Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. For our last piece in the series, we dig into the many needs of the Tennessee Titans, who hold the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to the draft.
Key free agents
LB Zach Brown, CB Coty Sensabaugh, RT Byron Bell, DT Al Woods, DT Sammie Lee Hill
Players that must be re-signed
Brown, Stevens: The Titans’ status as a top-two team in the draft order for the second straight season is no fluke—on a man-to-man basis, this may be the least talented roster in the NFL. Ruston Webster’s four years as general manager produced a series of questionable free-agent signings and draft mistakes, which is the primary reason he was fired in January and replaced by Jon Robinson, formerly the director of player personnel for the Bucs.
The team’s impending free agents are emblematic of that talent drought, as only Brown and Stevens could be deemed to be musts—and this is with Brown’s relatively disappointing season in 2015, and Stevens shining as more of a run-blocker than as a pass-catcher.
Most important position to improve
Offensive line: No team allowed more sacks than Tennessee’s 54 last season; while rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota ran himself into some of that pressure, it’s clear that this line needs a fairly radical overhaul. Most experts have the Titans taking a left tackle with the first overall pick—Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil is the most popular candidate—but whether it’s Tunsil or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, something needs to be done here.
A new left tackle would allow Taylor Lewan, selected in the first round of the 2014 draft, to move to right tackle, where he may be better-suited. Lewan allowed eight takedowns last season, though his pressure numbers were relatively low.
As for the inside guys... well, it was an interesting move to sign former Panthers tackle Byron Bell to a one-year deal and move him to guard and tackle—Bell allowed the third-most total pressures of any tackle in 2014, and his ’15 numbers were not much better. He’ll need to be replaced. Right guard Chance Warmack, selected in the first round of the ’13 draft, is still getting up to speed, and center Brian Schwenke has a pretty frightening injury history.
To have this many high draft picks on a line that has woefully underperformed is a serious issue, but the Titans shouldn’t shy away from Tunsil or Stanley just because they’ve blown it in the past. They’ll go no further as a team until they fix this mess.
Other positions to improve
Defensive backfield, running back, receiver: The Titans ranked No. 24 in defense against the run and the pass in Football Outsiders’s opponent-adjusted metrics in 2015, despite a defensive line that has the team’s best concentration of talent. The secondary is the real problem.
The team recently released safety Michael Griffin in a salary-cap and performance-based move, and none of Tenessee’s primary cornerbacks performed at a league-average level. There is talent here—safety Da’Norris Searcy and UDFA rookie Cody Riggs—but this is the defensive version of Tennessee’s offensive line.
Trading with the Eagles for DeMarco Murray ostensibly solves some of the Titans’ obvious issues at running back, but that’s only if coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie set blocking schemes that work best with Murray’s talent. There’s still a question regarding how much of Murray’s spectacular 2014 season was a result of Dallas’s offensive line, and to say the least, the Titans’ line isn’t nearly at that level. Last season, Antonio Andrews led the team with 520 yards on the ground, and that’s inexcusable, given Marcus Mariota’s ability to play dynamically in the run game.
There’s a ton of potential in Tennessee’s receiver corps—tight end Delanie Walker had a career year in 2015, and both Kendall Wright and Dorial Green-Beckham have displayed flashes of greatness—but if that doesn’t expand in ’16, it’s a problem.
Overall priority this offseason
Re-stock the roster with a singular vision: There’s been a lot of turmoil in the Titans’ ownership picture since Bud Adams died in 2013, which hasn't helped the talent drain. Now, with Robinson ostensibly in charge of personnel, that can change if the people up top let it. Certainly, Robinson will let his four-year stint as New England’s Director of College Scouting from ’09 through ’13 inform his decision-making processes, as he remarked at the scouting combine.
“New England is a unique place,” he said. “It forces you to learn football and it forces you to learn more than just, ‘This player can do this.’ It’s, ‘He can do this, and this is how he is going to fit into our football team.’ It teaches you big-picture things when it comes to roster-building, and I think that’s kind of what has prepared [a number of former Bill Belichick acolytes] to really attack our own individual clubs with a similar philosophy but with our own personality on the football team.”
Webster, long a second-banana to former Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell, didn’t seem to get the idea that talent had to fit scheme. Hopefully for the Titans, Robinson can break the franchise out of that stale mold.