Juggernaut Index, No. 23: Titan up, fantasy owners

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/ten" data-ylk="slk:Tennessee Titans">Tennessee Titans</a> fans will have a little something to cheer about in 2018, with a new coaching staff on the sidelines and talent at the skill spots. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
Tennessee Titans fans will have a little something to cheer about in 2018, with a new coaching staff on the sidelines and talent at the skill spots. (AP Photo/James Kenney)

Marcus Mariota enters his fourth NFL season under his third head coach, coming off his worst year in terms of individual performance. Mariota’s passer rating, yards per attempt, and touchdown rate all plummeted, while his interceptions jumped from nine to 15. He passed for fewer than 200 yards in five of his last seven regular season games. Not good.

But the Exotic Smashmouth era is now behind us. Mike Mularkey was jettisoned as Tennessee’s head coach just 36 hours after his team was eviscerated by New England in the divisional round of the playoffs last January. The team hired Mike Vrabel to replace Mularkey, then poached offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur from the Rams.

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LaFleur, 38, has worked with some of the league’s most inventive play-callers in recent years, including Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. He served as Atlanta’s quarterbacks coach in 2016, Matt Ryan’s MVP season, and as the Rams’ OC in 2017, when Jared Goff made the Pro Bowl. The last two QBs coached by LaFleur have led the NFL in yards per completion (Ryan at 13.3, Goff at 12.9); the last two offenses he’s coached have led the league in scoring.

It’s almost a given that Mariota will deliver a bounce-back season, considering the things he’s already accomplished for the Titans. He’s just a year removed from a season in which he threw 26 TD passes and only nine interceptions, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt. Mariota’s rushing ability is well established, if underutilized. He’s averaged 5.9 YPC for his career, but only 3.7 rush attempts per game.

“We’re going to try to tailor our offense to our guys’ abilities,” says LaFleur.

That’s been an unfamiliar concept in recent seasons in Tennessee, but it just might work. LaFleur has emphasized the need to create explosive plays and his history suggests it’s more than lip service. This feels like a particularly meaningful coaching change for fantasy purposes.

Let’s all just try to forget about Marcus Mariota’s less-than-stellar 2017 and focus on the future. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Let’s all just try to forget about Marcus Mariota’s less-than-stellar 2017 and focus on the future. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Mariota generally slips outside the first ten rounds in drafts (ADP 129.7), so he’s a low-cost player with a sneaky-high ceiling. Let’s remember that he’s still only 24 years old. Mariota finished as the No. 12 fantasy QB in 2016, and it’s not outrageous to forecast a return to that level. Thousands of managers are a hard “no” on Mariota this year after being burned last season, which means his price should remain low. If you’re committed to a late-round-quarterback draft plan, Mariota is a recommended option.

Corey Davis is a clear breakout candidate

Davis entered his first NFL training camp with high expectations and a relatively unobstructed path to targets, but things quickly veered off-script. He missed basically all of camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury — not an ideal situation for any player, especially a rookie. He was able to return for opening week at something less than 100 percent, and he actually led the team in targets (10). But Davis aggravated the hamstring injury in Week 2 and he was sidelined until November. All things considered, it was a brutal way to open a career.

Late in the season, however, Davis had his moments. He caught six balls for 91 yards against the Rams in Week 16, then scored both of Tennessee’s touchdowns in the playoff loss to the Patriots. Davis was a massively productive collegiate receiver who topped 1400 yards in his final three seasons, and he entered the 2017 draft as the consensus top player at his position. He’s a guy with clear strengths and few obvious weaknesses. If his draft price holds in the Crabtree-Funchess-Sanders range (ADP 77.4), I’ll own him everywhere. We can assume that a healthy share of Eric Decker’s old targets (83) will be redistributed to Davis.

Rishard Matthews has delivered 118 receptions, 1740 receiving yards and 13 spikes in his two seasons with the Titans, and he’s a good bet to see 6-9 targets in any given week. Anyone who’s bullish on this team’s redesigned offense should view Matthews as a 60-800-6 sort of receiver, which of course keeps him on the fantasy radar.

Delanie Walker led Tennessee in targets (111), catches (74) and receiving yards (807) last year, finishing as the No. 6 fantasy tight end despite catching only three TD passes. Walker is turning 34 in August, so he’s nearly as old as his offensive coordinator. But he’s reached 60 receptions and 800-plus yards in each of the past four seasons; he’s a bankable player tied to an offense that seems like a lock to improve. It’s rare for a 100-target tight end to finish outside the top-10 at the position.

Tennessee’s supporting receivers aren’t an unusually interesting group, but a last-round flier on Taywan Taylor wouldn’t be the worst pick. He was a dynamic, deceptive collegiate player at Western Kentucky who generated decent buzz last offseason. If Taylor holds off Michael Campanaro for slot duties, he might just get fun.

Dion Lewis steps into a significant workload in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Dion Lewis steps into a significant workload in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Another year, another committee backfield

The Titans released DeMarco Murray back in March, following his disastrously inefficient season (3.6 YPC, 6.8 yards per catch). For a minute, it appeared as if Derrick Henry had ascended to a featured role … but no. Instead, Tennessee signed Dion Lewis to a four-year, $20 million deal. As committees go, Henry and Lewis is plenty appealing. It won’t make fans forget the glory days of LenDale White and Chris Johnson, but it’s damn good. These guys are dissimilar in terms of style and athletic profile, yet both are impressive runners.

Henry and Murray received nearly equivalent rushing workloads last season (176 carries vs. 184) and it’s reasonable to expect a similar split this year, with Lewis taking 160-plus handoffs. Lewis was terrific for the Pats in 2017, appearing in all 16 games, gaining 1110 yards yards on 212 touches (32 REC) and breaking the plane nine times. He handled 20 carries inside the 10-yard line, the eighth highest total among all backs, so let’s not assume Henry will dominate the goal-to-go snaps. Lewis is approved for use in all areas of the field, on any down. He’s ahead of Henry in my ranks for both standard and PPR, with both slotted as viable RB2s.

It’s worth noting that LaFleur’s Rams finished with the ninth most rush attempts last season (454) and his Falcons ranked twelfth the year before (421). Both teams finished bottom-third in pass attempts, for what it’s worth, but they were fantastically productive when they threw. We haven’t yet seen LaFleur operate as a full-time play-caller, but his coaching history suggests he’ll deliver a high-yield, balanced, fantasy-friendly offense. Don’t be afraid to Titan up.

2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks

Points per game – 20.9 (19th in NFL)
Pass YPG – 199.4 (23)
Rush YPG – 114.6 (15)
Yards per play – 5.2 (18)
Plays per game – 61.1 (29)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Buffalo, 31) Miami, 30) NY Jets, 29) Baltimore, 28) Oakland, 27) Cleveland, 26) Indianapolis, 25) Washington, 24) Chicago, 23) Tennessee

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