Tennessee Titans  


Marcus Mariota has star potential, but Titans must be patient


It's mid-May. Rookie minicamps are underway. Hyperbole is in full effect. Teams are excited. Fans are foaming at the mouth for football.

With that as the backdrop, I loved seeing the enthusiasm coming out of Nashville this past weekend, when the Tennessee Titans unveiled No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota.

I don't want to curb the fervor. Actually, I want Titans fans to burst with excitement. Tennessee nabbed a fantastic young quarterback, who, in my opinion, was the crown jewel of the 2015 NFL Draft. Furthermore, Tennessee had a strong draft beyond the No. 2 pick and a solid free agency period, as well. I love the coaching staff.

But here's the big key, for both the team's fans and its upper management: You cannot judge the 2015 Tennessee Titans and Marcus Mariota by, well, 2015.

We live in a prisoner-of-the-moment society. You are either boom or bust. You're elite or a waste. You're a keeper ... or you've got to go -- and everyone must be fired.

Now, I believe the 2015 Titans will win about five or six games. I think there will be a major learning curve for the future star under center. But I also think you should withhold judgment until the 2016 campaign.

Impossible, right? Not in today's NFL.

Well, let's try it.

I like the direction of these Titans. And this is a new feeling for me.

Prior to last season, some analysts saw Tennessee as a potential surprise team. I never understood this. The 2014 Titans didn't have a quarterback -- and they didn't have enough surrounding talent to overcome not having a quarterback. Tennessee was the NFL's most nondescript team -- and, quite possibly, the league's worst. The Titans posted a 2-14 record, with a 10-game losing streak to close out the season. Yes, the 2-14 Buccaneers received the No. 1 overall pick due to tiebreakers, but the Titans scored less points and gave up more.

The franchise posted its worst record since 1994, when it was known as the Houston Oilers.

But after an inspired offseason, there's reason for hope.

Bringing in a quarterback to build around was clearly the most significant move. In the walk-up to the draft, many thought the Titans would trade the No. 2 overall pick or take the best defensive player available, relying on 2014 sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger to carry the torch at the game's most important position. In the end, Tennessee made the right choice: keeping the pick and using it on the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. But this wasn't the only good deed done by GM Ruston Webster and company.

One of the most underrated moves in the entire NFL this offseason: Tennessee bringing in Dick LeBeau to help his friend Ray Horton run the defense. LeBeau is a living legend; one of the best defensive minds in NFL history, a guy with a special track record of excellence. Horton, already a highly respected defensive coordinator, and the Titans will benefit greatly from LeBeau's presence. The defense will be better -- especially with the solid edge-rushing combo LeBeau will have at his disposal.

A few days into free agency, Tennessee executed a fruitful double play: retaining Derrick Morgan and signing Brian Orakpo. Morgan is fresh off the most productive season of his career and Orakpo, though injury-prone of late, has proven to be a highly effective pass rusher when healthy. With those two guys on the edges and the highly underrated Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle, the Titans could apply some serious pressure on opposing quarterbacks. LeBeau and Horton should direct a defense that is substantially improved from the unit that finished 27th in total defense and 29th in scoring defense last year.

In fact, the Titans' D has to improve -- because Mariota needs time to develop.

I think Mariota eventually will turn Tennessee around. I love his talent, moxie and dedication to the game. But unless you're the extra-special breed (see: Luck, Andrew; Wilson, Russell), it takes time for a quarterback to get his bearings in the NFL. The pro game moves fast -- Year 1's truly a whirlwind for a rookie starting quarterback. Blake Bortles was the first signal-caller off the board in the 2014 draft, taken third overall, and he certainly took his lumps as a greenhorn. Mariota will, too.

What offense will Mariota run? Will he operate under center? Questions abound with the former Oregon superstar. Fortunately, Tennessee has surrounded the quarterback with a pretty nice support system.

The Titans' receiving corps gets overlooked, but there's talent in the unit, starting with 25-year-old playmaker Kendall Wright. Tennessee further bolstered the position with the addition of solid vet Harry Douglas. And then the Titans snagged troubled-but-gifted Dorial Green-Beckham, an athletic freak at 6-foot-5, in Round 2 of the draft. Three rounds later, Tennessee added another guy who could instantly help Mariota: running back David Cobb, who could end up being a steal.

All that said, I don't expect Mariota to immediately maximize all of the weapons at his disposal. While I think Mariota is a fantastic athlete who can make all the throws, he'll undergo some growing pains as he adapts to an NFL offense. Patience is needed. And that's why Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt is perfect for him.

Whisenhunt is an offensive guru who has aided Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers. Some complain about Whisenhunt's work with the young quarterbacks during his head-coaching days in Arizona, but he never had anyone as naturally gifted as Mariota. His first year in Tennessee was a disappointment, no doubt. As mentioned above, though, he was playing without a full deck of cards -- far from it. Don't let that cloud the judgement on whether or not he can coach. And Whisenhunt has a strong offensive staff, highlighted by quarterbacks coach John McNulty. Let's see how the Whiz and his crew can develop the Mariota-led Titans.

Normally, for NFL fans, May is the time to go nuts and let your imagination run wild.

I think the Titans' upside is third place.

But stay the course. Whisenhunt and Mariota can get the Titans back on the right path.

This fall will likely serve as a building-block campaign in Nashville, but if the Powers That Be maintain belief, it could also be a gateway to future success.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.



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