The Tennessee Titans sent five players to last year’s Pro Bowl (Taylor Lewan, Delanie Walker, DeMarco Murray, Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey). And for Lewan, it was his first selection.
With so much talent on both sides of the ball this season, we’ll take an early look at the candidates who have a legitimate chance of joining Lewan with their own first-ever Pro Bowl selection.
1. Marcus Mariota – QB
Ok, let’s get the obvious out of the way, because if not for a season-ending leg injury late in the 2016 season, then Mariota could have made it six players for Tennessee last year.
Mariota improved by leaps and bounds in his second season as the Titans’ signal caller, increasing his passing yards and touchdowns in year two (3,426 yds- 26 tds in 2017, 2,819 yds – 19 tds in 2016). He also cut down on the costly turnovers last season.
Now fully healed, the dual-threat qb should continue to give opposing defenses fits when he escapes the pocket. Mariota has already amassed 601 rushing yards and four rushing tds in his short career.
If the Titans can improve on their 9-7 record and reach the playoffs, and Mariota plays all 16 games, then he could put up similar numbers this season and be almost assured a spot in the annual pre Super Bowl exhibition.
2. Jack Conklin – Right Tackle
Straight Outta Conklin put together a rookie season for the ages in 2016, earning All Pro honors after just 16 starts. The former Michigan State Spartan didn’t allow a sack until late in the season, and more than held his own all year against some of the best edge rushers the game has to offer. Maybe it was rookie hazing that kept him out of the Pro Bowl last season, but that certainly won’t be the case this year if he re-captures lightning in a bottle this time around.
3. Ben Jones – Center
While the Big Ten bookend tackle duo of Lewan and Conklin garnered most of the attention last season, one could argue that center Ben Jones was the heart and soul of the offensive line in 2016. Jones’ job as the eyes, ears, and signal caller for the o’line went virtually unnoticed outside of Nashville last year, but this year the unit is on everybody’s radar. If Jones can continue to be the consistent (hasn’t missed a start in 3 years) and physical force that he was last season then his first-ever Pro Bowl nod could literally be right around the corner.
4. Avery Williamson – Middle Linebacker
Avery Williamson was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft to primarily back up starter Zach Brown, but was thrown right into the fire after Brown suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season. Since then Williamson has led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons (103 in 2017, 102 in 2015). But in order for him to take the next step to Pro Bowl level production then he will need to increase his sacks and forced turnovers, something that he’s well aware of and clamoring to do. It also doesn’t hurt that Williamson is in a contract year, so if we’re going to see his best, then the timing is perfect for an uptick in his overall performance.
5. Kevin Byard – Safety
My dark horse to watch is second-year safety Kevin Byard, who put up phenomenal numbers last year given his limited time on the field early in the season. Byard didn’t haul in an interception last year, but he was mostly playing out of position. The addition of free agent strong safety Johnathan Cyprien allows Byard to move to free safety…his natural position in college. Free to roam the middle of the field this year, Byard can now use all of the tools in his toolbox (speed, athleticism, ball hawking ability) to make a lot more plays. But don’t get me wrong, Byard himself stated that he’s still willing to creep up to the line of scrimmage and stick his nose in the action as he did so successfully last year.