Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Titans are in a very interesting position. Your second-year coach is coming off a good debut season and looking to improve. You have a quarterback who is out to prove himself. And of course, you have a running back who can do this:
How the Titans got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
-- December Derrick Henry. Henry ran wild on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 14 against the Jaguars, piling up 238 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries, including a 99-yard score that tied Tony Dorsett's all-time record run. And not to besmirch the Hall of Famer, but Henry's run was next level. Dude was running over and stiff-arming defenders like it was the old "NFL Blitz" video game and he had unlocked some unstoppable feature. I'm pretty sure he snatched the hearts of multiple Jaguars, like Mola Ram in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." And over the last four games of the season, Henry racked up 585 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 carries (6.7 yards per tote). Compare that to Henry's production over the first 12 games of the season -- 474 yards and five touchdowns on 128 carries (3.7 per attempt) -- and yeah, the guy finished pretty strong.
-- Revived playoff hopes with a four-game win streak. After falling to 5-6, Tennessee won its first four games of December to set up a playoff play-in against the Colts in Week 17.
Head coach: Mike Vrabel. The Titans fired Mike Mularkey because they were tired of going 9-7. So they hired Vrabel and went -- wait for it -- 9-7. But the second year is where you really get a chance to find out about the future of Bill Belichick coaching tree disciples. Because they all seem to do alright in Year 1. Eric Mangini won 10 games during his debut season with the Jets. Bill O'Brien won nine with the Texans. And Josh McDaniels won eight with the Broncos during his first stint. And then 10 with the Colts last season. Oh, wait -- that was Frank Reich. Of course, Mangini and McDaniels couldn't sustain the momentum. McDaniels didn't even finish his second season. But O'Brien has won three of the last four AFC South titles, so there is hope.
There were some things that impressed me about Vrabel in Year 1. He out-coached his mentor during the Pats' trip down to Nashville. He handled the Rishard Matthews mess like a champ. He won some games with Blaine Gabbert under center, which is like coaching on the most difficult setting imaginable. And even though his decision to go for the win against the Chargers in London was weirdly risky, I kind of liked the spirit of it. I mean, I didn't like the idea of throwing the ball when you had Derrick Henry on the team. But that was kind of a running theme with the Titans all year. Still, Titans fans should feel good about their head coach.
Did you know: Including the playoffs, Vrabel had 12 career touchdown receptions as a player. Is it me, or is that a crazy-high number? Dorsett had 14. Insane. Oh, and one of Vrabel's TD grabs came in Super Bowl XXXIX. Which means he scored more Super Bowl touchdowns than Walter Payton. Thanks, Ditka.
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota. I'm a big Mariota guy. Loved him going back to his days at Oregon. And I don't think he's been given much of a chance at the NFL level. It's like someone wants him to challenge Jay Cutler's NFL mark for most offensive coordinators in a career. Which is why you always get mixed results from the Titans signal-caller. Mariota was last among qualified quarterbacks (min. 200 pass attempts) in pass attempts per game last year (23.6), 30th in passing yards per game (180.6) and tied for 30th with 11 touchdown passes. But with Mariota at quarterback, the Titans were 6-2 from Week 9 on (he missed Week 17 due to injury). He completed more than 71.3 percent of his passes during that span, rolling up an 8:3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 103.8 passer rating. And according to Next Gen Stats, he had the highest passer rating (94.0) and completion percentage (62.5) under pressure among qualified quarterbacks last year.
So which guy is he? It's probably fair to say both. And the Titans are going to have a decision to make at the end of the season, with Mariota playing under his fifth-year option.
Projected 2019 MVP: Derrick Henry, running back. As much as folks tend to believe this season hinges on Mariota, this might be a bigger season for Henry. I mean, as a member of the fantasy community, we've longed for the breakout he had at the end of last season. On the whole, he eclipsed 1,000 yards for this first time in his career and scored 12 rushing touchdowns -- the most ground scores since Chris Johnson in 2009. Henry was the third player in Titans history to pile up more than 1,000 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. (Well, fourth, if you count Earl Campbell's work as a Houston Oiler. But I don't.) Henry rushed for 4.2 yards after contact, which ranked second in the NFL. He forced 41 missed tackles (fourth). But remember, he wasn't used that much early in the season. The dude is incredible. He's like the Braun Strowman of the NFL: A monster who could be the biggest thing in the game if used right. Will he be?
One more thing: Henry has more rushing yards (2,135) and rushing touchdowns (22) than Ezekiel Elliott (1,877, 9) over their last 500 carries.
2019 breakout star: Rashaan Evans, linebacker. A first-round pick last season, Evans was slowed by a hamstring injury early in the season. But he really started to come on in the second half of the year. You might remember him from that Thursday night game when he stopped Leonard Fournette on fourth-and-goal. You thought Henry stole all the highlights that night? Nope. Evans is going to have a huge season.
BTW, how good is this guy? Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle. He is one of three defensive tackles to make the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons. The other two are Geno Atkins (great player) and Aaron Donald (whom Chris Long just called "the best football player in the world"). Casey has the second-fastest average time to sack of any interior lineman over the last two seasons, behind only Donald. That, of course, comes courtesy of Next Gen Stats.
And another: Cameron Wake, outside linebacker. This would've been even cooler about a decade ago. Kind of like when Sting showed up at WrestleMania. But Wake could provide some spark for the defense that ranked tied for 16th with 39 sacks in 2018.
The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. The Titans won nine games last season and you would like to see them at least hit that mark. They were in a de-facto playoff game in Week 17 against the Colts. So you want to be in the mix, even though the AFC South is the toughest division in the league this year, by my estimation.
Will the Titans be able to ...
Use the additions of Adam Humphries and A.J. Brown to bolster the passing game? The Titans aren't messing around here. GM Jon Robinson has assembled a receiving corps like he's the Max Fury of the NFL. In addition to drafting Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick in 2017, Robinson signed Humphries this offseason and then drafted Brown in the second round. If Mariota can't get it down this year, it's not for a lack of trying by the franchise. Realize Mariota has never had a 1,000-yard receiver since entering the NFL in 2015. The Titans have had the fewest receiving yards (7,687) and second-fewest touchdowns from the receiver position (40) during that stretch. Tennessee had a league-low seven receiving touchdowns last year.
Brown is, in fact, the fifth receiver selected by the Titans in the first two rounds since 2012. None of those previous four have made the Pro Bowl. The last Titans receiver to do so was Derrick Mason all the way back in 2003. Brown had the second-most receiving yards in FBS over the last two years (2,572). Meanwhile, the Titans had the fewest receiving yards from the slot position in 2018 (575, according to Next Gen Stats). Brown gained 800 of his 1,320 receiving yards from the slot last season. Humphries had 666 receiving yards from the slot last year (ranking seventh in the NFL). In fact, Humphries set career highs in receptions (76), receiving yards (816) and receiving touchdowns (five) with the Buccaneers. The Titans haven't had a receiver top 75 receptions in a season since Kendall Wright in 2013 (94). The Titans haven't had a receiver top five touchdown receptions in a season since Rishard Matthews had nine in 2016. Well, at least that wasn't so long ago.
Find stability with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith? It's fair to say Smith is one of the most anonymous offensive coordinators in the league. He looks more like the guy who comes to your table when you're complaining about your Awesome Blossom being less than awesome. But he has earned this opportunity, having worked in Tennessee under Vrabel, Mularkey, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Munchak. Though this will be the first time that he's actually calling plays. So on the one hand, you have some stability with Mariota and a play caller who is extremely popular with the players. But we saw last year how coaching inexperience can hold this team back. Vrabel was not a coordinator before he got the job. Last year, the combination of Vrabel and first-time play caller Matt LaFleur resulted in the Titans largely ignoring Henry until it was almost too late. And in the highly competitive AFC South, those kinds of mistakes can be critical.
Rely on the defense to win games? This is the other route the Titans can take. They could sort of mirror what the Jaguars did in 2017: Get out to an early lead; force the opposing offense to get one-dimensional and throw the ball. Because Tennessee's defense was really good last year. The Titans finished third in scoring D (18.9 PPG) and eighth in total defense (333.4 YPG) -- their best rankings in both categories since 2008. The defense keyed a four-game winning streak late in the season, as the unit allowed just 11.8 points and 271.8 yards per game during that stretch.
Three key dates
-- Week 1 at the Browns. Oh, man -- this is a perfect game for the Titans. Everyone (including me) has high hopes for the Browns. This would be a great chance to walk into Cleveland and steal the show. I mean, this seems like the way the NFL works, right? People are hyping the Browns, while dogging Mariota and the Titans. (And by people, I mean me.) So if Tennessee were to go in and win, the surprise would be so unsurprising, if you get what I mean.
-- Week 15 vs. the Texans. I'm not going to pretend you have read every one of these pieces. You should, but that's a different conversation that we can have. However, I've had one recurring beef with schedule makers ... It annoys the stuff out of me that this is the Titans' FIRST game against the Texans. And then they play two weeks later. Like, how is this allowed? I'm serious. I want answers!
One storyline people are overlooking:Re-signing Kenny Vaccaro. The Titans took a one-year gamble on Vaccaro and it paid off pretty well. They inked him to a four-year deal this offseason and I really like the move. He and Kevin Byard form one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. They are like any good tag team. Vaccaro is the talented headliner who makes you go "WHOA" at least once a game. Vaccaro is that enforcer who needs to bring the lumber from time to time. Kind of like the original Hart Foundation, where Byard is Bret Hart and Vaccaro is Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart.
One storyline people are overthinking:Bringing in Ryan Tannehill. Look, it's not like you're going to have a quarterback controversy with Tannehill. But Mariota has missed time to injury every season. So it makes sense to have a quality backup, which Tannehill certainly can be. But you know how fans can get. Let's say the Titans struggle out of the gate -- will y'all be anxious to get Tannehill into the lineup?
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Titans MUST ...
-- Make the playoffs.
I alluded to this before, but Mularkey was deposed because his teams were just kind of there. Perennial nine-win finishers that weren't quite good enough. I'm not going to intimate that Vrabel is on any sort of hot seat or something. Far from it. But the playoffs should be the obvious goal.
The Titans are a very talented team. They certainly could contend for the AFC South title. But it's also one of the toughest divisions in the league -- the toughest, if you're asking me. Can Mariota be the guy he was down the stretch last season? Or will the Titans be in the quarterback market next offseason? The Titans need to get a definitive answer on the quarterback and see how the chips fall.