The Titans come into 2017 with a lot of expectations. Every year the AFC South is wide open, and Tennessee made enough moves in the offseason to instill some confidence and hope in the fan base that playoff football could be returning for the first time since January 2009.
The first full season under Mike Mularkey was one of quiet confidence building. A retooled offensive line fuelled an offense that scored the team’s most points in a single season since 2003 when Steve McNair was winning a co-MVP award. They used the first round pick the Rams gave them as part of the deal for Jared Goff to select their second offensive tackle in three years, and Jack Conklin turned out to be a true monster in the ground game as he moved defenders faster and more efficiently than a bar moves beer on a Friday night.
Behind him, DeMarco Murray was a star, putting up 1,287 yards at 4.4 a pop. Marcus Mariota continued to improve as a passer as well, despite a relative lack of weapons. He improved his TD%, cut his INT%, improved his yards per attempt and generally looked more like an NFL quarterback than he had done as a rookie.
Defensively the Titans improved as well, cutting their points allowed by 45 from the previous year. The big step forward came in the run game, where the Titans allowed the second-fewest rushing yards (1,413) on the year.
|Eric Decker, WR||Jason McCourty, CB|
|Logan Ryan, CB||Anthony Fasano, TE|
|John Cyprien, S||Sean Spence, LB|
|Sylvester Williams, DT||Byron Bell, OT|
|Eric Weems, WR||Kendall Wright, WR|
|Tim Lelito, G||Chance Warmack, G|
|Corey Davis, WR (Draft)||Al Woods, DT|
|Adoree’ Jackson, CB (Draft)|
Losing Jason McCourty was a shame, he’s been a good servant for the team over the years, if a little injury-prone. However, he was replaced with the versatile Logan Ryan in free agency and then the speed and range of Adoree’ Jackson in the draft. Elsewhere on the roster, the loss of Chance Warmack is no big deal, he simply didn’t work out at the pro level, and Tim Lelito can slide right into the spot and be an upgrade.
The biggest additions though are on the outside of the offense. Eric Decker provides a reliable and dangerous veteran presence for Mariota to lean on, while Corey Davis could form an explosive and destructive partnership with him for many years to come.
|1||Vs Oakland Raiders|
|2||@ Jacksonville Jaguars|
|3||Vs Seattle Seahawks|
|4||@ Houston Texans|
|5||@ Miami Dolphins|
|6||Vs Indianapolis Colts|
|7||@ Cleveland Browns|
|9||Vs Baltimore Ravens|
|10||Vs Cincinnati Bengals|
|11||@ Pittsburgh Steelers|
|12||@ Indianapolis Colts|
|13||Vs Houston Texans|
|14||@ Arizona Cardinals|
|15||@ San Francisco 49ers|
|16||Vs Los Angeles Rams|
|17||Vs Jacksonville Jaguars|
Opening with the Raiders is a rough one, and will be a fascinating test in pass protection for Conklin. The AFC North and NFC West provide some cannon fodder games though, in the shape of the Browns, Rams, and 49ers. However they will have tests for Tennessee too. With the Seahawks in Week 3 and the Steelers in Week 11 we have two very good gauges of how well Tennessee are progressing through the year.
The toughest stretch will be Week 11 through 15, with four road games in five weeks, including that trip to Pittsburgh, one to Indianapolis and Arizona as well as a visit from Houston, It’s likely that this stretch will make or break the Titans’ playoff hopes.
Three players to watch
There are many new faces on the Titans, but some old ones will be worth watching this year as well.
Jack Conklin, right tackle
I’m picking him partly because I’m a lineman nerd, but also because 2017 will be a serious test for him. Conklin looked great in the run game and solid in pass protection as a rookie, but in Year 2 he is going to be tested to the extreme. It starts with the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack in Week 1 and then two potential tussles with Calais Campbell, but the true test will be facing off against the returning J. J. Watt & Co.
Watt has made a mockery of the Titans during his time in the league. He has a massive 15.5 sacks against them in just 10 games, regularly ruining the life of David Stewart and anyone else who tried to slow him down.
How Conklin fares in pass protection against these guys this year will be very telling. If he can hold his own then we know Tennessee have something special in their pair of tackles.
Jurrell Casey, defensive end
Casey is one of the most under-appreciated defensive linemen in the league. While he doesn’t have the earth-shattering numbers of some 3-front linemen, he has been stellar for the Titans throughout their struggles. He’s racked up 17 sacks, 32 tackles for loss, and 49 QB hits through the last three seasons. From an interior position that is one hell of a return. If you’ve got a Titans game on, get your eyes on #99.
Logan Ryan, cornerback
When players leave New England they tend to play poorly. Deion Branch, Lawyer Milloy, Matt Cassel, David Givens, Pat Chung… They leave Foxboro and suddenly they can’t do much. So, what can Logan Ryan do? Well, there is no real book on Ryan because he did so many different things for the Patriots. He’d play tight on #1 receivers with help over the top, he’d be left alone with #2 receivers, and play in the slot.
As a result, we don’t really know how well he can do when just put in one spot and left there for 800+ snaps.
Ryan played 85.9% (897) of defensive snaps in New England last year and was a strong, productive player but he was always put in matchups that were at worst marginally bad for him. If he can’t hold up against the likes of TY Hilton and DeAndre Hopkins, then the Titans will be in trouble. If he steps up to the challenge and turns into a top quality corner then the Tennessee defense suddenly becomes a lot trickier to beat.
So many people are tipping the Titans to win the AFC South, and I can see why. Mariota is an exciting player who has grown considerably already since entering the league, the ground game is good, and they invested in their weaknesses over the offseason. However, they don’t have a standout part of the team in the same way Houston do with their front seven. In order to beat them, they need Mariota to take another big step forward as a passer, and I’m sure he can do that this year.
The defense is improved, but only if Adoree’ Jackson works out and Ryan doesn’t become just another ex-Patriot. They are also thin in the secondary and one injury could scupper them there. If they can split their games against Houston and sweep the Colts and Jags then they can win the division, and may only need four other wins to do so. However, I can also see them opening up 1-3, losing those games against the Raiders, Seahawks, and Texans, and if that happens then they will have a long road back to contention.
I think they will finish 9-7, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a win, or even two, either way. If everything breaks right for them they could go 6-0 in the division and end up 12-4, but if it doesn’t then a 5-11 season looms too. Division win, top 10 pick, it’s all on the cards for Tennessee this season.
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