One week after the Tennessee Titans stunned the New England Patriots, Tennessee was brought back down to Earth by the Indianapolis Colts, getting beat every which way on the football field in a 38-10 drubbing. Week in and week out, Tennessee has become something of an enigma. Tennessee can show up, fire on all cylinders and dethrone the best of the best in the NFL, as they showed when they defeated New England, or they can struggle to product any offense whatsoever, as they have shown in losses to Buffalo, Baltimore and Indianapolis. Tennessee is in the worst possible situation that any team can be in in the NFL: they’re mediocre.
The obvious goal of every NFL team is to win the Super Bowl, but only a select few can be considered legitimate contenders for the crown. For some teams, they know they aren’t ready to compete either due to lack of talent, of they are stuck in a rebuild. A team contending for a Super Bowl is obviously going to miss out on a good draft pick, but it comes at the trade-off of potentially winning the Lombardi Trophy, while those struggling teams at least put themselves in the position of getting a high draft pick and potentially landing a franchise-changing player. Tennessee fits into the third (and worst) category, at this point, they aren’t good enough to contend for the Super Bowl, but they also aren’t bad enough to get that draft pick that’s going to get them the draft class’ top talent (or and quality option of players to fill their needs).
So where do they go from here? From a season-long perspective, the AFC South crown is still well within reach and there is no reason for Tennessee to not try to make a run for it. Long-term, however, there are a series of question marks on this roster that need to be answered.
The elephant in the room is what to do with quarterback Marcus Mariota. He has shown time and again his abilities that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but his career has been defined by injuries. He has never played a full NFL season and this year it appears the injuries have taken their toll on him as he looks like he lacks confidence on the field, seems to have a lack of feel for the pass rush. His contract is guaranteed for injury only in 2019 and his salary balloons from $7.7 million to $20.9 million.
While the knee-jerk reaction to Mariota’s struggles for the average fan is to move on from him, his replacement options are considerably worse. The crop of quarterbacks in this year’s draft class isn’t great and the top quarterbacks slated to hit free agency include Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback a lot of people are hyping up because of his Pro Bowl campaign in 2015, but forget he threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions that season, Tyrod Taylor, who has struggled tremendously in Cleveland before getting benched and Ryan Fitzpatrick, a soon-to-be 36-year-old journeyman who once played for the Titans and is known for dazzling in a brief set of games until imploding midway through the season. Like it or not, Tennessee has hitched their wagon to Mariota.
What Tennessee should do, however, is look to upgrade his backup. Blaine Gabbert has been awful this year between throwing an interception directly to Darius Leonard and struggling to even come up with 100 passing yards in a spot start against the Texans. Given Mariota’s injury history, Tennessee should have done a better job in investing in backup signal caller than they have in the past, opting for Gabbert and Matt Cassel in recent seasons.
Entering the season, running back Derrick Henry looked poised for a breakout campaign following a strong 2017 season despite splitting work with DeMarco Murray. He finally carved out his role with the team as the early down runner and goal line back with Dion Lewis functioning as the third down back and outside runner. In a sense, both backs have fallen on their face. In 2017, 36.0 percent of Henry’s rushing yards came on carries of 15-plus yards, showing he was able to break tackles and burst out for long gains. This year, that number is down to 4.0 percent. Lewis, on the other hand, had a breakout year with the Patriots in 2017, rushing for 869 yards with 5.0 yards per carry. Now, he is averaging a career-low 3.4 yards per tote.
Henry is entering his contract year in 2019 and will only make $1.7 million, so it’s hard to imagine he will be released, but the Titans can free up $3.2 million by releasing Lewis, according to Over the Cap. With the Titans already having an estimated $47 million in cap space next spring, it’s fair to wonder if they try to make a splash move and replace Lewis with Le’Veon Bell.
While Corey Davis has not had the breakout year many hoped for, he’s hardly to blame. Davis has been targeted 79 times this season, but, according to Pro Football Focus, only 51 of his passes have been catchable. Forty-five of those passes were hauled in and he has just two drops on the season. What Tennessee lacks, however, is a quality second option at wide receiver. Taywan Taylor is best suited as a slot, but has been playing outside for most of his snaps while Tajae Sharpe has stayed inside. Both are under contract in 2019, but one of them could become expendable after the season.
The defense has two significant issues: the secondary and the pass rush. Tennessee signed Malcolm Butler this offseason in hopes of emulating what Jacksonville did and give the Titans one of the best secondaries in the league with Butler, promising sophomore Adoree Jackson and Logan Ryan at cornerback with Kenny Vaccaro and All-Pro Kevin Byard at safety. The results, however, have been disastrous. Jackson is going to catch heat this week after getting burned by T.Y. Hilton to the tune of eight catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns, punctuated by a 68-yard score where Hilton blew by Jackson to put Indianapolis up 17-0. It’s been Butler, however, who has become the biggest liability this season. No cornerback in the NFL has surrendered more yards than Butler’s 659 and he is tied with Janoris Jenkins with the most touchdowns allowed with seven. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 136.4 when throwing in Butler’s direction.
Despite this, the Titans still entered the game with the least points surrendered in the NFL and have surprisingly only allowed 14 passing touchdowns this season.
Tennessee made the first steps towards life without Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan last season when they traded up to draft Harold Landry out of Boston College in the second round. Landry has returned the favor by being the best pass rusher of the three. He has a pressure score of 25 and will see an increase in playing time with Morgan and Orakpo headed to free agency. However, in today’s pass-heavy NFL, you can never have enough people who can get to the quarterback and the Titans will need to now replace two pass rushers this offseason. Luckily, this draft class will provide a number of options with deep talent in the position.
The mirage of the Super Bowl contender in Tennessee is over and there are significant chinks in the armor. Tennessee is a team without an identity and their window of opportunity is closing quickly on them with Mariota’s extension looming.