Every year the good people over at Football Outsiders put out their Almanac. It is a huge book that has volumes and volumes of good information on every NFL team. They also have a piece on fantasy football that really good. You can order the Almanac here.
Tom Gower once again wrote the section on the Titans. He was nice enough to answer 5 questions that Michael Herndon sent him about our favorite team. Enjoy!
1. The 2016 Titans were among the best in the NFL on both 3rd downs and in the red zone. Have your models shown success in those areas to be sustainable and/or a predictor of future success, or is it more likely that we see a statistical regression in 2017?
I asked Aaron Schatz, head honcho, for this one, and here’s his note:
In the early days of FO, one of our most important precepts was that third-down performance tended to regress towards the mean from year to year. (Well, not to the mean of "NFL average" but rather the mean of "that team's average on other downs.") However, we discovered a few years ago that this didn't seem to be the case on offense any longer. So Tennessee's ranking of No. 2 in offensive DVOA on third downs last season is probably a good thing. But the fact the Titans defense was 14th on third down but 24th overall is probably not a good sign for limiting opponent drives this season. The defense is more likely closer to that No. 24 ranking than the No. 14 ranking.Red zone performance is definitely something that regresses to the mean from year to year. That's a problem that the Titans were No. 1 in the red zone, because that's not likely to carry over to 2017. However, run performance in the red zone tends to correlate a little bit better than pass performance. The Titans were off the charts passing in the red zone, highest DVOA in the league, but they were also No. 5 running the ball in the red zone. That's more likely to stay strong.
2. Football Outsiders was pretty down on DeMarco Murray last season despite what most considered a major bounceback season. In fact, he earned negative DVOA scores as both a runner and a receiver. On the other hand, Derrick Henry was among the top 10 backs in the NFL in several of your metrics. Is that a function of sample size, or do you think the Titans would be better served giving the lion’s share of the carries to Henry this season?
A couple things here. First, Murray had a huge strength of schedule adjustment because the Titans faced a number of below average run defenses last year and he did very well against them. The Titans are reasonably much more concerned with how actually effective they were, and it didn’t matter if we say they would have been in second-and-8 against a good run defense if they were actually in second-and-6. Second, Murray had a pretty bad second half of the season. From the Green Bay game in Week 10 on, he had a DVOA of -16.3% and -39 DYAR vs. 81 DYAR and 2.0% DVOA Weeks 1-9 (and 125 YAR, with no defensive adjustment, was third in the league through then). My personal theory is Mularkey ran him into the ground with heavy workload Weeks 4-8, and we saw the cost of that the second half of the year. Carry splits like 25-3, 21-2, and 25-1 (Weeks 4, 6, 7) don’t make sense even if you have a bad backup unless you’re in the playoffs. Mike Mularkey will do what Mike Mularkey does, so he’ll stick with Murray as the lead back. That’s reasonable enough because he was still an effective player, but remembering he has a good backup and should regulate his workload so he’s good into January would be smart.
3. Derrick Morgan finished in the top 20 in hurries in addition to his 9 sacks in what was probably his best overall season as a Titan. Do you think he is due for a breakout season, or was 2016 likely his ceiling as a pass rusher?
2016 looked like his career year as a pass rush. For most of his career, he’s ranked better in sacks than in hurries. It’s not a surprise that he finally had a season where he converted more of those pressures, but we tend not to expect players to reach permanent new heights in their seventh season at positions where athleticism matters a lot.
4. The Titans made big changes at their two weakest position groups from last season: wide receiver and cornerback. Which position do you feel is the weak spot on the roster heading into 2017?
Cornerback, definitely. The Titans still had a pretty effective passing game with last year’s receivers, so the downside of the receiver group not improving is they’re probably still pretty good. Corner has a lot of questions. Most rookie corners, even very good ones, struggle a lot their first season, so we’re institutionally skeptical of Adoree’ Jackson. Logan Ryan did his good work as a slot corner. We have, for the first time, data for where receivers lined up, and he had a 52% success rate in coverage against receivers who lined up in the slot vs. a 41% success rate against receivers who lined up wide. His time in Miami showed us Brice McCain isn’t an outside corner. LeShaun Sims played well the last four games of the season, but that’s four games. There are a lot of questions here.
5. In the Pregame Show section the fact that offense is much more consistent year after year than defense or special teams. The Titans have clearly built this roster around a young core on offense that appears to be set for years to come. Where would you rank the Titans among teams most likely to win a Super Bowl in 5 years?
We recently did a feature for ESPN Insider ranking the talent under age 25 for every team in the league (http://www.espn.com/nfl/insider/story/_/id/20218920/nfl-ranking-all-32-teams-25-talent-2017-season), and the Titans came out just 12th. We like Mariota a lot, Jack Conklin obviously had a fine rookie year, and so far so good for Derrick Henry. Our Playmaker Score metric is high on Corey Davis, but we need to see him on the field. Does Henry transition well to a larger role, as he should? And who’s there on defense, with Adoree Jackson the lone first-round pick in the past seven seasons and all those mostly Ruston Webster picks in the second and third rounds now playing elsewhere?
For this season and the next couple years, it’s not the young talent that matters such as the core of older players. This is where the Titans are lacking outside of the obvious names, and part of why our mean projection for them is just 8.1 wins.
Looking past the next couple years, it’s all about the maturation of those young offensive players, like whether Mariota becomes a top 3-5 quarterback or maybe more in the 6-10 range, how the core of older passers fares (the last two AFC non-Brady/Ben/Peyton Super Bowl quarterbacks are Joe Flacco and Rich Gannon for the 2002 Raiders), and how much the Titans can improve a defense that’s ranked in the bottom 11 by DVOA each of the past five seasons. There’s still a big process from here to “good bet for a ring,” but the future is MUCH brighter than it’s been for many years.