We peg potential Cinderella candidates based on the progress they've made during the offseason, knowing full well that offseason champions rarely captivate us in January and February. But some teams are being built the right way, which is why we'll break down the five trendiest Cinderella candidates out there for the 2016 season and determine if they're worth looking out for.
2015 record: 3-13
2016 projected record:6-10
Why we believe
To be clear, "believe" in this context means picking a team that did not change their head coach to double their win total from the year before. The Titans are intriguing because of Marcus Mariota, who was on track last season to wallop fellow rookie Jameis Winston until the remainder of both rosters caught up to speed.
Check out the numbers through six games in 2015:
Jameis Winston:107-181 (59.12 percent), 1,471 yards, nine touchdowns, seven interceptions (85.7 rate).
Marcus Mariota: 131-200 (65.5 percent), 1,610 yards, 13 touchdowns, five interceptions (101.5 rate).
The start and finish of both quarterbacks likely was a motivator for new Titans general manager Jon Robinson, who traded away the team's No. 1 overall draft pick in an effort to generate more quality players on both sides of the ball. The team has a tremendous investment on their offensive line and is trying to craft a formidable defense. With two first-round picks next year, they should be well on their way to contending in the division within the next three seasons. In order to speed up that process, though, they would need a transcendent season from Mariota, similar to Robert Griffin III's rookie campaign. Do the Titans want to accentuate his mobility as much, a risk that could damage Mariota's future potential?
Why we still have questions
Trading out of No. 1 was obvious. The Titans have one of the most uneven rosters and the disparity is especially evident on defense. The team was 24th in defensive efficiency (h/t Football Outsiders) last season and allowed the sixth-most points per game (26.4). It's hard to imagine their defense reducing their points per game significantly since Brice McCain could potentially be the only new Day 1 starter on defense. We don't know if second-round picks Austin Johnson and Kevin Dodd will immediately crack the lineup.
What we need to know
- Can Dorial Green-Beckham take the next step? Green-Beckham's rookie season was not unlike some of Tennessee's past high-drafted experiments at wide receiver. He caught about half his targets (32 of 67) and started five of 16 games. Over the course of the season, he flashed some incredible potential, but can that be honed in a significant way?
- Will Rishard Matthews be a pace-setter in Tennessee? Outside of Jarvis Landry, Matthews was a lone bright spot for the Miami Dolphins last year on offense. The key was dependability, though he was averaging more than 15 yards per catch. Matthews was targeted six fewer times than Green-Beckham, but caught 11 more passes. Young quarterbacks respond to reliable hands, and surrounding Mariota with more of them will aid the process.
- What can we reasonably expect from DeMarco Murray? As we've noted, Murray's numbers in Philadelphia would have led the Titans in carries, yards and touchdowns in 2015. The Titans could very well be building a similar power spread component into their offense as well. Derrick Henry's presence should limit the need to force Murray into the lineup just like Murray's presence should help the team squeeze out a few extra yards and extend drives.
- Will the Titans get to the quarterback consistently? Tennessee actually had 39 sacks last year, just 13 behind the league-leading Denver Broncos. The continued influence of Dick LeBeau should aid the Titans, but their efforts will need to increase in 2016. The rest of the division has improved through the air, especially in Houston with the addition of Brock Osweiler, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. Blake Bortles was second in the NFL in touchdown passes a year ago and Andrew Luck will not stay down.
- Are we wrong about Mike Mularkey? Retaining interim head coach Mularkey is widely considered a head-scratcher. The Titans fired a coach (Ken Whisenhunt) who went 1-7 only to rally around one who did not do much better. Mularkey does not have a pedigree that excites. He went 14-18 in Buffalo and 2-14 in Jacksonville. But when trendy second-chance coaching candidates come around, we always trumpet their ability to have learned from their mistakes (Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, Jack Del Rio, Gary Kubiak, John Fox, etc.). Why can't Mularkey get that same benefit of the doubt?