The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we head to the AFC South to provide a Tennessee Titans 2016 preview.
Here, we’ll be discussing a team that appears to be developing the perfect offense with which to bring its young quarterback along.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Tennessee Titans 2016 Preview
Head coach: Mike Mularkey (first season)
Key arrivals: C Ben Jones, WR Rishard Matthews, WR Andre Johnson, ILB Sean Spence, FS Rashad Johnson
Key departures: CB Coty Sensabaugh, FS Michael Griffin, OG Joe Looney, ILB Zach Brown
1. What will the Titans get out of Marcus Mariota in his second year?
Mariota’s rookie campaign was certainly a mixed bag. He showed off outstanding accuracy and quick thinking at times, and his mobility was just as obvious at the pro level as it was during his time at Oregon.
Unfortunately, he also struggled with pocket awareness and turnovers — pretty much what you’d expect from a rookie getting thrown into the fire. In the end, he tallied 21 touchdowns and 18 turnovers playing in 12 games.
He also got dinged up with a knee injury, and we’re going to be watching with interest this year to see if the mobile quarterback can stay healthy.
Tennessee went out and signed center Ben Jones and drafted Jack Conklin to shore up the offensive line. Provided Taylor Lewan develops into a top-tier left tackle, the Titans have an offensive line that should be a source of comfort and protection for the young Mariota.
He needs to get better quickly if this team has any chance of competing in the brutally tough AFC South.
2. How good can the running game be?
Based on the first preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, one would have to conclude the Titans will feature quite the potent rushing attack this year.
The team as a whole rushed for 288 yards and three touchdowns, with 167 yards and two of the touchdowns coming by way of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. And they only rushed the ball a combined 16 times, which means they averaged more than 10 yards a pop.
.@DeMarcoMurray is on the loose!
— NFL (@NFL) August 14, 2016
The new and improved offensive line punched massive holes in San Diego’s defensive front, allowing the two big backs the luxury of getting nice running starts.
The thing is, the Chargers are terrible against the run. So it’s going to be interesting to see how the Titans perform the rest of the way. On paper, though, the running game is dangerous.
3. Will the defense improve or regress after impressive 2015?
Bringing in Dick LeBeau to coordinate the defense last year was a genius move by then-head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
LeBeau’s influence was immediately felt, and his attacking scheme was aided by the addition of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Tennessee finished the season with the 12th-ranked overall defense in the league in terms of yards.
That was the good news.
Now comes the bad. Due in part to the offense’s inability to move the chains and the secondary’s inability to stop teams from scoring through the air, the Titans finished with the 27th-ranked scoring defense.
Unfortunately, the team didn’t exactly shore up the defensive side of the ball much, either by way of free agency or the draft. We’re still going to be seeing many of the same players on the back end, and there still isn’t a dominant pass rusher on the roster.
LeBeau will have to work his magic for the Titans to improve on the defensive side of the ball.
Tajae Sharpe, wide receiver
We already expect Derrick Henry to have a big impact, and when/if he does it won’t be a surprise whatsoever. With that in mind, we’ll focus on a lesser-known rookie as the potential breakout player this year for the Titans.
Sharpe impressed Tennessee’s coaches this spring with his precise route-running and has been running with the first-team offense since early June.
“He established himself as one of the better route runners on the team in just a few months, and he consistently caught the ball as well. It’s why he was lining up with the first team at the end of the offseason,” wrote Jim Wyatt of the team’s official website back in mid July.
The rookie got banged up in Week 1 of the preseason but avoided the dreaded concussion diagnosis. He caught both of the passes that came his way in that preseason opener, including a 31-yard beauty down the field from Mariota.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The offense has a chance to minimize defensive deficiencies by controlling the clock and grinding out games with the rushing attack.
Mariota will theoretically have better protection and will theoretically be smarter about taking big hits. The receiving corps has some talented players, including underrated tight end Delanie Walker.
Hopefully the defense can do a better job about giving up big plays. If so, then Tennessee could be a sleeper team for a Wild Card slot.
REASON TO DOUBT
It sure seems like the Titans are at least a couple years away from featuring a playoff-contending roster.
Mariota has talent, to be sure, but he’s not as well equipped to lead a big-time NFL offense as, say, his fellow first-round pick from last year, Jameis Winston. The defense is worrisome, especially considering the potent offensive attacks in the AFC South.
While improvements should be seen incrementally throughout the year, nobody should expect a breakout campaign for the Titans.
Prediction: 6-10, last place in AFC South