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.
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.
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.