The Tennessee Titans are coming off a 2017 season in which the offense struggled, and that’s being nice.
After a change in direction, general manager Jon Robinson new head coach Mike Vrabel nabbed Matt LaFleur as the next offensive coordinator. LaFleur is now in charge of the offensive scheming, play calling and the further development of franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota — sweet, sweet music to my ears.
While former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie was abysmal at best, the Titans did have personnel holes on that side of the ball to fuel the poorly orchestrated offense. Looking towards 2018, the Titans will be running more of a spread, run-pass-option style of offense and will need to upgrade in order to do so. Three ares standout out as the biggest concerns.
While it’s no secret center Ben Jones struggled to pass block last season, the bigger issue on the offensive line is the guard position. Neither LG Quinton Spain (73.6) nor RG Josh Kline (75.8) graded out particularly well with Pro Football Focus. Both struggled mightily in the running game, with Kline’s 46.4 run-block grade a clear eyesore.
Though the Titans won’t be running with the same scheme this season, they will need to establish the rushing game for the RPO plays to be effective, especially considering Mariota’s biggest strength is the play-action pass. To do this, they will need to upgrade at least one guard position, if not both.
As an unrestricted free agent, Kline is unlikely to be back in a starting role, which means Robinson must invest in a free-agent replacement because I don’t see the Titans taking another lineman early enough in the draft for him to be considered a right-away starter.
Spain and Lewan were fairly successful on the left side in 2016, which may lead to Robinson to retaining Spain for another go around. Spain is a restricted free agent, so the Titans can match any offer he signs with another team.
While a top-tier right guard would improve the Titans’ o-line, Tennessee would be wise to upgrade one of the other two interior spots, though Jones would have a dead cap hit of $1.75 million if he is cut.
It is very likely running back DeMarco Murray has played his last snap as a Titan under his current contract, which sees him due $6.25 million in 2018 and 2019. Neither of Murray’s remaining two years on his contract are guaranteed, which makes him almost a sure bet to be cut if he doesn’t want to take a pay cut or if the Titans cannot find a trade partner.
Yes, if Murray is cut, the Titans still have third-year running back Derrick Henry, who had his best season as a pro last year after rushing for 744 yards and five touchdowns with a 4.2 yards-per-carry average. The problem is Henry still needs to improve his pass catching and pass blocking.
As it stands, Henry looks like a first and second-down running back, as opposed to a three-down workhorse. The Titans are going to need a third-down back who they can rely on in passing situations, particularly with the new RPO offensive scheme. There will be several free agents available who fit this mold and teams have done a solid job of picking up those type of guys in the middle rounds of recent drafts as well.
While Mariota had a down season last year, throwing 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, he did complete 62 percent of his passes and corrected his fumbling issues, a problem that plagued him in his first two seasons. His performances against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the season finale and the playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs answered any questions as to if he is a long-term solution to the position.
Unfortunately, the talent dropped off severely in terms of depth at the position behind Mariota. Third-string QB Brandon Weeden is an unrestricted free agent and backup Matt Cassel is in the final year of his contract that is set to pay him $2.5 million in total. Cassel’s contract is non-guaranteed in 2018 and his play last season in Mariota’s absence should make him a cap casualty.
Mariota’s ability to make plays with his feet out of the pocket will always leave him vulnerable to an injury, which has been the case over his first three years. The Titans proved they are a playoff-caliber team last season and will need to invest in a guy at the quarterback position who can come in and win a game in a spot start here or there and avoid a strong season going into the tank because of a lack of depth at a crucial position. Look no further than the Philadelphia Eagles and Nick Foles when asking yourself how important a good backup quarterback really is. Truth be told, they are invaluable.