2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,002 (25th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 31 (26th)
Offensive Plays: 940 (29th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 484 (31st)
Rush Attempts: 456 (9th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 28 (30th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 7 (32nd)
It was an exciting day when first-time head coach Mike Vrabel hired Sean McVay disciple Matt LaFleur to be his offensive coordinator. That’s where the fun stopped. Tethered to an injury prone and inconsistent Marcus Mariota at quarterback, the Titans featured one of the least-compelling offenses in the league last season. Only three teams ran fewer plays, and just four operated at a slower pace. It was the farthest cry from what McVay, whose offense was third in both plays and pace, was doing in Los Angeles. Even with the conservative, ground-heavy approach, the Titans didn’t commit to their best back, Derrick Henry, until December. Once they finally did, Henry nearly snuck them into the playoffs, averaging 146 yards per game and 6.72 yards per carry over the Titans’ final four contests. Despite those decidedly mixed results, LaFleur was hired away to be the Packers’ new head coach. In lieu of going in a new direction, Vrabel has doubled down on 2018’s approach, promoting complete unknown TEs coach “Arthur Smith” to OC.
A run-first offense is a good way to get yourself doubted in 2019, but Vrabel is not out here handcuffing Russell Wilson or even Matthew Stafford. Through four years on the job, Mariota has yet to provide evidence that he is capable of carrying an offense. Often injured, Mariota only missed two games in 2018 but seemed debilitated for much of the year by a “stinger” he initially suffered in September. Mariota had just two 300-yard performances as a passer and averaged an anemic 181 yards. Embarrassingly, his 3.3 touchdown percentage — 27th out of 33 qualified players — was an improvement on 2017. An alleged dual threat, Mariota rushed only 64 times. That was a new career high, but still eighth amongst quarterbacks, behind the likes of Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Allen.
For as uninspiring as Mariota was, backup Blaine Gabbert was much, much worse. Had Mariota been available for Week 17 — he missed the Titans’ win-or-go-home tilt vs. the Colts with a flare up of his “stinger” — there’s a chance the Titans would have made the playoffs. Considering that Mariota had missed at least one game each of the first three years of his career, it’s a wonder the Titans did not take their No. 2 quarterback spot more seriously. That mistake has been rectified, with Dolphins washout Ryan Tannehill arriving to hold Mariota’s clipboard. Disappointing though Tannehill’s career has been, it has been better than Mariota’s. An insufficient starter, Tannehill is now arguably the league’s top backup, one who could very well make starts in 2019. It might not even require a Mariota injury. Rare for a first-round quarterback, Mariota is entering the final year of his rookie contract without an extension. The Titans’ hedges are obvious and understandable.
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Not that Mariota’s struggles have been all his fault. His receiver corps have been weak and his play-callers manifold. Smith will be his fifth offensive coordinator in five years. The Titans have finally done something about Mariota’s supporting cast. With 2017 first-rounder Corey Davis slowly beginning to look like a No. 1 wideout, the Titans upgraded the players behind him. No. 51 overall pick A.J. Brown should line up opposite Davis on the outside with experienced slot man Adam Humphries manning the middle. Third-year pro Davis will be the key. Although he finished 24th in raw receiving yardage last season, he was merely the WR40 by average points in both standard and PPR. It’s possible that Davis takes another step forward on the real-life gridiron while remaining in limbo in fantasy. His 2018 production came on a commanding 25.6 percent target share. That was seventh in the league at receiver. With Brown and Humphries joining the fray and Delanie Walker returning from injury, Davis will need to be more efficient and explosive on a per-play basis. Although Davis’ 112 2018 targets seem easily expandable in theory, it will be quite difficult in an offense that remains committed to the run. Typically being drafted on the WR3/4 borderline this summer, the drafting public seems to have a realistic view of Davis’ likely 2019 output.
The forces working against Davis will be even more pronounced for second-rounder Brown. Through Mariota’s four years in the league, the Titans’ No. 2 wide receiver has averaged a modest 72 looks. With potential target hog Humphries making the Titans three deep at wideout, 72 is going to be a hard number for Brown to reach. Brown does have ability and upside for days. Ole Miss’ all-time leading receiver, Brown is capable of both tracking the ball down deep and breaking tackles. He does exquisite work after the catch. An excellent route runner capable of playing both inside and out, Brown is someone you want to own in dynasty leagues. Unfortunately, his re-draft ADP of WR60-65 seems fair.
If Brown might have trouble clearing 72 targets, Humphries has a better shot at getting there. Humphries averaged 90 looks over his final three years in Tampa. That is at the outer limits of what will be possible in Tennessee, however. Humphries’ most direct competitor for work will probably be Walker. Perhaps the one player to have a true rapport with Mariota, 35-year-old (in August) Walker is coming back from a devastating ankle injury. If healthy, he should be No. 2 on the targets totem pole behind Davis. A WR3 for most of 2018, Humphries profiles as a WR5 in fantasy. The upside just isn’t there considering the target competition and low-volume environment. Humphries should have a bigger effect in real life than roto.
Previously a man of steel, Walker posted four-straight 800-yard campaigns before last year’s injury wipeout. Advancing in age and coming off a serious orthopedic issue, Walker’s floor and ceiling are both lower than they were during his prime. Previously the definition of a mid-range TE1, Walker figures to find himself more on the TE1/2 borderline. Solid but unspectacular play could be offset by consistency. Behind Walker is third-year pro Jonnu Smith, who flashed some big-play ability down the stretch last season before suffering an injury of his own. Smith’s recovery from a torn MCL landed him on the PUP list to begin camp, and the Titans’ website considers him questionable for Week 1. If Smith comes into 2019 re-draft value, it will be later in the season after a lot has happened in front of him.
After dominating last December, Henry has finally earned himself a feature commitment. Of course, he opened camp by coming down with a lower-leg issue, the details of which the Titans are keeping to themselves. For now, Henry is expected to be ready well in advance of Week 1. If he is, he will be coming off a closing stretch that saw him average 146 yards per game and 6.72 yards per carry over the Titans’ final four contests. Only Ezekiel Elliott generated more yards after first contract last season, and he carried the ball 89 more times than Henry. Amazingly/confoundingly, Henry averaged just 12 touches across his first 12 games. Speaking in March, Vrabel was frank about his hopes for Henry in 2019. "I think that is where the whole plan would like to start," Vrabel said. "If Derrick can do what he did at the end of the year at the start this year, he’s certainly going to get a lot more opportunities." Despite the optimism, Vrabel did slip in an obvious caveat: “If” Henry can repeat last year’s fast finish.
The good news for Henry is that only 28-year-old Dion Lewis is behind him on the depth chart. Lewis had a miserable 2018, averaging 3.3 yards per carry and an equally-woeful 6.8 yards per catch. For a supposedly explosive change-of-pace back, those numbers need to be at least 4.5 and 8.0, respectively. Despite his lack of pass-catching prowess, the deck is clear for Henry to finally deliver on his RB1 promise. The Titans and fantasy owners just need to hope his summer ailment does not linger into the season. The foot is not exactly what you would choose for a 6-foot-3, 247-pound back to injure in July. The setback threat is real.
As for Lewis, there remains a path to standalone value, but his margin for error is slim. Absent missed time for Henry, Lewis is not going to get 155 carries again. 100 seems like a more appropriate over/under. Lewis has to do more damage as a pass catcher, which could be difficult thanks to his increased target competition. Lewis feels like a last-gasp RB4 you will rarely want to play. Again, that is if Henry stays on the field. Behind Henry and Lewis is a smoking crater, with sometimes-fullback David Fluellen looking like the No. 3 back. Jeremy McNichols is another option.
The Titans are typically installed around 8.0. That could be a lot to ask in the loaded AFC South. Warren Sharp ranks the Titans with one of the five-toughest schedules in the league. Vrabel quickly whipped the defense into a high-end unit last season — only the Ravens allowed fewer points — but there are so many question marks on offense. In addition to the new play-caller and unsettled skill corps, LT Taylor Lewan is suspended the first four games of the season. RT Jack Conklin, meanwhile, is still dealing with knee issues. The right guard spot is unsettled. As usual, nothing is more uncertain than Mariota’s potential performance. The talent is here for more, but the under feels like the better bet.