Some teams talk about changing the culture of a locker room, and other teams just do it. In Miami they are doing it by emptying the roster of bad apples, but in Tennessee they seem to be trying to do it by borrowing principles from another team. Namely the New England Patriots.
This time last year the Titans, in need of cornerback help, signed Logan Ryan as a free agent. He was coming off a very nice year as a slot corner for the Patriots and had just won his second Super Bowl. He struggled in 2017 playing more outside coverage, leaving the Titans with the need for another corner. Meanwhile, DeMarco Murray’s terrible 2017 campaign led to his release last week and a hole in the running back room. So what do the Titans do? They go back to the Patriots and sign a pair of champions and continue their attempt to become the new New England Patriots.
New England South
Mike Vrabel spent eight years in New England playing under Bill Belichick. He won three Super Bowls as an outside linebacker and goal line tight end, and while he has spent plenty of time away from the Patriots, there is still a strong connection to the minute men of the north-east. Dean Pees was hired as the Titans defensive coordinator, his first DC job in the NFL was with the Patriots when Vrabel was a player there. General manager John Robinson spent 12 years with the Patriots in the scouting department working all the way up to director of college scouting.
It isn’t a new thing to try and build off the Patriots work. The Houston Texans have tried it with Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, and Vrabel recently, but they couldn’t pull it off because they didn’t have a quarterback. The Titans do.
Marcus Mariota and Matt LaFleur seem like a perfect partners to create an offense, Vrabel and Pees seem like a dream combination to put a defense together. But the Titans roster needed extra talent, so they went home and got some more.
To fill the outside cornerback position they signed Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler to a five-year, $61 million deal with over $30 million in guarantees. To bring some more bite to their running back rotation they added Dion Lewis on a four-year, $23 million contract that includes $11.5 million in guarantees.
Lewis was a monster for New England when he arrived in 2015, before an ACL tear and surgical complications put him on the shelf for a year. In 2017 he made a massive impact, leading the Pats with 896 yards rushing at a stellar 5.0 yards per carry and still contributing in the passing game.
He isn’t as talented as a Todd Gurley, but he brings a similar skillset with more power between the tackles than you would think and excellent instincts in the passing game. With Mariota working best in spread situations and at speed, Lewis can be the exact kind of weapon to exploit tired linebackers and fool defensive coordinators.
As for Butler, he was terrific in 2015 and 2016 only to fall somewhat in 2017. The contract carries some risk, but it also fills a big need for the Titans and brings with it someone who has experienced both the highs of the Patriots world and the lows. Butler’s benching for Super Bowl LII is still a head-scratcher, but Vrabel and Pees are exactly the kind of coaches that can turn his mentality around and use the negativity of that day to fuel improvements.
The Titans ranked 24th in pass defense DVOA last year, and while Adoree’ Jackson was a capable rookie, it was the play on the other sideline that really killed them. Even if Butler just provides league-average play then he will be a big improvement for the Titans.
The Titans lost focus last year. They didn’t evolve their schemes or improve their execution through the season. They were in prime position for the AFC South and then lost their way. That is the kind of culture that Robinson and Vrabel are looking to change. By moving on from Murray and bringing in the kind of “do it all” workhorse player like Lewis they are making a statement: Team before self. Butler may have been benched in the Super Bowl, but he played on the punt team, and played hard. Lewis was the star running back last year, but he still returned kicks.
The Titans want to make a winner, and to do that you have to have people in the building that are used to winning, and know what it takes to get the job done. Winning is a grind, and not everyone is willing to endure it. The Titans have a front office and coaching staff that are. And now they have players that are as well.
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