The Tennessee Titans made great strides in 2016, tripling their win total from a paltry three in 2015 to nine a year ago and very nearly earning the club’s first playoff berth since 2008. Now, as they enter 2017, the Titans appear poised to take the next step in the process and contend for the AFC South title. Tennessee has finally found a franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, and now general manager Jon Robinson is busy stockpiling weapons around him on offense and upgrading the defense and special teams units that struggled last season.
If the Titans can address their weaknesses from a year ago, stay healthy, and at least maintain the status quo, if not improve, in a few key areas, then a postseason berth could very well be in the offing for Tennessee. If that happens, it would signify that the long rebuilding task has finally been completed.
Mariota built upon his rookie season with an outstanding 2016. He completed 276-of-451 passes for 3,426 yards, making him the first Titan since Matt Hasselbeck in 2011 to top the 3,000-yard mark. His 26 TD passes were most by a franchise quarterback since the team moved to Tennessee 20 years ago. The only downside was that for the second straight year, Mariota was not able to finish the season due to an injury. He broke his right fibula on Christmas Eve, and the injury required a plate to be surgically placed into the leg to help the healing process. Mariota might not do much in OTAs as the Titans will be careful regarding his recovery. Veteran Matt Cassel was re-signed to be the backup.
While the Titans will go as Mariota goes, the running game and the offensive line also has a big say in the team’s success. DeMarco Murray came over from Philadelphia and led the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards while scoring nine touchdowns. Tennessee also has Derrick Henry to bolster the backfield, and the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner added 490 yards and five scores in spot duty behind Murray. That formula should continue in 2017, with Murray being the workhorse and Henry spelling him as a power and short-yardage back.
The Titans overhauled the wide receiver position, spending two of their first three draft picks there. They chose Corey Davis of Western Michigan fifth overall and are hopeful that he can develop into the true No. 1 receiver that has been missing for many years. The Titans also drafted Taywan Taylor, a shifty speedster from Western Kentucky. He replaces the departed Kendall Wright in the slot and has deep route ability. Those two will mix in with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, as well as former Jet Eric Decker, to make up the core of the unit. Matthews, a free agent from Miami, had a banner season in 2016, catching 65 passes for 945 yards and nine touchdowns. He is ideally a No. 2 receiver but was the top target a year ago. Sharpe started all last season as a rookie fifth-round pick and caught 41 passes. He will have to work hard to stay ahead of Davis and Taylor. Decker was part of the Jets’ offseason veteran purge and is looking to bounce back strong after playing in just three games last season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder and a lingering hip injury. If healthy, Decker could provide a big boost to an otherwise young and inexperienced receiving corps. Harry Douglas will likely need a strong camp to keep his spot because of the offseason additions.
Tight end Delanie Walker was a Pro Bowler for the second straight season. Walker tied for the team lead with 65 catches and is still going strong at age 33. The Titans drafted his potential long-term replacement in Jonnu Smith, using a third-round pick on a player who had been compared to Walker in draft evaluations. Phillip Supernaw could have a bigger role as a blocker, and the Titans are hoping ex-Jet Jace Amaro will improve his blocking enough to play a bigger role.
Other than perhaps running back, no position group underwent a bigger transformation than the offensive line, which progressed from weak spot in 2015 to major strength last year. Nowhere was that more evident than at tackle, where Taylor Lewan better controlled his emotions and his technique and made the Pro Bowl. Opposite him, last year’s first-round pick Jack Conklin was an All-Pro as a rookie. Both those players should be cornerstones for years to come. On the interior, Ben Jones solidified center after arriving from Houston. Jones communicates the line calls and, along with Lewan, sets the tone with a physical style. The Titans found gold with undrafted Quinton Spain, who is a strong physical presence at left guard. Waiver pickup Josh Kline stepped in to replace the now-departed Chance Warmack and was solid at right guard. All five starters are back, which bodes well. The primary competition will be at the backup spots, with veterans Dennis Kelly and Tim Lelito battling Sebastian Tretola and rookies Brad Seaton and Corey Levin. The Titans would like Tretola to challenge at right guard.
Defensively, the Titans made strides a year ago, but entering 2017, there is still work to be done. On the line, Jurrell Casey has been to two straight Pro Bowls and does yeoman’s work with his ability to gain leverage both against the run and rushing the passer. DaQuan Jones has been solid, if unspectacular, at the other end. In the middle, the Titans booted veteran Al Woods and brought in Sylvester Williams from Denver to replace him. Austin Johnson, a second-round pick last year, figures in the mix both on the nose and at end. End Angelo Blackson got good reviews in 2015 as a rookie but didn’t seem to progress as much in Year 2. Veteran Karl Klug comes back from a torn Achilles and is a solid role player. The Titans are also high on Antwaun Woods and Mehdi Abdesmad, both signed as undrafted free agents following the 2016 draft.
The Titans’ starting outside linebackers — Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan — combined for 19.5 sacks a year ago. Despite a combined 15 NFL seasons under their belts, they remain a productive tandem who benefit from each other’s presence. It is behind them that the Titans have concerns. Kevin Dodd was still struggling with his surgically repaired right foot as offseason work opened. Aaron Wallace held up well as a rookie backup but is more of an edge setter than a pass rusher. On the inside, Avery Williamson isn’t the ideal three-down linebacker, but his pass coverage improved. At the other inside spot, Wesley Woodyard is a solid, smart run stopper. With Sean Spence leaving as a free agent, rookie Jayon Brown out of UCLA could spell Woodyard in sub-packages.
Tennessee’s secondary was, in a word, terrible last year and has been undergoing an upgrade. Veteran Jason McCourty was cut after battling injuries the past couple of seasons. McCourty’s leadership will be missed, but his play had slipped over time. The Titans moved on from Valentino Blake, and the starting corners for 2017 will be two newcomers. Logan Ryan comes over from New England, and first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson of USC figures to start on the other side. Both can play inside in the slot as well. The Titans like Ryan’s makeup and also the fact that he comes from a winning culture in New England. Veteran Brice McCain was so-so, playing the nickel and some on the outside. Tennessee also believes reclamation project D’Joun Smith, a former third rounder of the Colts, can provide depth. Johnathan Cyprien comes over from Jacksonville and will start at strong safety. Kevin Byard, who did lots of blitzing as a rookie, probably moves to his more natural free safety/center field type position in Year 2. Depth here is questionable.
Placekicker Ryan Succop had an outstanding year, with his only two field goal misses coming from beyond 50 yards. Brett Kern placed 32 of his 77 punts inside the 20 and averaged 44.2 yards per punt. The coverage and return units got needed upgrades. The Titans added former Raiders special teams standouts Brynden Trawick and Daren Bates, plus ex-Falcons returner Eric Weems and Jackson, their second first-round draft pick, to provide more explosiveness on returns.
Nothing short of the postseason will be acceptable for the Titans in 2017. Last year’s major leap forward was an indication that the rebuild is on track, and the Titans believe it is time to realize the fruits of those labors by reaching the playoffs for the first time in nine years.