photos by DONN JONES/TITANS
Marcus Mariota at the Titans’ training camp on July 31.
As the Tennessee Titans progress through the preseason – their first under the new regime of coach Mike Malarkey and general manager Jon Robinson – they hope to find the answers to some questions that have arisen over the course of four consecutive losing seasons and seven straight years without a playoff berth.
Despite a 3-13 finish in 2015, the changes atop the franchise and the presence of second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota have created a buzz around the team as it approaches Saturday’s preseason opener at Nissan Stadium against San Diego and a Sept. 11 matchup against visiting Minnesota to kick off the regular season.
Keeping that positive vibe going will depend on how well the Titans shore up some apparent shortfalls, according to Greg Arias, editor/publisher of Titan Red Zone on scout.com; Louisiana-based NFL analyst Mike Detillier; and former Tennessee Titan Pro Bowl offensive tackle Brad Hopkins, current contributor to Bleacher Report and on the NFL Network.
“I’m curious how the run game will develop, because you’re relying on two guys that have never played for the Titans,” said Hopkins, referring to offseason acquisition DeMarco Murray and second-round draft pick Derrick Henry. “With that comes an adjustment period.”
Eyes will be on both, as Murray experienced a production dip – possibly a by-product of how he was used – last season in Philadelphia after establishing himself as one of the league’s top backs during his tenure in Dallas. Henry, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, is the latest in a line of heralded Crimson Tide backs and the reviews on his predecessors at the professional level have been mixed.
“Murray’s been very well received. He seems to get it, seems to respect the culture, the coaches,” Hopkins said. “Henry being a rookie, there are no guarantees. Can he be a great back or is he going to disappear?”
At receiver, signing veteran Andre Johnson on the eve of training camp drew some attention – both good and bad – but further illustrated how thin the team is at that position.
“He looks like he’s still got something left,” Arias said. “He could contribute if he makes the roster. (Tajae) Sharpe looks good, (Rishard) Matthews looks good. But question marks remain with Dorial Green-Beckham and Justin Hunter.”
Increasing the level of play at both those positions is a must in order to take full advantage of Mariota’s talents. Ditto for the offensive line.
“You’ve got to protect Mariota,” Detillier said. “You can’t have a franchise quarterback rocked around like he was last year. You’ve got to be able to protect him better. That’d be my biggest concern. You’ve got to get the offensive line elevated, because for the next 10 or 12 years, I’ve got the guy (at quarterback). You’ve got to keep him healthy.”
Early indications are the Titans will line up tackle to tackle with Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Chance Warmack and Jack Conklin.
Defensively, the questions are up front and on the back end – specifically at cornerback, though Jason McCourty’s return from an injury-plagued season will help there.
You’ve got some edge people that can put pressure on the quarterback, and (Jurrell) Casey is terrific in the middle,” Detillier said. “But if I’m playing them, I’m challenging the corners right off the bat. My concerns are at cornerback. My third receiver is better than your third cornerback. It’s a league of matchups and I’m going to win a lot of those matchups.”
The combination of Casey and ends Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan give the Titans a “great” trio of run-stoppers, by Hopkins’ estimation – but “if you’ve got a sieve back there (in the secondary), it doesn’t help the pass rush.”
How well the Titans improve in those areas over the next four weeks and as the season goes will likely dictate the team’s prospects for snapping that playoff drought.
“The talent void at cornerback, at receiver, and the protection issues for Mariota – those trump anything,” Detillier said. “Those are three paramount deals.”
Maurice Patton is a Franklin native and Middle Tennessee State graduate who has covered high school, collegiate and professional sports in the Nashville and Midstate area for nearly 30 years. See more of his work at mopattonsports.com and follow him on Twitter @mopatton_sports.