One of the lingering questions surrounding this Titans offseason will be: How much of the current roster is Jon Robinson’s vs. how much was it Mike Mularkey’s? Of course, the roster construction was Robinson’s task, but how much was he bringing in/retaining players specifically for Mularkey’s scheme? No matter who a GM’s coach is at any given time, he should be attempting to balance both rostering players he evaluates highly and rostering players he believes can function within specific roles in that coach’s scheme. Robinson mentioned several times after he was hired that his approach would be to draft, sign, and retain players based on specific roles. Naturally, when the roles change in conjunction with a coaching reboot, the players must change too.
Now, the answer to this question could be anybody’s best guess. It’s likely that Robinson and the new coaching staff don’t even have it, yet. Still, if Robinson’s background in New England can provide us any hint, no one is safe, outside of the QB and young, high-level performers. More than ever, Titans fans should be cautious about getting too attached to players until they seriously cement themselves as cornerstones.
With roughly a month until moves start pouring in, I thought it would be interesting to work through each position group and try to weed out who may be playing for the competition come next season.
Here’s the offense:
Marcus Mariota – 10/10, Fort-Knox-Safe
Nothing to consider here. The Flyin’ Hawaiian is the leader and face of the franchise.
Matt Cassel – 1/10, He Gon’
Cassel should be on his couch or on a coaching staff in 2018. He doesn’t belong on any NFL roster at this point in his career. The only reason this isn’t a 0/10 is because Cassel likely has some connection with Mike Vrabel from their days as Patriots. I think Matt LaFleur and Jon Robinson would veto any attempt by Vrabes (if their even was one) to keep his boy around.
The Rest: Brandon Weeden (1/10), Alex Tanney (0/10)
Neither of these QBs have any advantage based on prior experience within LaFleur’s offense.
Given the surplus of starter-level-ish QBs hitting the FA market, as well as the new prospects coming in the draft, I’d be shocked and disappointed if we didn’t actually feel confident (for once) in our backup passer next season.
DeMarco Murray – 3/10, Likely Done
Murray, as much as Mike Mularkey, deserves the utmost respect for righting the Titans’ ship. Even though he gave us one great year and one “meh“ year, he’ll still always be a player I look back on fondly—one of those guys you sincerely wish had a little more gas left in the tank. There’s a chance he could stick in a backup/third-down role, but there have already been rumors that he’ll be let go.
Derrick Henry – 7/10, Not Invincible
Henry is one Titan I’m very curious about. On one hand, he’s young, talented, and has given us some great glimpses. On the other hand, he’s been inconsistent and may not be a scheme fit if we indeed rely heavily on outside zone runs. I’m not sure that he couldn’t be successful in that type of scheme, for the record. Obviously, DH isn’t going to be cut, but there’s a very unlikely scenario in which another team covets him and makes us a trade offer we pounce on. Crazier things have happened.
The Rest: David Fluellen, Khalfani Muhammad
Fluellen is a hard worker, but it’s hard to see him having a real role on this team. If that’s the case, there’s not a ton of reason to keep him around—he doesn’t already know the scheme and doesn’t have any future upside. Muhammad is intriguing, simply because of his electrifying speed. This isn’t Madden, however, so he will have to show that he progressed in all other phases while on the practice squad last season.
Outside of (most likely) Henry, we could see an entirely new RB group. None of the incumbents have been terrible, but we could also do better.
Corey Davis (10/10), Rishard Matthews (9/10), Taywan Taylor (8/10)
Though his rookie year wasn’t ideal, Davis showed us his ceiling plenty, and ended the season on a high note. I think a new offense that works to get him the ball and cater to his strengths will do wonders for him. I don’t think top-10 receiver numbers are out of the question next year, though a lot will depend on his health and what he does between now and training camp.
Matthews, based on his production, has been an absolute bargain since signing with the Titans in 2016, and he only has one year remaining on his current contract. He doesn’t have worthwhile trade value, so there’s almost no reason not to give him a chance to prove himself again in a new offense.
Taylor, like Davis, should also benefit immensely from the offensive shift. I don’t think he got a fair shake from Mularkey & the Dinosaur Bunch—older coaching staffs seem to be the ones that refuse to play rookies unless they’re perfect. LaFleur has worked with plenty of players that resembled Taylor in terms of skillset in the past, and I think he’ll easily find ways to get TT the ball on the run.
Hard To Say:
Tajae’ Sharpe (6/10), Eric Decker (5/10)
Once camp begins, Sharpe will have had an entire year to rehab as well as further develop. We know he’ll never be dominant athletically, but he showed potential as a technician during his rookie season. I, for one, would like to see him occupy the fourth-receiver role. He may be required to prove his worth on special teams in order to stick, however.
Decker had some good moments last season and developed a certain level of chemistry with Marcus Mariota. He also had some soul-crushing drops. If both sides want to reunite, I think he’s certainly an above average fourth or fifth receiver. If he stays, his usage needs to be far narrower than it was under Mularkey; primarily, he belongs in first down and red zone packages.
Better Out Than In:
Eric Weems (3/10), Darius Jennings (2/10), Harry Douglas (0/10), Zach Pascal (0/10)
Weems was a good special teamer in 2017, but the Titans are likely to crave roster flexibility as they adjust things to match up with new schemes. That means guys that only contribute on ST will have a much harder time making the 53-man roster, and an even harder time dressing on game day.
Jennings showed a little bit of potential last camp and in the preseason. Unless he took a “next step” since then, though, he still doesn’t have a role on this team.
Douglas is a goner. He wasn’t as bad as we sometimes accused him of being, but he was often nothing more than another receivers coach who knew the ins and outs of the playbook. He no longer has that advantage.
Pascal has been a lifer on various teams’ practice squads, though I’m not sure whether he has any eligibility remaining. You’d have to think our offensive coaches will have a few players from previous stops that they’d prefer to bring in to fill out the backend of the full roster.
Delanie Walker – 10/10, Made Man
It’s hard to know how many more years of stud-like play from Walker we’ll see, but he’s very likely the most under-appreciated pass catcher in the NFL. If our new offense is what we think it will be, teams that try to double and triple cover 82 will get burnt badly. That should open things back up for him over time.
Jonnu Smith – 9/10, Young With Potential
Smith is a guy I hope just annihilates his offseason training regimen. He needs to progress in terms of fine-detail technique: route running, footwork, positioning. That being said, last year, he was often forced out of his comfort zone by the offensive braintrust. He’s not a bad blocker, but he’s not the type of TE (at least not yet) that you want to overly rely on to anchor the edges of your run game. We saw him as a big-time weapon in misdirection plays, and our new offense will be featuring way more of those types of looks.
Luke Stocker – 4/10, Bandaid
Stocker came in and filled a growing void at the end of last season. That void, in many ways, was self-inflicted by Mulbiskie. It’s possible his reliability as a blocker buys him a role in short-yardage and goal line situations. A lot will depend on whether Vrabel or LaFleur have a guy out there that they have more familiarity with.
Phillip Supernaw – 2/10, The End of an Era
Supernaw was essentially replaced by Stocker last season, and that was in an offense that catered to Naw’s strengths and was run by coaches who had a history with him. A good dude and a player who stuck around for a long while, but his time is almost assuredly up.
The Rest: Tim Semisch
A veritable giant with a pretty fun highlight reel from college. Probably just not quite an NFL caliber player.
The fact that Arthur Smith was retained gives a slight edge to some of these guys. Still, outside of Walker and Smith, the rest of the group seems to have only been a fit for our previous offensive scheme.
Absolutely Safe: Taylor Lewan (10/10), Jack Conklin (9/10)
Lewan will be a Titan for the entirety of his peak in the NFL. That’s a beautiful thing. Due to injury, Conklin isn’t movable even if the team felt he wasn’t going to fit in the new, zone-blocking scheme. Honestly, with as much reliability as he’s shown, and given the fact that he’s proven doubters wrong at every turn of his career, he really shouldn’t be under the microscope. Hopefully, at worst, he’ll be able to enter the starting lineup in the first quarter of next season.
Who Can Say?: Ben Jones (7/10), Corey Levin (7/10), Quinton Spain (6/10), Josh Kline (6/10), Dennis Kelly (6/10)
By far the hardest offensive group to evaluate under these premises, the remainder of the core of the OL is bunch of guys that all could or could not return in 2018. Ben Jones had a rough go of it in 2017, and while he, like DeMarco Murray, played a critical role in turning around the losing culture in Tennessee, he also seems to be tailing off. His hand injury could have played a larger role than we think it should have. I’ve also heard some analysts remark that a zone-blocking scheme may suit him better. I’m not sure I’ve ever marveled at his athleticism, but perhaps the change in philosophy will allow him to regain his swagger.
Levin is kind of “in waiting“ for a spot to open up. He could technically take Jones’ job, but it’s more likely he’ll get a shot at guard, if he gets a shot at all. He is a more athletic, in-space type of blocker, so he may rocket up the depth chart if he can hold up when engaged.
Spain was injured during parts of last season, but I believe he showed enough when healthy to lock down a new contract and a strong chance at a starting spot. That being said, he must be willing to accept a contract that aligns with his inconsistency (due to injury or otherwise) in 2017.
Josh Kline was not a Patriot while Mike Vrabel was there, so there’s no personal connection between them. Still, coming from a familiar culture may give Kline some appeal to the new HC. Kline, like Levin, is known for being at his best in-space and on-the-move. Though we may be able to find an upgrade over him from elsewhere, you’d have to think Kline himself will be better in our new offense, and he’s not been that bad as a Titan so far.
You could do a lot worse at backup T/extra OL than Dennis Kelly. I think he stays, but he is the level of player that could easily fall off a cliff in a scheme that he doesn’t fit in. I think his demeanor will be a match for the new staff, so as long as he can prove serviceable, he should be a Titan in 2018.
The Rest: Brian Schwenke (3/10), Tyler Marz (3/10), Cody Wichmann (3/10)
With no connection to the coaching staff to fall back on, it’s hard to see these three sticking. We’ve heard rumblings about Marz’ potential in the past, but he’s never jumped into a role when one has opened up. That has to say something. Schwenke never became the player we hoped we were getting when we drafted him out of Cal. JRob should be able to bring in someone with a history in this type of scheme that can outperform him. I have heard nothing about Cody Wichmann as a Titan, so I’m going to assume he’s JAG. He did start seven games as rookie in 2016 on a dreadful Rams’ OL (LaFleur was in Atlanta in 2016), but I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.
If I were a betting man, I’d say we see two new OL faces on the 53-man roster next season. Conklin’s injury does complicate matters a little, given that we’ll require more depth than usual. If I were in charge, I’d make a move at center and RG and retain Kline and Kelly (and Levin if he doesn’t grab a starting spot) as backups.
The defense and will be the more dynamic side of the ball in terms of roster shakeups. That breakdown is coming next weekend.