Juggernaut Index, No. 15: Titans surround Marcus Mariota with weapons

When Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey promised to unleash “exotic smashmouth” football on the NFL last year, reactions ranged from bemusement to straight-up condescension. But then the Titans actually began smashing mouths, and suddenly Mularkey’s branding didn’t seem so funny.

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Tennessee’s rushing offense ranked third in the league in yards per game (136.7) and fourth in yards per carry (4.6) last season. DeMarco Murray bounced back from a massively disappointing season in Philadelphia to finish third in the NFL rushing (1287), fourth in scrimmage yards (1664) and seventh in total touchdowns (12). Murray carried the ball 293 times and caught 53 balls on 67 targets. He faded a bit down the stretch, gaining just 4.0 YPC over his final eight games after averaging 4.7 in the first eight, but there’s no way to spin his season as anything less than stellar. We can’t reasonably expect another 340-plus touches from Murray in 2017, but it’s clear enough that he remains the featured runner for the Titans:

However, we should note that 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry was terrific in his first pro season. Henry carried the ball 110 times in a supporting role, rushing for 490 yards (4.5 YPC) and five scores. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 250 pounds, gifted with terrific long speed, Henry is all kinds of trouble for would-be tacklers. He’s a punishing runner, a nightmare for defenders when allowed a few clean steps after the handoff. Unlike Murray, Henry did his best work in the second half of 2016. He averaged 4.7 YPC and scored four of his five TDs in the season’s final eight games. Tennessee’s line was one of the best run-blocking units in the league last year, and Henry and Murray took full advantage. Expect more of the same in the season ahead.

Don’t be surprised if Murray cedes 40-50 carries to Henry, in an effort maximize the per-touch production of each player. DeMarco is the more accomplished receiver, likely to again haul in another 50-plus passes. This team’s ground game remains one of the league’s best, without question — and we haven’t even considered the rushing contributions of Tennessee’s quarterback just yet.

Marcus Mariota is poised to make a value leap.

Is there a more obvious breakout QB candidate in 2017? Arguably no, there is not.

Mariota finished as the No. 10 fantasy scorer at his position last year on a per-game basis, and it’s easy to imagine him climbing three or four additional spots. He averaged only 30.1 pass attempts per game in 2016, but 5.8 percent of his throws resulted in touchdowns, the fourth highest TD rate in the league. He averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, he reduced his interception rate from 2.7 to 2.0, and he carried the ball 60 times for 349 yards (5.8 YPC). Deep ball ability was a question mark for Mariota entering the league, but he took plenty of vertical shots in 2016, averaging 4.6 deep balls per game and completing 42.0 percent. He suffered a fractured right fibula in Week 16, but he’s fully operational now — in fact, he shed weight in the offseason to become a more dangerous dual-threat QB. He was a thrilling runner at the collegiate level, in addition to being a hyper-efficient passer. It’s not crazy to think his rush attempts could jump from 60 to 85 or 90 in the year ahead; if that happens, he’ll deliver 500 or so rushing yards on top of his passing totals.

Simply put, Mariota is an ascending talent coming off a pair of excellent seasons. You should want him in any sort of fantasy format. His receiving corps received multiple upgrades in the offseason, too. The only real issue with his fantasy profile is projected pass volume, but his efficiency ameliorates that concern to a large extent.

Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft.
Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft.

How exactly will targets be distributed in Tennessee’s revamped receiving corps?

Last season, we learned that one of the defining characteristics of the exotic smashmouth offense appears to be run/pass balance. The Titans finished with nearly as many rush attempts (476) as passes (504) last year, ranking fourth in the NFL in the former and No. 28 in the latter. No Tennessee player saw more than Rishard Matthews’ 108 targets; he led the team in receiving yards (945) and touchdowns (9), and tied for the lead in receptions (65). Matthews averaged 6.8 air yards per target, according to Player Profiler, one of the highest totals in the league among high-volume receivers. (For reference, DeSean Jackson averaged 7.5 and Tavon Austin just 2.3). With new weapons in the mix for the Titans, we shouldn’t expect Matthews’ targets to increase, but let’s also not assume he’ll take a massive value hit. He’s coming off a terrific year and he’s built rapport with Mariota. Continuity is king in the NFL. Matthews won’t need to match last year’s numbers to earn his dirt-cheap Yahoo ADP (113.6). He remains a top-of-the-depth-chart receiver for this team, and his quarterback works him hard near the end-zone. Matthews saw 15 red-zone targets last season and seven inside the 10-yard line.

Tennessee spent the draft’s fifth overall pick on do-it-all receiver Corey Davis, one of the most productive receivers in collegiate history. Over his four years at Western Michigan, Davis caught 331 balls for 5278 yards and 52 touchdowns — silly numbers, obviously. He ran every route, and he has size (6-foot-3), suddenness and after-the-catch skills. He was the no-doubt top talent as his position in this year’s draft class. Davis is coming off January ankle surgery and he’s currently dealing with a hamstring tweak, but there’s no medical reason to downgrade him long-term. He’s an easy top-three pick in dynasty rookie drafts, and it’s hardly a stretch to hope for a top-40 positional finish in 2017. However, Davis’ first-year outlook took a small hit when the Titans signed Eric Decker back in June.

Decker, of course, is one of the NFL’s premier red-zone weapons, and just a year removed from an 80-1027-12 season in New York. Injuries limited him to only three games in 2016 and he’s returning from significant hip and shoulder surgeries. He’s also on the wrong side of 30, so there are a few red flags here. But he’s healthy at the moment, generating positive camp reports, and he’s expected to work from multiple spots in the season ahead. He was a smart low-risk, low-dollar signing for the Titans, a gift to Mariota. Decker has a clear shot at returning WR3 value in our game; draft him hoping for a 65-850-8 sort of season.

Delanie Walker has finished as a top-eight fantasy tight end in each of the past three seasons and he was Tennessee’s second-most targeted receiver last year (102). He’s entering his age-33 season, however, and this team’s receiving corps is suddenly loaded with weapons. In an offense that’s likely to throw the ball only 500-520 times, it’s tough to project Walker for more than, say, 75-80 targets. Decker, Davis, Matthews and Murray will need to be fed, too. Fortunately, Walker is tied to an exceptional young playmaking quarterback who trusts him fully, so there’s still a path to top-12 positional value. Just make sure not to pay for his past performance in 2017 drafts.

Depth receivers Tajae Sharpe, Tre McBride, Taywan Taylor and Harry Douglas will fight for scraps behind the top targets on this team. None need to be owned in anything but the deepest imaginable fantasy format.

Tennessee’s D will be a streaming option in the fantasy playoffs

The Titans defense was a middle-of-the-pack group in most respects last season, though the team did finish tied for sixth in sacks (40), led by Brian Orakpo’s 10.5. This group projects as a streaming-only fantasy option in 2017, but there are plenty of friendly spots on the schedule. Check out Tennessee’s final three games: at SF, vs. LAR, vs. JAC. This D has a chance to be a factor in the biggest weeks on the fantasy calendar.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 23.8 (14)
Pass YPG – 221.3 (25)
Rush YPG – 136.7 (3)
Yards per play – 5.7 (10)
Plays per game – 63.0 (22)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore , 27) Chic ago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver , 23) Jac ksonville, 22) Buffalo , 21) Phil adelphia, 20) Mia mi, 19) Indianapolis, 18) Kansas City, 17) Washington, 16) NY Giants, 15) Tennessee