While the 2016 was probably the best-case scenario for the Titans, the shift has officially focused to 2017. Jon Robinson has set the franchise up for success, but he absolutely must capitalize on their great position this off-season. With two first round picks, and some of the most cap room in the league, the Titans are poised to take the next step, and quite possibly emerge as a legitimate contender. While there is no linear path to success, I have formed a checklist of things that I personally believe will lead to the Titans' emergence in 2017. In this series, we will discuss each item mentioned in the below checklist:
1. Re-sign Matt Cassel: Cassel knows the system and the receivers. While he is not a world beater, he did lead the team to a win over Houston in week 17. Cassel has proven to be a viable backup option, and it will be imperative that the team has someone comfortable with the system and personnel during off-season training when Marcus Mariota is still out.
2. Add a Scatback: The Titans have two fantastic running backs who can pound the rock. Demarco Murray was one of the best running backs in the league last season, and Derrick Henry looks to be an emerging star. While Antonio Andrews was great in his role last year and could absolutely find his way onto the roster in 2017, the Titans could benefit from a speedy back who can touch the ball a few plays per game, change the pace, and add to the passing game.
3. Double down on Wide Receiver: Pretty much anyone knows that wide receiver is the Titans' biggest need on the offensive side of the ball. It has been an issue for many years, Kendall Wright will be out of town, and Jon Robinson has hinted at the position being a focus point this off-season. With a talented draft class and solid free agent options, the Titans should double down at the position.
4. Find the tight end of the future: For the first time in his Titans career, Delanie Walker seemed somewhat like an afterthought last season on offense. This is not as much of a slight to Walker as much as it is praising other players. Rishard Matthews, Demarco Murray, and others stepped it up. As a result, the ball was spread around more. Also, Walker was used in different, more beneficial roles. However, with Delanie Walker's age increasing, it could be time to look towards the future. Also, in the meantime, having two top tier tight ends in the picture could really open things up for the offense. Think Gronkowski-Hernandez, without the obvious off the field issues.
5. Beef up the Defensive Line: Teams could add players to the defensive line every year and it would likely prove to be an effective technique. Getting after the passer and stopping the run are two of the biggest ways to become a great defense, and this starts in the trenches. While the starters may be set, the Titans could benefit from adding some promising young players that can contribute in the rotation, like Karl Klug does.
6. Find a starter at Inside Linebacker: If you ask a Titans fan what the team's biggest need is on defense, they'll likely say cornerback. While that is probably true, inside linebacker is a close second. The team struggled with tight ends, the middle of the field, and running backs in the passing game (see: Melvin Gordon). While the starters last year have their respective places on the roster, it is time to strengthen up the position at the top of the depth chart.
7. Add a defensive playmaker: When talking about positions specifically, we all know what the Titans need. However, if you ask me, the Titans need playmakers, especially on defense. There were several times last season when the Titans started the game down by double digits. In basically all of these instances, they came back and made it a close game, but simply ran out of time. There was no one on defense to make that jarring hit, force a fumble, or pick off a pass to completely turn the game around. We saw what kind of effect this had in the Super Bowl when Dont'a Hightower strip-sacked Matt Ryan. If the Titans can find one of these players who just has a nose for the ball, it could have a huge impact.
8. Find a return man: While Marc Mariani was a solid return man in terms of decision making, the Titans should look to add a playmaker at this position, as well. Having someone who could pick up yards, pose a threat, and score a touchdown or two next season in the return game could add an entirely new dimension to the team.
9. Find your starters at cornerback: This could be another position in which the Titans could and should double down this off-season. The draft is loaded with cornerbacks, and there are a number of viable options in free agency, as well. With so much cap space, the Titans could overpay for one of the top cornerbacks, and spend a high draft pick on one as well. Significantly upgrading at cornerback and pairing the new corners with promising defensive back Kevin Byard could lead to a 2016 Titans offensive line-esque turnaround.
10. Add an Edge Rusher: In limited time, it seems as if the Titans are showing interest in edge rushers. While Kevin Dodd could eventually blossom into what Dick Lebeau and Jon Robinson have envisioned, it is difficult to trust him at this point. With Morgan and Orakpo being in positions where one or the other may be gone in the coming years, finding someone at the position for the future would be a positive. Also, the Titans giving snaps to younger, fresher pass rushers in different situations could keep Morgan and Orakpo fresher as a result.
Throughout this series, we will address each item on the checklist, and discuss them in greater detail. This will serve as a useful base as the off-season moves forward. Also, when the main portions of the off-season are over and we reach the dog days of summer, this will be an interesting piece of information to look back at and refer to. This will be an exciting series that will carry us into free agency and the draft. Go Titans!!!!