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2016 season preview: Tennessee Titans

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 13: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 13, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Tennessee Titans will be looking to make a step forward in 2016, with franchise QB Marcus Mariota entering his second season leading the charge. The Titans flashed potential in 2015 but still had quite a ways to go in terms of assembling a complete roster ready to take on the top teams in the AFC. Over the last couple of weeks, the team at PFF has compiled rankings for the following units: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive front seven and the secondary. Below is where the Titans ranked among each group.

[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]

Mariota showed flashes, but needs deep-ball improvement

Quarterbacks: 26th in PFF’s season preview rankings

Mariota started in 12 games in 2016 and the results were mixed; he certainly had his highs (graded at +1.0 or better six times) but he also had his fair share of lows to go with them (graded at -1.0 or worse four times). The former Oregon QB was excellent at making the intermediate throws (throws that travel 10-19 yards in the air), he completed 70 of 100 attempts for 1,187 yards with 10 TDs and one interception, all good for a glowing +23.4 passing grade on such throws; but he really struggled at throwing the deep ball (balls that travel at least 20 yards in the air). Mariota completed just nine of his 49 deep balls for 293 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions to go with a -13.0 grade; his adjusted completion percentage on deep passes was dead last among QBs at 20.4 percent, Ryan Fitzpatrick had the next-lowest percentage at 31.4 percent; fellow rookie Jameis Winston’s was 42.2 percent. The deep pass was a virtual non-threat with Mariota running the offense last season. If Mariota is forced to miss time again in 2016, the Titans will likely be handing the ball over to Matt Cassel, who, as senior analyst Sam Monson points out, “hasn’t performed well in a long time.”

(PFF Fantasy Insight: Mariota's deep-ball struggles kept his fantasy production in check, but he has promise and is one of the highlights of the late-round quarterback strategy this season. Mike Castiglione thinks the team's offseason acquisitions should bode well for the second-year quarterback.)

Can Murray and Henry fix a broken unit?

Running backs: 25th

The running back position was clearly a priority for the Titans this offseason. They went out and acquired DeMarco Murray and then on top of that they spent a valuable draft pick on Derrick Henry out of Alabama. Just because they focused on the position, though, doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks still. Is it really a guarantee that Murray bounces back to what we saw in 2014? Analyst Mike Renner breaks down Murray’s struggles in Philadelphia last season in great detail here, noting that some of it was schematic but part of it also could be attributed to age and a history of injuries. Murray had 718 fewer yards after contact in 2015 than in 2014 and he ranked 30th in elusive rating in 2015 after ranking 11th in the metric in 2014. Following Murray, it will be interesting to see how the Titans work Henry into the mix. Henry was a force of nature for Alabama last season but he offers very little change of pace to Murray and up to this point has never been much of a pass-catcher. Henry also had his issues in pass protection last season (-2.1 blocking grade).

A lot of names, but not a lot of performance

Wide receivers: 27th

Dorial Green-Beckham had some flashes of great play last season but consistency wasn’t there for the rookie; he saw his snap count increase as the season progressed and there’s certainly room for optimism that his role and performance will increase and improve as he enters year two. Kendall Wright burst onto the scene in his sophomore season back in 2013 when he compiled a +13.3 overall grade that ranked him 16th among receivers; his grade has declined in each of the last two seasons though and last season he graded at +1.1, which was 54th among receivers. The Titans went out and acquired Rishard Matthews in the offseason. Matthews should be able to carve out a role for himself after posting the 34th-best overall grade among receivers in 2015. They also signed Andre Johnson Friday, but the veteran didn’t look to have a lot left in Indianapolis last year, and might not make the roster.

Tennessee’s biggest threat in the passing game is Delanie Walker. Walker was second among tight ends last season in terms of overall grade and his 1,088 yards nearly doubled Green-Beckham’s 549 yards. Walker has proven to be a crucial piece of Tennessee’s passing game but if they want to take the next step forward one of those receivers is going to need to step up.

If the pedigrees match the production, line could be good

Offensive line: 25th

This line is littered with recent first-round picks so despite being ranked this low, there is potential here. Tennessee spent a first-round pick on Jack Conklin who may very well have been the best run-blocking tackle in the entire 2016 draft class, his 25.4 run-blocking grade in 2015 ranked second among tackles in this class and he graded out even better as a run-blocker in 2014. Taylor Lewan hasn’t established himself as a dominant force but he graded out positively in limited snaps in 2014 and his grade improved in 2015 in a much large role; Lewan had the 14th-highest overall grade among tackles last season. Chance Warmack had a very up-and-down season following an encouraging 2014 (-12 overall grade Weeks 1-9 vs. +6.4 Weeks 10-17); Quinton Spain showed flashes in pass protection as a rookie last year (although he struggled quite a bit as a run-blocker); and newly acquired center Ben Jones struggled for Houston last season after playing well as a guard in 2014.

Casey is the headliner on a mediocre unit

Front-seven: 17th

Jurrell Casey might be one of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL, and he’s easily the star of this Titans defense. Casey ranked fourth among all 3-4 defensive ends in terms of overall grade, filling out a top five that also includes J.J. Watt, Fletcher Cox, Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson. Casey ranked seventh overall in 2014. Casey is easily the Titans most impactful pass rusher (last season he also lead the team in total pressures) and he was second on the team in stops as well. Brian Orakpo had a productive season as a pass rusher – his +13.2 pass-rush grade ranked 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers – but they really need Derrick Morgan to get back to the level he showed between 2012-2014 for this unit to become a force. From 2012-2014, Morgan averaged 59.7 total pressures per season; in 2015 he had just 30 total pressures. If Morgan is able to round back into form though, this is a unit that has some potential to surprise some people.

Searcy was only positively graded secondary player

Secondary: 29th

To quote analyst Matt Claassen, “About the only thing that went right for the Titans’ secondary last year was the addition of (Da’Norris) Searcy, who finished the season with a career-high coverage grade.” Searcy was the only player in the Titans’ secondary last season to see at least 200 snaps and record a positive overall grade. Jason McCourty averaged a +12.8 overall grade 2010-2013 (that would have ranked him as the 11th-best CB in 2015) but he put up just a +0.2 grade in 2014 and last year that overall grade dropped to -4.2 in a season that was marred by injury. Perrish Cox has been fairly pedestrian throughout his career and last season he allowed the second-highest passer rating into his coverage (124.2) among cornerbacks with at least 500 snaps. Tennessee was one of just three teams last season that had zero cornerbacks rank among the top 50 in terms of yards per cover snap.

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