With OTA’s wrapping up last Thursday the offseason is officially in the books for the Tennessee Titans. Players won’t return until late July for the start of training camp.
As we count down to the new season, we highlight the Titans’ top 10 players heading into camp.
10. Kevin Byard – Safety
Last year’s third round pick out of MTSU burst on the scene in 2016, playing in all 16 games. Byard finished third on the team in tackles last season (58), an impressive feat given the fact that he was not a full-time starter. One of the best pure athletes on the roster, Byard’s play making ability made former starting safety Rashad Johnson expendable. Slated to start at free safety this season, look for Byard’s numbers to skyrocket in 2017.
9. Rishard Matthews – Wide Receiver
And speaking of bursting on the scene, wide receiver Rishard Matthews did just that after joining the Titans via free agency last year. His ability to make tough catches in traffic was the perfect complement to Tennessee’s vaunted run game last season. Matthews led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2016, and had 16 plays of 20 yards or more. With better complimentary pieces around him, Matthews may not have a team-leading 108 targets as he did last season. But you can reasonably expect double-digit touchdowns from him this season as he has shown to be a reliable red zone target for Marcus Mariota.
8. Avery Williamson – Middle Linebacker
Avery Williamson is best described as the silent assassin of Tennessee’s defense. On tape it may look like he’s not doing much until you check the box score. Williamson led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons, posting 100 plus tackles in 2015 (102) and 2016 (103). As the signal caller, Williamson has the unenviable job of getting the calls and putting everyone in the right position each play. And so far he has done an admirable job. Look for another triple digit tackle performance from Williamson in 2017.
7. Jack Conklin – Right Tackle
Bursting on the scene seems to be the theme of this countdown, and right tackle Jack Conklin is the biggest example (no pun intended). The rookie out of Michigan State and eighth overall pick in last year’s draft was thrown into the fire after veteran tackle Byron Bell was lost for the season last summer. Straight Outta Conklin stepped in and put together an All Pro season as a rookie and was a key addition to an offensive line that went from one of the worst units in the league in 2015 to one of the best last year.
6. Taylor Lewan – Left Tackle
I am sure that it would put a smile on Mariota’s face to see that his bookend tackles both made the list, and deservedly so. After a roller coaster first two seasons in Tennessee Lewan came into his own last year. The Titans’ new smash mouth approach fits Lewan’s temperament and skill sets perfectly, and he flourished to the tune of a Pro Bowl performance in 2016. Lewan has matured on and off the field and is now considered a leader….and not just on offense.
5. Brian Orakpo – Outside Linebacker
Brian Orakpo has been a pillar of consistency since joining the Titans via free agency in 2015. He led the team in sacks in each of his first two seasons in Tennessee, and was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl last season with his 10.5 sacks. Rak’s relentless pressure off the edge and ability to get to the quarterback makes life easier for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and there is no reason (aside from injuries) why he shouldn’t duplicate those totals in 2017.
4. Jurrell Casey – Defensive Lineman
Casey is not only one of the best players on the Titans’ roster, but he is also one of the best young defensive linemen in all of football. Few players with Casey’s size (6’1 305) has his combination of speed and athleticism. Not only did he register five sacks playing up front in a 3-4 scheme last season, but he also registered five pass deflections…earning a second straight Pro Bowl appearance.
3. Delanie Walker – Tight End
The ageless wonder continues to produce well into his 30’s. Delanie Walker was once again one of the best and most dependable players for the Titans in 2016, and has shown no signs of slowing down as he enters his 12th season. He co-led the team in receptions last year and finished second in touchdowns (7). Walker has cemented himself as one of the league’s elite tight ends since joining Tennessee in 2013, evidenced by his back to back Pro Bowl appearances in 2015 and 2016. Like Matthews, Walker’s numbers may dip with a better surrounding cast in 2017, but should no doubt make it three Pro Bowl appearances in a row if he remains healthy and consistent.
2. Marcus Mariota – Quarterback
You know your franchise is heading in the right direction when your quarterback ranks near the top of the list, and Marcus Mariota enters training camp at number two. No quarterback had a better eight game stretch than Mariota last season, and he will be looking to pick up where he left off after suffering a season ending injury last Christmas Eve. Mariota’s poise, pocket presence, and accuracy landed him on the NFL’s top 100 players for 2017 (50th), and if fully recovered when the season starts then the playoffs are a real possibility in Tennessee in 2017.
1. DeMarco Murray – Running Back
While Mariota is the face of the franchise, running back DeMarco Murray is the straw that stirs the drink for the Titans. In fact, the team’s fortune changed for the better the day he was traded to Tennessee last offseason. Not only did Murray finish third in rushing yards last season, but his physical downhill running style was the perfect fit for exotic smash mouth football. His cachet as a former NFL Offensive Player of the Year (2014) gave the Titans instant credibility, and his 1,287 yards rushing last year cemented the team’s identity. Throw in the fact that Murray was also third on the team in receptions and you have an indispensable player heading into training camp.