Rookie camp is underway for the Tennessee Titans, and in a sense, so is the 2017-18 season.
So today we’ll take a look at the Titans’ top five rookie seasons.
Please note, we’re just talking about the Titans…so this list dates back to 1999 when the team officially changed their name and played in their new stadium in Nashville.
Alright? Then let’s get started…
5. Marcus Mariota – QB 2015
Tennessee selected Mariota 2nd overall in the 2015 draft to be the immediate starting quarterback and face of the franchise, and his regular season debut foreshadowed the team’s turnaround that you see today.
Mariota became the first quarterback in NFL history to record a perfect passer rating in his regular season debut, and was also the first qb in league history to throw four touchdown passes in the first half of his first NFL start.
A dual-threat weapon of the highest degree, Mariota became the first qb in franchise history to run for 100 plus yards in a game. And we’re talking about a franchise with legendary running threats like Vince Young and Steve McNair (RIP) under center.
Mariota finished his rookie season with 3,070 combined yards and 21 total tds, and would’ve been higher on the list had injuries not caused him to miss four games in 2015.
4. Vince Young – QB 2006
Yes Titans fans, Young ranks ahead of Mariota on this list. Now, before you throw something hear me out…
The Titans selected Young third overall in the 2006 draft, and after riding the pine the first part of the season the rookie out of Texas put on a second-half show for the ages.
Remember, Tennessee was 0-3 before owner Bud Adams (RIP) called for his prized rookie possession to take the field. Not only did Young go 8-5 as a starter to finish the season, but he did so in spectacular fashion.
The Texas Longhorn legend engineered a six game winning streak, and four of those were come from behind victories. Young was the first rookie qb in NFL history to lead two 14 point comebacks in the same season. He also set an NFL record that year for rushing yards by a qb (552)….culminating in a Pro Bowl selection as well as being named the 2006 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Titans stormed back from an 0-5 start to finish 8-8, missing the playoffs by one game with Young under center.
3. Jack Conklin – RT 2016
Tennessee traded up in the first round of last year’s draft to select Conklin with the eighth overall pick, and after veteran right tackle Byron Bell suffered a season-ending ankle injury during mini-camp the rookie out of Michigan State was thrust into the starting lineup.
To say that “Straight Outta Conklin” held is own is a gross understatement, he flourished as a day one starter. In fact, Conklin didn’t allow a sack until week 11, and finished with just 2.5 sacks allowed for the entire season.
Pro Football Focus tabbed Conklin as one of the best at his position last season, and the NFL agreed…naming the rookie a first-team All Pro in 2016.
2. Chris Johnson – RB 2008
Football pundits and fans alike scratched their heads when Tennessee spent a first round pick on Johnson in 2008. After all, the Titans selected LenDale White in the second round two years earlier to be their workhorse back.
By season’s end, Tennessee’s front office looked like geniuses.
I will never forget Johnson’s rookie preseason debut against the St. Louis Rams. The rookie out of East Carolina took a simple pitch off right tackle and sprinted…untouched…70 yards for a touchdown…showing off his blazing 4.2 40 speed. The camera panned to then head coach Jeff Fisher…who stood with a devilish grin on his face as if we were witnessing something that he already knew.
Johnson went on to rush for 1,228 yards while amassing 1,488 total yards and 11 touchdowns…all while splitting equal carries with White…who was still the starter at the time. The player that went on to set the NFL record for yards from scrimmage the following year earned a Pro Bowl bid as a rookie, and finished second in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year race to Atlanta’s rookie qb Matt Ryan.
With their new offensive weapon, Tennessee finished with the best record in the AFC in 2008 (13-3), and if not for an ankle sprain that knocked him out of the second half of the divisional round of the playoffs, the Titans seemed poised to make a second trip to the Super Bowl.
CJ was killing Baltimore’s vaunted defense in that playoff game prior to the injury…but I digress.
1. Jevon “The Freak” Kearse – DE 1999
After back to back 8-8 seasons as the Tennessee Oilers, the franchise selected defensive end Jevon Kearse out of Florida with the 16th overall pick of the 1999 draft. The Tennessee Titans’ inaugural pick, if you will.
As it turned out, Kearse’s unfathomable speed and athleticism was just what the team needed to put them over the hump.
The Freak, as he was affectionately called, wreaked havoc on opposing offenses the day he set foot in Nashville, and was a major catalyst for the magical 1999 Super Bowl run.
Kearse earned Defensive Rookie of the Month honors in all but one month that entire season (think about that for a second). And as you could expect, he was the run away winner of the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 1999.
The Freak broke the NFL rookie sack record that season with 14.5, which was also tops in the AFC. He also led the league with 8 forced fumbles. Needless to say, Kearse earned a Pro Bowl bid and first-team All Pro honors in 1999.
And while everyone remembers the play that is now called the Music City Miracle, few remember that Kearse’s two sacks, two forced fumbles, and safety kept the game close enough for that play to even happen.
The Titans and their fans are hoping that someone from this year’s rookie class cracks this list, because if one does, then the Titans were probably AFC South champions in 2017.
Let the debate begin….