It is fair to say the 2018 season will be unique for the Tennessee Titans.
Rarely do you see a head coach and his staff lose their jobs after winning a playoff game, but that’s what happened to Mike Mularkey and company following a loss to the New England Patriots in the divisional round.
In search of a new leader, Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson hired former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel to take over the reins of a team with high expectations.
“When (Vrabel) came in and talked about how he wanted to build a roster, what his vision was, it was clear to us that he was the guy for this job,” Robinson told The Tennessean. “He had a great presence about him in the interview. His football intelligence showed quickly.”
Vrabel couldn’t have asked for a better situation to cut his teeth as a first-time NFL head coach. The Titans head into 2018 with an accomplished GM, salary cap space, a strong roster and a solid coaching staff, all while coming off a playoff victory.
TITANS CAP MANAGEMENT
Vrabel inherits a Titans team that had the 10th-most salary cap space available heading into the 2018 offseason. Tennessee had just over $45 million available, according to spotrac.com, before Robinson signed impending free agent kicker Ryan Succop to a five-year, $20 million contract on Feb. 20.
Tennessee does have notable contributors who will be hitting the market as unrestricted free agents, including inside linebacker Avery Williamson, defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, wide receiver Eric Decker and offensive guard Josh Kline. Williamson may price himself out of Tennessee and the Titans have a bevy of pass catchers in-house should they not choose to re-sign Decker. OG Quinton Spain is a restricted free agent, and will likely be brought back given the need the Titans have for the position.
Though Robinson may look into extending left tackle Taylor Lewan at some point this offseason, there is still plenty of cap space for the Titans to be active in free agency should they feel the need.
The Titans could create additional cap space if the team decides to part ways with running back DeMarco Murray, who is owed a total of $6.5 million this season and next, all of which is non-guaranteed.
TITANS ROSTER OUTLOOK
In addition to having a nice chunk of cap space to play with, Vrabel inherited a relatively young roster filled with talent at several important positions.
The headliner, of course, is franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is entering his fourth year in the league. While Mariota had a down season in 2017 (13 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), he showed his worth in the final three games of the season, completing a total of 53 -fo-89 passes for five touchdowns and one interception, as well as rushing for 143 yards on 22 carries (6.5 yards per carry), in the season-finale win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (15-10), the Wild card playoff win against the Kansas City Chiefs (22-21) and the divisional round loss to the Patriots (35-14).
The Titans have third-year running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for a career-best 744 yards (4.5 YPC) and five touchdowns, to lead the backfield. Henry is joined by wide receiver Rishard Matthews, who had 53 catches for 795 yards and a team-best four touchdown receptions last season, second-yard wide receiver Corey Davis, a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and all-pro tight end Delanie Walker, who had a team-high 74 catches for a team-high 807 yards and three touchdowns in 2017.
Along the offensive line, Tennessee has standout performers at both tackle positions — third-year all-pro and pro bowl right tackle Jack Conklin, who may miss the start of the season due to an ACL injury suffered in the divisional game, and a fourth-year Pro Bowl left tackle in Lewan.
Defensively, the Titans’ secondary is highlighted by free safety Kevin Byard, a ball hawk coming into his third season after leading the NFL with eight interceptions last season, and second-year corner back Adoree Jackson, who took giant leaps forward as his rookie season progressed to finish with an 82.4 coverage grade, according to Pro Football Focus. Jackson and Byard are joined by CB Logan Ryan and SS Jonathan Cyprien in the secondary.
Standout defensive end Jurrell Casey, who PFF graded as the ninth-best interior defender in the NFL, anchors the defensive line, Aging, but above-average defensive ends Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan handle the pass rushing, while inside line back Wesley Woodyard’s three-year, $10.5 million contract has proven to be a steal.
Always forgotten but just as important, punter Brett Kern, PFF’s second-best punter in the NFL, and the freshly-extended Succop highlight the special teams unit. Succop has made 82-of-89 field-goal attempts inside of 50 yards, a 92-percent success rate, since originally signing with Tennessee in 2014.
TITANS COACHING STAFF
Vrabel and Robinson further improved the Titans’ situation by filling out a coaching staff with promise, highlighted offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
LaFleur is a young, up-and-coming offensive coordinator who was instrumental in turning the career around of St. Louis Rams quarterback Jared Goff. LaFleur’s top priority is designing an offense that plays to Mariota’s and the rest of the roster’s strengths, a task he sounds ready to take on.
“We are not just going to go out there and run a bunch of plays,” LaFleur said per Jim Wyatt of titansonline.com. “We want a system, we want to have a consistency within our offense so our guys get used to running the same types of plays so they can go out and execute, and play fast. If you can go out there and eliminate the thinking that’s involved, eliminate the gray where they can go out and play fast and execute, I think you have a much better chance for success.”
While the Titans moved on from legendary DC Dick LeBeau, Pees should have no problem winning over the fans. Pees, the former DC for the Baltimore Ravens of the last six seasons, brings a 3-4 attacking scheme to the Titans, one that should transition from LeBeau’s 3-4 defense almost seamlessly. Under Pees, the Ravens had top-10 defenses from 2014-16 and led the NFL in shutouts last season with three.
“Tough, physical, smart, and giving great effort,” Pees said to Jim Wyatt of titansonline.com when asked about the traits of his defenses. “None of those things talk about ability. They all are things that everybody can do, and if we can do those kinds of things along with the guys that we have and the guys that we will get. … If you can do those kinds of things and not make a lot of mental mistakes, and you play tough and we want to be aggressive.
“We want to be on the attack, and that’s what I want our defense to be known for.”
The only negative aspect for Vrabel when signed on to lead — immediate results.
Tennessee is a playoff team with a young roster and cap space. Throughout the brief interviewing process, Robinson was adamant about finding the right guy to take the Titans to the next level. Vrabel now must hit the ground running and make Tennessee a consistent winner.