The Titans weren't ready last season. Before Nashville was famous for catfish, before Marcus Mariota's broken leg, Tennessee was being pushed around in a decisive Christmas Eve game in Jacksonville. The franchise traveled the NFL road from laughingstock (five wins combined in two years) to competitive (9-7 in 2016) in a hurry, outmuscling two AFC contenders in December wins while joining the NFL's middle class in scoring defense and offense. Parts of the roster remained undercooked, however, and general manager Jon Robinson knew it.
The signing of Eric Decker on Sunday evening completed a dramatic overhaul of the Titans' receiver group, matched only by wholesale changes in the secondary. The contract, and the ready-made feature stories touring Decker's Nashville home, cemented the Titans' status as this season's AFC It Team. Ready or not, it's their time on center stage.
Robinson had the luxury of inheriting a franchise quarterback when he arrived in Tennessee last January. That allowed the Titans to use draft capital on building up the team's offensive line and running game. Top-five rushing numbers immediately followed, but that didn't change the fact that Mariota's No. 1 wide receiver was Rishard Matthews. Mariota essentially didn't have a second perimeter option and it showed as the team's passing game decayed late in the year. Mariota completed fewer than half his passes in December, averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt in the three games before his Week 16 injury. A playoff trip would have been nice, but this team was only going so far with players like Tajae Sharpe and Harry Douglas getting too many snaps.
Robinson saw enough. He showed conviction taking Western Michigan's Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick in April's draft, then doubled down by snatching up versatile wideout Taywan Taylor and athletic tight end Jonnu Smith in the third round. With erratic receiver Kendall Wright banished, Mariota finally has a group of pass catchers he can grow up with. Decker, last seen as one of the best red-zone receivers and No. 2 options in football, completes the group. It's difficult to totally fix an organizational problem in one offseason, but Robinson's track record with the running game last season should give Titans fans hope.
The reconstruction of the secondary was no less dramatic. Tennessee has two new starting cornerbacks in former Patriots spitfire Logan Ryan and first-round playmaker Adoree' Jackson from USC, in addition to a new starting safety in free-agent pickup Johnathan Cyprien. The most exciting player of the group is second-year safety Kevin Byard, who flashed star potential in a part-time role as a rookie. After running out of defensive backs last season, the Titans look far more well-stocked this time around. Then again, the Titans aren't buzzy because of their defense.
Mariota has developed as a pro mostly out of the national spotlight, a rare luxury for a top-two pick in this media climate. That's what happens when you play for an organization that has been off the radar since Kerry Collins' fever dream 13-3 season. (It doesn't help that the next quotable item from the lips of Mariota or Titans coach Mike Mularkey will be the first.) The Titans don't drive television ratings or page views, so media decision makers were happy to ignore the franchise until they had no other choice. It's time.
Still just 23, Mariota will face the difficult task of integrating all these new offensive pieces without the benefit of a full offseason. He surprised the Titans by taking snaps during OTAs, just five months removed from a plate being inserted into his broken leg. But Mariota was not able to cut or practice at full speed in June after failing to close out the regular season healthy for a second straight year.
The familiarity between Mariota and Mularkey should limit the damage of the injury. Mularkey took over as interim head coach of the Titans halfway through Mariota's rookie season. And last year, after being promoted to the full-time gig, Mularkey helped shepherd Mariota's improved vertical passing. For all the hype about Tennessee's additions this offseason, the foundation of the Titans' offense remains unchanged. Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin comprise the nastiest tackle duo in football. DeMarco Murray and underrated second-year back Derrick Henry might be the toughest one-two punch in the backfield. Tight end Delanie Walker is still a physical freak at age 32. Tennessee's offense comes harder than Mularkey's jawline.
While there has been some typical young-quarterback streakiness, Mariota has handled himself like a pro while throwing for 45 touchdowns against only 19 interceptions over the last two seasons. Now he has the teammates to take the next step to omnipresence, not to mention the schedule.
AFC South is there for the taking
The NFL's hipster division is perpetually on the verge, a favorite of writers looking for what's next. It's also ripe to be conquered decisively.
The Texans are at least two years behind Tennessee in developing a franchise quarterback, coming off a season where they won nine games with smoke and mirrors. No one knows when the Colts' leader will be able to throw a football again, and how swapping out an entire defense will play out in 2017. Jacksonville looks intriguing on paper again, but Robinson is the newcomer who stole the show from the Jaguars and their fancy beach house. Rebuilds don't have to take five years.
Tennessee's coaching staff might have more to prove than its well-rounded roster. Since walking away from the Bills' head-coaching job, Mularkey has waited more than a decade to run a team like this. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau turns 80(!) before the season opener and oversaw a middling group last year.
Still, don't fall for any hot takesmen who try to claim the Titans as some surprise team. (My friend Chris Wesseling smartly staked out that ground last year.) This time around, they should be the clear favorites in their division and get used to the spotlight.
Their Week 1 matchup against the Raiders should be the national game on CBS, a sentence that would have sounded bizarre one year ago. The Titans have prime-time games against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. A closing stretch against the 49ers, Rams and Jaguars screams "hot team heading into the playoffs."
Decker's signing was just the final reminder to the football cognoscenti that Tennessee is this year's consensus trendy team in the AFC. After an offseason attacking weaknesses on the depth chart, the Titans should be ready to attack this weak division.