2019 NFL preview: Titans need Marcus Mariota to stay healthy, and play better too

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Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were always going to be connected after going 1-2 in the 2015 NFL draft. Their stories heading into the 2019 season aren’t the same, but have something important in common.

Each of their respective teams have a nearly impossible contract decision to make, and time is running out to make it.

We discussed Winston at length in the Buccaneers preview, and it’s hard to talk about the Titans without examining Mariota first. Winston hasn’t gotten an extension because of too many mistakes on and off the field. Mariota doesn’t have off-field issues, but he’s just as much of a mystery as a player.

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Mariota’s injury history is the first line of his NFL resume. He has yet to play all 16 games in a season. Last season he had a laundry list of injuries according to longtime Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky: ulnar nerve issue in his throwing arm, neck stinger, cracked vertebra, a “significant tear” of the plantar fascia, strained oblique, a broken rib and a sprained AC shoulder joint. The Titans had a shot to make the playoffs, but lost the season finale to the Indianapolis Colts with Mariota sitting out. Mariota missed two games and couldn’t finish three others.

And if that was the only question about Mariota, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal, it would be easier. If he stays healthy this season and you believe his past injuries were bad luck, you pay him. If you believe his body can’t hold up in the NFL, pass. But it’s more complicated than that.

Progress for any player isn’t guaranteed to be linear. Mariota’s strange career path proves that. His first two seasons were promising. And the last two haven’t been very good, even when he has been on the field.

Mariota was impressive as a rookie, quickly picking up the NFL game after playing in a no-huddle spread scheme at the University of Oregon. In his second season, he had an eight-game stretch in which he had 21 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 117.7 rating. Given his pedigree as a Heisman winner and the No. 2 overall pick of the draft, he seemed like a star in the making. Or at very least a good, solid starting quarterback. At that moment, it seemed the Titans had their guy for the next decade.

The two seasons since then? Mariota has 5,760 yards in 28 games with 24 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He is putting up a 16-game pace of 3,178 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions over his third and fourth NFL seasons. Would you pay $100 million for that? When the Titans traded for former Miami Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill, it seemed like a team hedging its bets.

Coaching changes haven’t helped Mariota, though last year’s offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur was one of the NFL’s hot names and got a head-coaching job with the Green Bay Packers this offseason. LaFleur didn’t help Mariota much, though it’s also impossible to fairly judge Mariota’s 2018 season given all those injuries.

The rosy outlook on Mariota is that he’s still the talented, blossoming quarterback we saw for much of the 2016 season, but he just needs to stay healthy. He has had some fantastic clutch moments. He still has the tremendous physical gifts that made him the second pick of the draft. But are you gambling that nine-figure extension on it? Or even the franchise tag after this season when Mariota’s contract expires? That’s the Titans’ quandary.

“I just try to be the best I can be for this team, and let it ride,” Mariota said, according to the team’s site. “I mean no matter what I still get to come out here and play a game that I love, and I’m going to make the most of it.”

What complicates it even further is that the Titans have been fairly good the past three years. They have three straight 9-7 finishes and have to feel that if a healthy Mariota can put it all together, they are on the cusp of something special. The Titans weren’t particularly great at anything last season but good enough to be in playoff contention right until the end, despite a quarterback who was hurt from the start of the season. The defense has playmakers. Derrick Henry was unbelievable running the ball late last season, and hopefully this is the year Tennessee figures out that he needs to be featured. Getting back to the playoffs is a realistic goal.

The Titans were decent last season, but to take the next step they need Mariota to avoid injuries and lift his game to the next level. Whether he can do that is the $100 million question for this franchise.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota enters a pivotal season in his career. (AP)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota enters a pivotal season in his career. (AP)

The Titans got Marcus Mariota some help this offseason. The team’s two biggest free-agent additions were guard Rodger Saffold and slot receiver Adam Humphries. They also signed ageless pass rusher Cameron Wake. The Titans took an intriguing first-round gamble on defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who is coming off a torn ACL suffered before the draft, before hitting the offense again. They took Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown in the second round and UNC Charlotte offensive lineman Nate Davis in the third. There was also the trade for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and given Mariota’s health history it makes sense for the Titans to invest in a backup. Overall, it seems the Titans improved.

GRADE: B

Did you see Derrick Henry late last season? If he was still on your fantasy team by December, you know. Henry had a four-game stretch in which he had 585 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Before that outburst Henry hadn’t had more than 12 carries in a game since Sept. 23, and it’s more than a little troubling that the Titans couldn’t figure out to give Henry the ball more before he exploded for 238 yards in a memorable Week 14 game against the Jaguars. Can we finally trust the Titans to just feed Henry the ball, something they have been strangely hesitant to do? Hopefully this is the year.

The Titans are potentially elite in the secondary — safety Kevin Byard is perhaps the NFL’s most underrated player — but the pass rush is a little concerning after Brian Orakpo retired and Derrick Morgan wasn’t brought back. Cameron Wake has had a great career, but he is 37 and won’t play forever. Wake had six sacks last season, the fewest since his first NFL season. Harold Landry has great talent but posted just 4.5 sacks as a rookie last season. He seems capable of more in an expanded role. Jurrell Casey is consistently one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen, but the Titans have some question marks around him when it comes to getting after the quarterback.

The Ryan Tannehill trade was more curious than most backup quarterback acquisitions, given Marcus Mariota’s contract situation. Mike Vrabel had to reiterate that Tannehill is the team’s backup, though he said part of his job is to push Mariota.

"His job as a backup — everybody's job as a backup — is to push the guy in front of him," Vrabel said, via UPI. "To compete and try to make yourself better and try to make the team better and see how everybody responds."

The Titans gave up a 2020 fourth-round pick and a seventh-round pick this year for Tannehill and a 2019 sixth-round pick, so he wasn’t free. Like Mariota, Tannehill was a high first-round pick who had ups and downs in Miami and dealt with some rough injuries. Tannehill hasn’t been great, but he has had some good moments. If Mariota falls apart it seems unlikely the Titans would feel wonderful about Tannehill in 2020 and beyond, but it’s better than having to ask if Sam Bradford would take $20 million to play. There’s clearly no quarterback controversy now, but Tannehill’s presence on the roster adds another layer to the Mariota story.

Like the quarterback who throws it to him, former top-five pick Corey Davis needs to be more consistent. A nine-catch, 161-yard game against the Eagles in Week 4 last season looked like his breakout, and then he had just one more 100-yard game. Davis was a great prospect out of college and there are moments you see that talent shine through. He is entering his third season, and plenty of receivers have had a year-three breakout. The Titans need that to happen. They invested too much in Davis for him to post another 65-891-4 line like he did last season.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The rules are different for a wide receiver drafted in the top 5 — you expect greatness, or at least some flashes of it. Corey Davis hasn’t passed the eye test for me in the first two years.

“I was willing to partially write off the first season, given how difficult the learning curve is for any young NFL receiver. And Davis certainly did improve in his second campaign (65-891-4). Nonetheless, I’m wondering what he hangs his hat on here, what his distinguishing trait is. For a speedy receiver, a career 12.8 YPC (about a yard higher in 2018) isn’t special. And although Davis has an imposing frame and catching radius, his red-zone numbers are poor.

“Some of the blame belongs at the feet of Marcus Mariota and the coaching staff, of course. Football success (and failure) has many parents. You can land Davis around WR 30-35 in most rooms, including early Yahoo drafts and the last five weeks of the NFFC. I usually see other receivers in that pocket I would rather select. Even in the tantalizing Year 3, I’m reactive at best on Davis — this is not a proactive pick for me.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Tennessee Titans]

Arthur Smith has never called a play in the NFL before. But the Titans have faith in Smith, who was their tight ends coach, to replace Matt LaFleur as their new offensive coordinator. Smith told The Tennessean he was getting ready by watching film and asking himself what he’d call in certain situations.

“You're (getting) ready,” he said, “but it’s not the same pressure you're going to have when it's third-and-5, fourth-and-2 and the game's on the line.”

Smith might do a fantastic job. Every great coordinator had to start somewhere. But in a pivotal season for quarterback Marcus Mariota — and, in turn, the franchise — there’s a lot of pressure on Smith to get it right and do it immediately.

CAN DELANIE WALKER BOUNCE BACK AT AGE 35?

Walker has had a great career for Tennessee. He made three straight Pro Bowls from 2015-17. He’ll rank among the best tight ends in franchise history when he’s done. But he faces a big challenge this season. In the season opener last year he suffered a fractured ankle and ligament damage. He went on injured reserve. In late May, Walker said he was in “the 85 percent range” though nobody was setting a timetable on his return. The Titans offense badly missed Walker, especially when Jonnu Smith failed to live up to expectations replacing him. Walker has been a staple of the Titans offense for a while, and another vintage season would be a big boost to the offense. It would add to his legacy if he could do it at age 35.

We have seen Marcus Mariota play very well. His slide the last couple seasons is worrisome but it’s not like he can’t play in the NFL. If Mariota clicks with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith — and stays healthy, of course — then the Titans could rise quickly. The defense was good under first-year head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees last season. Derrick Henry and Corey Davis have the potential to be offensive stars. Maybe by the end of this season the Titans are in the playoffs and the only question is how much to pay Mariota.

It would be tough for the Titans to get to the end of Marcus Mariota’s rookie contract and have to move on. Tennessee could use the franchise tag or perhaps Mariota would accept a short deal, but there’s also the possibility Mariota gets hurt again or simply doesn’t play that well and the Titans feel it’s time to start over. It can be really tough to find a good quarterback in the NFL. To say this is a pivotal year for the franchise is an understatement.

I was pretty impressed with Mike Vrabel last season. I wonder why it took until December to use Derrick Henry more, but Vrabel kept his team in playoff contention all season despite Marcus Mariota injuring a nerve in his throwing elbow in Week 1 and dealing with plenty of other injuries after that. You have to assume they would have strolled into the playoffs had their quarterback been healthy all season. However, I think we’ll see something similar to last season, with the Titans being in the playoff race until late but ultimately falling short. They have a tough schedule (fourth toughest in the NFL this season according to analyst Warren Sharp) and it’s hard to count on Marcus Mariota playing 16 games. And maybe Mariota just isn’t as good as he looked his first two seasons. Mariota probably will play just well enough to get an extension, though Tennessee won’t feel too comfortable about it.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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