The Tennessee Titans are rebuilding. That’s not exactly a revelation, since they have seemingly been rebuilding now for at least five years, trying to find the right combination of coach, general manager and quarterback. After multiple failures at all three spots, the Titans are basically starting over yet again — this time with Mike Mularkey as head coach, Jon Robinson as the new GM and Marcus Mariota as the new franchise quarterback. A couple of these aren’t exactly brand new — Mariota was drafted in 2015 and showed enough last season that the Titans hope to build around him; and Mularkey took over on an interim basis last year when Ken Whisenhunt was fired. But with Robinson at the controls, the Titans are hopeful that better fortunes may be on the horizon soon for a franchise that has sunk to the bottom.
Mariota showed in his rookie season the type of poise and ability to become a franchise quarterback. He threw for 2,818 yards with 19 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions and completed 62 percent of his passes. Mariota’s numbers would have been even better had he not missed four games with two different knee injuries. And while he can still get better at operating the huddle and throwing deeper passes, Mariota showed enough to make the Titans believe he is the answer at QB. The Titans added journeyman Matt Cassel, who will serve as the back up to Mariota following the May 16 release of 2014 sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger.
Running back was a big issue for the Titans last year. Enter DeMarco Murray via trade and 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry via the draft. The Titans hope the Murray they are getting is closer to the 2014 version with Dallas and less like last year’s edition with Philadelphia. Henry’s arrival is further evidence that Mularkey prefers a pounding, physical running game. It also signals that the Titans are finished with most of last year’s unproductive quartet of Bishop Sankey, Antonio Andrews, Dexter McCluster and David Cobb.
Wide receiver remains a perpetual question mark, despite some middle-of-the-road additions at the position. Since the Titans don’t have much in the way of big-play candidates, the plan seems to be finding precise route runners with good hands. They signed one in free agent Rishard Matthews and drafted another in rookie Tajae Sharpe. The question is whether they can get the holdover receivers to buy in. Kendall Wright caught 94 passes in 2013, then slumped to 57 in 2014 and just 36 last year. Justin Hunter is running out of chances, and veteran Harry Douglas looked low on fuel last year. The wild card is Dorial Green-Beckham, who has all the tools to be a top receiver. He must get in top shape and also has to polish his route running and study habits. If that happens, receiver becomes a strength. If not, the search continues in 2017.
While wide receiver is in disarray, tight end is one of the deepest spots on the roster. Delanie Walker, a former 49ers backup, shows no sign of slowing down. He caught 94 passes in 2015 and was Mariota’s No. 1 option. That probably will continue to be the case as Walker signed a contract extension in May. Craig Stevens and Anthony Fasano are capable, veteran role players.
Of all their issues, the offensive line is the Titans’ top priority to fix. Tennessee gave up 54 sacks last season, worst in the league. Enter first-round pick Jack Conklin, who will start at right tackle, and new center Ben Jones, who comes over from Houston. Jones should provide leadership and remedy many of the protection and line call issues. On the left side, former first-round pick Taylor Lewan must clean up technique issues that contributed to his sloppy play. The Titans declined their option on right guard Chance Warmack, putting him on notice that 2016 is make or break. The left guard spot will be a wide-open training camp competition between Jeremiah Poutasi, Quinton Spain and rookie Sebastian Tretola. Byron Bell would have been a part of the battle but he was lost for the season after dislocating his ankle on the first day of OTAs in May.
Dick LeBeau takes full control of the Titans defense this year after sharing duties with Ray Horton last season. That means the Titans should do more blitzing and gambling on defense, giving opposing offenses more exotic looks in the process. The question is, do the Titans have the right personnel?
Their best player on defense is end Jurrell Casey, who is being moved around along the line to try and create confusion and mismatches, even going into a two-point stance in some instances. Casey is part of a line that is the strength of the defense and includes end DaQuan Jones, who can also fill in on the nose when needed. Al Woods returns to man the middle but will face a challenge from rookie Austin Johnson, who has pass rush skills inside and is more than just a guy to occupy a double team. Angelo Blackson and Karl Klug provide nice depth on the line, with Blackson rotating in as a run stuffer and Klug being a pass-rush specialist in sub-packages.
At linebacker, the Titans have undergone a major makeover behind their starters. Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo return as starters but will get a push from second-round pick Kevin Dodd, whose long and lean frame could make him a force as an edge rusher. Inside, the Titans have steady Avery Williamson and veteran Wesley Woodyard, who usually is out in the nickel. He could get a challenge from newcomers Sean Spence and Nate Palmer.
The Tennessee secondary gets a boost from the return of Jason McCourty, who played in just four games last year because of groin surgery. Opposite him, Perrish Cox must tackle better than last year. The other returning corners are all candidates to be replaced. Blidi Wreh-Wilson has been in position to make plays but seldom has made them. B.W. Webb was exposed at times, too. Free agents Brice McCain, a candidate for the nickel job, and Antwon Blake should jump ahead of them in the pecking order. Rookies LeShaun Sims and Kalan Reed may not be ready to make the jump but can help on special teams. At safety, the Titans brought in a smart tactician in Rashad Johnson, who should steady the back four by making the correct calls. Da’Norris Searcy started at strong safety but needs to make more impact plays. He could be challenged by rookie Kevin Byard. Of the other reserves, Daimion Stafford has value as a big hitter and is sometimes used as a mini-linebacker in certain sets.
Kicker Ryan Succop is reliable, but he must get more than 16 chances on field goals. (He made 14 of them.) Punter Brett Kern probably needs fewer chances after punting 88 times a year ago for a 47.4-yard average. The long snapper is Beau Brinkley, who toils in anonymity as a good long snapper should. In the return game, expect McCluster to have to fight back undrafted rookie Morgan Burns to hold on to the return job.
The rebuilding drags on for the Titans, but with Robinson and Mariota, perhaps the process is finally being accelerated. At the very least, 2016 offers more hope than the team has had in the past several years.