“I don’t want to make Super Bowl predictions, but we should be a great team.” – Titans Tight End Delanie Walker
To round out this year’s edition of Know Thy Enemy, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Tennessee Titans. They aren’t a constant threat like our NFC South brethren, but they will be in Tampa to open the regular season. The draft’s second overall pick will wage war against the first overall pick, and Jameis Winston can set the tone against Marcus Mariota for years to come. It’s stretching to call this the next “Brady vs. Manning” rivalry so soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this reached that level years down the road. The Buccaneers need to make a statement, and Dirk Koetter has to send a message against Tennessee. Even for an opponent that we won’t be seeing often, this game could be one of the most important of the season.
Strengths: Marcus Mariota, Youth, and Expectations
The Titans are expecting the number two overall draft pick to be an instant upgrade, and that’s exactly what they’ve gotten. There was a lot of fuss going into the draft about whether it not Mariota could transition fast enough, and I was in that camp. I still think it will take a world of adjustment for Mariota to reach the skill level he could attain, but he’s an instant upgrade for one very simple reason. Marcus Mariota is undeniably accurate.
That’s more than can be said for last season’s batch of quarterbacks in Tennessee. For comparison, Football Outsiders showed that Justin Hunter, one of the Titans main targets last year, led the league in percentage of uncatchable targets. Over 40% of balls thrown to him were uncatchable. There’s no way Mariota repeats that. Much of Mariota’s instant results will depend on those around him, but he’s fortunately surrounded by a lot of young talent. It’s dangerous to play the “potential” game too much, but it’s a fact with the Titans.
It’s always a positive when young talent can grow with a young quarterback, and that very factor could create lasting production within the team. Both new talent coming in and younger players coming into only their second year can benefit from this. One other advantage the Titans walk into the season with is that expectations aren’t off the charts. Contrary to Tampa Bay, which managed a #1 Pick while already having a lot of playmakers, Tennessee’s coffers are relatively empty. They’re expected to improve, but I doubt anyone is picking them to win their division.
Weaknesses: Youth, Expectations, and the AFC South
Here’s the part where I contradict myself. Almost everything that could make Tennessee a force to be reckoned with this season has yet to be proven. When you have as much promising youth as they do, some are bound to bust. In the same vein as the expectations, there are very high ones for Marcus Mariota. They aren’t quite at the level that is being pinned on Jameis Winston, but the Titans want results sooner rather than later.
While he doesn’t have a massive amount to work with, most elite quarterbacks make an instant impact. Look at Andrew Luck, who came into a relatively broken Post-Manning Colts team. Since his arrival, Indianapolis has become an AFC South offensive powerhouse. Speaking of the AFC South, they’re part of the biggest problem for Tennessee. Jameis Winston is excited to face J.J. Watt, but I doubt the Titans’ jigsaw puzzle of an offensive line feels the same about him twice a year. Injuries and experimentations caused them to change things up plenty in minicamps, but they’ll need to get consistent quickly.
Mariota has ground speed and can extend plays, but if he’s forced to do it too often it could prove to be a recipe for disaster. Mariota was faster than most of the NCAA talent he faced, but that won’t be the case in the NFL. While the Texans’ defense and the Colts’ offense give Tennessee nightmares, the Jacksonville Jaguars are quietly forming a dangerous team. Young players are coming into their own, and the Jaguars’ defensive front is highly underrated. The Titans have a very tough road to winning their division, and it’ll take a lot to change the perception of their organization.
Verdict: Here’s the terrifying thing about the Tennessee Titans. They’re riddled with issues, unproven players, and even veterans at the end of their ropes. Despite all of that, they could easily turn things around this season. If the right people step up, the coaching comes together, and their division doesn’t respond right, you could see them walk out as AFC South Champs. The Titans are extremely easy to underestimate, and there’s a lot of completely valid reasons to look at them that way. It won’t be clear until the season is underway whether or not they’re the same old Titans, and the Buccaneers won’t be given the luxury of seeing how they play under pressure. Tampa Bay has to prepare for the best the Titans can bring. They’re beatable, but the Bucs should tread very lightly.