After three fairly average seasons under coach Mike Munchak, the Titans' brain trust replaced Munchak with former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt ahead of the 2014 season. It was hoped that Whisenhunt's offensive acumen, combined with the exciting, blitz-heavy style of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, would take the Titans to a new level, perhaps even the postseason. Not too much to expect, one would assume, after a 7–9 season in '13.
Safe to say, the 2–14 season that followed fell far below everybody's expectations. Quarterback Jake Locker, the eighth pick in the 2011 draft, missed nine games for the second season in a row and then retired in March at age 26. His in-season replacement, sixth-round rookie Zach Mettenberger, did the best he could behind an underpowered offensive line and underwhelming receiver corps, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions and maintaining his composure despite being pressured on nearly 38 percent of his dropbacks.
Still, that wasn't enough for Whisenhunt or general manager Ruston Webster, who made the call to take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft. Mariota was a prolific college player, but the question is how smoothly he'll adapt to an NFL offense—to say nothing of adjusting to NFL defenses.
There are other issues. In 2013, cornerback Alterraun Verner had a spectacular season, good enough for the Buccaneers to come calling with a four-year, $25.5 million contract the Titans were not interested in topping. Jason McCourty, Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson were the primary cornerbacks in Verner's absence, and none of them allowed an opponent passer rating lower than McCourty's 90.8. Outside of underrated tackle Jurrell Casey, Horton didn't have the personnel to fit his schemes, so the Titans racked up just 39 sacks and finished 29th overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics. Legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was brought in as an assistant head coach to work with Horton, but what does he have to work with?
Things weren't any better on offense. The Titans allowed 50 sacks, and the line really fell off after left tackle Michael Roos was lost for the season to injury. First-round pick Taylor Lewan missed the last five games of his rookie season with a high ankle sprain. Right tackle Michael Oher allowed six sacks in 12 games, left guard Andy Levitre woefully underperformed in proportion to his mammoth contract, and right guard Chance Warmack (the team's first-round pick in 2013) was the only really reliable performer. That affected every part of the offense—Bishop Sankey led the Titans with just 569 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and tight end Delanie Walker led the team with just 63 receptions. Whisenhunt's offense also ranked 29th in FO's metrics, and it became pretty clear that this was going to be more than a one-year rebuild. The team he inherited had holes in just about every personnel group.
Outside of the Mariota pick and the decision to draft talented but troubled receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round, there weren't too many splashy moves in the off-season. Linebacker Colin McCarthy and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley joined Locker and Roos in retirement. Oher was released, as was safety Bernard Pollard. Former Redksins pass-rusher Brian Orakpo was the biggest free-agent signing.
It's not enough to propel the Titans past anyone else in the AFC South, and in truth, this team looks as if it's in for a long, painful reality check.
Best acquisition: Brian Orakpo, OLB
When Orakpo is healthy, he's the perfect kind of pass rusher for the hybrid defenses Horton and LeBeau like to use. But he hasn't been healthy often over the last three seasons, missing a total of 23 games, including nine in 2014. Orakpo amassed half a sack last season after racking up 10 the year before, and he's implementing more flexibility exercises in an effort to avoid the repeated pectoral injuries that have robbed him of his potential. The Titans believed enough in that potential to sign Orakpo to a four-year, $32 million contract with $13.5 million guaranteed and another $3 million in incentives.
"When I knew [LeBeau] was on board, it made the transition a lot easier because I knew what he was all about," Orakpo said in April. "When I was in Washington, all I did was study Pittsburgh's stuff and what he brought to the table and how they ran their defense. I knew what James Harrison would do before James Harrison knew what he was going to do. That's how much I studied it."
It's all good if he can stay on the field, but in Orakpo's case, that's a real question at this point.
Biggest loss: Michael Roos, LT
Roos performed well in 2013, his ninth NFL season, allowing just two sacks in 1,088 snaps at the demanding left tackle position. He went into '14 expecting the same but was lost for the season with a right knee injury in October and decided to retire from the game in February. It was a sad ending for a player who never got his due as a reliable blind-side protector for a host of quarterbacks who failed to live up to expectations. The plan was for Taylor Lewan to replace Roos on the left side, which worked until Lewan himself was lost in November to an ankle injury. Lewan will go into the '15 season as the starting left tackle, hoping to improve on his last NFL game, when he gave up two sacks against the Eagles in Week 12.
Underrated draft pick: Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary (round 7, pick No. 245)
Green-Beckham will get the lion's share of the preseason publicity among Tennessee's receiver corps, though he hasn't played a game since 2013 due to a string of turbulent off-field incidents. In truth, it's McBride who has been the more productive player, though he did it at the Division III level. Projected as a third- to fourth-round prospect, McBride fell to the seventh due to some attitude concerns. Now, he's got the chance to turn that around. McBride caught 196 passes for 2,653 yards and 19 touchdowns during his collegiate career, adding to his NFL résumé by running a 4.41 40-yard dash at the scouting combine at 6'0" and 210 pounds. McBride isn't a No. 1 receiver, but he plays tough inside and can gain yards after the catch on a consistent basis. Add in his potential as a return man, and it's possible that McBride could see the field a lot in his first season.
Looming question for training camp: How long will it take for Marcus Mariota to grasp an NFL offense?
Many were concerned about Mariota's ability to transition to the pros from an Oregon offense that utilizes a relatively simple playbook, but Mariota and Whisenhunt don't seem bothered by the proposition. Back in March, more than a month before he was drafted, Whisenhunt intimated that if Mariota did indeed land in Tennessee, he would start right away.
“To me, he shows a lot of the qualities that you see those guys that have been successful in the league have," Whisenhunt said. "The team you can see gravitates to him and you can see they really like him. He’s an accurate thrower, he doesn’t turn the ball over much, he can extend the play. He can do a lot of things that guys at that position do who have been tremendously successful."
At Oregon, Mariota relied heavily on the shotgun and play-action to get things done. He'll be a dynamic option player off those play-fakes in the NFL, and there are pro teams that run the shotgun on 80% of their snaps, so no problem there. The Titans ran it 69.2% of the time, which fits right in. But the real work begins now for Mariota: In college, he barely ever lined up under center, or called protections, or went past his first read, or threw with anticipation. He'll have to learn all these things to succeed at the NFL level, which is why some think he should ride the bench for a while.
Mariota spent the off-season working with performance coach Kevin O'Connell to get the hang of these things, and now, the pressure will be on. Whisenhunt has said that he has a plan, but with so many question marks on the roster, Mariota could be swimming upstream to start.