Every season, there is that one darling team, the one that everyone picks to finally break through and make it to the playoffs. Sometimes it feels like too many people are picking that team, and a betting man may want to back off.
Can the Tennessee Titans, with all this newfound attention for a team that’s been irrelevant for nearly a decade, get out of its eight-year playoff drought and win the AFC South?
In a word, yes. Here’s the longer answer.
Since Jon Robinson took over as general manager in January 2016, the Titans have geared two drafts and two free-agency sessions towards ensuring that their offense can outscore the rest of the AFC South. The division boasts one of the league’s best defenses in Houston, a defense with plenty of brand names in Jacksonville and a re-tooled D in Indianapolis thanks to new Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
Meanwhile, the Titans are focusing on the other side of the ball, surrounding third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota with enough weapons to get Tennessee back into the top-10 in total offense for the first time since 2003. Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense got plenty of laughs last year, but it resulted in 1,777 rushing yards from Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry. If Dallas and Oakland had the best offensive lines in football last season, Tennessee wasn’t far behind with its dominant tackle duo of Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin.
As the entire league moved toward 11 personnel, the Titans stayed true to their rush-heavy approach. Their 476 rushing attempts were fourth-most in the league in 2016, and Tennessee lined up in 11 personnel for just 42% of snaps, which was tied for the second-lowest mark in the league according to Sharp Football Stats.
Of course that was also due to the fact that Mariota didn’t have many reliable pass-catchers around him in 2016. Rishard Matthews led the team with 108 targets and 945 receiving yards, but receivers like Kendall Wright, Harry Douglass and preseason phenom Tajae Sharpe fell short of expectations.
The Titans let Wright walk in free agency and used their fifth overall pick on 6′ 3″ receiver Corey Davis. Expected to be healthy for the start of training camp, Davis should quickly become Mariota’s top target and take some of the load off surprisingly good 32-year-old Delanie Walker, who in the past three seasons has more receiving yards (2,778) than in his previous eight years combined.
And the team’s biggest and most recent acquisition further proves where the Titans are placing their chips. Eric Decker was a 900-yard-a-year receiver until a shoulder injury placed him injured reserve with the Jets last season. He signed a one-year deal with the Titans in what he’ll surely want to make a prove-it season as a 30-year-old coming off an injury.
Tennessee’s success will naturally hinge on Mariota’s recovery from a broken leg, but assuming he returns healthy and continues on his trajectory, the Titans will be able to score. In both seasons Mariota, who has 45 career touchdowns to 19 interceptions, has been 61% or better throwing in the red zone and finished in the top-10 both seasons.
None of this is to say Robinson and the Titans have ignored their defense. The Titans signed cornerback Logan Ryan, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and safety Johnathan Cyprien in the offseason on top of drafting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson with their second first-round pick. But clearly the offense will be buttering the bread in 2017 when the Titans face two of the top-six defenses from ’16 and a re-imaged Colts defense.
The Titans must better their divisional play, though. They tied with the Texans at 9–7 but lost the tiebreaker with a 2–4 division record. Improvement can be made though, especially when you consider that five of Tennessee’s nine wins last year came against teams that went to the playoffs, and a sixth came against the 9–7 Broncos.
Go ahead and place your bets on the Titans—everyone else is.