How Titans can use picks to help Marcus Mariota in Year 2

Chase Howell examines how Tennessee can utilize its newly-acquired draft capital to help the second-year QB.

| 1 year ago
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

How Titans can use picks to help Marcus Mariota in Year 2

In a blockbuster draft trade last week, the Tennessee Titans surrendered the No. 1 overall selection to the Rams in exchange for a bounty of picks that span all the way to the 2017 draft.

While Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo gave the Titans an A+ for the deal, the question remains: Who does Tennessee select to kick-start the team’s chances in the AFC South race (this season and beyond)?

Tennessee can certainly use help on the defensive side of the ball (PFF’s 16th-highest-graded defense last season), but the team’s short- and long-term future largely revolves around the success of last season’s No. 2 overall pick, Marcus Mariota. Here we take a look at how the Titans can help their second-year QB improve on his rookie campaign by using the their newly acquired draft stock.

In Mariota’s first season with the Titans, the former Heisman winner finished his rookie campaign as PFF’s 28th-ranked quarterback out of 38 (in terms of overall grade). While his four-touchdown start in Week 1 had many praising the Oregon product as a prodigy, his Week 2 performance gave everyone a reminder of how quickly things can change week-to-week in the NFL, especially for a rookie quarterback.

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While it’s still fair to deem Mariota’s rookie season a success (he did earn a positive cumulative grade, something only two other rookie starting quarterbacks in the past three seasons can say), there are certainly higher expectations for the QB in 2016—Mariota finished his final season at Oregon as PFF’s highest-graded FBS quarterback.

To help him reach his potential—or at a minimum, get on the right path—the Titans can use their newly acquired draft capital to surround him with young talent.

Add offensive line help

The most obvious place to start in terms of helping Mariota’s on-field circumstances is the offensive line. In 2015, the Titans O-line ranked 29th in the NFL, ahead of only the Seahawks, Dolphins, and Chargers. The unit owned the league’s seventh-lowest pass-blocking grade and fifth-lowest run-blocking grade. Only one offensive lineman on the roster earned a positive cumulative grade (LT Taylor Lewan), while no other player earned a grade PFF analysts even consider average.

Mariota faced pressure on 35.1 percent of dropbacks (15th-highest rate in the NFL), and owned the highest sack conversion rate of any quarterback in 2015 (taken down on 26.2 percent of pressures). When watching the tape, it’s apparent that Mariota took too long to make decisions in some circumstances, and failed to anticipate likely breakdowns in protection.

When kept clean, Mariota posted a respectable grade this past season; as typical, however, the quality of his performance declined when under pressure. This drop was more significant for the Titans QB than most NFL QBs, however.

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The Titans have already begun addressing the O-line issue with the signing of free-agent center Ben Jones. For the Texans last season, Jones finished the year as PFF’s 18th-ranked center—a major upgrade over Tennessee’s Andy Gallik, PFF’s 36th-ranked player at the position in 2015. What’s more, Jones earned the 13th-best pass-blocking grade, compared to Gallik’s 37th-ranked mark.

With Lewan and Jones penciled into the lineup, there are still three starting spots that could use major upgrades. While many considered left tackle Laremy Tunsil to be a likely target by the Titans at No. 1, the No. 15 slot now presents the team with completely different circumstances.

When the Titans are first on the clock, either Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley or Michigan State’s Jack Conklin will likely be available. Stanley’s presence would be a great addition from Mariota’s perspective, touted by PFF analysts as one of the most-consistent pass-protecting tackles in the nation. Last week, Senior Analyst Sam Monson slotted Conklin to go to Tennessee in PFF’s head-to-head mock draft, stating that the former Spartans’ troubles in pass-protection have been wildly overstated—he averaged just 12.5 total pressures allowed over the last two seasons, one of the best rates in the country.

Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair is another possible option at this spot, a player likely to transition from tackle to guard in the NFL. Whitehair finished the 2015 season as PFF’s highest-graded OT, 14th in pass-protection.

Entering Round 2, the Titans should still find quality O-line talent to choose from at pick Nos. 33 and 43 (the latter acquired in yesterday’s trade). Assuming Stanley, Conklin, and Whitehair are off the board at this point, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Notre Dame’s Nick Martin, or Indiana’s Jason Spriggs will likely still be available.

Martin has experience at guard, while Kelly should also be able to transition to the role from center. Spriggs—one of the most athletic O-linemen in this year’s draft—could fit well with the Titans current starting lineup, having the ability to play right or left tackle, and owning the third-highest pass-blocking efficiency among Power-5 OTs last season.

Add wide receiver help

While wide receiver is certainly an area of need for the Titans (only Dorial Green-Beckham and Kendall Wright earned positive cumulative grades last season, and they ranked 53rd and 58th among NFL WRs, respectively), Tennessee is less unlikely to address this area early. The addition of extra picks in this draft, however, opens up the possibility of grabbing a WR sooner than originally planned.

Tennessee does have a full stable of young receivers, though none have flourished in their short careers. Green-Beckham and McBride, both 2015 picks (Rounds 2 and 7) underwhelmed in their inaugural pro seasons, and Wright (a first-round pick from 2012) has been on a steady decline since his career-best season of 2013.

The Titans also actively addressed this issue via free agency, with the addition of former Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews. Earning PFF’s 15th-highest overall grade among WRs last season, Matthews appears to be a prime match for Mariota’s talents. As colleague Ryan Smith pointed out recently, Matthews is largely successful in the middle of the field, where the Titans QB also thrived last season (59 percent of his total passing yards came in the middle of the field, as did 14 of 19 touchdown passes).

While Matthews certainly helps the Titans’ receiving corps and plays to the QB’s strength, the lack of a true downfield threat could limit the growth of Mariota’s deep-passing ability. In 2015, he owned the worst deep-passing accuracy percentage (accounts for throw that travel 20+ yards in the air only) of any NFL quarterback, trailing Brock Osweiler by more than 6 percent.

Last season, Green-Beckham owned the team’s best deep-pass catch rate, albeit on the small sample size of 15 deep targets; he ranked just 52nd in the league among qualifying receivers in this category. Harry Douglas, the WR to receive the second-most deep targets from Mariota (13), had a catch-rate of just 15.4—fifth-worst in the league among WRs with any deep targets. The blame can’t be entirely shouldered by the receivers, of course—only seven of those 28 targets were deemed “catchable” by PFF analysts, with just one drop recorded (Green-Beckham).

While this year’s wide receiver draft crop certainly isn’t deep in regards to speed, there are a few potential later-round prospects the Titans could target. Southern Mississippi wide receiver Michael Thomas posted a 46.7 catch rate on deep passes in 2015, fourth-best among draft-eligible WRs. Tulsa’s Keyarris Garrett would be another intriguing option if he were to fall after the first few rounds, racking up 725 yards on passes travelling 20+ yards in the air last season. As Palazzolo identified on PFF’s latest draft board, Garrett is a big target that can make plays downfield.

Mariota has shown he can throw downfield accurately, owning the third-best deep-pass accuracy percentage among FBS QBs in 2014. Simply put, that production did not carry over to his rookie NFL season, as he notched the lowest deep-passing accuracy percentage in the league. With an added deep threat in the draft, the Titans could help Mariota grow this part of his pro game.

Tennessee’s newly-acquired draft capital gives the franchise the unique chance to stockpile young talent around their second-year QB. While some of those picks will surely—and smartly—be spent on defensive talent, the right additions on the offensive side of the ball can help accelerate the development of Mariota as a professional quarterback.

| General Editor

Chase is a General Editor at PFF, focusing on the site’s NFL content strategy. His work has been featured in ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider, and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

  • Zachary Mills

    I think they should grab a tackle with the 15th pick for sure. Then three picks in the 2nd round…damn. I’d definitely grab Kelly if possible or a top guard with that 1st second rounder and then go defense, The Titans are primed to be contenders for a while if they have a good draft this season, especially with an extra 1st and 3rd next year along with all the cap space they have.

  • Matt Ward

    I see the need along the offensive line, but man – it feels like every year the Titans draft offensive linemen without improving the unit. I would hope Lewan and Warmack would be able to start effectively this year as former first round picks, and we signed Ben Jones in the off-season to help at Center. I have read some speculation that Jeremiah Poutasi might kick inside to guard this year. If all of that proved effective, they would just need to address one tackle position.

    As long as a good tackle is available at 1.15, take him…. I’d also like to see them try to swing a deal to acquire former first round disappointment Luke Joeckel. Thought to be an elite talent coming out of college, he hasn’t really panned out that way in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have already signed his replacement, and he’s in the last year of his deal. If they want rid of him, I’d love to see one of those late round draft pick trades from the Titans. Get him, coach him up, and let him compete.

    If they could come away from the draft with Conklin at 1.15 and grab Joeckel with some sort of latter round pick swap – they should be able to put something together that would be highly effective on the O-line. Then they could use their collection of 2nd rounders on defense or maybe a WR if a guy they love falls to them.

    Just wishful thinking! Go Titans!

    • Panthers/Truth

      Forget Poutasi, he was a monster draft reach last year, after PFF gave him a negative grade in 7 of his games in 2014. At best he is only a career backup at G/T, and likely out of the NFL before his next contract.

      G Quinton Spain (Pro Day 6’4 1/8″, 330, 4..97-40, 1.78-10, 7.71-3 cone, 4.62-20 yard shuttle, 28 bench reps, 29″ vertical, 8-7 broad jump) had better workout numbers than Poutasi by every measure. Spain is better than Poutasi (#66 in the 3rd round), and he was an UDFA in 2014.

      • GoodMojo1

        I expect Russ Grimm will begin shaking out the Poutasi vs. Spain issue as soon as it”s legal for him to do it, if he hasn’t come close to his decision on game film alone.

  • Sifter

    I would be a little careful about drafting OL and WR positions if I’m the Titans. They already have young talent there from previous drafts. (WR has DGB and Justin Hunter. OL has Lewan, Chance Warmack and Jeremiah Poutasi. All picked in the first 3 rounds in the last 3 years.) This has been a big factor in the ineffectiveness of these units – they’re young guys thrust into starting roles. I say focus on developing what you have before oversaturating those positions with youth. Look at your coaching. Look at your scheme. Doesn’t mean you can’t draft those positions again if you get good value, but just be aware of their draft history before going to the well again.

    Titans should be able to go BPA a lot because very few of their starters are in their last years of contract (Delanie Walker is one, so a TE needs to be taken early), and they don’t have old starters close to retirement that would need replacing soon.

    • GoodMojo1

      I’m looking forward to coming off-seasons with the scouts following J-Rob’s player evaluation criteria. We can only hope most of our choices this year will not be chosen (too much) the Ruston Webster way.

      • Sifter

        New coaching staff might help too: Bratkowski for WRs in new, Grimm for OL is new, Robiskie at OC is new…hopefully they help these young guys develop.

        • SamNash

          Doubtful. But, when we do fire Mularkey and his whole staff, we should have a pretty good group of players left.

    • Chris

      Well, that was the old regime. I truly believe Robinson will far exceed (light years better?) his predecessor in terms of evaluating talent and stocking this team with quality players. So, despite the past drafts, we cannot avoid drafting WR or OL because of the bad choices made by the previous GM. I trust Robinson to make smart picks. But I totally agree that we do have talent that needs to be coached up. I think a lot of people devalue us at WR because of stats. Mariota was a rookie running for his life or sitting on the bench hurt. Kind of hard to have overwhelming #’s when the QB is under duress and not able to distribute the ball. DGB was a rookie too. It’s very likely with a new OC, new WR coach and hopefully better OL and QB play, our young WR’s will begin producing. Addition of Matthews will definitely help as well. Go Titans!

  • GoodMojo1

    Whatever else happens, IMO the Titans can’t go into AFC South play with a glaring weakness in the OL. Either by drafting a RT or bringing in a veteran replacement, and drafting a G, or coaching up Poutasi or Spain, that puzzle must be solved. Once it is, BPA all the way. CB /S and DL are real needs, but BPA/need from #33 on should take care of that.

    A deep threat receiver might really help the entire offense, but to throw deep Mariota needs more time than he’s been consistently getting. Give him more time, I expect his deep-ball accuracy will benefit. A bona-fide running threat should help that too.

    I have hope that Mike Mularkey’s offense will help Mariota by scheme, so I definitely expect to see some development this season, if the Titans just take care of the basics.