NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Summer nears its close and mercifully brings with it a new NFL season. Your Tennessee Titans report for the 2017 edition of training camp today, July 28th at St. Thomas Sports Park and a variety of story lines exist that will set the scene for the fast-approaching campaign.
Coming off a season of drastic improvement in 2016 (+6 wins from 2015) under the then-new regime of general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Mularkey, Nashville has cause to be optimistic about its NFL franchise for the first time in quite awhile.
Before we identify five points of focus to watch in this year’s training camp, here are a few items of note about your Tennessee Titans:
- For eight consecutive seasons, the Titans have failed to capture a playoff berth. That span is tied for the longest postseason drought in franchise history (1970-77), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
- Mike Mularkey has a win-loss record of 27-46 (.370 W-L%) and zero playoff appearances in five years as an NFL head coach with three different franchises. In his first full season as head coach of the Titans, Mularkey recorded his second of two winning seasons and his first since his time with the Buffalo Bills in 2004.
- Key Departures:
- Anthony Fasano (TE)
- Jason McCourty (CB)
- Chance Warmack (G)
- Kendall Wright (WR)
- Key Free Agent Additions:
- Johnathan Cyprien (S)
- Eric Decker (WR)
- Logan Ryan (CB)
- Sylvester Williams (DT)
- Draft Picks
- WR Corey Davis (1st Rd)
- CB Adoree’ Jackson (1st Rd)
- WR Taywan Taylor (3rd Rd)
- TE Jonnu Smith (3rd Rd)
- OLB Jayon Brown (5th Rd)
- G Corey Levin (6th Rd)
- OLB Josh Carraway (7th Rd)
- OT Brad Seaton (7th Rd)
- RB Khalfani Muhammad (7th Rd)
NOW that we’ve caught you up on the basics, let us delve deeper into the ample areas of interest for the Two-Tone Blue. Below are the five most pivotal story lines that you should should be the primary focus of Titans fans.
At this point, I’m sure you’ve been told ad nauseam about the problems with the secondary and berated with the idea that your franchise quarterback might be injury-prone. These are all legitimate points of contention when discussing the team. My job here will not be to identify further problem areas, but to shed further light on why these five should intrigue you.
Also, I was obligated to write at least one list this month since July is plagued with them as we in sports media wander aimlessly in search of content:
5.) Can The Offensive Line Sustain Its Success?
According to the folks at Pro Football Focus, the Titans are one of two NFL teams whose starting offensive linemen each received a grade of 80 or higher. Right tackle Jack Conklin, last year’s first round choice, graded out as the team’s highest rated player for the season with a mark of 88.6.
Conklin’s play earned him All-Pro honors in his rookie year.
In a sport where the key is not an individual player’s skill but whether the collection of players you have accumulated is done so at a value, second-year GM Jon Robinson boasts the group with the lowest cash value in the league. Additionally, the Titans offensive line did so while clearing the way for the AFC’s leading rusher last season.
That value will inevitably change with a likely longterm extension looming for left tackle Taylor Lewan, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2016 (the team picked up Lewan’s fifth-year option this offseason). It is the worst of sports cliches, but this group was the foundation of the offenses success last season. And while there is still room for improvement where pass protection is concerned, this group cannot afford to regress much if offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie’s scheme is to become more dynamic.
4.) Free Agent Contributions
Free agency, when used efficiently, is an excellent way to patch holes on a team with a young, developing core.
Perhaps the biggest hole resided in Tennessee’s much-maligned secondary and the team addressed this with a three-year, $30 million dollar contract for former New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan and four years, $25 million for safety Jonathan Cyprien.
On the addition of defensive tackle Slyvester Williams from Denver, GM Robinson said “Sly is a big, mature and athletic man, who plays with a good motor. In the lead-up to the 2013 Draft, I was able to work him out when he came out of North Carolina and he has the ability to two-gap, but also has some quickness to penetrate. Watching him against some of the better offensive lines last year, he played well and we are looking forward to adding him to our group.”
Translation: Williams won’t show up on the stat sheet often but we need more consistent pressure up the middle, which is absolutely essential in the NFL.
Ryan in a new role as a No. 1 corner, Cyprien freed from the stench of losing in Jacksonville and the former first-round pick Williams landing in a scheme that might better suite his talents all sound like tantalizing options to traffic in new-found hope.
And, with Robinson giving us no reason to doubt the moves he’s made based off of the markedly better results his roster acquisitions contributed toward last season, this year’s acquisitions seem to fit within the same kind of mold. Robinson’s additions this year come at a higher price tag but serve as substantial improvements at positions where young talent is available but might not yet be ready for starting roles.
The question, as is always the case with players who have earned their second contract, is whether these players will continue to put forth maximum effort despite receiving big pay days.
3) Receiving Corps
There were few bigger priorities for the Titans this offseason than equipping Marcus Mariota with some starting-caliber offensive weaponry.
Another key free agent, 2016 addition Rishard Matthews, outperformed expectations in a huge way later in the year, averaging 77.0 receiving yards over the final six games of the season. That was not enough of a boost for last year’s passing game, however. The Titans had only the 25th-best air attack in the league.
Tennessee made quick work of those issues in the drafting of Davis, Taylor and Smith (the former in the first round, the latter two in the third round). The team also signed veteran receiver Eric Decker, who was released by the Jets. Decker played in only three games due to various injuries last season but is still tied for the fifth-most touchdown catches (43) in the NFL since 2012. These moves immediately bring a much-needed influx of youth and depth to the position, although the unit still lacks elite speed.
The situation of Corey Davis is still a precarious one heading into camp. As Jason Wolf of The Tennessean reported, the rookie remains unsigned due to the language and structure of Davis’s contract and the presence of “offset language,” which allows teams to recover guaranteed money in the event a player were cut and signed elsewhere during the life of the deal, and when and how a player receives bonus payments.
Until Davis’s representation and the team find common ground, the fifth-overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft may not be present when the team reports today, following in the footsteps of reigning defensive rookie of the year Joey Bosa.
Davis and Bosa are represented by the same agency.
2.) The Secondary
Give up and NFL-worst 2,101 yards after the catch and you’re gonna have a bad time. That is what the Titans secondary gave up in 2016 on their way to becoming the 3oth-ranked pass defense in football.
With the previously noted additions of Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien, Tennessee drafted star corner Adoree’ Jackson out of USC with their second pick in the first round (18th overall) of this year’s draft. That makes for a unit rebuilt and upgraded. The focus for Robinson here with the two defensive back free agent signings appears to have been on tackling. Cyprien’s 126 tackles led all defensive backs in the League last season, while Ryan made 92 tackles, most in the NFL by a cornerback according to ESPN Stats & Info. Assuming second-year safety continues his impressive play on the back end, the case might well be made for this unit being most improved on paper.
2016 fifth-round pick LeShaun Sims also warrants attention. The second-year corner out of Southern Utah performed well when he was thrust into service as a rookie, particularly in wins over the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs.
But, let us remember, new does not immediately equate to better.
This is an almost entirely new unit bringing players in from the outside and attempting to gel them into Dick LeBeau’s established scheme. In that scheme, the Titans played the highest percentage of man coverage (49.6%) in the NFL last year. LeBeau’s blitz-heavy mantra requires a higher percentage of man-to-man assignments from his defensive backs and leaves them on an island and at an immediate match-up disadvantage against solely because of the inherent difficulty of playing the position.
The difference between this year’s secondary and the previous iteration? The Titans simply have better athletes with which to match against elite NFL wide receivers.
1.) The Health/Progress Of The Quarterback (Duh)
Keep it simple, stupid. Your NFL world begins and ends with the state of the all-important franchise quarterback.
Mariota has been nothing but positive about the progress he has made since breaking his leg in a Week 16 divisional loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars that ended his season and, thus, the playoff hopes for the 2016 Tennessee Titans. All reports are that his offseason rehabilitation in his native Hawaii and in Oregon were successful and he was a (limited) participant in the teams OTAs, though never in the full team drills.
“I feel great,” Mariota told the team’s website on Tuesday. “With camp starting on Friday I think my body is in good shape, and I can’t wait to get it going.
While optimism abounds, the facts are that Mariota missed games in each of his first two seasons due to injury. For all the deserved praise the young quarterback was lauded with during this summer, fans would be wise to expect an adjustment period even though a fair amount of time has passed since the broken leg happened last December.
In talking to NFL analysts, the focus of all of them is that the offensive passing game should always be focused on remaing “on schedule.” In essence, a receiver must run the correct route with accurate timing to be where the quarterback expects when he runs through his progressions. The quarterback must be “on schedule” in his dropbacks and when going through those same progressions in order to deliver the football in a reasonable amount of time given how quickly NFL pockets collapse.
Yes, those statements come off as painfully obvious but the basic fundamentals work together essentially to create an effective passing scheme. Couple that with a bevy of new targets (Davis, Decker, Taylor & Smith) and a third-year quarterback and rookie receiver (Davis) who did not receive the full benefit of total participation in offseason activities, the potential problem is immediately exacerbated.
Mariota’s +17 touchdown-to-interception ratio (26-9) tied Steve McNair’s second-best single-season mark (2003) in franchise history and his unprecedented red zone aptitude (33 TDs, no INTs on 64% passing) should make Titans fans water at the mouth. But when your next viable option is Matt Cassel and your starter has not put together a full season, there is still reason to view the situation cautiously.
THE hype for this year’s edition of the Tennessee Titans continues to be fueled by those in both the local and national media. I cannot say that is a line I thought I would ever write, personally. Yet, here we sit. Amid projections of 12-4 records and AFC South Division Winners.
Music City sports fans soaked in post-season glory despite the unfavorable ending of the Nashville Predators Stanley Cup run and now they approach a football season rife with uncertainty and hope. If you are a Vols fan, preseason attention likely makes you gun shy. But, smile, it is training camp! Allow yourself to wallow in these high expectations.
But just remember, conjecture hardly ever pays off.
Information from ESPN Stats & Info, The Tennessean, Pro Football Focus and ESPN.com contributed to this report.