The Tennessee Titans arrived in Nashville — well, Memphis first — with a bang. The franchise may no longer have been the Oilers, but a pair of young superstars, Steve McNair and Eddie George, gave the team an immediate identity. From 1999 to 2003, the Titans made four trips to the postseason, earning spots in the Super Bowl and two AFC Championship Games in the process.
When McNair left the Volunteer State to close out his career in Baltimore, he took that identity with him. In the years since, the Titans have gone from playoff staple to unwanted home ticket. Finally, 11 years later, Tennessee is primed to return to its successful roots — but only because Marcus Mariota and a handful of other shrewd draft picks have erased a decade of awful free agency moves.
The Titans’ track record of recent signings has been a lesson in poor investment. Veteran pickups like Kamerion Wimbley, Andy Levitre, Steve Hutchinson, Shonn Greene, and Michael Oher accomplished little more than being expensive, miring the franchise in a seemingly perpetual rut.
Despite season after season of swings and misses, the Titans still wound up one tiebreaker from an AFC South title in 2016 and could have made some noise in the playoffs had their star quarterback not suffered a season-ending injury in December. Mariota, DeMarco Murray, and a punishing offensive line have the Titans primed for their first playoff appearance since 2008 — as long as their latest additions can fix all the holes in Tennessee’s lineup.
How are the Titans set to return to glory?
Fortunately, the franchise’s keen eye for talent in the NFL draft has chased away the dark clouds that have hung over Nashville the past decade.
In this year’s draft, Tennessee earned high marks after adding playmakers who could make a difference on each side of the ball. All-American wide receiver Corey Davis and dynamic cornerback Adoree’ Jackson came in the first round. Prolific Western Kentucky wideout Taywan Taylor (he totaled nearly 3,200 receiving yards, 34 touchdowns the past two seasons) and high-upside tight end Jonnu Smith followed.
The Titans have every right to be excited about their latest draft picks; look how well their last three classes have panned out. 2014 brought Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan and defensive starters Avery Williamson and DaQuan Jones into the fold. 2015 wasn’t as deep, but led Mariota to Nashville. 2016’s class has only had one season to make an impact, but already produced a first-team All-Pro (Jack Conklin), a shifty wideout (Tajae Sharpe), and a handful of valuable contributors (Derrick Henry, Kevin Byard, Austin Johnson).
The Titans’ 2017 offseason has been predicated on closing the gaps between the team’s positions of strength (QB, RB, OL, LB) and the relative wastelands of their receiving and secondary depth charts. The team’s biggest moves came in the draft, but the first steps were free agency, where former Patriots starting cornerback Logan Ryan, and to a lesser extent, run-stuffing safety Jonathan Cyprien, Brynden Trawick, and Demontre Hurst were brought in to lessen the losses of popular players like Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox.
Tennessee’s success starts behind center
With these new additions in place, the Titans have grown from oft-ignored local broadcast to primetime attraction. Mariota’s sophomore season laid the foundation for a big 2017; he upped his touchdown rate while reducing turnovers, finding the end zone 26 times despite a receiving corps led by the rookie Sharpe, Rishard Matthews, and Kendall Wright.
That’s even more impressive when you consider his slow start. The Titans began the season 1-3 while Mariota struggled. He completed fewer than 59 percent of his passes, threw more interceptions than touchdowns (4:5), and scuttled to a 73.9 rating in that span.
That changed as the club charged toward a late playoff push. Though his lackluster performance and a broken leg in a Week 16 loss to the Jaguars sunk the team’s postseason hopes, Mariota showed signs of stardom in the intervening 10 games.
Completion rate: 63.7%
Passing yards per game: 240.2
Passer rating: 107.2
Now, he needs to capitalize on that in order to shape a lost franchise in his image. General manager Jon Robinson has made it a point to surround his prized passer with the talent he needs to succeed. It started with Lewan and Conklin; it continues with Davis, Taylor, and Smith.
Is Mariota another mirage?
The Titans have been teased before. Vince Young earned a pair of Pro Bowl bids and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year after the team drafted him with the No. 3 overall pick in 2006. Instead of emerging as McNair’s heir, he finished his NFL career with more interceptions than touchdowns. Other talents like Chris Johnson and Delanie Walker had their best years scuttled as Tennessee searched for its offensive identity through a string of wasted seasons.
That rudderless spell appears in the rearview now. Instead of relying on journeyman passers to tie a piecemeal offense together, the Titans have Mariota — a young player in a different league than predecessors like Jake Locker and Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee has taken years to rebuild from its promising start in Music City, cycling through failed prospects and misguided signings while wallowing in mediocrity.
But with a young core in place, the Titans are primed to regain their spot atop the AFC South. It started at quarterback, but two productive drafts will make sure Tennessee is more than just a one-man show.