By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson (with Contributions from Joe Zollo and Chris Tyler)
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The Tennessee Titans made the playoffs! The Tennessee Titans won a playoff game! And it still got their head coach fired. It’s okay, he wasn’t a good coach. When you have a talented QB like Marcus Mariota with sick athleticism and don’t let him use it, you deserve to be fired. Mariota’s production dipped dramatically in 2017, as he posted a career high in INTs and a career low in TD passes. RB DeMarco Murray struggled with health, and subsequently production, leading to an RB18 finish after a top 5 finish in 2016. And rookie WR Corey Davis, largely expected to be the team’s number one option, was hampered by injuries early and never got going, finishing as WR85.
At least the Titans could line up the always reliable Delanie Walker. He put together his 5th straight season with more than 60 receptions and 4th straight with more than 800 receiving yards en route to a TE5 finish. Rishard Matthews continues to be an underrated option in the passing game, with 795 yards and 4 TDs for a WR33 finish. And Derrick Henry put on a show in the team’s opening round playoff game against the Chiefs, rushing for 156 yards and a score. A one-dimensional offense is really what held back the skill position players in Tennessee. But with a new season comes a new coach and a new offense.
|(Projected Starting Lineup)|
|QB2||Blaine Gabbert (w/ ARI)||75.64||QB37|
|QB3||(R) Luke Falk||N/A||N/A|
|RB1||Dion Lewis (w/ NE)||181.70||RB15|
|RB4||(R) Akrum Wadley||N/A||N/A|
|WR5||Michael Campanaro (w/ BAL)||51.90||WR99|
When the 2015 NFL Draft rolled around, the debate centered on who would be the better quarterback: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? Truthfully, both have had so-so careers. Winston has the passing yardage totals but Mariota has a playoff appearance. And a playoff win. Both have had continuity on offense but Mariota isn’t Winston. Mariota has mobility that hasn’t been featured prevalently in the Titans’ offense. Over his 3-year career, the most rushing yards Mariota has in a single season is 349. For comparison’s sake, there have been nine other QBs in the league with one or more seasons of more than 349 rushing yards. One of them was Blake Bortles. Another was Aaron Rodgers. Mariota is more athletic and faster than both of them. It’s no wonder Mike Mularkey was fired.
One thing Mariota does well is convert on play action passes, likely because of his athletic ability. He had the 10th highest percentage of dropbacks on play action passes at 23.5%. His QB rating (122.8) and yards per attempt (11.2) on play action passes were tops in the league. His 9 TD passes were tied for fourth and his completion percentage — 68% — ranked sixth. To put it another way, he was a top 10 QB on play action passes. On the flip side, on non-play action passes, Mariota was a disaster. His 12 INTs were the 5th most among QBs. His QB rating of 66.9 ranked 38th. His 4 TDs ranked 35th. His 6.0 yards per attempt ranked 32nd. And Pro Football Focus ranked the Titans offensive line as 5th best in the NFL. See? Disaster.
So why do I like Mariota so much in 2018? Well, judging by my preseason ranking — QB17 — maybe you don’t think I do. Hear me out. In 2016, with DeMarco Murray as RB5, WR Rishard Matthews with 945 yards and 9 TDs, and TE Delanie Walker as TE4, Mariota finished as QB10. We know what Mariota is capable of. Enter new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. In 2015 and 2016, LaFleur was the QB coach under Kyle Shanahan and worked with Matt Ryan. In case you forgot, Matt Ryan won the league’s MVP award in 2016 and finished as QB3 with 395.02 fantasy points. Last year, LaFleur was the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. The same Rams team that had the highest scoring output in the NFL last year. Jared Goff looked like an MVP candidate after looking like a CFL backup during his 2016 rookie season. Todd Gurley led fantasy in scoring. You get the point. Mariota and the entire Titans offense should be primed for a bounce back in 2018. Mariota is a buy low candidate as a QB2 but should be good for 3,500 yards, 25 TDs, 8 INTs, and hopefully set a career high in rushing yards by topping 400. The biggest key is cutting down on his unprecedented number of INTs last year. And I have no doubt he’ll be able to do that.
The Titans brought in Blaine Gabbert to back up Mariota. Gabbert is better suited to run a more mobile-QB-friendly offense than Matt Cassel was. The Titans can run the same type of offense with their backup QB and keep the train moving. In the event of a Mariota injury, the only way you’re starting Gabbert in fantasy is if you’re in a 2-QB league. Just remember, he’s a backup for a reason.
When the Titans jettisoned DeMarco Murray this offseason, the Fantasy Football community was overjoyed to see Derrick Henry finally get a shot to be “the guy.” His playoff romp over the Chiefs defense was still fresh in our minds — 6.8 yards per carry and 191 total yards — and we all thought he’d have the opportunity at a top 15 fantasy season. And it’s not without merit. Over his first two seasons in the league, he’s essentially produced what top tier talents at RB would produce in a full season — 286 carries for 1,234 yards and 10 TDs with 24 catches for 273 yards and 1 TD. All told, that’s 216.2 fantasy points. If he accumulated all that in 2017, he would’ve finished as RB10. Not too shabby. Then the Titans went and signed Dion Lewis which put a cap on how many carries Henry will inevitably have in 2018. Have no fear. Henry and Lewis will be 1A and 1B in the Titans running game. I have no doubt both can be top 20 RBs in 2018 as a result. Henry will work the middle of the field while Lewis helps stretch the offense sideline to sideline. Look for Henry to approach 200 carries for 820 yards and 8 TDs with 18 receptions for 150 yards and 2 TDs. That will put Henry in the top 20 rankings at RB — you know, after all the inevitable injuries occur.
Which brings me to the Titans new RB, Dion Lewis. Often overlooked due his size — only 5’8” and 195 lbs — Lewis has been a productive RB in the NFL. With the Patriots, he’s had two seasons that really caught my eye. His 2015 campaign was off to a great start — 4.8 yards per carry on 49 attempts and 36 receptions through 7 games, good for RB10 numbers — until an ACL tear wrecked his season. Fast forward to 2017. He usurps the lead back role that was up for grabs after the departure of LeGarrette Blount and promptly runs for 896 yards (5.0 YPC) and 6 TDs while chipping in 32 receptions and 3 TDs, good for a RB15 finish. In fact, from Weeks 10 through 16, Lewis was RB6 in fantasy. Want more praise? Pro Football Focus ranked Lewis as the 3rd most elusive RB during the 2017 season, accounting for 49 missed tackles on 212 touches. His 3.17 yards after first contact ranked 6th, just below new teammate Derrick Henry’s 3.23. Lewis will handle the bulk of the passing down work but will certainly get his share of carries behind a talented offensive line. Lewis will also be in the top 20 conversation at RB, with around 150 carries for 725 yards and 5 TDs and adding 55 receptions for 525 yards and 3 TDs. That should push him close to top 10 at the position. Draft with confidence.
Behind these two studs is a whole lotta nothin’. David Fluellen was a rookie last year and accounted for 2.10 total fantasy points. 4th string is undrafted rookie Akrum Wadley out of Iowa. Wadley did have back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing campaigns to cap his collegiate career so I guess there’s that. Know their names, but they’re dart throws at best if Henry or Lewis succumb to injury.
In 2017, the Titans sat at pick 5 in the NFL Draft with a glaring need for a number one wide receiver. When the card was handed in, Corey Davis’ name was on it. The small school product from Western Michigan was coming off three straight seasons with over 1,400 receiving yards and 12 TDs, highlighted by his 2016 season with 97 catches, 1,500 yards and 19 TDs. He has the size (6’3”, 209 pounds) and production to warrant that kind of selection.
A nagging injury in the offseason slowed Davis’ rookie campaign, and he contributed only 34 catches for 375 yards and a goose egg for TDs. In fact, Pro Football Focus rated Davis as the second worst WR in 2017. So, uh, not good. The Titans fired their coach and brought in a new offensive coordinator to jump-start the offense. I profiled above what I think Marcus Mariota is capable of and a big reason why that is will be because of the continued growth of Davis. I have Davis ranked as WR26 in my preseason rankings and I have every belief he will exceed that ranking. Remember when Melvin Gordon came into the league and promptly scored zero touchdowns his rookie season? Then busted out in a big way with 12 combined TDs in his second year? Davis should have a similar jump, just maybe not that extreme. I’m looking for 75 catches for 925 yards and 7 TDs from the 2nd year WR. That should put him comfortably in the WR3/FLEX range of WRs. Just know, he has more upside than most to blow right past those projections.
Behind Davis is Rishard Matthews. He arrived with little fanfare from the Dolphins in 2016 and has been the best wide receiver on the Titans the last two seasons. He’s averaged 14.75 yards per reception and set a career high in TDs in 2016 with nine. Matthews is as solid a number two receiver as a team could ask for. As for fantasy, he’s solid depth, an occasional FLEX matchup and bye week fill in. What’s great about players like Matthews is that you know what you’re getting. I like to fill my bench with guys like him because if a starter goes down with an injury or someone I thought would break out ends up busting, you have a steady option in waiting. The last two seasons, Matthews has been WR30 and WR33, respectively. Solid. Look for around 60 catches for 870 yards and 6 TDs from Matthews, easily top 35 numbers at the WR position.
Tawan Taylor was another rookie in 2017 that the Titans hoped would help out an anemic passing offense. Taylor had his moments, but ultimately failed to deliver. He’s the Titans main slot receiver — 60.8% of his routes were from the slot — and should be primed to take a leap in year two. He’s more of a top 60 guy, somewhere around 40 catches for 550 yards and 3 TDs, so you’re not giving Taylor much thought on draft day. But if Davis or Matthews find themselves hurt, Taylor’s vaults into top 40 range.
Tajae Sharpe and former Ravens WR Michael Campanaro will duke it out for 4th on the depth chart. Fantasy owners should know Sharpe’s name as he was a hot add in drafts during 2016. But big preseasons don’t always translate into regular season success. Sharpe was hurt all last year so he’s looking to rebound. Campanaro is just looking to make the team. Those are guys I want on my team. (Not.)
At age 34, Delanie Walker is still one of the top TEs in the game. His rankings the last three seasons have actually declined — TE3, TE4, TE5. Such a rough life he must lead. Walker has been Mariota’s most trusted target and it shouldn’t be any different in 2018. I expect Davis to be “the guy” in Tennessee but Walker should still get his. I’m looking at 70 catches for around 720 yards and 4 TDs. That still puts him in the TE1 conversation, but he’s not likely to be the top 5 option he was in years past as the offense around him evolves with the youth on the team.
Backing up Walker is Jonnu Smith. The soon-to-be 23 year old is athletic and can get down the field in a hurry with his 4.62 speed. If Walker weren’t so good, Smith might actually see the field more. In 2017 he ran 159 routes and was targeted 28 times. By comparison, Walker ran 440 routes and was targeted 104 times. As Walker continues to age, his usage will decrease and Smith’s will likely increase. Smith shouldn’t be targeted in drafts unless Walker gets hurt and is forced to miss extended time. In case you’re waiting for Walker to get hurt, he’s played 11 straight seasons with at least 14 games played. It’s okay to sleep on Smith. You won’t be the only one.
Rookie to Watch
Just shy of 2,000 career receiving yards, undrafted free agent WR Deontay Burnett is an unbelievable athlete. At 6’0” 186 lbs, he’s a likely slot weapon at the next level. Just don’t let that stereotype fool you. Burnett is as physical as a tight end on the line. He has great hands that can pluck the ball out of traffic and has great vision when finding spots in zone coverage. His route running is deadly and he has proved it on a number of occasions. Mariota should be grateful to have weapon like this at the next level. – Chris Tyler
RB Derrick Henry showed how dominant he could be in his playoff debut against the Kansas City Chiefs and he has shown progression from year one to year two. Dion Lewis joins him in the backfield this season and they will be a scary 1-2 punch for opposing teams. Lewis’ arrival could limit the amount of carries that Henry will receive but he will be the definite number one in this backfield. Look at New Orleans: either RB is a good choice because they will both be extremely dominant, even though they split time. Henry and Lewis won’t be Ingram and Kamara but they have a chance to give them a run for their money. Derrick Henry will be an RB3 on your fantasy team with a chance to move into your lineup as an every week starter. – Joe Zollo
2018 Loose Ends
With a new coach in town and a new offensive coordinator, the Titans are a team full of fantasy potential. Henry, Lewis, Walker, Davis, and Matthews are surefire draftees. Mariota is a wild card. Kicker Ryan Succop should be on teams as well as the Titans will put up points and he’ll be kicking his share of FGs. What I really love is the Titans schedule during the fantasy playoffs: vs Jaguars (Thursday night), at Giants, and vs Redskins. The Jaguars will be tough, but Thursday games are a crapshoot and the Titans beat the Jags twice last year, totaling 52 points in both games. Targeting Titans players for the playoffs is something to keep in mind as the season progresses. Here are some other tidbits I uncovered while researching the Titans:
- While throwing from a clean pocket in 2017, Mariota threw 13 INTs, tied with DeShone Kizer for most in the NFL. DeShone. Kizer. While under pressure, Mariota threw 2 INTs and had the 6th highest completion percentage.
- Derrick Henry had 4.2 yards per carry in 2017. 268 of Derrick Henry’s 744 rushing yards came on 8 rushes. Take out those 8 rushes, and Henry has 168 carries for 476 yards — 2.83 yards per carry.
- Rishard Matthews led the Titans with 1.73 yards per route run.
- Delanie Walker had only 3 drops in 2017. All three came on passes more than 20 yards down the field.
- It’s worth repeating — the Titans had the 5th ranked offensive line according to Pro Football Focus in 2017.
|8||** BYE WEEK **|
|9||11/5 (Mon)||@ DAL|
|12||11/26 (Mon)||@ HOU|
|14||12/6 (Thurs)||vs JAX|