Key season approaches for Marcus Mariota and the Titans
The 2019 season is a “put your money where your mouth is” campaign for the Tennessee Titans. The good news is that Nashville already cashed in as the host of NFL Draft weekend. So the year is off to a good start in Tennessee. Throwing a comparable party on the field and in the standings will be more challenging, however. It’s AFC South title or sing for your supper this season in Music City.
The 2018 season started with Mike Vrabel’s seven-hour Week 1 head coaching debut in Miami and ended without an injured Marcus Mariota in a Week 17 playoff play-in against Indianapolis. In between those two losses, the Titans posted a 9–5 record and looked like a dangerous upstart team. Inconsistency and injuries, however, derailed a promising season and remain lingering question marks heading into 2019.
Vrabel, 43, looks like a home-run hire heading into his second season at the helm. The 6'4", 260-pound three-time Super Bowl champion linebacker warms up pregame with a blocking bag and shows no hesitation in-game as a sideline CEO. His last-minute two-point conversion call against the Chargers in London and fourth down decision at the goal line at Houston on MNF both failed but showed trust in process and personnel.
One-and-done offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur produced the 27th-ranked scoring offense (19.4 ppg) in his only season as an NFL play caller — having deferred to Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan in his previous jobs. However, LaFleur, 39, was named Packers head coach this offseason, a hiring trend similar to Kliff Kingsbury, 39, failing upward to the Cardinals. Arthur Smith, 37, was promoted in-house from tight ends coach; the Memphis native has been with the team since 2011 and will be Mariota’s fourth coordinator (and fifth play caller) in five seasons. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees, 69, boasts a Super Bowl pedigree and last year’s third-ranked scoring defense (18.9 ppg).
Mariota (No. 2 overall pick in 2015) is already better than flat-out bust Jake Locker (No. 8 in 2011) and flame-out disappointment Vince Young (No. 3 in 2006). But the Heisman Hawaiian isn’t quite a franchise QB a la Steve McNair (No. 3 in 1995). Last season was a referendum on Mariota. And the offseason resulted in trading a 2020 fourth-rounder and 2019 seventh-round pick for former Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill (No. 8 in 2012) and a 2019 sixth-round pick. Lower Broadway also buzzed with rumors of drafting Mizzou’s Drew Lock, who ultimately landed in Denver on Day 2. This is Marcus’ money year, as he enters the fifth and final season of his rookie deal with a nine-figure future if he succeeds. No one questions Mariota’s intangibles or leadership, but his accuracy and durability make this a coin toss make-or-break season for a QB who was not drafted during the regime of GM Jon Robinson and Vrabel.
The majority of Derrick Henry’s rushing production came in the final four games of last season — 585 of his 1,059 yards and 7-of-12 TDs coming against the Jaguars, Giants, Redskins and Colts. Henry should capitalize on his contract year, but consistency will determine his future residency in Nashville. Diminutive Dion Lewis was the featured back early on last year and posted 917 yards from scrimmage.
Take the good with the bad with left tackle Taylor Lewan. He’s frustrating but elite. Right tackle Jack Conklin had his fifth-year option declined this offseason, an indictment on the first draft pick of Robinson’s tenure in Tennessee. Interior O-line was an issue in 2018 and could be once again. The Titans signed versatile guard Rodger Saffold — to a four-year, $44 million deal that is essentially a two-year, $23.5 million deal — and drafted guard Nate Davis in the third round. Ben Jones mans the pivot with a passion.
Third-year wideout Corey Davis and rookie second-rounder A.J. Brown both have a physical YAC style as well as big-play potential. Free agent slot receiver Adam Humphries is a “man of [his] word” and will play in New England South rather than New England Proper, after being pursued by the Patriots after agreeing to join the Titans. Before their respective season-ending injuries, tight ends Delanie Walker (ankle) and Jonnu Smith (knee) were considered two of the best players on the team, period. Their returns will be huge for both the pass and run game.
The stop-unit starts with D-tackle Jurrell Casey, who is coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl nod but also a strained MCL that forced him to miss the must-win season finale. But the biggest knee injury news is that of rookie first-rounder Jeffery Simmons, who was considered a potential top-10 pick before suffering a torn ACL during a pre-draft workout in February. If the 6'4", 301-pounder returns full strength, Tennessee will have one of the league’s most talented D-line units on the frontline of a 3-4 scheme that includes DaQuan Jones, Austin Johnson, Matt Dickerson and Brent Urban in a stout, versatile rotation.
On the edge, serviceable duo Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are gone. Five-time Pro Bowler and 37-year-old free agent Cameron Wake inked a three-year, $23 million deal. But the Titans hope a pair of former second-round picks — Harold Landry and Kamalei Correa — are able to take huge strides forward as pass rushers. Landry showed flashes as a rookie but will need to be more than just a situational player as a sophomore. Veteran Wesley Woodyard is a metronome in the middle, while Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown enter their second and third seasons with the type of splash-play potential the defense desperately needs.
The Titans are heavily invested at cornerback, with former high-priced free agents Malcolm Butler (signed for five years, $61 million in 2018) and Logan Ryan (three years, $30 million in 2017), as well as 2017 first-rounder Adoree’ Jackson. Despite all the capital spent, Tennessee has been abused by the AFC South’s premier pass catchers, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins (11 catches for 184 yards and TD vs. Titans in 2018) and Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton (11 catches for 216 yards and two TDs). Butler and Ryan are on the decline, having spent their best years in New England. If Jackson’s coverage technique catches up to his electric athleticism, he could be a breakout star. But the reality is, the Titans could field three Deion Sanders and still struggle at cornerback; if there is no pass rush up front, the back end will pay the price.
Center field safety Kevin Byard’s INT total fell from eight in 2017 to four picks last year, but he might have had an even better all-around season and remains one of the game’s most dynamic ballhawks. Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and versatile slot-safety rookie Amani Hooker give Pees plenty of options for sub-packages, as does second-year special teams star Dane Cruikshank, who famously caught a 66-yard TD on a fake-punt pass from Byard last year.
Placekicker Ryan Succop and punter Brett Kern are two of the best in the business. The return game is seemingly in capable hands with Jackson. But his big-play potential is often overshadowed by debatable fielding decisions, and it’s a fair question to ask whether he’s too valuable as a corner to continue risking as a returner.
The Titans are at a crossroads. This team has no glaring weakness and is talented enough to contend for not only the AFC South division crown but also the entire AFC. Once again, it’s all on Mariota. Another trip to the playoffs — where Tennessee won at Kansas City two years ago — will probably be enough to get the band back together for 2020. It’s now or never for the Mariota era in Music City.