The Perpetual Rebuild
In the past 6 seasons, the Titans combined record is 33-63, with one winning season in 2011 (they went 9-7). The team has not been to the playoffs since 2008. The team is working on their 4th head coach, 6th starting QB, and a mind numbing number of assistant coach and system turnover since 2010.
There is some hope in the Music City that with the drafting of Marcus Mariota and what he showed in his rookie year, that the perpetual rebuild from the Jeff Fisher era may be coming to an end. With the retention of Mike Mularkey as the head coach (he took over for Whiz in the middle of the 2015 season), the team is going back to its Fisher era roots, but perhaps with a franchise QB this time around.
Mularkey has some interesting assistants and intends to play football in a manner that may be a little dated for the 2016 NFL. Defensively, Hal of Fame DC Dick LeBeau will install his 3-4 Zone Blitz system (with personnel not quite at the level he worked with in Pittsburgh).
On the offensive side, OC Terry Robiske has been coaching since 1981, mostly receivers coaching and is once again an OC for the first time since a four stint with the LA Raiders from 1989 through 1992. Robiske's roots are in the vertical passing game, which is to be established by a power running game. The offense will look a lot like Norv Turner's (he spent some time coaching under Norval in Washington) than the Erhardt-Perkins system the Bolts use now. The team clearly signaled what kind of systems it intended to run with their off-season releases and acquisitions.
Filling In The Blueprint
Mularkey asked Mariota to put on some weight in the offseason, setting a 222 lb. goal for his QB. The coaches figured adding that bulk would help him withstand the punishment of an NFL season. The team then looked to upgrade replacement level players and add the personnel necessary to run their systems.
On offense, the team added RB DeMarco Murray, WR Rishard Matthews, and Center Ben Jones in Free Agency. On draft day, the team parleyed their #1 overall pick to several lower round selections, traded back up and ended up adding quite a few intriguing rookies. Jack Conklin was taken #8 overall and looks to be the starting RT. They also added another RB (Derrick Henry) in the 2nd round. The team also added Taja Sharpe (WR) in the 4th round and followed that up with the selection of Guard Sebastian Tretola.
In reviewing the Titans draft, it is interesting to note that they seemed to ignore combine and athletic test scores in favor of certain skill sets. Sharpe for example, did not grade out well for speed or strength, but did evaluate as one of the best route runners in the draft. Tretola posted the worst combine scores in his position group, but game tape shows a nasty drive blocker that Mularkey obviously thought could help in the power running game.
On the defensive side, several 2015 starters were allowed to walk or shown the door. Linemen Sammie Lee Hill, Mike Martin, and ILB Zach Brown departed. They were joined by CB Coty Sensabaugh and S Mike Griffin. Sean Spence was added to replace Brown. Brice McCain and Antwon Blake were added to the CB group. Griffin's replacement, in the form of Rashad Johnson filled out the FA additions. More help came on draft day.
DL linemen Kevin Dodd and Austin Johnson should both see significant time in the DL rotation. The 64th overall pick was spent on Safety Kevin Byard, perhaps a reach, but with 76 picks between him and their next selection, they wanted to make sure they got their man. The spent lower round picks on developmental CB's and did draft one work-out wonder; DE/OLB Aaron Wallace. That pick had LeBeau's fingerprints all over it and may be a name to keep in mind for another season or two.
This season will be about the growth of Mariota. Missing a few games with injury in his rookie year, with virtually no running game, a questionable line, and receivers that left a lot to be desired, he still showed a skill-set that was intriguing.
This season, the Titans will potentially play 3 former first round picks on their o-line. There may be a surprise veteran cut or two among the WR corps that looks a lot less shaky with the continued development of Justin Hunter, Kendall Wright, Dorial Beckham-Green, and the addition of Sharpe. Delanie Walker and Anthony Fasano are not spectacular TE's, but are veterans and reliable. The RB group with Murray, Henry, Dexter McCluster, and Bishop Sankey should be able to provide the power running attack Mularkey and Robiske want.
There are a lot more questions defensively. On that side of the field, there is only one 1st round pick (2010's selection of Derrick Morgan) and one recognizable name (Brian Orakpo who is a shadow of pre-injury Brian Orakpo). There is not really one sub-unit or performer on the Titan defense that will keep an OC awake at night with anxiety. If there is any coach in the league that can turn a bowl full of chicken bleep into chicken salad, it is LeBeau, so this team may outperform its expected talent level.
The team looks like it has gotten better by 3-4 games. This is nowhere near a playoff team, but certainly has the potential to score points, if Mariota can adjust to an offensive system and style of play that defenses figured out how to stop 15 years ago. 6-10 should be sufficient to keep everyone employed; 8-8 would be unexpected and definitely over-performing.
Outlook Against The Chargers
This is the time of year that both teams will probably be missing some key contributors due to injury. Given the available performers, this could be an interesting game. Offensively, the Titans will look a lot like Denver and Kansas City, but with more of an emphasis on deep passing and without the elite defense. If the run defense looks like last year's, this could be a long day. The ability of Perryman and Te'o to shake off blocks and stuff runs will be key to getting the Titans in 3rd and long. Mariota has some running skills, so that needs to be game planned for also.
Offensively, the team will have plenty of opportunities in both the running and passing games. Assuming any reasonable level of health in the line, the Bolts should have few problems scoring on this team. Given the defensive system though, expect an aggressive unit. Blitzes from all angles and positions, geared toward confusing an offense's blocking schemes and getting a free rusher into the face of the QB, are a trademark of a LeBeau defense.
Prediction: Playing at home, against an antiquated offense and a defense that is lacking playmakers, this should be a win for the Bolts by at least 10 points.
What to watch for in the pre-season game:
- Is the Bolts defense able to deal with a team that is being built to run?
- How do the Safeties do against decent TE's?
- Can the O-line dominate against a defensive front 7 that is not particularly good?
- Can the O-line pick up stunts, blitzes, and unpredictable rushes?