Turning around a franchise that has been the NFL’s worst over the past two seasons requires an infusion of talent and an attitude change. The Tennessee Titans believe they’ve done just that on both counts. Minnesota visits Nashville for a game on Sunday.
New general manager Jon Robinson has sifted through the roster, adding 22 new players, revamping the offense through a handful of trades, and showing the door to some high draft picks from the previous regime. His biggest moves landed DeMarco Murray for coach Mike Mularkey’s run-oriented offense, and trading the No. 1 overall selection, which netted more picks that helped add Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
Mularkey has taken care of instilling a physical approach on the field while demanding attention to detail in meeting rooms.
Now the Titans have to start proving they aren’t the franchise that went 5-27 the past two seasons. Safety Rashad Johnson, one of nine veteran free agents signed this offseason who made the roster, knows just how quickly a team can turn from losers to winners from his experience in Arizona.
”Each and every year this league turns around so much there’s so many guys in and out of every locker room, it’s always a new team,” Johnson said.
The Titans still around from last year’s 3-13 squad also expect a big improvement from themselves.
”We’re going to do our best to live up to those expectations, including myself,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. ”I hate just meeting the expectation. I’d rather go above and beyond. Hopefully as a team we can continue to come together and do that this year.”
Other things to know before the Titans open the season Sunday hosting Minnesota:
LOADED BACKFIELD: Tennessee’s 32-game drought of not having a running back rush for 100 yards should end quickly. Mularkey has made it very clear the Titans will run the ball, and they led the AFC in yards rushing per game in the preseason. Murray looks decisive and strong, with his season in Philadelphia a distant memory. He won’t have to carry the entire load, which means he might not near the 1,845 yards he ran for with Dallas in 2014 to earn Offensive Player of the Year. Henry has shown a shiftiness to go with his power, along with very good hands that should make him a reliable target for Mariota.
PROTECTING MARIOTA: The No. 2 pick overall turned in quite the rookie season. Mariota had a 91.5 passer rating that was second in franchise history to the late Steve McNair during his co-MVP season in 2003 and Hall of Famer Warren Moon. He also had the NFL’s longest run from scrimmage, an 87-yard TD. But he missed two games after spraining each of his knees when hurt in the pocket. Robinson tinkered with the offensive line, signing veteran center Ben Jones away from AFC South rival Houston. After trading away the top pick, Robinson traded back up to select right tackle Jack Conklin at No. 8 out of Michigan State.
WHO’S CATCHING: Developing a young quarterback means giving him better targets for his passes. Tight end Delanie Walker led Tennessee with a career-year with 94 receptions for 1,088 yards. Nobody else caught more than 36, so Robinson signed Rishard Matthews from Miami and drafted Tajae Sharpe with the first pick of the fifth round; both are set to start. They also signed veteran Andre Johnson who’s shown this preseason he still knows how to catch passes.
LEBEAU IN CHARGE: Tennessee made huge strides last season with Dick LeBeau assisting defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Now LeBeau is the coordinator after Horton left for Cleveland after losing the head coaching job to Mularkey. A unit that ranked 12th in yards allowed still has plenty of room for improvement after being 27th in points allowed. Depth behind the starters has improved. Johnson was signed to take over at free safety for Michael Griffin, who was released in February. Both starting cornerbacks, Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox, finally are healthy and should be together on the field for the first time for Mularkey in the opener.