expect to see frequent double teams in pass rush situations. 

Grade: B+

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Titans had a trio of players rotate snaps last season. Jayon Brown (852 snaps) and Wesley Woodyard (714 snaps) were their primary coverage linebackers, with Rashaan Evans (494 snaps) rotating as a situational run stuffer. All three players return and should see similar roles in 2019. Evans was a first round pick in 2018 and flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but he didn’t show much in coverage and will likely have to wait until Woodyard becomes a free agent next off-season to have a shot at a bigger role, unless injuries strike. 

Woodyard is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s still a solid player, finishing 21st among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018. He’s never been a standout player and has never earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, but he’s started 108 of the 165 games he’s played in 11 seasons in the league, including 92 starts in the past 7 seasons, and he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons. He may decline in 2019, but could remain a capable starter. 

Jayon Brown is also coming off of a strong season, finishing 9th among off ball linebackers on PFF. The 2017 5th round pick is a one-year wonder though, finishing 77th among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF on 487 rookie year snaps. Brown could continue playing at a high level, now in his 3rd season in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed a little bit from last season. Even still, this is an impressive trio of linebackers. Even if one of the starters were to get hurt, Rashaan Evans should be capable of moving to an every down role if needed.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Titans got solid play from their front seven last season, but the strength of this defense was the secondary and they bring back their top-5 defensive backs in terms of snaps played. Safety Kevin Byard is the best of the bunch and arguably their best defensive player overall. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Byard broke out in 2017, finishing 8th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and leading the league with 8 interceptions. 

In 2018, that interception total got cut in half, but that was mostly because defenses stopped testing him, throwing into his coverage about half as frequently as 2017. He still finished as PFF’s 6th ranked safety and, only going into his age 26 season, looks likely to be one of the best safeties in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could push to be the league’s highest paid safety (upwards of 14 million annually) on his next contract.

Kenny Vaccaro remains as the other starter, after re-signing on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick by the Saints in 2013, Vaccaro had an up and down 5 seasons in New Orleans and had to settle for signing a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal with the Titans late in the off-season last year, but he was a solid starter in 13 games in 2018 and the Titans wanted to keep him as the starter long-term, re-signing him for 24 million over 4 years this off-season. His history of inconsistency is a concern and he was PFF’s 92nd ranked safety out of 95 qualifiers as recently as 2017, but there are worse starting safeties and he’s plenty experienced (80 career starts).

At cornerback, the Titans’ trio of Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler finished 30th, 35th, and 55th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018, on 959 snaps, 855 snaps, and 836 snaps respectively. The Titans have made big investments in all three players in the past couple off-seasons and have overhauled their secondary in a hurry. Jackson was a first round pick in 2017 and has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons in the league (29 starts). Still only going into his age 25 season, Jackson has the talent to develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL and could keep getting better.

Ryan and Butler, meanwhile, both come from the Patriots, Ryan on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago and Butler on a 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Ryan is an unspectacular player, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons and he has the versatility to play both outside and on the slot. Butler was a disappointment in his first season in Tennessee and he was underwhelming in his final season in New England as well (47th among cornerbacks on PFF), but he does have some bounce back potential, finishing 25th among cornerbacks in 2015 and 6th in 2016. LeShaun Sims, a 2016 5th round pick who has played 879 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons in the league, while likely remain as the 4th cornerback. He likely won’t be needed much behind a talented cornerback trio.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

There are some reasons to be optimistic about the Titans’ chances of making it back to the post-season. Their offense played better down the stretch last season with Derrick Henry as the lead back and Marcus Mariota healthy and their defense remains one of the better defenses in the league. They also addressed their biggest weaknesses, edge defender and wide receiver, this off-season. Mariota could easily get hurt again at some point this season, but backup Ryan Tannehill won’t be a huge downgrade if he has to start. That being said, this division is much tougher than when they made the post-season two years ago, with Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and JJ Watt all back healthy, so a return to the post-season is far from a given.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South

Team Score: 75.06 (15th)

Offensive Score: 74.33

Defensive Score: 75.78

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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