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VOL. 41 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 2, 2017

Titans poised to break free of weak AFC South

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Mariota working out last week at Baptist Sports Park.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

When Marcus Mariota participated on the first day of the Titans’ recent organized team activities – OTAs for you hard-core NFL fans – it sent two messages to the rest of the AFC South:

Mariota is well on his way to a complete recovery from the broken fibula he suffered in December. Accordingly, the Titans have a legitimate shot at winning the division for the first time since 2008.

Mariota’s recovery certainly factors into the optimism at Titans Central, but there are other reasons. Thanks to some deft maneuvering by Jon Robinson, the team’s second-year general manager, the roster is no longer playing catch-up to the rest of the league. Likewise, Mike Mularkey has proven, at least to a degree, that his old-school philosophy of “exotic smashmouth” football is not out of touch with the modern NFL.

That’s why the AFC South is there for the taking. It’s not like the division is loaded. All four teams have obvious weaknesses. So why shouldn’t the Titans be favored?

Their window of opportunity is wide open. The Titans finally have found their franchise quarterback in Mariota. You have to go back to the peak of Steve McNair’s career for this kind of ability and stability at the position.

And it goes deeper. Entering his third NFL season, Mariota is still in his rookie contract, which means he is playing for pennies on the dollar compared to some of the competition. This is when a franchise can take a big step forward because its salary cap is not stretched by a huge allotment at quarterback. The Titans have spent heavily to fortify other positions.

It won’t be easy.

The Titans aren’t going to win the AFC South until they start holding their own in two head-to-head meetings with their three division opponents. Last season, the Titans went a combined 2-4 against the other three division teams. Think about it: They were 7-3 against the rest of their schedule but could only win twice against AFC South opponents.

It’s nothing new. The Titans went 1-5 against the AFC South in 2015. Their divisional record in the last five seasons: 9-21. Note, please, this is a stretch when the AFC South wasn’t exactly setting the NFL on fire.

Beyond that, the Titans have to find a way to deal with Indianapolis. They haven’t beaten the Colts since 2011. That’s the year Peyton Manning was injured and Curtis Painter filled in. Going back to mid-2008, the Titans are 1-16 against the Colts.

Something’s got to give if they’re going to win the division.

But the potential is there. In a recent Monday Morning Quarterback column for SI.com, Peter King placed the Titans at No. 4 in his power rankings. That’s heady stuff. It wasn’t all that long ago the Titans were coming in at No. 4 – in their division. Now King has them No. 4 in the entire NFL.

Note, please, that King isn’t some low-level blogger who’s looking for internet clicks to soothe his ego and keep his website afloat. He’s been around the NFL block for decades. I used to serve on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee with Peter, and I always found him a thorough, thoughtful person who took great pains to analyze situations before stating an opinion.

Even so, this is a stretch. It puts the Titans behind only New England, Oakland and Atlanta, and just ahead of Pittsburgh. But if you’re looking for a breakout team, especially one from the AFC South, it’s the Titans.

Other than Tennessee, King doesn’t think much of the division. His rankings list Houston at No. 20, Indianapolis at No. 24 and Jacksonville at No. 27.

That seems a little low. If J.J. Watt returns to form, the Houston defense has a lot of bite. At Jacksonville, the acquisition of free agent A.J. Bouye to play opposite Jalen Ramsey gives the Jags one of the top cornerback tandems in the league. And the Colts still have Andrew Luck at quarterback.

On top of that, it’s not like the Titans are absolutely loaded. Even with the addition of Corey Davis as the No. 5 overall pick, the Titans’ outside receiving corps doesn’t strike fear in opposing secondaries. Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin may be the best pair of offensive tackles in the NFL but can the guards match their performances of last season?

Likewise, the defense remains short of true playmakers, even after noteworthy additions in the draft and free agency.

As for the newcomers, it’ll be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses rookie Adoree’ Jackson. He will almost certainly start at corner or nickel back but he also was a dynamic kick returner in college at Southern Cal, where he took some snaps on offense as a wide receiver and scored six career touchdowns.

But any areas of concern for the Titans are nothing compared to the shortcomings of the other three AFC South teams, to wit:

Texans: The search for a franchise quarterback continues after the flame-out of Brock Osweiler, one of the worst free agent signings in recent history. Tom Savage steps in and will hold the position until Deshaun Watson, the first-round pick out of Clemson, comes of age. Watson was dynamic in college, but it remains to be seen, when or if, his game will translate to the NFL.

Jaguars: Tom Coughlin’s return to run the football side of the operation is a step in the right direction for a franchise that is 15-49 in the last four seasons. When he was coach, Coughlin had his most success with Fred Taylor churning out yards. He hopes to replicate that with running back Leonard Fournette, the Jags’ first-round pick out of LSU. But is Blake Bortles really a franchise quarterback?

Colts: Yes, Luck remains one of the top quarterbacks in the league, but Indianapolis has done a poor job protecting him. It’s a surprise that new G.M. Chris Ballard didn’t address the offensive line in the draft or free agency. First-round draft pick Malik Hooker is a great addition at free safety but the Colts are weak in their front seven.

So, there you have it. The AFC South is up for grabs. And, it’s high time for the Titans to grab it.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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