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VOL. 43 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 11, 2019

3 issues Titans must address this offseason

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Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis led the team in catches this season with 65 for 891 yards and four touchdowns. But he must have help if the Titans are to improve.

-- Ap Photo/Adrian Kraus

As the Tennessee Titans went their separate ways after missing out on the playoffs this season, there were plenty of reminders that things will be different when the team reconvenes in April to begin off-season workouts.

In the early moments of the aftermath of their loss to the Indianapolis Colts, left tackle Taylor Lewan could be seen giving a hug to linemate Quinton Spain, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in March. He told the left guard that their friendship would survive and stay strong, no matter if Spain returned to the Titans or signed elsewhere for next season.

The next day, as lockers were cleaned out, the Titans got another reminder that things will change in 2019 when 10-year veteran linebacker Brian Orakpo announced to teammates and then to the media that he would retiring.

“I’m disappointed about not making the playoffs, but I thought we did some great things with leadership from Coach (Mike) Vrabel and Jon Robinson,” he said. “We completely changed the whole culture that’s what I’m most proud of. When you thought of the Tennessee Titans before, it was an easy W for opponents when they would come in here or whenever the Titans would play, it was considered a win. But I think we all collectively helped to change the culture.”

Orakpo did help to change the Titans’ culture during his four years in Tennessee, helping transform them from a team that won five games over two years to one that won a playoff game in 2017 and was on the cusp of returning this past season.

But as the theme of change permeates with roster turnover, exactly what moves should the Titans prioritize this off-season?

Here are our top three issues they face with suggested solutions:

1. What to do about Marcus Mariota and the quarterback position.

Mariota’s injury history and his ability to be a franchise quarterback – one capable of taking the Titans to the Super Bowl – have been debated during almost his entire four-year tenure.

On the positive side, Mariota has shown a knack for putting together game-winning, fourth quarter drives, including a playoff win.

On the negative, the injuries are extremely frustrating, a point driven home by his not being available for the season-ending loss to the Colts.

Also, his inconsistency can be maddening. In a pass-happy NFL, Mariota managed just 11 TD passes this past season.

So with injuries and inconsistency, what other options do the Titans have? Their best bet, despite his shortcomings, still seems to be to stick with Mariota for a fifth year and hope he finally brushes those issues aside.

The downside of that strategy was demonstrated in the loss to the Colts when the Titans had to rely on Blaine Gabbert to punch their postseason ticket. At this stage of his NFL career, Gabbert is what he is – a journeyman backup quarterback with limitations. He was an upgrade over an aging Matt Cassel, but not enough against the Colts.

So the Titans must find yet another better backup. Quarterbacks like Nick Foles, Joe Flacco and Teddy Bridgewater will want either starter’s money or a starter’s opportunity, which the Titans probably can’t guarantee. Perhaps a player like Tyrod Taylor could be had for less.

2. Add to the pass rush

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees did a fabulous job this season manufacturing a pass rush with limited resources on the edge. Orakpo has retired, and long-time Titan Derrick Morgan is a free agent and might not be back.

That means the Titans must add more pieces on defense, especially players who can get to the quarterback consistently without having to constantly dial up blitzes, which can expose the defense to smart quarterbacks like Andrew Luck.

Adding more pieces to the defense means not only adding help for rookie edge rushers like Harold Landry and Sharif Finch, but also bolstering the defensive line, which was exposed after Jurrell Casey, who led the team with seven sacks, was lost to a knee injury.

These additions need to come from both free agency and the draft.

3. Add to the offensive artillery

A key argument among Mariota supporters is the lack of weapons around him. The Titans finally figured out that Derrick Henry needs to be lead back in the rushing attack. And once that took place, the offensive line, which had been criticized for much of the season, suddenly looked resurgent.

There are still questions on the line, such as whether Spain will return and whether Josh Kline and Ben Jones need to remain starters.

Also, will Jack Conklin return to form as a right tackle or need to be shuttled inside. The Titans need to create competition on the line via the draft and free agency. That is how the 2016 developed into one of the best in the league.

Beyond the line, the Titans – as always – need help at wide receiver. While they certainly missed tight end Delanie Walker, who was lost in the season opener, they also missed the production that Rishard Matthews had provided over the previous couple of years.

Corey Davis showed signs of progress, but none of the Titans’ other young receivers demonstrated enough consistency to be counted on.

The Titans probably need to add a veteran receiver to take some of the pressure off Corey Davis and to give Mariota another reliable weapon besides Walker.

What’s at stake

This offseason is as important as any in recent years for the Titans, who want to keep open the window of opportunity in the suddenly competitive AFC South. The surging Colts are still alive in the playoffs, the Texans won the division and have lots of star power and the Jaguars are likely to solve their quarterback issue in the off-season.

That means the Titans have a lot of work to do just to keep up.

Playoff predictions

Last week, I got both AFC games correct but missed both NFC games. Now comes the divisional round, which usually produces some of the most interesting games of the playoffs – though it will be tough to top some of the games that took place during Wild-Card Weekend.

Colts (11-6) at Chiefs (12-4)

Saturday, 3:35 p.m., NBC

The Chiefs have been the top dog all season long in the AFC, led by MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes at quarterback.

Kansas City’s Achilles heel has been a defense that has not been able to slow down opposing offenses. That’s not good news, giving how well Andrew Luck and the Colts are clicking on offense. Expect a shootout in this game, and it could come down to whoever has the football last.

The Chiefs also are trying to hold down some playoff demons from years past, having not beaten the Colts in four postseason meetings and having not produced a playoff win in 25 years.

Prediction score: Colts 41, Chiefs 38.

Cowboys (11-6) at Rams (13-3)

Saturday, 7:15 p.m., Fox

The Cowboys escaped against the Seahawks in the wild-card round and now take on another NFC West foe in the Rams. This game comes down to the potent Dallas defense trying to slow down the Rams explosive offense.

It also features perhaps the NFL’s two best running backs in the Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas’ front seven might be able to handle Gurley well enough to slow him a bit, but the secondary will also be tested by Jared Goff and the Rams’ high-powered passing attack.

Score: Rams 27, Cowboys 16.

Chargers (13-4) at Patriots (11-5)

Sunday, noon, CBS

The Chargers made good on their first cross country trip and have been dynamic on the road this season. But going into Foxboro to take on Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots could be a different kind of challenge.

The Pats have not been as powerful as in recent years, but New England still knows how to rise to the occasion when the postseason begins. The Chargers have playmakers all over the field and their defense kept the Ravens bottled up for much of last week’s wild-card win.

It will take a completely different game plan against Brady, but the Chargers and Philip Rivers should be able to hang in and have a shot to pull another upset.

Score: Chargers 28, Patriots 27.

Eagles (10-7) at Saints (13-3)

Sunday, 3:30 p.m., Fox

The Eagles knocked out the Bears, surviving when Cody Parkey missed a last-second field goal that would have given Chicago the win.

The Eagles seem to have quite a bit of moxie and magic whenever Nick Foles is under center in the postseason. But going to the Superdome and defeating Drew Brees and the top-seeded Saints is a tall order for certain.

While Philly can be a tough out in the playoffs, the Saints might be more than the Eagles bargained for.

Score: Saints 31, Eagles 21.

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