The offseason is a time of hope and predictions for the NFL’s 32 fan bases, and in the case of the Tennessee Titans, fans are hoping for and predicting a playoff-caliber season.
The fans are not alone, though. Multiple media outlets have pegged the Titans as the trendy pick to break their eight-year playoff drought.
But as it is with every team, Tennessee’s prediction as division champ comes with a caveat…provided they stay healthy.
With the obvious exception of Marcus Mariota, the Titans were extremely fortunate last season when it came to injuries. And it played a part in their remarkable turnaround.
For the Titans to improve upon their 9-7 record from 2016, these key players must be on the field for the vast majority of the 2017 season.
1. Marcus Mariota – QB
No need to spend a ton of time here as we’re stating the obvious. Marcus Mariota is not only the most important player for the Titans, but he is arguably one of the most important players to his team in the entire league. After failing to finish each of his first two seasons in Tennessee due to injury, it is paramount for Mariota to play all 16 regular season games if the Titans have a chance for success in 2017. Backup Matt Cassel is serviceable in plug-n-play situations, but not considered a quality NFL starting qb at this stage of his career.
2 (2a). Taylor Lewan / Jack Conklin – Tackles
Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin are listed together because they are equally critical to the team’s overall success, and equally critical to the Titans’ smash mouth identity. Not only did the Pro Bowl / First Team All Pro duo spearhead the league’s 3rd best rushing attack in 2016, but they were also trust-worthy of protecting Mariota’s front and back side. Neither player gave up a sack until late in the 2016 season, and the offensive line as a whole finished 7th in sacks allowed as a result. Behind them there is a precipitous drop-off from a talent and physicality perspective, making the book-end duo even more valuable.
3. Brian Orakpo – Outside Linebacker
Few outside linebackers wreaked more havoc in 2016 than Brian Orakpo. His 10.5 sacks led to a Pro Bowl bid, and his non-stop motor made life miserable for opposing offensive coordinators….even when he wasn’t putting their quarterback on the turf. Orakpo’s presence also makes life easier for defensive coordinator and blitz specialist Dick LeBeau, who is able to design ways for others to get involved while Rak is on the field. Fellow outside linebacker Derrick Morgan was the biggest beneficiary of the attention paid to Orakpo last season. Often left in 1 on 1 situations, he flourished with his best season in Tennessee. The Titans are extremely thin at outside linebacker, putting even more pressure on Orakpo to play the entire season.
4. Delanie Walker – Tight End
With all of the new weapons the Titans have added on offense this offseason, tight end Delanie Walker’s role as a stable veteran and Pro Bowl talent is more important than ever. Tennessee will have three rookies and a free agent signee that didn’t attend OTA’s this summer, and all four are slated to be key contributors on offense this fall. With zero experience in Tennessee’s system, look for Walker to be heavily counted on as usual in the passing game. Should Walker miss considerable time this season then rookie Jonnu Smith would likely take his place. From a back-to-back Pro Bowler to a rookie? With playoffs or bust aspirations? Titans fans should be universally hoping for a healthy Walker in 2017.
5. Logan Ryan – Cornerback
Like Walker, free agent cornerback Logan Ryan finds himself in a similar situation. The Titans are extremely young at corner, rookie first round pick Adoree’ Jackson is slated to be the day one starter opposite of him. With little to no veteran presence, it is vitally important for the former Super Bowl champion (New England) to establish himself as the leader of that unit. It is equally important for Ryan to be on the field for the entire season as there is little experience behind him on the depth chart. Should Ryan miss considerable time in 2017 then you could have a secondary that resembled the one that played against Chicago last season.