It’s crunch time in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Titans are fast approaching a crossroads with their quarterback situation. Incumbent QB Marcus Mariota is entering the final year of his rookie deal and still has much to prove. If the pressure wasn’t amping up already, it was considerably increased when Ryan Tannehill arrived in town this offseason. Entering his fifth year, it promises to be the most crucial for Mariota yet.
Constantly facing questions regarding his health and whether he can last a full season, now also comes the external threat of a very capable backup vying for game time. There are no certainties on who will be quarterbacking this team into 2020 and beyond. This year will tell all.
Elsewhere on the field for the Titans, the receiving corps have also been given a shake up. Highly dependable Adam Humphries arrived from the Buccaneers in free agency and AJ Brown was added through the draft. These two new arrivals will provide stiff competition for Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe. Watch this depth chart takes shape during the preseason.
How do you solve a problem like Mariota?
The question on most lips in Music City is ‘do they have a franchise quarterback’? It is worth remembering that when he was drafted by the Titans in 2015, neither current GM Jon Robinson nor head coach Mike Vrabel were at the helm.
Therefore, they wouldn’t necessarily be the ones to eat humble pie should the organisation choose to move on. So much so is the creeping doubt that a change is coming, the Titans were rumoured to be high on QB Drew Lock in the draft just passed.
As it turns out, the coaching staff will continue to rally around Mariota. Now it’s time for him to repay the faith shown in him. All going well, Mariota will lead the team to something near seven wins by the time they come to their bye in week 11. However, this looks a tall order. In the first half of the season, the Titans face a tough schedule.
Road visits to Cleveland, Atlanta and Carolina will be tricky to navigate. The home game slate features divisional rivals Colts in week 2, later followed by the Chiefs and Chargers coming to Nashville. If a contract extension is to be in place before season end, it’s fair to say Mariota will need to play his best ball.
A worst case scenario is the injury bug striking again. This season, more than ever, he will need to prove he can last a full 16 game slate; something that he has failed to achieve thus far in his NFL career. If the time comes where Tannehill starts a game or two and tallies up wins, it may well spell the end of Mariota’s reign. He must prove to be durable.
For all the doubt over who will be throwing the ball for the foreseeable future in Tennessee, the guys catching them at least are looking solid. New signing Adam Humphries will patrol the slot with conviction. We know for sure he has bought into what the Titans are selling, since he turned down a move to the Patriots. Second round selection AJ Brown is the favourite to start opposite Corey Davis on the outside. The only caveat to this however is the amount of practice time Brown has missed. Which, as a rookie, can prove to be very disruptive. He may need more time to show the best of his abilities.
Looking to hoover up snaps behind the aforementioned trio are Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe. In the season just passed, it was Taylor who proved to be the more productive. This was despite playing in three fewer games. It’s likely that Taylor be WR4 on the roster. A good talent to have this deep on the roster.
Away from their wide-outs, the Titans can also look to their tight ends for receiving help. Delanie Walker is the true veteran on this offense. Since signing with the team back in 2013, Walker has been ever present. The only blotch on his record was missing all but one game in the season just passed. Perhaps a sign that father-time is approaching.
Smart planning from the Titans saw them draft Jonnu Smith in 2017. Smith has essentially acted as the apprentice of Walker. Prior to his drafting, he was labelled the new Delaine Walker. It’s no coincidence that Tennessee was his landing spot. However, this duo have both opened training camp on the PUP list. A major blow to this team if neither are ready to go for week 1.
Running game conundrum
The running backs on this roster are nothing to be frowned upon either. For most of last year, we saw a one-two punch backfield. Derrick Henry, the big-bodied power runner, accompanied by the diminutive Dion Lewis who proved most effective on third downs.
Henry is entering his contract year, meaning teams up and down the league will be monitoring his situation closely. He exploded in the last 4 games of the previous season. Only time will tell if this was a purple patch, or a taste of more to come. His rushing total for the year was 1,059 yards – 585 of these came in the final 4 games. Henry also notched up 7 of his 12 TDs in this time-frame.
In these match-ups where Henry lit up the box score, the usage of Dion Lewis dipped away dramatically. Judging by this, it appears that Henry is more suited to the classic workhorse role. Therefore, the Titans coaching staff have a big decision to make for the upcoming season on how to handle the run-game.
If they continue the philosophy of feeding the ball to Henry on almost every run play, what does that mean for Dion Lewis’ role in the team. Lewis was recently signed to a deal that runs through 2021, so clearly there was a plan in place to deploy him in some way. The first couple of games in the season will probably provide the answer to this conundrum.
Likelihood of making the playoffs: Average
For sure, this is a well-rounded roster. What is holding back the Titans is the uncertainty at the game’s most important position. The AFC South has quietly become a tough division, after years as ranking one of the league’s least competitive. Now it seems there is a fine line to tread between success and failure. Consistency will be key, and this is something that the Titans simply do not possess. Barring major injury to their divisional rivals, playoff football might just be a bridge too far for the Tennessee Titans.