The AFC South is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing divisions in the NFL. Matt Danely begins a four-part series breaking down each team to explain how that team has been developing and their expected impact on the division. Next up is the 2016 Indianapolis Colts – and be sure to check out his previous articles in the series on the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The current state of the AFC South is a popular topic of conversation, and for good reason. All four teams in the division have their franchise quarterback; the roster-wide talent gap is shrinking; and none of the coaching staffs should reasonably feel as if their jobs are safe. Each team has built their rosters differently over the past five years, each paving a different road to their present-day status in the division.
The AFC South is considered by some to be developing into one of the more competitive divisions in the league, though others take a more measured approach to the recent influx of talent, seeing the teams as still a year or two away heading into the 2016 season. Compared to where the division was just a handful of years ago, however, there’s reason to believe that a massive improvement across the board is a very real possibility.
With that in mind, let’s dig into how the 2016 Tennessee Titans have built their roster, and how that has affected the coaching staff. Together – through this series – we’ll see if we can learn which team used the best approach, which of them have set themselves up for failure, and who is still missing some key pieces in their quest to build a perennial division champion.
How the Titans Got Here
Despite the Titans’ woes over the past several seasons, they have actually been competitive since their move to Tennessee from Houston in 1997, but were especially strong around the time of their relocation. Between 1999 and 2003, the Titans earned playoff berths in four of five seasons, including a Super Bowl XXXIV appearance in the ’99-’00 season. They’ve also won a combined three division titles (1 AFC Central, 2 AFC South) with six playoff appearances in a 10 year period through 2008. Since then, it’s been a slightly different story.
Despite the organizational struggles since 2008, the Titans have brought in some impressive talent by way of the draft. However, the majority of it never reached it’s potential. Guys like Chris Johnson, Sen’Derrick Marks, Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, Alterraun Verner, Akeem Ayers, and plenty more have either moved on, lost their way, or are among the few left in Nashville. The biggest roster issues appeared to be that their quarterback position was often at best fluid post-Steve McNair.
Vince Young’s career fizzled out quickly, starting only 47 games in Tennessee. Matt Hasselbeck stepped in for a couple seasons and was basically a .500 quarterback, and then it was Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Zach Mettenberger up through 2014. From 2009 to 2014, the Titans put up a meager 38-58 (.396) record, had four different head coaches and a point differential of -367, or an average of -3.8 per game.That margin leaves them in the bottom half of the league in each season during that span.
Now, though, the Titans have their quarterback with a ton of upside in second-year pro Marcus Mariota, and they have brought in complementary pieces to fill needs and to assist Casey and Morgan on defense such as Brian Orakpo and Clemson product Kevin Dodd. The rest of the offense is beginning to garner expectations of improvement, having possibly had some luck in their recent drafts with Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin and Tajae Sharpe in addition to free agent signings such as DeMarco Murray.
Where They Are Struggling
The answer to the question of where they are struggling, collectively, is: Virtually everywhere. The Titans have largely been stuck in the bottom third of league in DVOA on both sides of the ball with very few exceptions over the past five seasons. Starting in 2011, the Titans were 15th in both offensive and defensive DVOA and were 16th in offense in 2013. Otherwise, they’ve been near the basement.
In that same span the Titans have won only 27 games and have dropped 53 for a .337 win percentage. They haven’t been able to run, or pass the ball effectively, nor have they been able to stop their opposition either. There have been few constants within the organization over the past several seasons, but limiting roster turnover has been one of their strengths. From 2011 to 2014 the Titans were 12th in the league in roster retention, but in the last two seasons alone lost a total of 44.58% of their snaps from the previous season.
The Jaguars have only replaced 39.67% of its roster, while the Colts and Texans have replaced 53.78% and 55.63% of their rosters, respectively. Regardless of continuity, the Titans have to get significantly better on all fronts to begin climbing in the division.
As mentioned above, the coaching situation has been abysmal in recent seasons, and this appears to be something that the front office has failed to learn. Mike Mularkey has not been a good NFL head coach. Certainly, he has been a part of successful teams as a coordinator or position coach, but his career winning percentage is .316 in his three-and-a-half years of experience running the whole show. He’s never led his team to the postseason, and he boasts only one season with more than five wins to his resume. Despite this, the Titans removed his interim tag in January, which was very premature when there were several other candidates on the market who would have theoretically been better fits. There are two things, though, to consider in this highly questionable hire: The Titans, to a fault, apparently regard continuity more highly than perceived ceiling – or the unknown; and 2) Though Mularkey is going into his third season with the organization, he may not be their long-term solution in leading the team.
Mularkey will be given his opportunity to make Marcus Mariota – and this offense – a viable force, but if they don’t start trending in the right direction pretty soon, expect another coach by the 2018 season.
It’s safe to say that things are trending upwards for the Titans heading into the 2016 season. Mariota is entrenched as the unquestioned franchise quarterback after a promising rookie season in which he completed over 62% of his passes and posted a touchdown percentage greater than 5%. His weapons from recent drafts and free agency acquisitions are coming into their own, and the team is improving in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
The backfield primarily has greatly improved and is showing positive signs thus far through the preseason. Acquiring DeMarco Murray in March, who had been all but written off as being finished in the league, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction as he looks re-energized coming off of a down season in 2015, just 12 months after leading the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Pairing Murray with second-round selection Derrick Henry, who led college football in most rushing categories last season, gives the Titans a well defined two-headed beast in the backfield that has the ability to wear down opposing front-sevens, as well as force secondaries to account for their speed.
The Titans have a real chance to surprise some teams this season. Within the division, they can legitimately steal at least a game from each team, and there are more possible wins scattered in the gumbo of their schedule; the Lions, Bears, Browns, Chargers, and Dolphins all present opportunities for the Titans to improve their record from a season ago.
While a six or seven win season isn’t what fans are looking for, it’s about as good as it can be reasonably hoped for in 2016. The Titans are in the thick of building their roster, so understanding that they’re still a year or two away from contention is essential. One of the larger bright spots, on the surface, appears to be new general manager Jon Robinson. He brokered a nice trade with the Rams, who were wanting to move up to first overall to select quarterback Jared Goff, giving the Titans some additional draft capital for the future. His initial draft – especially the first five rounds – looks to be a very good one in early showings, and he has a phenomenal pedigree in coming up through the Patriots’ organization.
The future is bright for the Titans. 2016 may not be the drastic turnaround that some unrealistic fans are hoping for, but the majority of the pieces appear to be in order for steady movement toward respect and success in the league.