“The Amateur Ward”: AFC South Breakdown – Tennessee Titans
2015 was very cruel to the Titans, and the lone bright spot for the team was rookie QB Marcus Mariota, who has a very bright future and the makings of a very good quarterback. The Titans need to give him all the help they can, and that starts with the offensive line, which allowed a league worst 54 sacks last season.
By the numbers, Mariota had a very respectable rookie season, posting 19 passing touchdowns versus 10 interceptions in 13 games. Not bad for a rookie in 12 games as a starter, especially behind a line that allowed him to be sacked basically 3 times/game (38 times). But what was concerning were his 10 fumbles, six of which were lost. It goes without a say that Mariota will be better in 2016, but he needs to improve his ball control and work on throwing the ball deep. He has extremely good accuracy and playmaking ability while on the run, he just has a tendency to rush throws. One game that stands out from his rookie season was his game versus the Jaguars in Week 13. On one particular play, on a third and eleven, he was forced out of the pocket, scrambled to the right, maintained his poise, and threw down field to an open Dorial Green-Beckham for a 20 yard completion and first down. That play not only showed his patience, accuracy and escape ability, but also his knack for anticipating the blitz and reacting before it gets to him. In his sophomore season, he should post around 25 passing touchdowns, 3500 pass yards, and 4 rush touchdowns. The addition of first round draft pick, right tackle Jack Conklin, will be an absolute force in assisting the run game and providing Mariota better protection.
While the aforementioned Mariota showed immense potential last season, the running game was an absolute train wreck, and beyond DeMarco Murray (via trade with Eagles), there really is no substance or potential there beyond rookie Derrick Henry. Bishop (2014) has been a bust, David Cobb (2015) did little his rookie season due to weight & injury issues, and Antonio Andrews and Dexter McCluster have been non-factors in their time in Tennessee. Although McCluster did have over 1,000 all-purpose yards in 2015 in his defense. What I think this points to is second round pick Derrick Henry becoming the de facto backup to Murray. Take note: after 2014 (when Murray posted career best numbers in Dallas, rushing for 13 touchdowns and 1845 yards), Murray was a complete flop in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly, averaging a mere 3.6 yards/attempt and posting 6 TDs. His performance in 2015 was due in part to being a North/South, one-cut type of runner. Chip Kelly’s system did not fit the skill set of Murray to say the least. However, if he does not pick up the slack in 2016, do not be surprised if Henry starts spelling Murray more often as the season progresses. What I think will likely happen is Murray will rebound nicely and post over 1100 yards and 8 scores, while Henry spells him on third down and near the goal line when the Titans need a big back to punch the rock in. With an improved offensive line with the acquisitions of center Ben Jones (Texans) and Conklin via the draft, and with luck, Taylor Lewan will improve his pass protection ability, which would allow Mariota more time and options to make plays out of and keep defenses honest versus the run game. The Titans have taken a step in the right direction with their offensive line and running back additions, but still need another playmaker opposite Dorial Green-Beckham, who has star potential if things break right for Tennessee.
What is impressive about DGB is his speed and his catch radius – how he can adjust late and make absurd catches. He needs to work on handling press coverages, not being bumped off routes, and making sharper, decisive routes. He is easily the best receiver the Titans have and he has the most upside, but he needs to make the proper adjustments and show his explosiveness more than not to be a constant threat. He just needs to dominate in 2016. He has the QB to allow him to succeed and the offensive line is heading in the right direction, it is just a matter of time before Green-Beckham turns into a perennial 1200 yard, 8+ touchdown machine. He will make huge strides this season, and should be a safe bet for 950 yards and 6 scores.
Key position for Tennessee in 2016: WR2 – The trouble is the other half of the offense, namely WR2. Justin Hunter has teased Tennessee for three years, but has only a career high of 28 catches in a season (22 last season). The Titans pass game was so bad last season, that Harry Douglas led the team’s wideouts in receptions (36), and rookie DGB led the corps in yards with 549 and 4 scores. The competition for WR2 will be intense, between Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Rishard Matthews (Miami), but whoever wins the gig better step up the production, or Green-Beckham will be double teamed and Mariota will see increased pressure. While the wideout corps struggled mightily last season, Delanie Walker was targeted often and hard by Mariota, en route to a career high 94 reception, 1088 yard, 6 touchdown season. What makes Walker so dangerous is his size and ability to stretch the field for a tight end. While some view him as merely a “possession” tight end, his average of 11.6 yards/catch and 73 yards/game suggest he was much more than that for the Titans last season. Hell, it is safe to say he was 95% of their offense last season, considering the run game garnered merely 1202 yards on the ground, with 252 from Mariota and the wideouts struggled to provide their signal caller much help. Heading into 2016, Walker is a definite top 8 TE in real life and fantasy, and will once more be a key in the Titans pass game, though a further maturation by Green-Beckham and additions of Murray and Henry could cut into his touches a bit. To be conservative, let’s say a 83/900/5 season.
Defensively, the Titans were not that bad, considering how long they were on the field last season, finishing 12th in total defense and 7th in total passing defense, allowing 230 pass yds/game. The team was led by Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo with seven sacks apiece, and in tackles by Avery Williamson (102) and Michael Griffin (gone to MIN in FA). During the offseason, the Titans made a very intelligent addition with Rashad Johnson (ARI), but also one of the most boneheaded signings in Antwon Blake (PIT), who couldn’t cover a mannequin on the field last season if his life depended on it. Yes, Titans Antwon Blake is a terrible corner and will be targeted whenever he is on the field. To put this in perspective, ProFootball Focus graded him out as the second worst corner last season, and he missed a historically bad 28 tackles and allowed a record 1074 yards last season in Pittsburgh. Rashad Johnson is an excellent signing because he can be a huge boost in the run game. He is more physical than the departed Griffin, and could be an upgrade at free safety, which could free up strong safety Da’Norris Searcy and corner Jason McCourty (missed 12 games last season, groin surgery) to be big play threats for the Titans in 2016.
One of the more underrated moves for the Titans was the drafting of Kevin Dodd out of Clemson in the second round. Dodd, whom I wrote about in Rookie Rankings, is going to be a pass rush extraordinaire for the Titans. He just needs a little refinement and another devastating move, besides his windshield wiper move to blow past tackles and penetrate the offensive line. While he may not be phenomenal versus the run, he is definitely more than capable of holding his own, and do not be surprised if he starts opposite Orakpo or replace Da’Quan Jones at left defensive end, opposite Jurrell Casey. If Titan fans want another name to get excited about, it is the rising linebacker stud, Avery Williamson, who took over the strong side spot in the opener last season when starter Zach Brown went down with a torn pectoral muscle. Williamson is captain of the defense this season, and he is going to be a monster. Although he profiled as a two down backer coming out of Kentucky, due to questions about his athletic ability and foot quickness, he proved to be the best defensive player for the Titans last season and should be afforded the opportunity to prove he can be a three down player. One situation to keep an eye on is if the Titans and Mularkey deploy more dime packages to get more speed defense on the field and then take Williamson out of the game. This would mean the Titans would deploy six defensive backs, dime backer Sean Spence, and pass rushers Morgan, Casey, Jones and Orakpo. This is a bad idea because Williamson can dominate at the line, is a sound tackler who will be playing inside, and a smart play caller. He may not be great in coverage, but he can hold his own versus runningbacks and provide pressure on the QB.
On the surface, the Titans seemed to have a very solid pass defense, ranking seventh, but a bit deeper digging reveals they gave up an astounding QBR of 101.3 and 34 touchdowns. This means that while the Titans only allowed 230 yards per game passing, their safeties and corners were getting abused and taken advantage of. Granted, when you are without your best corner (McCourty) for 12 games, your secondary will suffer to contain receivers. The team hopes their rookie draft pick, Kevin Byard, will step in and be an immediate impact, as they need all the secondary help they can afford. While Searcy and Johnson are penciled in as starters, as soon as Byard signs, he should be in line for immediate snaps in the Titans secondary, where he will back up Searcy. He profiles as a close to the line safety, given his plus ball tracking and QB reading skills, but is more an ankle tackler, which may mean he needs to move to free safety to be his most effective. No matter his role, he is a ballhawk, who picked off 19 passes during his time at Middle Tennessee State, and will see his skills translate to the game sooner rather than later.
Key Players for Titans secondary: Rashad Johnson and Jason McCourty – Signing Johnson made the Titans secondary a lot more formidable and a presence opponents will fear, given his physicality and playmaking ability. Last season, he had six interceptions on the nasty Cardinals defense and brings above average coverage skills, and can help in the run game, despite not grading out as strongly as he does in coverage. Jason McCourty will be key in setting the edge for the secondary and being field general along with Johnson. He should also be a steady, solid player for the Titans and keep opposing WR1s honest, while racking up passes defensed and a few picks. From a fantasy perspective, McCourty should be viewed as a borderline CB1/2, while Johnson should be viewed as an S2.
Things are looking up for the Titans heading into 2016, with a solid draft, upgraded defense and the additions of Murray and Henry to a backfield that was disastrous last season. Mariota is a rising star for the Titans, and this will be the season he and Dorial Green-Beckham begin to form a nice connection and post a solid stat line. Overall, though, the Titans will still finish at the bottom of the AFC South, and are likely 3 seasons away from competing for a playoff spot. They are definitely trending in the right direction and should be fun to watch this season.
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