New backs, new coach ... new result?
The Titans, who have had losing records the past four seasons, embarked in a new direction when they hired native Tennessean and former Buccaneers and Patriots personnel executive Jon Robinson as general manager in January. At 40, he is bright, experienced and comes with the respect of his former boss in New England, Bill Belichick.
Unfortunately for the Titans, their head coaching pick, announced two days after Robinson's hire, was not as inspiring. Tennessee retained interim coach Mike Mularkey, who went 2--7 last year after Ken Whisenhunt was fired following a 1--6 start.
Mularkey has an 18--39 career record, which includes stints as the coach of the Bills (two seasons) and Jaguars (one), and is 5--27 in his past 32 games. Since the AFL-NFL merger, he is the 16th coach to be given a third opportunity, a group that includes Pete Carroll and John Fox. Why would the Titans retain Mularkey? Continuity for quarterback Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, was a factor. But don't underestimate economics: Tennessee still has to pay Whisenhunt, now the Chargers' offensive coordinator, and there have long been rumors (denied by ownership) about a possible sale of the franchise.
So Mularkey, who was given only a three-year deal, may be just a placeholder until either the team is sold or Robinson can land his dream hire. But even if he is a sort of accidental coach, Mularkey's plans can work, if a lot of things go right.
Offensively, the Titans will rely on what Mularkey has dubbed "exotic smashmouth" football. That means they'll be a running team first, an approach that fits their personnel. With the addition of road-grading first-round pick Jack Conklin of Michigan State at right tackle and former Texans center Ben Jones in free agency, Tennessee should be able to get some push up front. The ground game is also the forte of left tackle Taylor Lewan and right guard Chance Warmack.
The Titans now have the backfield to take advantage of that blocking after acquiring DeMarco Murray from the Eagles and drafting Derrick Henry in the second round. Tennessee's scheme resembles the one Murray excelled in with the Cowboys in '14, when he rushed for a league-leading 1,845 yards. Says Mularkey, "We are going to feature him more from under center and let him do what we've seen him do best." In Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, the Titans have the perfect understudy for Murray. At 6'3" and 247 pounds, he is a mammoth between-the-tackles runner with surprisingly quick feet.
With a power running game, Mariota will find more room to run and throw off play-action. The Titans are set at tight end with Delanie Walker, who last year set team records at the position with 94 receptions for 1,088 yards. But they need other targets to step forward. No receiver had more than 36 catches in 2015, and as a group the wideouts finished last in the NFL in receptions (130) and second-to-last in yards (1,665 yards). Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter have shown flashes but aren't consistent. While the Titans signed 35-year-old Andre Johnson, they're hoping that the two main receivers will be Rishard Matthews, who was underused for four years with the Dolphins, and shifty fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe out of Massachusetts.
Without a passing game that commands respect, defenses will stack up against the run, and Mularkey's designs will go nowhere.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
Take a gander at Jurrell Casey, and you see a bowling ball with arms and legs. You'd never guess that the 6'1" 305-pounder is one of the most versatile defensive players in football. Casey, a sixth-year tackle from USC, gets off the snap quickly, and he has a knack for getting under a blocker's pads and disengaging from contact. He can change directions extremely well in confined areas, and he finishes plays with authority. Last season legendary Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took over Tennessee's unit and used Casey in a variety of ways. In addition to lining up inside, he occasionally set up wide off the edge and, even more surprisingly, sometimes stood up as a roving blitzer—and he looked good doing it, underlining the disconnect between his appearance and his play. Now that Casey has experience in LeBeau's scheme, don't be surprised if his role expands in 2016.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 3--13
2015 Record: 3--13
SEPT. 11 vs.MIN
SEPT. 18 atDEN
SEPT. 25 vs.OAK
OCT. 2 atHOU
OCT. 9 atMIA
OCT. 16 vs.CLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 vs.IND
OCT. 27 vs.JAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 atSD
NOV. 13 vs.GB
NOV. 20 atIND
NOV. 27 atCHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 vs.DEN
DEC. 18 atKC
DEC. 24 atJAX
JAN. 1 vs.HOU
= PREDICTED WINNER