The Tennessee Titans are one of the more confusing teams in the NFL to judge. They’ve had three straight 9-7 seasons with a playoff win in 2017. They fired their coach, Mike Mularkey, after that playoff win. Their quarterback is often injured and hasn’t proven himself yet. There are just so many questions when it comes to this team entering the 2019 season. The Titans’ roster looks like the roster of a contender on paper, but will this be the year it finally pans out?
A lot of that will have to do with the development of the offense under quarterback Marcus Mariota and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Smith replaces new Packers head coach Matt LaFleur at the helm of the offense. He was the tight ends coach for Tennessee for the past three seasons and has been on the staff since 2011. This means that Mariota will finally have a somewhat consistent system after having four different ones in his first four years in the league. General manager Jon Robinson will have to make a difficult decision about Mariota’s future after this season. In order to know what he has in his quarterback, he has to give him the tools to succeed. The offense looks more complete than it has in years, but will it be enough to take the next step?
The biggest storyline throughout the Titans’ season will be Marcus Mariota’s health and play on the field. Mariota has yet to complete a full season since being drafted in 2015. Although he had a fantastic year in 2016, with 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, he has just 24 touchdowns to 23 interceptions in his past two seasons. He played through a hamstring injury almost all of the 2017 season and a multitude of injuries throughout all of last season.
Now, he hits a make-or-break season early in his career. Mariota has led the team to three straight winning seasons and shown he is clutch with 9 game-winning drives over the past three seasons, including 7 fourth-quarter comebacks. However, his statistical drop and his lack of availability have many people doubting that he is worth a long-term extension.
The Titans picked up his fifth-year option last year, but have yet to sign him to that lucrative extension. The locker room and front office have both said publicly that they want Mariota to be ‘the guy’ for the Titans, but he has to prove it. Mariota will have to prove he can be available for a full season and take the Titans to contention this season. If he doesn’t, Robinson has put an insurance policy in place.
He recently made a trade for former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Titans gave up a 2020 fourth round pick in this trade because of how important it is to get a quality backup for Mariota. If he is unavailable, the Titans should have a solid fallback option. This is a big year for the former second overall pick and for the Titans. If he doesn’t show that he is the future for Tennessee, they may be searching for a new starter next year.
This is one of the only positions on this side of the ball that seems to be set entering the draft. With Derrick Henry’s breakout finish in December, the Titans seem to have their workhorse back for 2019. Behind him, Dion Lewis showed his ability to make an impact on third down and in the passing game early in the season. With Henry in the lead role and Lewis coming in to be the change of pace back, the Titans tailbacks are going to be hard to handle.
Lewis didn’t finish the season the way he wanted to with just 89 yards on the ground in December. However, he wasn’t given as many opportunities with how hot Henry was. The Alabama product was unstoppable in December with 585 yards in the final four games of the season. Smith needs to find a way to maximize both of their abilities. If he can, this will be a dangerous duo throughout the whole season. Don’t expect Robinson to address this position in the Draft after bringing back third-string tailback David Fluellen. It’s possible that a running back is selected late, but the three top guys now will most likely be the same in September.
This group took a beating during the 2018 season. It seems like every receiver on the roster had a crucial drop at some point during the year. This may have had something to do with the only veteran receiver on the team, Rishard Matthews, picking up and leaving after less than a month of the season. Former fifth overall pick Corey Davis had moments where he looked like a star. He scored two game winning touchdowns last year and reeled in a nice over-the-shoulder touchdown in the win over New England. However, there were times where he still looked like a second-year player. He had some key drops, but still showed that he has what it takes to be a #1 receiver in this league.
The other top options on the outside were Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor. Sharpe missed all of the 2017 season with a foot injury, so both of them were in their second full season. Both had moments where they looked like competent second options, but both were inconsistent. It will be crucial to find someone who can play opposite Davis in the draft because neither Sharpe or Taylor have proven that they can play at a high level through an entire season.
In free agency, the Titans added a top slot receiver in Adam Humphries. They bid against the Patriots throughout the first day of free agency and were able to grab the former Buccaneer. Tennessee struggled to find a solid option over the middle without star tight end Delanie Walker. With him returning and Humphries on board, Mariota should have more options that would allow him to get the ball out faster.
No one seems to be sure what to make of this group. Walker returning, even at age 35, will immediately make the group better, but he can’t play forever. It may be time to find a successor for the aging star. Robinson may have drafted Jonnu Smith two years ago with the idea that he would be the successor. However, he has been inconsistent and struggled with injuries during both of his seasons in the NFL. Currently, the Titans have four tight ends on the roster. After Smith went down in Week 14, Harvard product Anthony Firkser and young journeyman Mycole Pruitt were given more snaps. Luke Stocker was also included in the offense, but he recently signed with Atlanta in free agency.
The four tight ends on the roster may be sufficient for this season, but not for the long run. Walker is coming off of a serious injury and doesn’t have much tread left on his tires. Smith only has two more years left on his contract and hasn’t done much to prove that he can take the reigns when Walker retires. Finally, Firkser and Pruitt made some plays last season, but neither are starting-caliber players. The Titans may not need to take a tight end in this draft, but they are in a position where they can take the best player available. There aren’t many holes on this roster. If a top-tier tight end is available in the first two rounds, don’t be surprised if Robinson jumps at this opportunity to set up the position for years to come.
Free agency was a rollercoaster for this position group. After Robinson signed Rodger Saffold to take over for Quinton Spain at left guard, the line seemed set. Center Ben Jones and right guard Josh Kline weren’t great last season, but they seemed serviceable for the year. Jon Robinson didn’t think so. He wanted to go all out to protect Marcus Mariota and cut Kline just a year after signing him to an extension. Now, there is a hole at right guard, but it will almost definitely be filled early in the Draft. A top-tier rookie at right guard, or center if Jones slid over to guard, would solidify this unit as one of the best in the league.
Taylor Lewan is one of the better tackles in the NFL on the left side and should only get better with the addition of Saffold to his right. The other tackle spot will almost definitely be Jack Conklin’s to lose. Although, Dennis Kelly is a solid back-up and played well in Conklin’s relief last season. Either way, the tackle positions are set. Saffold has been an elite guard in Los Angeles for the Rams and should translate well into the Titans’ zone blocking scheme. Finally, Jones will play somewhere along the line. It will depend on who the Titans draft and where they fit best.
There is an outside chance that the Titans elect to pass on selecting an offensive lineman. Robinson and Head Coach Mike Vrabel have both praised Kevin Pamphile and he will definitely get a look at right guard. It’s not likely, but possible that Pamphile will be starting in Week 1.
The Titans’ offense will thrive or fail on the backs of Marcus Mariota and Arthur Smith. Their offensive line is going to be solid, the running backs will make plays, and the pass-catchers look to be much improved heading into this year. The key will be whether Mariota can stay healthy and Smith can step up as a first time play caller. I expect Robinson to invest in another weapon and another offensive lineman in the draft. However, he will focus mostly on the front seven. The defense proved last year that they had the ability to be elite. Now, the offense must do the same to get Tennessee into contention.