Tennessee's offense jumped from 30th in 2015 to 11th last year thanks to a dominant running game, but QB Marcus Mariota won't let an improved receiving corps go to waste after posting a 26:9 TD:INT ratio in the NFL's third-most run-heavy attack. A top-10 fantasy finish could be within reach.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
IS Marcus Mariota THE NEXT Aaron Rodgers?
While Marcus Mariota and Aaron Rodgers took drastically different paths to get there, it's tough to ignore the similarity between the two first-round quarterbacks in their respective second seasons as full-time starters. After finally being handed the reins in 2008, Rodgers finished the 2009 campaign with 4,434 yards passing, 316 yards rushing and a 30:7 TD:INT ratio in 16 games. Mariota missed the 2016 finale with a fractured fibula but still delivered 3,426 yards through the air and 349 on the ground to go along with 26 TD passes against six picks. While the passing numbers were short of Rodgers' marks, Mariota was also throwing the ball to the likes of Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe and Delanie Walker, while Green Bay's talented roster featured Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley along with a pre-prime Jordy Nelson and James Jones. The Titans didn't add two wide receivers in the first 72 picks of the draft, as well as veteran Eric Decker, in order to run the ball 47.2 percent of the time again, so expect the training wheels to come off as Mariota throws the ball outside the numbers more than ever before. Rodgers' strong supporting cast helped him accrue 3,900 yards, 29 touchdowns and a Super Bowl ring in his third year, and Mariota now has the pieces around him to showcase his full potential as a franchise quarterback.
YOUNGSTERS READY FOR BIG ROLES
GM Jon Robinson deserves credit for landing a treasure trove of picks from the Rams to move down from the top spot in 2016, but he would have no doubt liked to see more from his selections in that draft outside of All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin. Second-round front seven picks Kevin Dodd and Austin Johnson combined for just 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks, while skill players Derrick Henry and Tajae Sharpe managed a modest 1,150 yards from scrimmage between them after earning rave reviews in camp. This year's rookie crop is expected to bear an even more immediate burden for a team with sights set on an AFC South crown after a 9-7 finish a season ago. Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor both put up gaudy numbers at small schools and are favored to start in three-receiver sets right away, despite facing much weaker competition in college. Adoree' Jackson was drafted with chasing down the Colts' T.Y. Hilton in mind, but an inability to cover bigger receivers would be a death knell for this thin cornerback corps. Even Jonnu Smith is expected to make an impact for a team that loves to go bulky at the line with multi-tight end sets but lacks options at the position aside from Delanie Walker and the purely blocking-oriented Phillip Supernaw. No other team with legitimate 2017 playoff aspirations will be as rookie-dependent as the Titans.
LESS WALKER, MORE DAVIS
They say tight ends are a young quarterback's best friend, and Delanie Walker was just that for Marcus Mariota in 2015, when he set a franchise tight end record with 94 receptions while notching a career-best 1,088 yards to go with six touchdowns. The two connected for seven scores last season, but Walker's usage between the 20s dropped as he hauled in just 65 balls for 800 yards. Now with Mariota ready to spread his wings in Year 3, it wouldn't be surprising to see the soon-to-be 33-year-old tight end cede more looks to a more explosive outside option. Wideout Corey Davis is a candidate to earn that attention, as the fifth overall pick easily has the greatest potential out of Tennessee's skill-heavy draft class. While critics will point to his lack of big-name competition, Davis' 10-catch, 154-yard performance against Michigan State in 2015 and his highlight touchdown catch against Wisconsin in this past Cotton Bowl were enough to sell the Titans on making him the first receiver off the board, despite not being able to work him out due to an ankle injury. Three of the eight wide receivers drafted in the top 10 since 2010 finished with more than 1,000 yards, while three more came within 150 of doing so, meaning the 6-3, 209-pound Davis will be expected to make an instant impact after scoring 52 touchdowns in college.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: DeMarco Murray
Murray finished third in the league with 1,287 rushing yards last season, and he should once again serve as the focal point of Tennessee's offense behind a dominant line. A more balanced approach could cost the 29-year-old veteran some yards while raising his touchdown potential for a unit that drafted additional playmakers.
RISING: Derrick Henry
After averaging 4.5 yards per carry as a rookie, Henry should be able to step up if DeMarco Murray shows signs of wear following a 293-carry campaign. Look for the power back to vulture some touchdowns as well.
FALLING: Tajae Sharpe
Sharpe exceeded expectations by earning a starting job out of camp as a rookie, but the 2016 fifth-rounder finished with just 522 receiving yards. Plus, Corey Davis wasn't drafted fifth overall to sit on the bench.
SLEEPER: Jonnu Smith
Projects to work in a "move tight end" role, but could enter the fantasy equation in the event of an injury to Delanie Walker.
KEY JOB BATTLE – RED-ZONE RECEIVER
Marcus Mariota still hasn't thrown a red zone interception in his career, largely because of a willingness to check the ball down in close. DeMarco Murray and Delanie Walker tied for the team lead in red-zone targets with 16 apiece last season while Rishard Matthews' 15 led wide receivers and nobody else saw more than four. Tennessee's run-heavy approach should once again limit the total number of opportunities through the air, and there are also two more prominent mouths to feed in free agent acquisition Eric Decker and first-rounder Corey Davis. Decker played just three games in 2016, but is favored to lead the team in touchdowns if healthy after averaging 23 red-zone targets per campaign in his previous four. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound Davis also projects to be a threat in close for years to come after scoring 19 times as a senior at Western Michigan. Matthews and Walker combined for 16 scores a season ago, but both will be hard-pressed to finish better than third on the team in that category this year.
Corey Davis – WR (Rd. 1, No. 5 – Western Michigan)
Major college football's all-time receiving yards leader with 5,285.
Eric Decker – WR (from Jets)
Adds a proven veteran component to the team's revamped wideout corps.
Adoree' Jackson – CB (Rd. 1, No. 18 – USC)
Speedy, undersized corner with dynamic kickoff/punt return ability.
Taywan Taylor – WR (Rd. 3, No. 72 – Western Kentucky)
The quick wide receiver likely is destined for slot duty.
Jonnu Smith – TE (Rd. 3, No. 100 – Florida International)
Ready to take on the No. 2 tight end role while bringing more ball skills.
Logan Ryan – CB (from Patriots)
Led all NFL cornerbacks with 92 tackles in 2016.
Jason McCourty – CB (to Browns)
Former No. 1 corner whose effectiveness was diminished by injuries.
Anthony Fasano – TE (to Dolphins)
Veteran backup tight end replaced by Jonnu Smith in draft.
Kendall Wright – WR (to Bears)
Inconsistent slot receiver who never quite clicked with Marcus Mariota.
THE INJURY FRONT
Marcus Mariota, QB – Mariota was unable to suit up for last year's finale after breaking his right fibula in Week 16, giving him five missed games in two seasons. His willingness to roll out and make plays with his legs puts Mariota at greater risk for injury than traditional pocket passers, but he comes into training camp fully healthy and ready to shed the injury-prone label.
Eric Decker, WR – Decker required surgery on both his hip and shoulder after being injured in Week 3 last season. However, he surprisingly managed to participate fully in OTAs prior to his release from the Jets and should open the season at full health.
Tajae Sharpe, WR – After having surgery on his right foot in June, Sharpe could land on the PUP list at the starting of training camp. If it lingers, his tenuous hold on a roster spot could loosen entirely.