Mariota rebound, new defensive juice will lead Titans to at least 9 wins
2018 win total (via bovada): 8
2017 ATS record: 8-7-1
Optimist view: It’s easy to envision Marcus Mariota’s rebirth under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who was Sean McVay’s top lieutenant on an offense that just went from worst to first in scoring. Much like McVay brought much-needed innovation in taking over for Jeff Fisher, LaFleur is charged with doing the same as part of Mike Vrabel’s staff that takes over an offense that regressed under rigid Mike Mularkey.
We expect LaFleur to increase Mariota’s comfort by building on Mariota’s postseason strides to accentuate the dual-threat QB’s strengths — getting outside the pocket and playing with tempo. Tennessee ranked 29th in plays run a season ago but has the balanced personnel and dynamic quarterback versed in a spread background to ratchet things up considerably.
We also envision a big jump from the receiver group with Corey Davis benefiting from a full offseason and a friendlier playbook, and Dion Lewis’ arrival providing a layer of unpredictability — and not just for Derrick Henry fantasy football owners. Tennessee ranked third in rushing two seasons ago with Henry and DeMarco Murray but also a limited passing game; it’s reasonable to think the Titans could be more efficient on the ground and a lot more dangerous through the air.
We loved Jon Robinson’s astute acquisitions to remedy his 24th-ranked pass ‘D,’ per Football Outsiders DVOA metric. Rookies Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry add juice up front, where Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are on the wrong side of 30 and opposing running backs totaled a league-high 967 receiving yards vs. Tennessee. Malcolm Butler stepping in as the top corner increases the playmaking potential of a secondary with the NFL’s reigning co-INT leader, rising star Kevin Byard.
Pessimist view: The stage is set for Mariota to pick up where he left off after his first two seasons (combined 45:19 TD-INT ratio, 93.8 rating), but first he must stay healthy. In his 2017 drop-off, injuries hamstrung Mariota, who enters Year 4 looking for his first full season. We think Blaine Gabbert represents a QB2 upgrade over Matt Cassel, but he’s not exactly confidence inspiring.
The O-line also took a big step back last season, and although it returns entirely intact for the second consecutive year, 2016 All Pro RT Jack Conklin and both guards must rediscover their top form before we can again call this unit a strength, much less one of the league’s best.
The ex-Patriot pairing of Butler and Logan Ryan should be solid in Tennessee’s secondary, but for as much rookie mileage as Adoree’ Jackson provided (1,260 snaps was more than every NFL player not named Tyrann Mathieu), he largely struggled at cornerback, where depth remains unproven.
The Titans were excellent defending the run but have a new coordinator, Dean Pees, and must maintain that strong play in his scheme with a new nose guard (Bennie Logan) and ‘Mike’ linebacker (Evans).
On schedule: Their foes’ combined 2017 win percentage is .465, the second-lowest in football, and the Titans have the well positioned Week 8 bye. They’ll host the defending champion Eagles in Week 4, visit the wild-card Bills one week later and welcome the Patriots in Week 10, but that’s it as far as non-AFC South playoff participants from 2017.
In fact, Tennessee sees only two clubs over the final nine weeks that had winning records in 2017, New England and the Jaguars, and both are at home. Sure, they’ll visit NFC East bounce-back candidates in the Giants and Cowboys over that stretch, and they travel to the dangerous Chargers immediately before the bye. But it’s likely that rookie head coach Mike Vrabel isn’t too distraught over this itinerary.
Robinson doesn’t fire Mularkey on the heels of a 9-7 campaign and the franchise’s first postseason win in nine years without a strong belief that the roster is ready to compete for a Super Bowl. It’s fair to wonder whether Vrabel, who is very short on NFL coaching experience, is ready for the task. But just avoiding a step back from 2017, when the Titans suffered four of their seven losses by a combined 17 points, seems like a reasonable expectation for bettors.
And although Vrabel didn’t insulate himself with the likes of established longtime assistants like Wade Phillips and John Fassel, LaFleur’s arrival should be a breath of fresh air for a talented offense with a lot more to give, while Dean Pees serves as a valuable and seasoned righthand man on ‘D.’
Tennessee requires more projecting than a lot of other clubs we’ve studied, but the bet here is that Mariota and Davis and Henry and Lewis form high-powered connections and the ‘D’ enjoys not only its exciting new additions but a more potent and precise offense carrying its weight.
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