When the Tennessee Titans travelled to Ever Bank Field on Dec. 24, they suffered a number of losses.
They lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, they lost quarterback Marcus Mariota and they lost their opportunity to enter the playoffs.
With 0:52 remaining in the third quarter, Jaguars’ defensive tackle Sheldon Day broke through the Titans’ offensive line and took down Mariota by his feet. After the play, the second-year quarterback sat on the ground waiting for medical personnel.
He had broken his fibula and is unavailable until 2017.
“It breaks my heart,” said Titans’ left tackle Taylor Lewan. “We’ve done such a good job protecting [Marcus] all year, and then a couple mishaps in this game and that’s what happens. It’s such a fragile sport.”
“I have total respect (for him),’’ said head coach Mike Mularkey. “I love the player, love the man. I love everything he stands for, everything he does. I am very disappointed he got injured. He had a lot of good things ahead of him and he still does. But I am sorry to see it end his season this way, very sorry.”
Backup quarterback Matt Cassel came off the Titans’ bench to finish the fourth quarter. Although he played well — completing 13-of-24 passes for 124 yards, one touchdown and an interception — Tennessee went on to lose 38-17.
Within eight hours the Houston Texans beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 12-10, after Bengals’ kicker Randy Bullock missed a 43-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation. Houston clinched the AFC South and eliminated any chances of Tennessee making the postseason.
Dec. 24 marked an end to Tennessee’s 2016 season and, in a sense, a beginning to the 2017 season since fans began to consider a number of questions regarding the Titans’ future.
Which positions will they address in the draft? Will they make impactful acquisitions during free agency? And above all, are the Titans serious contenders to make the 2017 playoffs?
In the last year’s draft and free agency, Titans’ general manager Jon Robinson applied principles he learned while scouting for the New England Patriots from 2002 to 2013: address the team’s most-pressing positional needs, and acquire football players who are physical, hard-working and productive.
This train of thought guided the organization’s decision to acquire four offensive linemen (Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Josh Kline, Sebastian Tretola), two running backs (DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry) and a number of defensive players (Rashad Johnson, Kevin Byard, LeShaun Sims, Valentino Blake, Sean Spence, Austin Johnson, among others) last year.
The result was transformative.
Tennessee’s offensive line became one of the best in the NFL, among the likes of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders. Murray and Henry led the third overall rush offense in the league. And the Titans garnered more wins in 2016 than they did through 2015 and 2014 combined.
Considering the positive impact of Robinson’s principles last year, we can expect that he will act similarly in the upcoming draft and free agency. This time around, though, the Titans have fewer concerns to address.
Their offensive and defensive fronts have three Pro Bowlers and one alternate: Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Mariota is expected to be healthy by training camp in July. And Tennessee has a number of playmakers in Jason McCourty, Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker, and Murray.
Walker and Murray were nominated to the Pro Bowl as well, totaling five for the team in 2016.
All this being said, the Titans have clear positional needs at cornerback and middle linebacker. This season, their pass defense ranked bottom five in the league, allowing over 250 passing yards per game and more than 50 receptions of at least 20 yards.
Mariota would also benefit from a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. While wideout Matthews led the team with receptions in 2016, the subsequent leaders were tight end Walker and running back Murray.
Among the top cornerback prospects entering the draft are Quincy Wilson of Florida, Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State, and Marion Humphrey of Alabama. The top linebacker prospects include Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt, Jabrill Peppers of Michigan and Reuben Foster of Alabama.
The Titans currently have two picks in the draft’s first round: their own, which is expected to fall around No. 16 overall, and the pick of the Los Angeles Rams, which is expected to fall within the top five.
As for free agency, some unrestricted players in 2017 include Bears’ receiver Alshon Jeffery, Rams’ corner Trumaine Johnson, Steelers’ linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry, Jaguars’ corner Prince Amukamara and Redskins’ receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.
With nearly 75 million dollars in expected cap space for 2017, the Titans have room to spend during free agency. Only the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expected to have larger caps.
So looking back at our final question — are the Titans serious contenders to make the 2017 playoffs? — I am optimistic that they will be.
In 2015, Tennessee won three games – tied for the fewest in the league. After an aggressive draft and free agency, and under the leadership of Robinson and Mularkey, the Titans broke a 0.500 record in 2016.
Imagine what one more year of the same leadership and new player acquisitions will entail.