OTAs and mandatory minicamp finished for the Tennessee Titans on June 16. The team now enjoys about six weeks before the start of training camp on July 31.
During the interim, fans can explore and Titans’ successes, deficiencies, and uncertainties for the upcoming season.
Let’s began with a look at three questions facing the Titans’ offense in 2016.
Who will be in the starting roles at wide receiver?
Since the start of the offseason, coach Mike Mularkey has called for improvement among the Titans’ receivers.
“They all know they’re going to be coached harder than any position there is,” Mularkey said. “First of all, because it needs to improve. There’s no question about that. If there’s a position on this team that could be better, it’s that one.”
“We’re going to be in their ear. We’re not going to accept anything that’s not the best from them. If they don’t show that, we’re going to find someone that understands that.”
Thus far, rookie receiver Tajae Sharpe, a fifth-round pick out of UMass, has been answering Mularkey’s call.
During OTAs, Sharpe earned reps with the first-team offense, and wide receiver coach Bob Bratkowski said that Sharpe’s performance has been “as high, or higher, than any of the guys in the group.”
“[Sharpe is] very intelligent; he’s an extremely hard worker. He spends more time studying, getting extra help than anyone we have. He’s just in here constantly, on football. Plus he’s very well skilled. He plays fast, he is a crisp route-runner and with the intangibles of the studying and all the work that he puts in in the side, that’s giving him a chance to start.”
Sharpe’s early success raises questions for Titans’ receiving lineup next season.
Kendall Wright looks to have secured his starting role in the slot, as he gained twelve pounds during the offseason in order to prevent injury and add explosiveness, and since he is playing in the final year of his rookie contract.
However, the two remaining outside receiver positions appear up for grabs among Sharpe, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Rishard Matthews. This competition looks to benefit the Titans in 2016, since the team’s passing offense ranked 25th in the NFL last season (218.9 yards/game).
Who will be the most reliable left guard on the offensive line?
During OTAs and minicamp, the Titans have experimented with different lineups at offensive line.
For instance, Brian Schwenke has practiced at left guard with the first- and second-team, while Quinton Spain has practiced at left guard and right tackle.
“You’re trying to get everybody to come together and gel as one group,” Robiskie said. “That’s the goal, the direction we were pushing today. … How long that takes I don’t know. I certainly don’t believe it’s something you do today, not in May and June. I think that’s why you go to training camp and have all those days in training camp, preseason game and all that stuff. You just keep gelling, stirring that pot and see what fits.”
While the Titans’ starting front five has not been settled, it is safe to assume that Taylor Lewan will start at left tackle, Ben Jones at center, Chance Warmack at right guard, and Jack Conklin at right tackle.
A question remains — who will start at left guard? The former front-runner for the position was Byron Bell, until the offensive lineman dislocated his left ankle during OTAs and is now sidelined for 2016.
Bell was a versatile and experienced asset for the Titans. He started 16 games for the team in 2015, at three different positions, and he was entering his sixth season in the NFL.
Now, the left guard position is up for grabs among Brain Schwenke, Quinton Spain, Jeremiah Poutasi, and Sebastian Tretola.
Schwenke leads the motley crew in experience, as he enters his fourth season in the NFL. However, the Titans’ former center has had difficulties playing at left guard because of the surgery on his left ankle last season.
Can Marcus Mariota improve his deep passing game?
Last season, Marcus Mariota gave Titans’ fans much hope for the organization’s future.
There was his near perfect performance versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 (209 yards, 86.7% completion, 4 TDs, 158.3 QBR); his overtime and game-winning drive versus the New Orleans Saints in Week 9; and his 87-yard touchdown run versus the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13, the league’s longest run in 2015.
Nonetheless, the quarterback has room for improvement in 2016. The most immediate shortcoming to address is his deep pass.
In 2015, Mariota ranked 23rd in the league for passes travelling in the air 15 or more yards (39.5% completion). He also ranked 35th in the league for passes travelling in the air 20 or more yards (16.7% completion).
The Titans began to address the issue in OTAs. They have practiced throwing the deep ball on one-on-one situations, where a single receiver faces off against a single cornerback.
“I think [Mariota] is working on [the deep pass] in everything he does,” Mularkey said. “I know it’s important to him. We’re going to air it out. We’ve got to be able to throw the ball deep. I’ve seen an improvement on him. I’d just like to see more plays made when the ball’s up there.”
Mariota’s struggle, in part, can be attributed to his receivers last season. Green-Beckham and Hunter dropped several deep throws. Moreover, Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright performed best when thrown short- and middle-range passes.
There are early reasons for optimism in 2016, however. As the receiving core continues to compete under Mularkey’s call for improvement, and as Mariota continues to practice one-on-one passes in training camp, the Titans’ deep ball success should trend upwards.