Tennessee Titans: 2016 season preview

By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange  |  July 21, 2016 at 2:45 PM
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If things are looking up for the Tennessee Titans it is only a matter of perspective.

With only five wins in the last two seasons, the only place to look is up as Mike Mularkey begins his first full season as the Titans head coach when the team reports for full training camp July 29.

Of the 21 returning starters the key, as usual, is at quarterback.

Mularkey has the advantage of Marcus Mariota becoming the team's first quarterback to be the designated starter in consecutive seasons since Vince Young in 2006-07. The former Oregon sensation, taken No. 2 overall in the draft last year, says he is much farther along after an injury-plagued rookie season.

"I think this entire situation will be a lot more comfortable - going through it already for a year, seeing a lot of similar faces, understanding what's expected from me," Mariota said. "From that standpoint, I feel comfortable and that's going to allow me to feel a lot more comfortable coming into camp. I'm just ready to roll."

Mariota refined his focus going against defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's creative zone-blitz scheme in practice and has been trying to learn as much as he can about the defenses he will face this fall.

"I've been very pleased," said Mularkey after minicamp. "I think he's obviously ahead of where he was last year because of his experience, but also because of some of the things we're doing to help him out. So I've been very pleased."

To help Mariota, the Titans acquired running back DeMarco Murray from the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was unable to repeat the prolific performance he showed previously with the Dallas Cowboys.

At wide receiver the Titans added free agent Rishard Matthews (Miami Dolphins, $15 million, three years). He and rookie Tajae Sharpe, 6-foot-2, 194-pounds), a fifth-round draftee out of Massachusetts emerged from minicamp as the possible starter on a depth chart that includes Kendall Wright and Dorial Green-Beckham.

The draft also may have added immediate help with first-round selection Jack Conklin (No. 8 overall), who should start at right tackle. Despite already signing Murray, the Titans could not pass on Alabama's Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Derrick Henry (Round 2, No. 45 overall).

Here is a closer look at the newcomers and key players and how they should factor into the Titans' 2016 team:



Tennessee, Saint Thomas Sports Park, Nashville, TN, 7/29, 7/29

2015 RECORD: 3-13


COACH: Mike Mularkey

1st full season with Titans

2-7 overall

4th full season as NFL head coach

18-39 overall


21; 11 offense, 10 defense, kicker, punter

OFFSEASON STANDOUT: Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe

--Sharpe began the offseason as a fifth-round pick trying to prove he belonged in the NFL. But the former U-Mass star, who led the NCAA in receptions a year ago, has quickly turned heads from the Titans brass despite being a low-round pick. Sharpe is now running first team as a reward for his consistency both as a route-runner and catching the football. Sharpe could get a challenge in camp from Dorial Green-Beckham or Justin Hunter, but it wouldn't be a surprise for the rookie to hang on to the starting job in the regular season.


A closer look at the Titans' picks (10):

--Round 1/8 - Jack Conklin, T, 6-6, 308, Michigan State

Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
The Titans moved back up from 15th to eighth in order to land their man, who described himself as a "mauler" and whom the Titans said embodied the type of identity they want to build. Conklin should step right in as the team's starting right tackle and help to solidify an offensive line that has been a major issue the past several seasons.

--Round 2/33 - Kevin Dodd, OLB, 6-5, 277, Clemson

The Titans had their choice of potential impact linebackers and chose a healthy Dodd over Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack, who went within three picks after they chose the late bloomer from Clemson. Dodd suffered a foot injury early in offseason work and underwent surgery. He is expected to be ready for training camp.

--Round 2/43 - Austin Johnson, NT, 6-4, 314, Penn State

The Titans needed another player who could play on the nose in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense. Johnson should find himself second in the rotation at nose tackle behind veteran Al Woods. He can also play a three-technique and five technique if called upon, but his primary role should be in the middle of the defensive line.

--Round 2/45 - Derrick Henry, RB, 6-3, 247, Alabama

The Titans didn't really need another running back, as they had already traded for DeMarco Murray in early March. But apparently the value on the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner was too good for them to pass up in this situation. Henry showed skills as a runner and a pass receiver in offseason work and could have a bigger role than first anticipated.

--Round 3/64 - Kevin Byard, S, 5-11, 212, Middle Tennessee

Perhaps a reach here, but the Titans loved the local product after working him out about a week before the draft. Byard has obvious ball skills, as shown by his 19 career interceptions. While he will initially be penciled in behind Da'Norris Searcy and newcomer Rashad Johnson, he will have a chance to start at some point - if not this year, then probably in 2017.

--Round 5/140 - Tajae Sharpe, WR, 6-2, 194, Massachusetts

Sharpe drew the Titans' attention because of his route-running skills and his ability to catch the football. He didn't play against the best competition in the MAC, but has shown himself to be a quick enough study that he is getting first-team reps and will head to camp with a chance to be a starter.

--Round 5/157 - LeShaun Sims, CB, 6-0, 203, Southern Utah

The Titans' continuing trend of mining smaller schools for talent continued when they traded back into the fifth round, taking a pick from the Denver Broncos, to nab Sims. General manager Jon Robinson said he eventually sees Sims being able to compete for a starting spot eventually at an outside cornerback position. His initial role, however, will likely be on special teams.

--Round 6/193 - Sebastian Tretola, G, 6-4, 314, Arkansas

Tretola showed off a big personality and a willingness to play physical football, something that seems to be the theme of the draft for the Titans, especially on the offensive line. While he might be a long shot as a late sixth-round pick, Tretola might have a chance to get into the starting mix at left guard where the Titans remain unsettled.

--Round 7/222 - Austin Wallace, LB, 6-3, 240, UCLA

Wallace is another late bloomer as an inside linebacker. He didn't start until his senior year, moving into the lineup after Myles Jack's knee injury. While he wasn't Jack, Wallace was good enough to be an honorable mention All-Pac 12 selection and finished with seven sacks. He once played at UCLA for current Titans linebackers coach Lou Spanos.

--Round 7/253 - Kalan Reed, CB, 5-11, 195, Southern Mississippi

Mr. Irrelevant, as the last pick in this year's draft, actually has some decent skills as a cover cornerback with eight career interceptions, including four his senior year. Reed also had 19 pass breakups and comes in with a fighting chance to earn a roster spot, despite his low draft status.


--CB Antwon Blake: Struggled with Steelers last year, but comes to familiar scheme, joining coordinator Dick LeBeau.

--QB Matt Cassel: Veteran backup comes to Titans on one-year deal to compete for No. 2 quarterback spot.

--S Rashad Johnson: Free-agent import from Cardinals takes over at free safety for Michael Griffin.

--C Ben Jones: Free agent from rival Texans should stabilize center, which has been issue for years.

--WR Rishard Matthews: Free-agent signee from Dolphins has good hands; might become Titans No. 2 receiver.

--CB Brice McCain: Another player with LeBeau connections, he could wind up as the regular nickel back.

--RB DeMarco Murray: Trade pickup from Eagles will carry load as Titans hope he finds his old Cowboy form.

--LB Sean Spence: Signed to one-year deal; might compete for starting job since he knows LeBeau's system.

KEY LOSS: S Michael Griffin (15/14)*

--Griffin had his ups and downs in nine years with the Titans, but was a durable player who played through many injuries. His release signaled that the Titans are turning the page on the past.


--LB Zach Brown (16/5), TE Dorin Dickerson (0/0), CB Brandon Harris (0/0), NT Sammie Hill (10/5), LB Steve Johnson (16/0), C/G Joe Looney (8/6), DE Mike Martin (5/0), T/G Jamon Meredith (13/3), QB Zach Mettenberger (7/4), CB Coty Sensabaugh (16/15)*

Total games played/started lost: 106/52

*Number in parentheses is games played/games started in 2015

-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX's network of NFL insiders provided information for this report.

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