Here's the good news for the Tennessee Titans: Despite amassing just three wins last season and five total victories over the last two years, they aren't as far off competing as it might seem. Yes, the cupboard is bare and, no, head coach Mike Mularkey won't be confused for Vince Lombardi anytime soon. But Tennessee potentially has something that most teams spend years and countless resources trying to get their hands on.
A franchise quarterback.
It wasn't a flawless rookie campaign for Marcus Mariota, last year's No. 2 overall pick. It was certainly an impressive one, though. He threw 19 touchdown passes compared to just 10 interceptions. He completed 62 percent of his passes and was 10th in the NFL in yards per attempt (7.6). He also ran for 252 yards, including this 87-yard score against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Any team that has a 22-year-old quarterback coming off a year in which he accounted for 22 total touchdowns is ahead of the game.
The key question going forward is how the coaching staff can continue to develop Mariota into an elite signal caller. Mularkey noted at Wednesday's press conference in Indianapolis that he sometimes struggled with his play-calling in the huddle, and to help improve his command of the offense, the team is simplifying the terms it uses. Mularkey also said that he wants to leverage Mariota's athleticism, and that he expects to incorporate more designed runs for his quarterback.
To take advantage, though, the Titans and their new general manager Jon Robinson will have to nail a number of decisions this offseason, starting with the NFL Draft where they hold the No. 1 pick.
That process begins this week with the NFL Combine, where Robinson and the Titans will have to decide how they'd like to proceed. Last year Tennessee nailed its pre-draft scouting. Not only were the Titans able to get their hands on a young quarterback who looks to have a bright future in the NFL, but they also nabbed Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round, giving Mariota a weapon to develop with.
For the Titans to morph into a playoff contender, they'll need Robinson to continue on a similar path. There's a lot riding on this year's draft. The Titans are facing a number of tough decisions, ones which will determine whether Mariota can continue to grow and the team can climb out of the league's cellar within the next few years.
What went wrong last year
Aside from Mariota, essentially everything else went wrong. The offense was the NFL's least efficient, according to Football Outsiders. Both the Titans' rushing and passing attack were 29th in the league.
All that started up front with the team's weak offensive line.
Ironically, that's one of the few areas the Titans have devoted resources to over the years. They drafted guard Chance Warmack 10th overall in 2013. A year later, they selected left tackle Taylor Lewan with the 11th pick. They also spent a third-rounder on Jeremiah Poutasi, who will be transitioning from tackle to guard next season. In the years before that, they spent money on free agents like Andy Levitre, who's now with the Atlanta Falcons.
And yet, the Titans had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL in 2015. They surrendered an NFL-high 57 sacks. No Titans running back rushed for more than 520 yards. Mariota suffered two MCL injuries and was forced to miss four games, and when he was healthy, he spent the majority of his time facing third-and-longs and rushing throws.
That said, it's unfair to drop all the blame for the anemic offense at the feet of the offensive line. Other than Mariota, the Titans had just one playmaker on offense: tight end Delanie Walker, a solid and reliable pass catcher, but not someone whose athleticism would ever be confused with Rob Gronkowski's. Green-Beckham (32 catches, 459 yards) began to emerge as the season marched on, but receivers Kendall Wright and Harry Douglas are on the back-nines of their respective careers. The relatively anonymous Antonio Andrews was the Titans' leading rusher, while Mariota was second on the team and 2014 second-round pick Bishop Sankey didn't even reach 200 yards.
The defense, while far from strong, was actually Tennessee's greatest strength. Led by legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the unit finished the season ranked 12th in the league in total defense. The defensive line was also one of the AFC's best. Jurrell Casey didn't match his career-best sack total of 10, but he remains one of the NFL's top pass rushers and defensive linemen.
Jurrell Casey is an absolute wrecking ball. pic.twitter.com/fBG2PpdUZc— Terry Lambert (@TLambertFB) September 15, 2015
Casey recorded seven sacks during the season, tying outside linebacker Brian Orakpo for the team lead.
The secondary is thin, too -- aside from cornerback Jason McCourty, who missed 12 games last season, there's not much talent in the group. The Titans could benefit by adding some talent back there as well.
What they can do next
First, the Titans have to decide if they want to hold on to the top pick in the draft or trade down. Tennessee is already receiving calls from other teams interested in knowing if Robinson is open to dealing the No. 1 pick.
Right now, it appears that if any team wants to draft talented California quarterback Jared Goff, it will need to leapfrog the Cleveland Browns at No. 2. With that being the case, the Titans could receive offers that would garner them more draft picks, ones which would allow them to shore up their many holes.
Mularkey indicated during his Wednesday press conference at the NFL Combine that the team should have "trade options" at the top spot if they choose to make a deal.
"We would like to capitalize on (this pick) and try to make an impact on the roster, whether we pick an impact player or whether we acquire more picks via trade," Robinson added.
No matter what they do with the No. 1 pick, the Titans must add some talent on the offensive line. Speaking to reporters at the NFL Combine on Wednesday, Robinson laid out the priorities for the team this offseason and acknowledged the need for help in the trenches.
.@Titans GM Jon Robinson: QB is most important position on the team. Key is keeping him upright pic.twitter.com/awj103mdWo— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) February 24, 2016
That could come in the form of Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, whom they'd likely have to stay at No. 1 to take. Or it could mean trading down and selecting someone like Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. Either way, providing Mariota with some protection and the running backs with more holes should be the Titans' top priority this offseason.
If the Titans do take Tunsil, Lewan would presumably slide over to the right side of the line. Robinson made it clear that right now Lewan is their left tackle, but that he is capable of playing at multiple positions.
"I think Taylor can play a lot of places. He's a very good football player," Mularkey said, via NFL.com. "I can see (right tackle) if that was a scenario that came up, yes. His athletic ability allows him to do multiple things."
In addition to shoring up their front five, the Titans need to add another offensive weapon who can take advantage of those holes. Taking one in the draft's second or third round could be a good and inexpensive way to do so. Tennessee could go that route and even target a free agent wide receiver or running back to help Mariota's development.
"We have to get good production out of the backs," Robinson said. "You talk about helping out Marcus. Part of helping out the quarterback is being able to run the football to get us in second-medium and third-short situations, where there’s still the threat of running the football."
All this isn't to say that the Titans should be ignoring the defensive side of the ball, but right now their primary goal is trying to help Mariota become the franchise quarterback it looks he could be.