The Tennessee Titans haven’t made the playoffs since a 13-3 campaign in 2008. Kerry Collins was starting. Chris Johnson was a rookie. Bo Scaife led the team in receptions. Fast forward eight years later: The new-look Titans have built a solid young core. Figuring out the most important players for the franchise’s future is more difficult than you think. The strides the signal-caller makes will determine whether or not this will be a 9-7 fringe playoff team like 2016 was, or whether it will be an AFC contender. Based on the pieces in place, the latter seems more likely.
While the run defense was good last year, the pass defense was a mess. The corners couldn’t cover anyone and the safeties were young — it showed. The linebackers weren’t exactly holding their own, either. This is the main reason the Titans weren’t playing further into January.
They did a fine job of upgrading in the offseason by adding Logan Ryan in free agency and Adoree Jackson in the draft. I can’t get behind signing Jonathan Cyprien. I don’t think he’s an upgrade over the young duo they had. Perhaps a change of scenery and leaving him in the box could limit his weaknesses. Cyprien looks lost the farther he gets from the line of scrimmage.
Here’s who the 5 most important Titans are:
Taylor Lewan, OT
Lewan was up and down in the first two years of his career. He was even benched in 2015. Some thought the Titans might move him to the right side and draft his replacement heading into last year. In 2016 the light bulb came on for Lewan. He always had the physical tools.
They finally came together last year — he surrendered only two sacks and was a big reason why the Titans had one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. In fact, no team in the NFL had better success running behind their left tackle than Tennessee did behind Lewan. As a smashmouth team which uses heavy play action, the Titans should continue to succeed on offense as long as Lewan stays healthy and plays at the Pro Bowl level he did last year.
Adoree’ Jackson, CB
It may not be fair to put this type of pressure on a rookie, but based on a first-round investment and the lack of talent around him, Jackson panning out is imperative if this defense is going to take the next step forward. Adding Ryan alleviates some of the damage, but that’s a team-friendly deal. Tennessee can get out of that deal in either of the first two years without much dead money.
Jackson was a first-round pick. That means the organization believes he can turn into a top-tier corner. As a returner, he’s likely already one of the best in the NFL. As a corner, he has a ways to go. Playing him in off coverage and letting his athleticism do the work for him should create an easier transition. Technically, however, Jackson must improve in a hurry if he’s going to make an impact.
People will reference what John Ross did to him, but it felt as though he was beaten deep in every game. Jackson does have great ball skills and is good at reading the quarterback when he’s in zone coverage. He doesn’t have to be Samari Rolle, but he can’t be as poor as the corners on the Tennessee roster were last year.
DeMarco Murray, RB
Yes, he’s 29. Yes, Derrick Henry is a solid up-and-coming player. Yet, the impact Murray had for the Titans last year cannot be overstated. The pressure he took off the quarterback, keeping the Titans offense in manageable situations was so important for their success last year.
Murray breaks arm tackles and is fast between the tackles, but he is a very good outside runner as well. His patience and vision are a perfect match behind a very good offensive line. This led to some explosive runs despite not having the game-breaking speed he once possessed.
Murray is important for the franchise because he’s the bell cow, a powerful runner that can keep the offense ahead of the chains. He is valuable on passing downs because he can catch, but more importantly because he is one of the better pass protectors in the NFL.
Corey Davis, WR
Again, it’s tough to put this much stress on a rookie. However, look where he was drafted. Look at the other receivers on the depth chart. Taje Sharpe was fine last year. He can’t be a number-one threat, though. Davis needs to turn into a top-15 receiver within three years in order to make the Titans look smart for taking a receiver as high as they did. Coming off injury, this seems risky. I do think Davis was the best receiver in the draft — comfortably.
I don’t think he’s a burner. He’s more of a possession-plus receiver, a guy the Titans certainly could have used a year ago. He’s a very good route runner and is even better after the catch. He’ll need to improve in 50-50 situations. I’m a little skeptical of how he’ll be used and if the quarterback will throw him open. Davis has the skill set to be a top-15 receiver, however.
The Titans should move him around, use him inside, and find creative ways to get him the ball. When a team takes a player as high as this team did at this position, the pressure to perform starts right away. Davis has the chance to put this team over the top.
Marcus Mariota, QB
If Davis has a chance to put this team over the top, Mariota has a chance as well. Benefiting from a much improved offensive line and a top rushing attack, Mariota showed good progress in his second year as a quarterback. His deep ball accuracy improved, as did his natural feel for what defenses were doing. Mariota needs to perform better against the top defenses.
This is what will be the difference for the franchise. It’s one thing to beat up on AFC South teams, but if the Titans are to get where they want to go, Mariota will need to beat the teams that will do damage in the playoffs. He’s going to have to take more risks. Throw receivers open and trust himself. If he can, the Titans have a chance to do damage for several years. If not? they’ll continue to flirt with the playoffs every year but will never get over the hump.
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