The Diary of an Illinois Boston Fan
After finishing up with the NFC, now we start off down in the AFC South as we are less than 2 weeks away from the start of the season.
Ken Wisenhunt was in over his head as the head coach of the Titans, trying to build up a team from almost scratch. Wisenhunt’s greatest strength is getting the most out of established players (like Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers), not unlock the potential out of the unproven (like Matt Leinart and Marcus Mariotta). The Titans didn’t see fit to keep Wisenhunt on long during 2015 and decided to let Mike Mularkey act in the interim…then in the most surprising coach hire, they turned him full time. His hire is more than questionable. He’s been an average coordinator and a lousy HC. While he seemingly got a lot out of Mariotta, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an unlocking and maybe more like a slight tapping into. The Titans maybe see more in Mularkey than other insiders do but they’re going to need to see immediate production unless they want a Jim Tomsula situation on their hands.
Projected Offensive Depth Chart:
QB: Marcus Mariotta
RB: DeMarco Murray
FB: Jalston Fowler
OL: Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Jack Conklin, Chance Warmack
WR: Rishard Mathews, Tajae Sharpe
TE: Delanie Walker
Mariotta is a very exciting young player to watch…one of many QBs to immediately have an impact in their first seasons. In Oregon, he was king with lightning speed and a big body that made him an intimidator of sorts. In the NFL, he still has his speed, but his body isn’t nearly as big and strong as it appeared in college. Last season we saw a slight fear from the Titans when Mariotta took one too many hits and got hurt early on in the season. Lucky for everyone involved, he bounced back to finish off what was a promising rookie year ending with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. While we all expected him to put up high end rushing numbers, he actually only produced 250 yards and 2 scores. It didn’t help that his offenses started on average near the 21 yard line, league worst which hindered his ability in the red zone. Instead, however, his ability passing was rather refreshing. He took more snaps under center in his rookie year than almost his entire collegiate career and came out looking like he always operated that way. He hung tough with pass rushes barreling towards him and delivered some absolute strikes with defensive players always in his face. As he learns the playbook more and can be given more trust to run the system, he has shown the IQ to pull off a nice transition in his second year. I didn’t like his inability to properly make pre-snap reads but that’s something that can come over time.
His playbook study won’t mean jack if he’s still playing half the game from his back or watching from the bench. The Titans offensive line is young and inexperienced but they’re ready to just become a cohesive unit within the next two years. Much like the Cowboys, the Titans have invested A LOT of first round talent into their line including adding collegiate LT, Jack Conklin, and turning him into an NFL RT and may even continue their experiment with him at guard. Last season, their erratic play cost Mariotta 4 games even when there were serious moments that they sealed up opponents perfectly. That can’t continue this season and it’s likely that players like Lewan and Warmack take a leap forward or risk losing their jobs. There’s a fire under them now and a really good year in the dirt could result in a surprise playoff berth.
The Titans were fairly busy making trades with the Eagles in the offseason. Recently they moved WR Dorial Green-Beckham for an offensive linemen and earlier they made a trade for 2014’s rushing champion and non-injury bounce back of the year favorite; DeMarco Murray.
Murray was grossly misused in the Chip Kelly system, asked to run right to left when he’s always been a forward moving back. If he isn’t going downhill, he isn’t doing much. It was always expected for him to have a letdown season after his 1800 yard 2014 but his 702 yard season was a real shock to the system. He’s going to get plenty of chances to recover from a horrible year and being a year removed from 350+ carries should bring a replenished sense of urgency to Murray’s game with rookie Heisman winner Derrick Henry nipping at his heels. Depending on how much faith there is in Mariotta, Murray could face another abusive carrying season for a team fighting for relevance and avoid relegation as a top 5 pick again by November.
Amongst the depth chart risers of rookie Sharpe and free agent Mathews, the Titans have quietly built a reinforced receiver corps of above average guys, any which that could make any given week their personal pro bowl. Like all talking heads will tell you, though, a great TE is a young QBs safety blanket. And Delanie Walker is a great TE. After spending most of his career backing up Vernon Davis in SF, Walker was given serious starter money by the Titans and last year (his third with Tennesse) produced better than expected even with the inexperienced players surrounding him. While Tennessee lost the most games last year, they made plenty of positive moves and making Walker their linchpin was perhaps the best. Putting up over 1000 yards and 6 TDs (Both career bests), Walker lit up opposing defensive backs with his size and speed that made LBs look silly. He works as a great swiss-army knife player — willing to block, play outside, run option routes, even the few sweep play — and will be supplemented by the maturation of the young players moving forward with him.
Projected Defensive Depth Chart:
DL: Daquan Jones, Al Woods, Jurrell Casey
LB: Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Wesley Woodyard, Avery Williamson
CB: Perrish Cox, Jason McCourty
S: Da’Norris Searcy, Rashad Johnson
The Titans defense is what ultimately will hold them back this year. As their offense took 2 steps forward, their defense has stalled in place with only 3 players of real value, even if that value is diminished.
Brian Orakpo leaving Washington felt like whenever a player leaves Baltimore…there’s a reason that player was allowed to leave. Washington pays top dollar for players they think will be amazing (even all these years after getting their salary cap stabbed repeatedly in the face by Albert Haynesworth) so their lack of faith in Orakpo spoke volumes to me and I can’t say they were wrong just yet.
Orakpo totaled 7 sacks in 2016, his lowest total in any year he played more than 7 games. He just hit 30 and his retirement is getting more visible as the weeks go on. Coming into the league he’s always been misused as a 3–4 LB when he would clearly be much better with his hand on the ground. He’s never been a great pass defender but his size has given him a few lucky past deflections here and there. His energy last year looked absolutely drained by mid-season which could just be from playing on a team destined for the top overall draft pick. He’s going to need to find serious motivation or he will find his way out of the NFL by 2017.
A CB I and I alone have an affinity for is Jason McCourty, twin of top 5 safety Devin McCourty. He has been the ultimate in above average CB play. I personally see him wasting his time on this Titans team that has never been sure exactly what identity they want for McCourty. He’s much better suited in the man-to-man game, with a physical first move as good as Revis’, but they often make him run a man start and finish in a zone…basically running him off his receiver, letting his safety help take over while he switches to the middle of the field to worry about the intermediate routes. This usually led to some sort of big outside play that makes McCourty look foolish even though it’s the dumb design. Last year the Titans looked to let their corners get a lot more comfortable in man as Mularkey took over. McCourty missed most of his 2015 campaign and so he will get a chance to show off his skills in a better system amongst very muddled talent in the rest of the secondary.
A lot of the AFC South feels like a toss up teams that feel they can be really really good or really really bad. Lots of youth for the Titans gives them an edge to really surprise a lot of people as Mariotta continues to learn and work with his outstanding targets and use his talented backfield. I expect Tennessee to be in a lot of shoot outs with that weak defense so they should at least be a dazzling offense to watch each week.