Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Tennessee Titans.
Many pundits had pegged the Titans as a breakout candidate for 2017, and while they did make the postseason, they were clearly not as good as the predictions said they’d be. That may be why they decided to part ways with head coach Mike Mularkey following their divisional round loss to the New England Patriots.
While Mularkey was evidently limited in terms of scheming, is Mike Vrabel really a better option? Well, he’s younger at least. Vrabel has been smart about his coordinator hires thus far, bringing in Matt LaFleur from the Los Angeles Rams as their new offensive coordinator. While LaFleur didn’t call plays with the Rams, he was still a huge part of constructing their gameplans, so it’s an inspired hire.
Legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau retired after 44 years of coaching, so the Titans brought in Dean Pees, who had briefly retired from the Baltimore Ravens, to replace him. Pees had the Ravens defense playing well last season, and he and Vrabel seem like they’ll work well together.
The question now becomes: do the Titans have the roster pieces to take another leap? They won’t have the chance if Marcus Mariota doesn’t improve. While he didn’t have much to work with in the passing game, he also threw more interceptions than touchdowns, a far cry from his first two years at quarterback. Injuries may have played a factor, but Mariota has too much talent to be making those mistakes.
Everywhere else looks solid for the Titans, however. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry form a potent duo at running back, while the defense has multiple young talents to rely on for the future. In theory, they could easily stay in playoff contention for 2018.
However, that’s contingent on Mariota improving and Vrabel transitioning in seamlessly. If neither of those transpires, the Titans could be headed back to mediocrity.
Current number of draft picks: 7 (#25 in the first round)
Cap space: $45-49 million
Notable free agents
Eric Decker, WR: After getting cut by the New York Jets in a cost-saving move, Decker took a one-year deal with the Titans for 2017. At the time, it looked like a smart move for both sides. Now, not so much.
While Decker was second on the team in receptions with 54, he racked up just 563 yards and a single touchdown despite playing in every game. Now on the wrong side of 30, it remains to be seen whether he can be a top-flight wideout like he was just a few years ago.
Avery Williamson, ILB: A fifth-round pick in 2014, Williamson has bided his time and developed into one of the most consistent linebackers in football. He was second on the team in total tackles with 92 while also picking up 3 sacks. Pro Football Focus graded him at an 85.6, tenth among all linebackers. Williamson will turn 26 next month, so another team could give him a serious deal.
Josh Kline, G: Kline was strangely cut by the Patriots just before the 2016 season despite playing generally solid and signing an extension the previous year. The Titans quickly scooped him up, and he’s been a stable option at right guard for them since. He allowed just two combined sacks/QB hits, also scoring a 75.8 grade from PFF. His run blocking needs a lot of improvement, but Kline would be an upgrade for most teams on the interior offensive line.
DaQuan Jones, DE: Jones has been a quiet presence on the Titans defensive line for the past few seasons. They usually took him off the field during passing situations, but he has shown the ability to rush the QB when given the chance. Jones had 3.5 sacks and 31 total tackles in 436 snaps during 2017. If another team presents him with a larger role, he has the potential to shine.
WR: The Titans passing offense just didn’t do enough for them this season, with the instability of the receivers being a huge factor. With Decker and Harry Douglas going to free agency, they should consider targeting one of the top receivers on the market to pair with Rishard Matthews and Corey Davis.
G: Blocking hasn’t been a huge issue for the Titans lately, but they face a problem in the interior offensive line this offseason. Kline and backup Brian Schwenke are unrestricted free agents, while left guard Quinton Spain is a restricted free agent. The Titans need to try and retain both of their starters if possible.
CB: This is more for depth than anything else. While nickel corner Brice McCain is a free agent, the Titans should be stable with Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan and LeShaun Sims even if he leaves. There’s not much behind those three though.
T: Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin form a young and talented duo at tackle, but the latter tore his ACL during the playoffs last month, which could delay his start to 2018. That leaves just Dennis Kelly to replace him at right tackle. The Titans might consider bringing in some more depth at the position.
QB: More of a wishful thinking sort of thing. Matt Cassel could be upgraded (or pushed at least) as a backup to Mariota.
K: Kicker Ryan Succop, who was 35-for-42 on field goal tries this season, is a free agent.
Best player/building block
Jurrell Casey, DE: It’s taken a while, but Casey has finally gotten the attention he deserves as one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in football. He was second on the team in sacks this season with 6, also picking up 60 total tackles. PFF gave him a grade of 89.7, the ninth best for interior defenders.
Kevin Byard, S: You’d think that the league leader in interceptions (one of two anyway) would get more accolades, but Byard was left off the initial Pro Bowl roster, which was at least corrected later. But his 2017 was something to behold.
In addition to his 8 interceptions, Byard was second on the team in pass breakups with 16 and third in total tackles with 87. PFF graded him at an 89, fourth among all safeties. All that in his second year in the league. The future looks bright.