2016 NFL Preview: There's one reason to watch the Titans

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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If it wasn’t for Marcus Mariota, you’d have no reason to remember the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans are mostly anonymous. They haven’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. They strangely hired Mike Mularkey as head coach after Mularkey went 2-7 as an interim last year. They’re building the foundation of a run-first offense in a pass-first league. Their best player the past few years, Jurrell Casey, is a defensive tackle who even most hardcore NFL fans couldn’t pick out of a crowd. They lost 13 of their past 15 games last season, one year after losing 14 of their last 15.

Yet, they have Mariota. So the Titans have hope.

Mariota’s rookie season was uneven. He had a perfect rating in Week 1, played great in an overtime win at the New Orleans Saints, and had some other good performances. Other weeks, he wasn’t so sharp and the offense couldn’t move the ball. But his rookie year was promising. At this point, other than some minor durability concerns after he missed four games, there is no reason to think Mariota won’t be a good NFL quarterback. He’s big, athletic, accurate and picked up an NFL offense at a rapid pace. Don’t underestimate the last part. He came from a spread offense at Oregon, and said before the draft that his biggest challenge would be huddling up because he didn’t do that in college. He was starting from scratch, for the most part. And as a rookie he looked like he had grown up playing in a pro-style offense, which was impressive. The results weren’t always there, but neither was the supporting cast. The jury isn’t in on Mariota being a future NFL great, but if you had to bet now, it would be smart to put some chips on him being really good.

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If the Titans are set at quarterback for the near future, the next challenge is building around Mariota. Their current plan is to have a running game take pressure off Mariota (who, aside from one awesome 87-yard run last year, surprisingly almost never ran as a rookie — he had just 165 yards other than that long touchdown). The Titans traded for high-priced DeMarco Murray, who looked slow for the Philadelphia Eagles last season after an unbelievable amount of touches for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. They drafted big Derrick Henry, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who draftniks don’t agree on. The Titans also upgraded the offensive line by signing center Ben Jones and drafting tackle Jack Conklin in the first round. Mariota might be the Titans’ centerpiece, but this looks like a run-first team. We’ll see if the results match the investment.

The defense is still a work in progress, and the passing game will be too, but it’s best to build one step at a time. The stunning draft trade with the Los Angeles Rams, in which the Titans got two first-round picks, two seconds and two thirds for No. 1, a fourth and a sixth, will give Tennessee plenty of opportunities to add key pieces.

But the most important piece is in place. Many teams spend a lot of resources and plenty of years chasing a franchise quarterback. The Titans must feel good about what they have at that position.

Marcus Mariota (AP)
Marcus Mariota (AP)

The Rams trade is the key, although the Titans gave up some of the value from that move by trading up from No. 15 to No. 8 to take Conklin, who should be a Day 1 starter. There’s a great debate on both sides regarding Derrick Henry’s NFL future, but the Titans want downhill runners and think Henry fits. Free agency went OK. Ben Jones was a good addition and former Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews was a solid signing too. Grade: B-

On his best plays, Marcus Mariota looked like a future star who has the total package of skills needed to be a great NFL quarterback. If Mariota takes a huge leap — and his rapid transition last season from Oregon’s spread to the Titans gives hope that he can make another big jump — we’ve seen teams win more games than they should because of great quarterback play.

The defense is just decent, and didn’t do much to improve this offseason. Even if the Titans want to play a style in which they control the clock with the run game and don’t ask Marcus Mariota to do too much, can the defense keep them in games? And can the running game be that good?

Consistency is the next hurdle for Marcus Mariota. He had four games with three or more touchdowns as a rookie, and five games in which he didn’t throw any. He looked spectacular at times and just OK other times. A bad offensive line, unimpressive running game and mediocre receivers contributed to his ups and downs. Overall, the Titans have to be thrilled with their quarterback situation, though they’ll need to develop a young backup soon after cutting Zach Mettenberger. Matt Cassel is the backup this season.

For a while this offseason, the consensus was that the Titans would draft left tackle Laremy Tunsil first overall. Then the Titans traded out of the pick (and Tunsil memorably slipped out of the top 10), meaning Taylor Lewan remained Tennessee’s left tackle. Lewan was banged up and wasn’t great in 2015 — hence, the Tunsil speculation — but he was the No. 11 pick of the draft two years ago. The talent is there. The Titans gave up 54 sacks last year, most in the NFL, and Mariota missed four games due to injury. The Titans need to protect the quarterback much better and that starts with their young left tackle.

Cosell: “Because they weren’t a good team, and because he missed a couple games with injury, after Week 1 or 2 people stopped focusing on Marcus Mariota. I watched every single snap, and he was really, really good. Almost played at a really high level for much of the season, given his rookie status. Maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of that, but I thought he was terrific.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Titans and the rest of the AFC South]

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Don’t fear another DeMarco Murray disaster. Chip Kelly and Murray were akin to Italian beef and ketchup, a wretched pairing. Now expected to be the featured back in Mularkey’s ‘exotic smashmouth’ power-based scheme, the maligned Murray should return to his steamrolling north-south roots. Considering he’s a more adept receiver/pass blocker compared to Henry, it’s conceivable he totes the heavy side of a 70-30 split. If that happens, Mariota runs more and the offensive line performs at an average level, Murray could amass some 1,300-1,400 combined yards with 7-9 scores. Available at a reduced rate (62.4 ADP, RB25), the once reliable truck will be no lemon. Bank on a bounce back.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Murray’s 1,143-yard drop-off from 2014 to 2015 is the most ever for a reigning rushing champ. His massive drop wasn’t due to a ton of missed time; he played 15 games. He was an ineffective runner most of the year. His average went from 4.7 yards per carry to 3.6. If you’re hoping for a rebound, it’s because you think Murray didn’t fit in Chip Kelly’s offense and will mesh better in Tennessee. But he had 497 touches (!) in the 2014 regular season and playoffs, and the history of backs who have had even close to that many touches is not good.

WILL DORIAL GREEN-BECKHAM BECOME THE PLAYER THE TITANS HOPE HE WILL?

Green-Beckham has the talent to be a true No. 1 target for Mariota for many years, but there haven’t been great signs that a breakout is coming in his second season. It was troubling that the Titans were pumping up rookie fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe as a starter over Green-Beckham at the end of OTAs (though it’s positive news Sharpe looks good early on). Just because Green-Beckham hasn’t fully endeared himself to the Titans at this point doesn’t mean he never will. He had some remarkable highlights and good games as a rookie last season. A big step forward for Green-Beckham is possible this season, but it would be nice to hear some positive news on him coming out of Tennessee’s training camp in August.

The AFC South is improving, but as recently as last mid-November it looked like a 6-10 division champion was possible. If the division hasn’t improved as much as it appears on paper and the Titans are a better team with an improved Marcus Mariota and an effective running game, maybe Tennessee can stay in the hunt for a while. The defense could also help out if Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo each have good seasons rushing the quarterback. The Titans were 3-9 with Mariota in the lineup, which is still bad, but better than the 3-13 final total.

If Marcus Mariota gets hurt again, that’s bad. If Mariota regresses and struggles to recapture his best 2015 form, that’s really bad. There are other issues that would be bothersome, like Dorial Green-Beckham looking like a bust, Derrick Henry looking like he doesn’t have the agility to hack it as an NFL back or a retooled offensive line not working out, but as long as Mariota is healthy and plays well, the rest can be sorted out.

The Titans are likely in line for a last-place finish in an improving AFC South, but it’s hard to imagine they go 3-13 again. The Titans were 2-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer last season, and 1-3 in games decided by a field goal or less, so they were competitive — and a bit unlucky — in plenty of games last year. This is a team that, because of Marcus Mariota and the haul from the Rams trade, has a promising future. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a small step this season.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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