- The MMQB’s Andy Benoit ranks every NFL team based on roster talent and gives 10 thoughts on each club throughout training camp. The No. 20 Tennessee Titans have a rising star in quarterback Marcus Mariota, but their offense’s fate will be decided by the revamped receiving corps
1. The Titans 2016 season on offense was a sandwich with great meat but stale bread. In Weeks 1-4, the Titans averaged 15.5 points and 348 yards a game. In Weeks 13-17 they averaged 18.3 points and 285 yards against elite defenses such as Denver, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Houston. But in between those periods, from Weeks 5-12, the Titans posted 30.8 points and 399 yards a game, second and fifth best in the NFL, respectively. What stood out was their scheme’s diversity. It was an old-school, smashmouth offense that regularly played with extra running backs and tight ends. But in two-minute situations, where the Titans were great, it became a spread three- or four-receiver offense. The hope is that it can continue to be both, just on a more natural, regular basis.
2. The updated receiving corps will determine much of this offense’s fate. Corey Davis was drafted fifth overall with the expectation that he’ll become a true No. 1. Veteran Eric Decker was brought in late to be a stabilizing presence with incumbent Rishard Matthews, the team’s leading receiver in 2016 (65 catches, 945 yards, nine touchdowns). Decker, especially from the slot, is a proficient puzzle piece when the system and players around him are operating smoothly. Interestingly, none of these wideouts have great speed. That was the issue last year for this offense. It had no means of threatening defenses vertically. Cornerbacks could play extra aggressively. Head coach Mike Mularkey isn’t worried, though. When the Titans do take downfield shots, it’s usually on first down play-action (something they did much better as last season progressed). Mularkey believes that play-action success stems from precise, detailed execution, not raw playmaking.
3. Marcus Mariota has the makeup to be a star, especially with a run-first offense. That said, he must be more consistent. His accuracy wavers at times, which is unusual for a passer with as compact of a delivery as his. Early last season he also made too many poor improvised decisions late in the down.
4. Twelfth-year tight end Delanie Walker is invaluable. Because of his receiving versatility, the Titans can line up in “13” personnel (one-back, three tight ends) and not sacrifice as many of their offensive concepts as most teams would. Walker can act as the second wide receiver. Last season the Titans played 87 snaps of “13” personnel, second most in the league behind Kansas City (101). Their rating on 26 passes from this package was 125.8. Being able to play in “13” is a huge advantage for a run-based offense. Those three tight ends are flexible pieces who create additional gaps for your ground game.
5. Derrick Henry will supplant DeMarco Murray as the top running back sooner than you expect. Both can be effective, but neither is a particularly deft runner. Murray struggles to change direction if he hasn’t established downhill momentum. Henry lacks quick twitch early in the run. And so what you have are two runners who are reliant on their blockers. Within this profile, Henry is a more explosive player. He has the better second gear.
6. Not many offensive lines boast two quality young tackles. The Titans do, though let’s not get overly smitten yet with second-year pro Jack Conklin’s and fourth-year man Taylor Lewan. Both former first-round picks have room to grow. Conklin must move his feet better in pass protection. He has a bad tendency to bend at the waist, which pass rushers love. Lewan must mature emotionally. It’s great that he’s a gritty, nasty competitor. The NFL needs a few Jon Runyan types. But Runyan never had the problem with personal fouls that Lewan has.
7. Two things define Dick LeBeau’s defense. One: amoeba fronts and complex five-man blitzes on passing downs. You always see pass rushers exchange assignments and crisscross lanes after the snap. That puts a mental burden on offensive linemen and pass-protecting running backs. Two: man coverage—which is shocking. LeBeau, one of the founding fathers of the zone blitz, has become a man coverage-centric play-caller. That’s a gargantuan change by an octogenarian.
8. You know LeBeau is now a man-to-man guy because he kept calling man coverage late last season, even after it became obvious that Tennessee’s corners stunk. That should be less of an issue this season. The Titans spent $12 million in full guarantees for ex-Patriots corner Logan Ryan in free agency. A month later, they used the 18th overall pick in the draft on USC corner Adoree’ Jackson. Rounding out the group is incumbent ninth-year pro Brice McCain, who was the one Titan corner to play well in the second half of 2016. All is fine here—as long as everyone stays healthy. (The depth behind these three is poor.)
9. Blitz or no blitz, Tennessee’s pass rush must be more consistent. Jurrell Casey, a multifaceted exploder, has been a top 10 D-lineman for several years now. But Brian Orakpo is a week-to-week proposition. He has all the tools and can do whatever you ask, be it coming off the edge, blitzing up the middle or dropping back and spying the QB. However, too often you forget Orakpo is even on the field. Rounding out the rush are Derrick Morgan and last year’s struggling second-rounder Kevin Dodd. Both men are better suited for a traditional 4-3, which is antithetical to what LeBeau runs.
10. A name to remember: Kevin Byard. The third-round pick of 2016 is a rising safety who thrives as a blitzer (especially versus the run) and has shown hints of man coverage ability. The Titans like to play with three safeties. It’ll be interesting to see how Byard fits in with free agent pickup Johnathan Cyprien (Jaguars). The two have similar skill sets.
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