New coach, but playoff core remains
The 20th season of the Tennessee Titans will be celebrated with a rebranding. The Titans will don new helmets and uniforms on the field and welcome first-year head coach Mike Vrabel on the sideline. Vrabel, 42, was an NFL linebacker from 1997-2010, winning three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before coaching under Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Bill Belichick disciple Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans, most recently serving as defensive coordinator in 2017.
Vrabel replaces outgoing coach Mike Mularkey, who led the Titans to an AFC Wild Card road win against the Kansas City Chiefs last year but was dismissed after an inability (or unwillingness) to adapt his “exotic smash mouth” offense. Vrabel brought in new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, 38, a rising star who has had the Midas touch recently -- with Jared Goff and Matt Ryan, respectively -- as the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator (2017) and Atlanta Falcons QB coach (2015-16).
Quarterback Marcus Mariota enters his fourth season as a charismatic question mark. After two solid campaigns to open his career, Mariota struggled through his worst pro season (13 TDs, 15 INTs) in 2017. But the former Heisman Trophy-winning No. 2 overall pick played his best when the lights were brightest -- with a combined 459 passing yards, four TDs, one INT, 83 rushing yards and one TD reception (on a batted-back pass from himself) in the first two playoff games of his young career. This year, the humble Hawaiian must be the rising tide that lifts all boats on the Titans’ revamped offense. Mariota has yet to play a full 16-game season, so eighth-year veteran Blaine Gabbert or sixth-round rookie Luke Falk could see action at some point.
After missing five games with hamstring issues, wideout Corey Davis experienced growing pains as a rookie. But a six-catch, 91-yard outing against the Rams and a two-TD game against the Patriots were signs of life for the 6'3", 209-pounder whose insane production at Western Michigan (5,278 yards and 52 TDs) made him the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft. If Davis is able to take the top off of defenses in the vertical pass game, old reliables such as receiver Rishard Matthews (13 TDs in 30 games as a Titan) and three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker should provide their usual steady production over the middle and down the seam. Second-year tight end Jonnu Smith is a dual-threat blocker-receiver with enormous upside and should see an uptick in playing time. A draft-day bar fight and season-ending right foot injury derailed receiver Tajae Sharpe after a promising 2016 rookie year. But Sharpe trained with Mariota in L.A. this offseason, reigniting optimism for a breakout campaign. Receiver Taywan Taylor had only 16 catches as a rookie, but four of them went for 20-plus yards, including a 53-yard TD.
Running back Derrick Henry (6'3", 247) is built like a north-south sledgehammer, but he too often dances behind the line looking to hit a home run. In his only two 100-yard games of 2017, he picked up garbage-time moonshots to pad his stats -- with a 72-yard TD run with 47 seconds left against Indianapolis and a 75-yard TD run with 46 seconds left against Houston. Expectations for Henry may exceed what he has proven capable of so far. Expect newly acquired Dion Lewis to be one of the pillars of the offense. Lewis was Pro Football Focus’ No. 5-ranked RB last year and parlayed a career year in New England into a four-year, $19.8 million deal in Tennessee.
The Titans will once again boast one of the league’s strongest O-line units -- anchored by two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan, who enters the last year of his rookie contract as the offense’s vocal leader. After being named first-team All-Pro as a rookie in 2016, right tackle Jack Conklin took a step back last year and is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered in the playoffs. Center Ben Jones is entrenched at the pivot. Returning interior starters -- left guard Quinton Spain and right guard Josh Kline -- could be pushed by free-agent acquisitions Kevin Pamphile and Xavier Su’a-Filo.
Unlike young bucks Vrabel and LaFleur, new 68-year-old defensive coordinator Dean Pees is a grizzled veteran -- albeit not as experienced as outgoing 80-year-old icon Dick LeBeau. Pees was the D-coordinator for the Super Bowl XLVII champion Ravens. He retired from the Ravens on Jan. 1 before taking the Titans job on Jan. 29.
Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey remains one of the most underappreciated players in the league. Casey is relatively undersized (6'1", 305) but commands constant double teams. The Titans’ “win-now” window will be strongly influenced by how long Casey remains elite. DaQuan Jones chose to re-sign with the Titans this offseason after suffering a season-ending biceps injury in December. Jones had 3.5 sacks in the two games prior to injury and has flashed star potential at end and nose tackle. Versatility is a strong suit on the D-line, with both Austin Johnson and newly acquired run stuffer Bennie Logan able to play multiple positions. Nose tackle Antwaun Woods provides depth up the middle.
General manager Jon Robinson was aggressive acquiring rookie linebackers -- trading up from No. 25 to No. 22 overall for Alabama tackling machine Rashaan Evans and from No. 57 to No. 41 overall for Boston College sack artist Harold Landry. Evans sat behind Reuben Foster before becoming a star at Bama and is expected to start alongside Wesley Woodyard from Day 1, with second-year speedster Jayon Brown fighting both for field time. Landry had 16.5 sacks in 2016 before returning to school and struggling with an ankle injury during his senior season. He will serve as a pass-rush specialist with mainstay edge-rushers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, a reliable duo with a combined 34 sacks over the past two seasons. Kevin Dodd has been a disappointment, but the No. 33 overall pick in 2016 has obvious tools and will be given another chance to compete under Vrabel.
Robinson has turned Tennessee’s secondary into “New England South,” signing Malcolm Butler to a five-year, $61 million deal this offseason and Logan Ryan to a three-year, $30 million deal last offseason. Butler is expected to start on the outside opposite Adoree’ Jackson, who had an up-and-down rookie year but showed the quick-twitch athleticism, fearlessness and nose for the football (17 pass deflections, three forced fumbles) necessary to run with top-flight wideouts. Ryan should move back into the slot, giving the Titans a trio of expensive cornerbacks. The star of the secondary is first-team All-Pro free safety Kevin Byard, a Middle Tennessee product who led the NFL with eight interceptions in his second season. Strong safety Johnathan Cyprien is a big hitter from a bygone era; his “jacked-up” style is often a liability, especially in coverage.
A point of pride since the Jeff Fisher era, special teams remain a strength of the Titans. Kicker Ryan Succop signed a five-year, $20 million extension this offseason after converting a combined 90-of-104 field goals (86.5 percent) and handling kickoffs in his first four years in Tennessee. Brett Kern returns after being voted the NFL’s top punter in the AP rankings last season. Jackson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, with multiple punt return TDs called back due to penalty. The former USC track star is the most electrifying Titans return man since Pacman Jones.
The AFC South is a winnable division -- with Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Houston’s Deshaun Watson both returning from injury and Jacksonville staying the course with Blake Bortles. Anything short of a return to the playoffs will be considered a failure. Robinson has built a talented roster with no glaring weaknesses. This season is a referendum on Mariota, who is only signed through 2019. If he is indeed a franchise-caliber QB, Tennessee will establish itself as a legitimate contender this season.