One of the biggest storylines in the AFC South heading into the season, is the future of Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. The second pick in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Oregon is in his final year of his rookie contract. After not receiving a long term contract this past off-season, this upcoming season is crucial not only for Mariota, but also the Titans organization.
In his NFL debut, on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the only player selected before him in the draft, Jameis Winston, Mariota was brilliant. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 4 touchdown passes in the first half of his NFL debut. The rookie quarterback ended the game with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating, also finishing with more touchdown passes (four), than incomplete passes (two). He was so dominant that head coach Ken Whisenhunt sat him for most of the 4th quarter.
Since his debut there have been glimpses of a franchise quarterback. Stiff arms on runs to get the extra yards. Providing key blocks in the open field for his running back. Leading a comeback in the Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, including making a play he never quit on, throwing and catching the same touchdown pass. Jumping out to an early lead against the Patriots the following week in the Divisional round, only to get Brady’d and Belichick’d in the second half like most teams do. And last season, on the Titans’ biggest play from scrimmage, Mariota audibled out of the play call on his own one-yard line because of what he saw in the defense. The result: a 99-yard run to the end zone by Derrick Henry.
Mariota has played for three offensive coordinators and three different head coaches in his four years in the league, which would be complex for any quarterback in the NFL. That, coupled with a few injuries, has led to the Titans not offering him a big money long-term contract. Rightfully so, the coordinators did not allow him to showcase his skill set and used it to their advantage. Could this be the year where it all comes together or will there be a new quarterback under center for the Titans in 2020?
The offensive side of the ball features workhorse Derrick Henry who, if he runs like he did in the second half of the season last year, could take a lot of pressure off of his quarterback. And if Dion Lewis, who showed very little spark last year, can return to his old self, he can help the one-two punch out of the backfield along with Mariota’s running ability.
Wide receiver Corey Davis, in his second season last year, showed enough to earn the No. 1 receiver spot. The signing of slot threat Adam Humphries is a great addition along with the selection of A.J. Brown. Although his former college teammate, D.K. Metcalf, is deemed a better player by some, Brown was the better fit for the Titans. Tajae Sharpe and speedster Taywan Taylor are viable fourth and fifth receiver options, given they both make the roster.
Mariota’s security blanket, Delanie Walker, who missed the last 15 games last season after getting injured in the eight-hour season opener in Miami, can be one of the better tight ends in the league if he is healthy.
The offseason signing of guard Roger Saffold was a good pick-up when it happened, but could loom larger with the impending suspension of tackle Taylor Lewan, who is one of if not the best tackles in the league. He takes his role as protecting his quarterback seriously. Another positive is Jack Conklin playing this season, much like Mariota, without a new contract. Along with Lewan, Conklin in his rookie season solidified the outside protection. But and injury in Year 2 and not getting back to that form has to be the main concern on this side of the ball.
Defensively up front is let by defensive end Jurrell Casey, who seems to be deep in opposing teams’ backfield on virtually every play.
Arguably the biggest acquisition for the Titans was veteran Pro Bowl linebacker Cameron Wake, who can play defensive end as well. Imagine being a tackle and seeing Wake and Casey both line up against you. Wake’s veteran leadership will fill the void left by the retirement of Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, too.
The rest of the linebacking core, while they are young, don’t have a marquee name. At least, not yet. The unit features names like Kamalei Correa, Sharif Finch, Jayon Brown, along with a pair of early picks a year ago, Rashad Evans and Harold Landry III, who both showed improvement as the season went on in the absence of an injured Morgan.
The defensive secondary, which may be the most underrated part of this team, is led by ball-hawking safety Kevin Byard, arguably the best at his poisition in the league, along with his supporting cast of Kenny Vaccaro, Adoree Jackson and two former Patriots, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, who as a whole had a pretty good season last year. This season they will definitely be challenged if you look at their schedule. They open Week 1 against Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. They’ll also see Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Michael Thomas, as well T.Y. Hilton and Deandre Hopkins both twice.
The team will come together around second-year head coach, Mike Vrabel. In his first season, Vrabel made some calls that, as a fan of this team, you liked for his grit when they worked, but the guy when they failed. But Vrabel always took the blame. Case in point: the loss against the Chargers in London. Tennessee scored late in game. An extra point would’ve tied the game. Vrabel went for two and the win but came up short. If nothing else, the guy deserves some respect for the gutsy play calling.
The team should respond to their head coach and have a good year, which falls on the shoulders of Marcus Mariota. Consistent play and a playoff off berth alone would be enough to warrant a long0term contract. And even though the Titans didn’t lock him up prior to this season, he is loyal to the team and may even take a hometown discount. Especially since Henry’s contract time is approaching, too.
If Mariota and this team stays healthy, they can definitely make the playoffs and even make it to the AFC Championship Game.