New faces in new places: Coaching changes could get Marcus Mariota back on track

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New Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (center) hopes to get <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/28390/" data-ylk="slk:Marcus Mariota">Marcus Mariota</a> (8) back on track in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
New Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (center) hopes to get Marcus Mariota (8) back on track in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

There are seven new head coaches in place this offseason, and six of them are bringing new offensive coordinators with them. That means new concepts and playbooks and, most importantly in the fantasy world, opportunities for offensive skill position players. New coaches provide plenty of food for thought as the season approaches, and how their players fit in their systems goes a long way toward making a successful team. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of the most intriguing players/new coach tandems who hope to take advantage of new roles in 2018.

There are few ways around it: Marcus Mariota had a disappointing third campaign in Tennessee. Though he only missed one game, the former University of Oregon star was clearly hobbled by a nagging hamstring issue. He finished 19th among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game last year, just one season after finishing ninth, per Player Profiler. He threw half as many touchdowns (26 to 13), produced the most interceptions in his career (15) and set a new career low in yards per game.

Not all of Mariota’s drop off was his fault, of course. Wide receiver Corey Davis, drafted fifth overall, missed much of the season with his own hamstring injury. The Titans only had one wide receiver — Rishard Matthews — start double-digit games, and even he had health issues. The running game, so effective in 2016, struggled.

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In comes a new coach — Mike Vrabel — and, most importantly for Mariota and the offense, new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, imported from the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams. LaFleur broke into the NFL coaching ranks with the Houston Texans in 2008, serving as an assistant under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. When Shanahan joined his father Mike in Washington, he brought along LaFleur, then just 31, as his quarterbacks coach. LaFleur played an instrumental role in Robert Griffin III’s rookie year success as well as the development of Kirk Cousins. LaFleur kept the same role under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, and the Falcons were a half away from winning the Super Bowl. A hot commodity on the coaching carousel by that point, Shanahan was named the 49ers’ head coach, and LaFleur reunited with fellow former Washington coach Sean McVay in Los Angeles, becoming an offensive coordinator for the first time.

It’s hard to argue with LaFleur’s resume, and he’s only 39 years old. He helped Griffin III to one of the best rookie campaigns ever. He’s been key in the development of the league’s two highest-paid quarterbacks (Matt Ryan and Cousins). Last year in Los Angeles, he turned Jared Goff from an unsure rookie to the leader of one of the league’s most dangerous attacks.

Now he’s charged with getting Mariota and the Titans offense back on track.

1. Expect LaFleur to take advantage of Mariota’s legs — and not just with carries

The Rams ran the second-fewest run-pass options (RPOs) in the league last year, only ahead of the Dolphins, per Pro Football Focus. But that trend is due more to the personnel McVay and LaFleur had at their disposal: Goff, while a decent athlete, is not a guy who is going to use his legs by design. Mariota, on the other hand, is just that: He’s had 60 carries in each of the last two years, and he’s averaged over five yards per carry in all three of his seasons.

LaFleur dealt with Griffin III in the nation’s capital in 2012 when he revolutionized a version of the RPO a half-decade before the NFL embraced it. Griffin III led the league with 6.8 yards per carry, and his 120 rush attempts that year are the eighth-most in NFL history among quarterbacks. Of course Griffin III suffered a bevy of injuries that marred his once-promising career, so LaFleur’s play-calling will have to balance Mariota’s skills with his safety.

More importantly, LaFleur should be able to refine Mariota’s skills on play-action. The 24-year-old has struggled at times off of play-action plays, and given his mobility, that’s an issue.

It’s worth noting that Cousins — a LaFleur disciple — was the league’s best passer off play-action last season. And while Ryan is on the wrong end of the list in 2017, that’s more of a coordinator problem. In LaFleur’s last year in Atlanta, 2016, the Falcons led the league in yards per play off play-action sets and called play-action on 27 percent of dropbacks, most in the league, per Football Outsiders. So given that LaFleur has come up alongside two of the game’s brightest young offensive minds in Shanahan and McVay, expect to see Mariota improve vastly in play-action scenarios.

2. Derrick Henry needs to start catching passes or it will be ‘1A and 1B’ with Dion Lewis

In two seasons in the NFL and three seasons in college, Henry has never caught more than 13 passes. But with LaFleur directing the offense, expect that to change. And if it doesn’t, that’s why the Titans brought Lewis to town on a four-year deal.

In the Shanahan/McVay offenses that LaFleur has spent his time around, the ability to get the ball to the running back in a variety of ways has been paramount. Last year, Todd Gurley’s 87 targets were sixth-most in the league among running backs. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield took Atlanta’s offense to a new level. Having an early-down back who can catch passes will be huge in LaFleur’s operation in Nashville, and that means it’s a big offseason for Henry.

But it’s also worth discussing how Lewis fits in. He is coming off a career year in New England — 896 yards on the ground and 32 catches for 214 yards — and is far ahead of where Henry is in the pass-catching game. Brad Evans and Liz Loza recently discussed if Henry or Lewis was the better pick at the current draft price tag. The Tennessee coaching staff seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach. 

“Until you get the pads on and really get going through preseason, I look at them both as 1A and 1B,” LaFleur told The Tennesseean at OTAs. “I feel confident in both of those guys. They both bring a little bit different qualities to what they do. But I think we’ve got two really good backs that we’re excited about.”

LaFleur’s quarterbacks know how to get their running backs involved. In an ideal world, Henry develops into a back who contributes positively in multiple aspects of the the offense.

3. Can Corey Davis play a Robert Woods-esque role?

Everywhere LaFleur has gone, he’s had a big, physical wide receiver who can run: Andre Johnson in Houston, Pierre Garcon in Washington, Julio Jones in Atlanta and most recently Robert Woods in Los Angeles.

To expect Davis to become a Johnson or a Jones in his second year isn’t reasonable, but the Titans would be happy if he became a Garcon or a Woods. For a physical comparison:

Garcon: 6’0″, 211 pounds, 4.48 40-yard dash
Woods: 6’0″, 195 pounds, 4.51 40-yard dash
Davis: 6’3″, 209 pounds, did not run (projected in the high-4.4s)

Davis has the height of a Johnson or a Jones but is on the skinnier side, like Woods. A second-round pick in 2013, Woods broke out in his first season in Los Angeles last year with a career-best 781 yards.  Davis, meanwhile never really got on track as a rookie, but he showed what he could do in a five-catch, 63-yard, two-touchdown AFC divisional round game against the Patriots.

The opportunity is certainly there for Davis. He was drafted to be the team’s true No. 1 wideout. And perhaps the most important change LaFleur will bring is some life and creativity to a Titans offense that lacked that last year under Mike Mularkey. LaFleur will move his players around, give the defense multiple looks and use Mariota in a variety of ways. Whether Davis steps up will go a long way in determining if he’s successful or not.

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