Last season, the Titans’ special teams unit was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Ryan Succop and Brett Kern were excellent last season. Meanwhile, the Titans’ coverage units were among the worst in the NFL, actively costing the team at least the first match-up with Houston.
As I hinted at above, Ryan Succop was one of the most consistent and reliable field goal kickers in the NFL, making 22/24 attempts, the 4th-best percentage in the NFL, and knocking through all 19 tries inside 50 yards.
Ryan Succop didn’t have a chance at many game-winning field goal attempts last season. His one and only opportunity came against his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, in a momentous Week 15 victory at Arrowhead Stadium, when Succop’s 53-yarder in frozen conditions sailed through the uprights on a mulligan try thanks to Andy Reid’s ill-timed time-out.
Succop doesn’t have the best range, but he is money when and where it counts. His consistency will be a strength for the Titans’ in 2017.
Brett Kern is a consistently strong punter. Last season, he finished 7th in the NFL with 32 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. The average punt yardage is a narrow competition, with just 5 yards per punt separating Kern from the NFL’s leader in the category, Pat McAfee of the Indianapolis Colts, but Kern had just the 24th-best yards per punt.
KICK AND PUNT COVERAGE
The Titans’ coverage units were near the bottom of the league in kick and punt coverage, finishing 18th in average yards allowed per kick return with 22.0 and 26th in average yards allowed per punt return at 9.6.
What’s telling about the Titans punt return coverage is their rank in terms of net yards per punt. Despite finishing 24th in average yards per punt, they were 29th in average net yards per punt. They were the only team in the NFL to allow multiple punt return touchdowns last season.
In the offseason, Jon Robinson signed special team specialists Daren Bates and Brynden Trawick from Oakland, as well as Eric Weems from Atlanta. All three players have made a career out of being good at gunning on kickoffs and punts, as well as blocking on punt and kick returns. Weems has been a special teams captain for most of his career.
These new players, as well as draft pick Khalfani Muhammad, will be added to the kick and punt coverage teams and should improve the units. The Titans have no where to go but up in 2017.
The Titans were only 20th in the NFL in average yards per punt return, with Marc Mariani fielding the majority of punts. Mariani was not re-signed in the offseason, and Eric Weems will likely enter training camp as the top punt returner.
Adoree’ Jackson was one the nation’s best return men last season at USC. He will challenge Weems for snaps on the back-end, and could open the season as the primary punt returner. This will be an interesting battle to watch in training camp.
The most likely outcome is that Weems handles the majority of punt returns early in the season, with Jackson mixing in some when the staff is looking for an explosive play, something that’s been lacking from the Titans’ return game for many years.
The Titans were 26th in average kick return yards last season with just 19.1 yards per return. Mariani was the primary returner here, as well, so the team will be using someone else for this duty in 2017.
Eric Weems returned kicks in Atlanta, Adoree’ Jackson returned kicks at USC, and 7th-rounder Khalfani Muhammad returned kicks at Cal. I imagine the final return jobs will go to two of these three candidates. Jackson is the least likely to win this job, in my opinion, simply to keep him out of harm’s way so he can play defense. However, Weems and Muhammad have much less of a guarantee to even make the roster, so we could ultimately see Jackson back there depending on how things shake out with the final 53.
The Titans kick return was safe and secure in 2016. I expect it to be much more explosive in 2017, possibly yielding some field-flipping, momentum-changing plays for the first time in years.
The Titans haven’t returned a kick or punt returned for a touchdown since the 2012 season. That could change in 2017.
The Titans had a relatively high weighted DVOA on special teams last year with 3.5% above the average, good enough for 5th in the NFL. This metric takes into account field goals, net punting, punt returns, net kickoffs, and kick returns. The Titans were one of the best teams at kicking field goals, so that explains the high rating.
Jon Robinson made a point to target special teams veterans in free agency. Mike Mularkey fired the special teams coordinator Bobby April four weeks into the 2016 season. The guys in the front office knew something had to change, and they took the necessary steps.
With an already excellent kicker and punter, plus the explosive additions at returner as well as the upgrades to the coverage teams, I expect the Titans to have one of the league’s best overall special teams units in 2017.
What are you expecting from the unit this season?