The Seahawks and Titans face off in Week 3 of the regular season, in Tennessee, on September 24 at 1:05 PM PST. This is a look-ahead to the team some are calling the favorites in the AFC South, a division that’s not quite as awful as it once was.
After four years of being generally terrible, the AFC South showed some fight. From 2012-2015, the entire AFC South went 57-103 (35.6% win percentage) against teams outside of their division. But in 2016, suddenly, there was life. The AFCS saw a modest increase to a 42.5% win percentage and the Tennessee Titans went 7-3 out of the division en route to a 9-7 season and their first winning season since 2011.
That was before the Seahawks had fans!
Where they were
In 2015, the Titans followed up a 2-14 campaign that netted them the 2nd overall pick with a 3-13 season that netted them the first overall pick. Fortunately, they had found their QB of the Future in Marcus Mariota, so they were able to get a king’s ransom from the LA Rams for the privilege of drafting Jared Goff. Then 2016 was a big step forward for the entire team. The offense scored nearly 100 more points (jumping from 28th to 14th) and the defense allowed nearly 50 fewer points (going from 27th to 16th).
The 2016 Titans
|Total DVOA (Rank)||3.5% (15)|
|Off. DVOA (Rank)||10.8% (9)|
|Def. DVOA (Rank)||6.4% (24)|
|S.T. DVOA (Rank)||-1.0% (19)|
The DVOA largely agrees with the improvement in offense, but the defense is still lacking. This is due to Tennessee playing the second-easiest defensive schedule. Unfortunately, they no longer get to face Brock Osweiler twice a year. Their 2017 schedule does not look punishing, but the defense will have to step up if they are going to seize control of the AFCS.
What they gained
The Titans were big spenders in free agency. They signed three players to deals worth more than $15 million, but most importantly they were able to retain the excellently named Phillip Supernaw on a $3 million deal. I bet they sent him a lowball offer and he was like, “No, thank you.” Please clap. The three big money players were CB Logan Ryan, who they got for $30 million over three years, SS John Cyprien, who they got for $25 million over four years, and DT Sylvester Williams for $17.5 million over three years. Not a big money deal, but they snagged Eric Decker on a 1-year, $4 million deal. Eric Decker once hauled in 12 touchdowns from Ryan Fitzpatrick so he might be the second best WR in the NFL (Brandon Marshall had 14 TDs). More seriously, he provides some veteran depth that may prove very helpful as injuries accumulate.
Tennessee had plenty of ammunition in the draft as they had the Rams’ first and third round picks from the Goff trade. LA’s 4-12 record mean that the Titans had the fifth overall pick and the 100th overall selection. They had four selections in the first 100 picks. With their two first round selections, they grabbed WR Corey Davis (at 1.5) and CB Adoree’ Jackson (at 1.18). Rounding out their top 100 haul was WR Taywan Taylor at 3.72 and TE Jonnu Smith at 3.100. The focus was clearly on improving an average offense through the draft and an average defense through free agency.
What they lost
Overall, the Titans did not lose significant amounts of talent this offseason. They lost just two players of note: Cornerback Jason McCourty left for Cleveland on a 2-year, $6 million deal, and defensive tackle Al Woods took a 2-year, $4 million deal to go to Indianapolis. Chance Warmack, who was selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft, left on a 1-year, $1.5 million deal. Drafting OL, even with top picks, can be tough.
What comes next
After selecting Mariota with the second pick of the 2015 draft, Tennessee sputtered to a 3-13 season, hardly an auspicious start to a turnaround. However, they battled to a 9-7 record and second place (on tiebreakers) to the Houston Texans in the AFC South. I think there are big things in this team’s future, but I don’t know that this is the season that they reach those heights. The three most important people to ending the Titans 8-year playoff drought are Mariota, Mike Mularkey, and Derrick Henry.
Mariota entered the league as the Robert Griffin III to Jameis Winston’s Andrew Luck. He came out of a spread (or at least a non-pro-style) offense and made plays with his legs, so some pundits, one of whom I may or may not share a name with, were not enthused about his NFL prospects. While quarterbacks bust all the time, it seems a bit premature to claim that Mariota, who had 30+ passing TDs and six or fewer INTs each of his seasons at Oregon, would be unable to surpass a fifth round player who had a 35:15 TD:INT ratio in the NCAA. Pocket play is certainly important in the NFL, but it seems like pundits tend to view any ability to play outside the pocket is an indication of an inability to within the pocket (unless the player is Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers). But with two years in the NFL, Mariota has shown that his ability to avoid INTs and generate TDs was not a mirage. What he hasn’t shown is an ability to stay healthy. He went down with an MCL tear in his rookie season and a fractured fibula in his second year. They added two interesting receivers for Mariota in Davis and Taylor, and he already had two talented RBs in DeMarco Murray and Henry as weapons.
He probably has the most talented skill position group in the AFC South. If he can stay healthy, he could put together a special season.
Mularkey is starting his 2.5th season (he replaced Ken Whisenhunt after week 8 of the 2014 season) in his third head coaching job. He has an 11-14 record with them and a 27-46 record overall. He hasn’t been particularly successful in any previous stop, compiling a 14-18 record with the Bills and 2004-2005 and a 2-14 record with the Jaguars. His QBs in these years have not been particularly great, with Drew Bledsoe, Kelly Holcomb, Blaine Gabbert, and once-and-future Jags starter Chad Henne, but still, an overall record of 27-46 is not inspiring. His promise of delivering “exotic smashmouth” in his first full season was met with some derision/confusion, but it actually worked. They had a top-10 offense, earning the 3rd most rush yards, 4th best rush yards per attempt, and 8th best rushing offense by DVOA. Interestingly, this did not lead to a significant time of possession edge. They averaged 2:39 minutes of time of possession per drive versus 2:40 minutes of time of possession per opponent drive. Perhaps the connection between rushing success and TOP is not as developed as common wisdom suggests. The Titans’ 2016 is a bonafide reason for hope in 2017, but Mularkey’s uninspiring coaching history is a reason to doubt that hope.
Is exotic smashmouth going to be able to sustain success for more than one year, or be the 2010’s version of the Wildcat?
A backup running back might be an unusual player to devote a third of this section to, but I predict that he is going to steal snaps from Murray as the year goes on. Henry was drafted at 2.45 after two insanely productive seasons at Alabama. He finished his college career with more rushing yards than Todd Gurley and was pretty efficient, with a 6.0 YPC as opposed to Gurley’s 6.4 YPC. But at the combine, he put on a show, earning a SPARQ z-score of 0.9 (compared to Gurley’s 0.6). He performed admirably in a backup role, taking 110 carries for 490 yards and 13 receptions (on 15 targets) for 137 yards.
Importantly, his yards/carry were not boosted by a handful of explosive runs a la Gurley’s 2015. There is every reason to believe that Henry can produce if given more of a role in the Tennessee offense, especially if the passing game takes pressure off of the run game. With Murray nearing 30 and coming over nearly 300 carries last year, Henry could be poised for a big season.
The Titans have the talent — and the fortune of a bad division — to go 11-5 and win the AFC South. However, they have a red flag at HC and a QB who has yet to stay healthy for a full season. I think an injury to Mariota dooms them to another 9-7 season and another year watching the playoffs from the couch. All is not lost, as they have an exciting group of young offensive players that could rule the AFCS in the year ahead.