On Marcus Mariota's near-perfection, an offensive lineman showing grit and a defensive guru taking control...

By Emily Kaplan
August 07, 2015

Site: Titans’ practice facility, Saint Thomas Sports Park, Nashville, Tenn.

What I Saw: Morning practice, Wednesday, Aug. 5. Mid 80’s and sticky, with absolutely no shade (which shouldn’t even be a note anymore; this is the norm).

Three things you need to know about the Titans: 

1. Welcome to the Marcus Mariota era. After months of speculation, general manager Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt chose the Oregon quarterback to become the face of their franchise. Tasked with leading the team out of the muck — Tennessee hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 — Mariota is also looking to become the first college spread quarterback to flourish in a traditional NFL drop back system. Oh, and he’ll always be inextricably linked to Jameis Winston, the more pro-ready quarterback chosen one slot ahead by the Buccaneers. No pressure  for a soft-spoken 21-year-old from a tight knit family in Hawaii. To ease the load, the Titans spent six of their next eight picks on offense, including 6-foot-6 freak athlete, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The early reports on Mariota have been glowing. Beat writers say he has gone five-straight days without making an interception (his entire camp), and in the practice we saw he was not only efficient, but coolly comfortable.

2. The Dick LeBeau effect has begun to rub off. The longtime architect of the Steeler’s defense, a Hall of Famer who pretty much introduced the zone blitz to the NFL, is now manning the Titans. It felt odd to watch the 77-year-old at practice in Nashville. He wore high socks, white sneakers and a white polo tucked into navy shorts. He never yelled, never took notes, but felt very present in every play, pulling aside a player here and there for a quick instruction. While Ray Horton is listed as defensive coordinator, make no mistake: this is LeBeau’s defense now. LeBeau will call plays on game day and runs most meetings while Horton — LeBeau’s former pupil — has no choice but to be OK with the change. It feels in many ways like a kid who got in trouble and his father has to take charge. LeBeau should impact a defense that ranked 27th in the NFL last season, bringing disguises to his signature 3-4 style. “Just to learn under a guy like that? A guy who has coached all of the great players I’ve grown up watching?” says defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, perhaps the best player on the defense. “He’s going to help us so much.

3. Taylor Lewan is taking over as a leader, but more importantly as an enforcer. That’s just what the team needs. When Tennessee drafted the Michigan product in 2014, they envisioned him as the blue collar type of guard who could be a cornerstone for their offense. His rookie season didn’t quite pan out and the offensive line was “soft” (Lewan’s own words, not mine). Now that longtime Michael Roos retired, Lewan is the one tasked with bringing grit to the line, protecting Mariota from taking too many hits (something that is just as important from a confidence standpoint for the young quarterback as it is from a practical standpoint). Based on Wednesday’s practice, Lewan seems to be embracing that role just fine. During an 11 on 11 drill, someone stepped on Lewan. The 6-foot-7, 300-something-pound lineman got up, looked at a group of offensive lineman and pointed to whoever he believed was the offender. 

Said Lewan: “You’re an asshole.

What will determine success or failure for the Titans: The offensive line staying healthy and running back Bishop Sankey does drastically better than he did last season. The easy answer here would be saying Mariota overachieves and shines in Whisenhunt’s offense, but I think just as important are the pieces surrounding him. Sankey was the second round choice in 2014 expected to be the Titans’ featured back. Instead, he struggled, averaging just 3.7 yards a run, his longest dash of just 22 yards. I don’t want to pile on Sankey, but expectations are big in 2015. Meanwhile, Mariota really needs Lewan and Co. to show grit and consistency for him to flourish at all.

Player I saw and really liked. Mariota. Maybe it was because the backup options — Zach Mettenberger, Charlie Whitehurst and Alex Tanney — each received a lot of reps, and all seemed uninspired, but Mariota looked cool and composed on Wednesday. He didn’t throw one bad ball in seven on seven or 11 on 11 drills, and his best might have come late in practice in a red zone situational as he found Kendall Wright crossing into the corner of the end zone.

Five dot-dot-dot observations about Nashville. The Titans literally have tree trunks for receivers. Highlighted by Green-Beckham, Mariota has some tall rangy targets…. Speaking of Green-Beckham, my impression was mixed. His athleticism was exciting (on one one-on-one drill, he absolutely floated into the end zone, burning Perrish Cox who complained “there would’ve been a safety up top”) but he dropped a few balls, which apparently has been a pattern…. Wright and Mariota are going to be fun to watch…. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan might have commented to Peter King that his teammates no longer play cards in the locker room, but the defensive linemen in Tennessee had a lively game of Craps at their lockers…. Note to next year’s The MMQB Tour planners: 11 hours from Tampa to Nashville is plain evil.

The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Where to begin? Watching the Titans on Wednesday literally felt like an exercise of, ‘Where Are They Now?Hakeem Nicks, and Harry Douglas at wide receiver, Anthony Fasano at tight end,Perrish Cox at cornerback, Da’Norris Search at safety… but the one name that I forgot about being here — and the player of this free agency class I think will have the biggest impact on 2015 — is Brian Orakpo, the linebacker previously with Washington. He should benefit immensely from LeBeau’s tutelage and could have a big role as Tennessee brings on an aggressive defense.

The thing I will remember about Nashville: The contrast from my visit to Tampa Bay, just 24 hours earlier. Of course, the easy storyline to point to is the interceptions — Winston had three in the 90 minute session we watched; Mariota hasn’t had any all camp —  but I was more struck by the juxtaposition in environment. After practice, Winston is swarmed by a scrum of reporters, and is closely followed by Tampa Bay employees. Mariota, meanwhile, is low-key. He goofs off with teammates after practice, practicing drop punts (including a 30-yarder that lands on the roof of the facility) and casually hangs out in the locker room during the open-media session.

Gut feeling as I left camp: Nashville won’t regret drafting Mariota. But to think it’s going to be a quick turnaround would be silly. This team is still a ways from becoming contenders in the AFC.


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