The Tennessee Titans hope that Year 2 of the Ken Whisenhunt regime will be markedly better than Year 1. In Whisenhunt’s first season as head coach, the Titans bottomed out, going 2–14 and losing their final 10 games.
And while the sparse crowds at LP Field — now Nissan Stadium — reflected just how far this franchise has fallen, it might not be the worst thing in the long run. Sinking to such low depths allowed the Titans to finally embrace a rebuild after several years of treading water with middle-of-the-pack records and no playoff appearances. Beginning with the drafting of 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota to build around at quarterback, the Titans could have real hope for the future for the first time in a number of years, though it may take some time for that hope to be realized.
By drafting Mariota second overall, the Titans are banking that the former Duck can be a bird of a different feather when it comes to transitioning from Oregon’s hurry-up spread offense to a conventional pro-style scheme. Mariota has the physical skills, and the Titans were impressed most by his football acumen throughout the draft process. Still, there are basic components of playing the position — from the simplest things such as taking the snap under center and calling plays in the huddle to more complex components such as progressions — that will take time to master. Whisenhunt, who was rigid with scrambling quarterback Jake Locker a year ago, has promised to be more flexible to accommodate Mariota, who has already been penciled in as the starter over Zach Mettenberger.
At running back, the Titans appear to be in flux. Bishop Sankey, a second-round pick a year ago, disappointed with only 569 yards rushing, and veteran Shonn Greene was released in June, as the team appears willing to give fifth-round pick David Cobb every opportunity to handle the “big back” role. Sankey didn’t seem to have an extra gear as a rookie, while Greene was injured and inconsistent in two years in Tennessee. The wild card in the running back room is Dexter McCluster, signed to a free-agent deal a year ago and then wasted as the Titans never found a role for him. A Sankey/Cobb combination is probably what the Titans are hoping for as the season opens.
In the receiving corps, the Titans have done their best to upgrade a lackluster cast. Kendall Wright’s production dipped to just 57 catches after 94 in 2013, and Justin Hunter remains an enigma. The organization still believes Hunter has the talent to be an elite receiver, but he simply hasn’t shown the swagger that top-flight receivers display on the field. Enter second-round pick Dorial Green-Beckham, who seems to have plenty of that to go with a 6'5", 237-pound frame. Green-Beckham, a likely top-10 pick without his off-field issues, boldly says his goal is to score at least 10 touchdowns as a rookie. The Titans signed two former 1,000-yard receivers in free agency, adding Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks with the hope that both can bounce back after their production dropped dramatically in 2014.
Currently, the best weapon among the receivers is tight end Delanie Walker, the best free-agent signing of the Ruston Webster era as GM. Walker led the Titans with 63 catches for a franchise-record 890 yards receiving by a tight end. Not bad, considering that three different quarterbacks started last year. The Titans added journeyman Anthony Fasano as a free agent, in large part because Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson (released in June) were both injured last year.
The offensive line’s lone bright spot was 2014 first-round pick Taylor Lewan, who became a starter after Michael Roos was injured (and later retired). Right guard Chance Warmack, the 2013 first-round pick, finally started to show promise by year’s end. Other than those two, it was a disaster. Left guard Andy Levitre, who signed a $46.8 million free-agent deal in 2013, was too often handled at the point of attack and was plagued by penalties as well. Center Brian Schwenke, who has been average in his two years, finished the year on injured reserve. The Titans used seven different tackles a year ago, thanks to injuries. None of them was effective. Starter Michael Oher struggled and was released. The Titans did bring back Byron Stingily to compete with free-agent signee Byron Bell, who played poorly in Carolina last year. The Titans hope that third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi can claim a spot in camp.
The biggest move of the offseason for the defense wasn’t a player but a coach. Legendary defensive mind Dick LeBeau, a long-time friend of Whisenhunt, comes over after parting ways with the Steelers. Ray Horton still has the title of defensive coordinator, but LeBeau is calling the shots. Personnel-wise, the Titans needed upgrades after ranking 27th overall defensively and allowing 373 yards per game in 2014. Other than adding rookie Angelo Blackson on the defensive line, the Titans kept the status quo among the front three, where end Jurrell Casey is by far the best player. Nose tackle Sammie Hill is adequate, and Ropati Pitoitua, on the other end, is a decent run stopper, but not much as a pass rusher. End Karl Klug was re-signed and is a solid role player.
The Titans needed help at outside linebacker and signed Redskins free agent Brian Orakpo, who will help if he can stay healthy. They re-upped Derrick Morgan, who made a decent transition last year from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker. Avery Williamson, a 2014 fifth-round pick, was a nice find with 79 tackles. He will start alongside Zach Brown, lost for the year in Week 1 with torn pectoral in 2014. That drops veteran Wesley Woodyard into a reserve role.
The secondary got a makeover in the offseason. Safety Bernard Pollard, who missed most of last year with an Achilles injury, popped off about the organization and was released. Da’Norris Searcy was imported from Buffalo to take his place. He will start alongside Michael Griffin, who has lost a step but still plays OK if there is sufficient talent around him. At cornerback, Jason McCourty is solid on one side, and Perrish Cox comes over from the 49ers as an upgrade over Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who struggled badly last year in coverage. Nickel back Coty Sensabaugh is so-so, but the Titans seem to like young backup safeties Marqueston Huff and Daimion Stafford, who could contribute in certain sub-packages.
The Titans made sure to re-sign reliable kicker Ryan Succop (19-of-22 on field goals), who came to the team after being cut by the Chiefs last year. Solid punter Brett Kern and long snapper Beau Brinkley received contract extensions as well. With Leon Washington not re-signed, McCluster should claim return duties. Seventh-round receiver Tre McBride or veteran Jacoby Ford could be options as well.
The Titans have a long way to go before they can return to respectability. They have chosen Mariota to lead them there. The talented quarterback passes the eye test and has the smarts to give the Titans their first franchise quarterback since Steve McNair. But it will probably take some time as he adjusts to an NFL offense. Expect the Titans to be better in 2015, but they’re probably still another offseason away from contending.