The Tennessee Titans enter the 2019 season on the heels of three consecutive 9-7 campaigns. In two of those seasons the Titans missed the playoffs by a mere game.
Head coach Mike Vrabel has preached all offseason that the goal is to break through that proverbial glass ceiling, which leaves little room for error in the stacked AFC.
The Titans have a solid roster, especially on defense, but they lack the elite star power of some of their conference counterparts. In order for them to compete at the highest level, players that are counted on to be heavy contributors must play up to and above their abilities.
As such, we highlight five players in desperate need of a bounce back season if the Titans want to crash this year’s playoff party.
5. Rashaan Evans – LB
Tennessee moved up in the first round of the 2018 draft to nab Evans, and he was tabbed the heir-apparent to start in place of the departed Avery Williamson. Injuries derailed Evans from the start, and he didn’t seem comfortable in Dean Pees’ system until late in the year.
Evans recorded zero sacks and failed to force a turnover last season, and was outplayed by second round pick Harold Landry (4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble).
That just won’t cut it for a first round pick.
Evans did show flashes late in the season. His fourth and goal stop of Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette set up the now infamous 99 yard run by Derrick Henry. But Tennessee gave up draft equity to grab him. He must be more than just a run stopper.
A Pro Bowl caliber season from him could catapult an already stingy defense into the best in the league.
4. Dion Lewis – RB
Lewis received a nice payday from the Titans last spring to be the change-up back to Derrick Henry. He amassed over 1,100 yards from scrimmage in 2017 with New England (896 rushing, 214 receiving) while scoring 9 touchdowns. He also averaged a whopping five yards per carry.
Unfortunately, he was unable to replicate that production last year in Tennessee.
Lewis averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry last season and had just as many lost fumbles as rushing touchdowns…one.
Lewis was unable to put a stranglehold on the starting job last year, even with Derrick Henry not finding his stride until late November. His ability to move the chains also dropped significantly (59 first downs in 2017, 35 in 2018).
Tennessee’s offense needs all the help it can get, and Lewis’ versatility fills a need. If he can recapture his Patriot ways (no pun intended), then the offense as a whole should be much more explosive.
3. Delanie Walker – TE
Walker’s lack of production was, of course, due to missing the last 15 games of the 2018 season with a gruesome ankle injury. And to say the Titans missed that production would be a gross understatement.
Walker was coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and was the reigning Pro Bowl MVP on offense heading into 2018. He was Mariota’s most trusted target and kept defenses honest in the run game with his ability to out-run linebackers and over-power corners and safeties.
While he has yet to be cleared for full contact, an 80% Walker would still be an upgrade at the position. And should certainly boost the confidence of Mariota this season.
2. Jack Conklin – RT
One day you’re an All Pro as a rookie. The next day you’re told that the team would not be exercising your fifth year option.
Life comes at you fast, Jack Conklin.
The former 8th overall pick struggled to return to All Pro form after suffering an ACL injury in the playoffs two seasons ago. He returned last season, but was ineffective for the most part.
Conklin really struggled in pass protection when not given help, and could not bully his way over defenders as he did in his 2016 rookie campaign. Conklin, who is in the last year of his rookie deal, has all the motivation in the world to turn in his best season to date.
And he must. Mariota’s health and the team’s success depends on it.
1. Marcus Mariota – QB
Mariota’s 2016 break out season (23 tds, 9 int) had Titans fans envisioning Super Bowl runs in the near future. But a catastrophic drop off the last two seasons now have fans wondering if he will even be under center this time next year.
In 2017 Mariota threw for more interceptions than touchdowns, and last season he threw just 11 touchdown passes.
That simply won’t cut it.
Is he a nice guy and role model? Yes. Have injuries played their part? Absolutely. Can the Titans break through to the AFC Championship or Super Bowl with his 2017-2018 stats?
Mariota desperately needs a bounce back season, because the team will go as he does. If he is able to duplicate his 2016 season at the least, then the Titans could be playoff party crashers again in 2019.