Titans are a team on the rise in the AFC South

Every year a former basement dweller rises in their division as a new threat for the crown. After a long rebuild period, the Tennessee Titans broke out in 2016 with a 9-7 season that had plenty of promising victories.

They came up short of the playoffs but their roster looks even better this year in one of the weakest divisions in football. What makes the Titans a riser for the 2017 season? Let’s take a deep dive.

The Mariota effect

It’s now Year 3 for quarterback Marcus Mariota and his supporting cast should be better than ever. We’ll break all that down in a bit, but what about his play specifically?

The young signal caller made a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2. He threw seven more touchdowns (19 to 26) and dropped his interception total (from 10 to nine on 81 more attempts). He was brilliant at intermediate passing, completing 71 of 122 attempts from 10-19 yards for 1,249 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

Where the young passer needs to improve is throwing under pressure, where he completed only 41.1 percent of his passing attempts and took 24 sacks. The good news is he’ll have the proper help to make that happen.

The newcomer: Corey Davis

There might not be a bigger impact rookie skill player in the NFL (though it’s hard to doubt Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette) than fifth overall selection Corey Davis. He’s a polished route runner with plenty of size coming out of a program where he was very well coached and refined.

While Rishard Matthews was a great add in free agency, posting a career year in 2016, no Titans wide receiver eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark last year. Tajae Sharp was the second leading receiver with only 522 yards, excluding tight end Delanie Walker (800).

The point is that there are plenty of targets available for Davis. He’ll get open, make plays in the red zone and most likely be a favorite target of Mariota’s right away.

Powerhouse offensive line

The Titans unit in the trenches sets the tone for a nasty ground attack featuring the duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin look like young cornerstones at offensive tackle (they allowed four sacks combined in 2016) and the interior rounds out nicely with Quinton Spain, Ben Jones and Josh Kline.

After averaging 136.7 yards on the ground per game last season (third in the NFL), this unit should help Tennessee easily find its way back into the top five. Henry will get better and begin to seize a larger role, enabling Murray to stay fresh down the stretch. This dynamic duo has a chance to combine for 2,000 rushing yards behind this offensive line.

Special, special teams

It was a bit of a surprise when the Titans used the 18th overall selection on USC’s Adoree’ Jackson, but he could be a triple-threat player. He needs time to develop at cornerback and will only see a few scripted touches (if any) on offense such as screens, reverses and sweeps, but his impact on special teams could be dynamite.

He’s an explosive returner with top-notch speed to take it to the house on any chance he gets; he took four punts and four kicks for touchdowns in his three-year career for the Trojans. The Titans didn’t bring a punt or kick back to the house last year, but did surrender two punt returns for touchdowns. If they start to flip that differential, it could be the difference in achieving a double-digit win total.