This is Part 2 of a series of articles breaking down the Titans roster heading into the 2019 offseason. If you missed Part 1, it covers the team’s cap situation and highlights some major roster decisions and you can check it out here.
The value of offensive line play has never been more clear than it is heading into the 2019 NFL season. Seven of the eight teams that just played in the divisional round of the playoffs ranked among the top eight in either Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards or Adjusted Sack Rate and four of the teams ranked top eight in both. The four teams that advanced to the conference championship round ranked 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in Adjusted Sack Rate and 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 16th in Adjusted Line Yards.
Making room for your running backs and time for your quarterback is a good thing as it turns out. Shocker, I know, but in the NFL landscape of 2019 where fantasy football stats inform much of the public’s opinion about players and teams, it’s important to remember how critical the big guys in the trenches truly are.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a deeper look at the performance of the Titans offensive line in 2018 and then get into what they can do to improve it heading into 2019.
Titans Pass Blocking: Sacks were a team issue, not just an offensive line issue
The Titans offensive line finished 29th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate (pass blocking) this season and some of the raw numbers weren’t great either. Marcus Mariota was sacked 42 times — tied for 9th most among all quarterbacks — and Blaine Gabbert was sacked another 5 times. There is no doubt that sacks were a problem for the Titans offense in 2018.
However, not all sacks can be blamed squarely on the offensive line. Sometimes it’s a back or tight end that fails to pick up a blitzing linebacker. Sometimes it’s the quarterback who creates the sack by drifting in the pocket or fleeing a clean pocket and running into trouble. Other times it’s a coverage sack or simply a well-schemed blitz that gets home.
Luckily, Pro Football Focus charts sacks — among many other helpful things — and assigns blame to the player they feel like is responsible for the bad result. Sometimes that’s an offensive lineman that gets beat. Sometimes it’s a back who was supposed to pick up a blitzing linebacker. Sometimes it’s on the quarterback who drifts into danger or tries to escape a clean pocket and puts himself in harms way.
Other times blame isn’t assigned to anyone. I reached out to PFF’s Cole Brown — follow him @PFF_Cole — for some help understanding where these unassigned sacks come from. He explained that they mainly fall into two categories: an unblocked blitzer coming through clean or a defender who “cleans up” a sack after the quarterback is flushed from the pocket. PFF’s charting has the Titans 47 sacks assigned as follows:
- Ben Jones - 5 sacks
- Jack Conklin - 4 sacks
- Josh Kline - 4 sacks
- Marcus Mariota - 4 sacks
- Taylor Lewan - 2 sacks
- Corey Levin - 1 sack
- Jonnu Smith - 1 sack
- Tyler Marz - 1 sack
- Quinton Spain - 1 sack
- Kevin Pamphile - 1 sack
- Luke Stocker - 1 sack
- Dion Lewis - 1 sack
- Blaine Gabbert - 1 sack
- Dennis Kelly - 1 sack
- Unassigned - 19 sacks
A few interesting notes about those numbers:
- Ben Jones led all NFL centers in sacks allowed per PFF charting.
- The most sacks allowed at the guard and tackle positions were 10 sacks for Tampa Bay’s Caleb Benenoch at guard and 16 sacks for Oakland’s Kolton Miller at tackle.
- At quarterback, Marcus Mariota’s 4 assigned sacks tied for 18th most among his peers. The QB most blamed for taking unnecessary sacks was Dak Prescott with 15.
- Only 21 tight ends and running backs were assigned more than 1 sack in PFF’s charting with Miami’s Kenyan Drake and Nick O’Leary leading the way with 6 sacks allowed and 4 sacks allowed at the running back and tight end spots, respectively.
- The Titans led the NFL in unassigned sacks (we will come back to this later).
PFF’s primary pass blocking metric is Pass Blocking Efficiency. In their words it is meant to “measure pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks allowed”. The Titans offensive line as a unit finished tied for 14th in the NFL over the course of the season at an efficiency rating of 85.5. Not great, but certainly not terrible either.
So how can a team have both a sack rate that ranked 4th worst in the NFL, but also an offensive line that ranked among the top half of the league in pass blocking? Well, the answer is found within those unassigned sacks. As I mentioned earlier, these unassigned sacks — which the Titans had more of than any NFL team — are primarily an unblocked rusher coming untouched on a blitz or a play where the quarterback tried to escape the pocket and gets “cleaned up” by another defender.
Before I set about figuring out why the Titans had so many unassigned sacks compared to the rest of the league, I took a look at some more traditional sack stats and found another interesting result.
The way the NFL tracks quarterback hits is strange. The numbers reported for QB hits includes the sack totals, so your “QB hits” category really is “Sacks + QB hits”. I subtracted out the sacks from the total QB hits number to get the actual number of times each team’s QB was hit, but not sacked and found that the Titans allowed the fewest QB hits in the NFL by an extremely wide margin. Tennessee quarterbacks were hit after the throw just 22 times in 2018 while the next lowest team (the Bears) had 31 and the most hit team (the Chiefs) had 80. When you combine sacks and hits the Titans quarterbacks were actually the 5th best protected group in the NFL.
When I took the percentage of total hits that resulted in sacks the Titans appeared to be even more of an outlier.
The Titans QB hits total was comprised of 68.1% sacks, almost 10 percentage points higher than the next highest team. The league’s lowest percentages belonged to the Colts and Chiefs who both sat around 24%.
After going back and re-watching all 47 of the Titans sacks allowed in 2018, I believe that the mystery of the high number of unassigned sacks AND the mystery of the low percentage of QB hits can be explained by the same factor: a tendency for Marcus Mariota to pull his eyes down and look to run when his first couple reads aren’t open.
To be clear, this tendency isn’t all on Mariota. He’s relying on receivers to get open and his playcaller to help them get open. Neither of those things happened regularly enough this season. There is also the injury factor and the fact that Mariota was learning yet another new offensive system. It’s also not to say that Mariota can’t cycle through reads or “is a running quarterback”. However, the Titans quarterback’s response to targets not being open in 2018 was too often a panicked scramble that landed him in harm’s way.
Mariota’s threshold for reacting to pressure also seemed to be lower in 2018 which could help explain why he took so few hits compared to sacks. He was the only quarterback with at least 300 dropbacks to not record a single “hit as thrown” passing attempt according to PFF charting. The quarterback on the opposite end of that spectrum, the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes, was hit as he threw 16 times.
That would seem to indicate that Mariota was quicker to react to pressure than most of his peers and less likely to attempt a throw in the face of that pressure. That can sometimes be a good thing — pressured throws are far more likely to result in turnovers than non-pressured throws — but the extreme degree to which Mariota chose not to throw inflated the overall sack numbers.
That’s a lot of words and numbers to say this... the Titans offensive line wasn’t the disaster that they are being painted to be in pass protection. This isn’t to say that they were as good as the Colts or the Chiefs or other elite pass blocking units, but they certainly weren’t among the worst in the NFL either. In my opinion, PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency metric has them right about where they belong as a unit, middle of the pack.
Titans Run Blocking: Fall to forget, December to remember
Fortunately, the story of the Titans run blocking is far more straightforward. Tennessee’s blocking was terrible for the first three months of the season and then took a massive leap forward over the final month. The raw rushing stats back that up.
September-November: 314 carries, 1,226 yards, 7 TDs, 3.90 yards per attempt
December: 142 carries, 801 yards, 8 TDs, 5.64 yards per attempt
Even if you remove Derrick Henry’s monster 99-yard run from that December — or as I like to call it, D-Henber — total, you still end up with a solid 4.98 yards per attempt over the final month of the season. The Titans were 31st in the NFL in yards per carry through the end of November and easily 1st in the NFL for December. It was a massive turnaround.
Much of the credit for that turnaround has gone to Derrick Henry and rightfully so. The former Heisman winner ran like a man possessed over the second half of the season. However, the offensive line play improved over this stretch as well. When we checked in on the offensive line in an All-22 Review following the second Texans this season, they were ranked 29th in the league in Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards, a metric that attempts to isolate the contributions of offensive line play to rushing success. Over the final five weeks of the season the Titans ranked 1st in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards, raising their season long ranking to 17th overall.
The tape matches the numbers here as well. Yes, Derrick Henry was transcendent at times, but the offensive line and tight ends also did their part to lift the rushing attack to elite levels at the end of the season. The reason for that improvement, in my opinion, is largely due to reaching a comfort level with the zone blocking scheme that Matt LaFleur and offensive line coach Keith Carter had been working to implement. The strange thing about the timing of the sudden improvement was the fact that it coincided with Quinton Spain getting benched for the second half of the Jets game. Spain would return to the starting lineup the next week, but that move really seemed to light a fire under the group as a whole.
Whether it was a fire being lit or just a growing comfort level with the blocking scheme, the Titans rushing attack worked over the final month of the season and Jon Robinson will be looking for ways to build on that this offseason. Let’s get into how he might do that.
Players Currently Under Contract
The Titans only have two offensive linemen scheduled to become free agents when the new league year starts on March 13th, Quinton Spain and Kevin Pamphile. We will get to those guys later, but let’s start with the guys that are under contract for 2019.
Taylor Lewan, T
2019 Cap Hit: $16.7M
2018 PFF Grade: 76.4 (15th)
Lewan was selected to his 3rd consecutive Pro Bowl in 2018 and it was well-earned in my opinion. There were a couple games where he struggled — particularly the Bills and Ravens games when he was dealing with a foot injury — but outside of that stretch he was easily among the elite tackles in the NFL. His athleticism is extremely unique and makes him an ideal fit for the zone blocking scheme the Titans installed in 2018 (not that he can’t also excel in a power/gap scheme, but the zone system really highlights his strengths). For yet another season, Tennessee had their highest success rate rushing around the left end and it’s not coincidence that that’s where Taylor Lewan lives.
Lewan, of course, got his big contract extension last offseason that made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. His deal now runs through the 2023 season so the Titans are set at left tackle for a long time.
Jack Conklin, T
2019 Cap Hit: $5.1M
2018 PFF Grade: 66.8 (45th)
Conklin’s 2018 really wasn’t as terrible as it is sometimes made out to be. He clearly struggled with certain pass rushers — DeMarcus Lawrence had a field day against him before he left with an injury and J.J. Watt was disruptive against him — but he had several games where he was perfectly fine as well.
My belief regarding Conklin is that he tried to push himself to come back from ACL surgery too quickly (his first game was just over 8 months after his operation) and wasn’t physically 100%. Not only is it likely that his knee was still less than full strength, but Conklin also missed an entire offseason of football training while the Titans were in the midst of transitioning to a new blocking scheme. That’s a tough ask and I would suspect that the former 1st round pick will bounce back close to his excellent 2016 and 2017 levels next season.
Some want Conklin bumped inside to guard to make room for Dennis Kelly in the starting lineup and while I agree that would get the Titans best five offensive linemen on the field, I would be relatively surprised if that actually happens. Instead I would expect to see Conklin back starting at right tackle in 2019.
The team does have a decision to make regarding Conklin’s 5th year option this offseason though. I wrote a bit about that in Part 1, here. I would lean towards the Titans accepting that option even though the $13M-plus price tag is quite high for a team already paying their other tackle top dollar. You simply don’t let top 20 NFL tackles walk for nothing.
Ben Jones, C/G
2019 Cap Hit: $5.375M
2018 PFF Grade: 69.8 (13th)
Jones has one of the more fascinating PFF grade histories I’ve ever seen. Since entering the league in 2012 he’s never dropped below 69.4 or risen above 72.6, a remarkably consistent performer. He’s received a good bit of criticism over the past two years, and while I still think some of that is warranted, he’s not a terrible center.
Frankly, the Titans are getting a pretty good deal in Jones on his current contract. He’s the 17th highest paid center in the league and the team is getting average to slightly above average play from him. He’s heading into the last year of that deal and while the team could save $4.5M in cap space by releasing him, the market for replacements that would represent a significant upgrade is extremely small at best. Of the 12 centers graded above him on PFF, only Mitch Morse and Matt Paradis are scheduled to become free agents and it’s entirely possible that both of those guys receive contract extensions prior to free agency. If they do reach the market, there will be a host of teams chasing them thanks to the state of offensive line play in the NFL right now.
I would expect Jones to be on the Titans roster when the 2019 season starts. He can play both center and guard and has called protections for Marcus Mariota each of the last three years so there is likely a place for him to play on this line for at least one more year.
Josh Kline, G
2019 Cap Hit: $6.75M
2018 PFF Grade: 58.0 (51st)
Kline has been the lowest performer on this offensive line for each of the past two seasons, but his contract means that he’s likely to hang around for at least one more year. The Titans would save $3.25M against the cap by cutting him, but it would leave $3.5M in dead space behind. While saving $3.25M is attractive, having to fill both starting guard spots in free agency or the draft is not.
Like the center position, the guard free agent market is not likely to be densely populated with clear upgrades over Kline. We will get to some of those options later, but it’s highly unlikely that the Titans will be able to land two starter quality guards in free agency and you certainly don’t want to go into the draft knowing you have to come away with an instant starter on the offensive line.
Dennis Kelly, T
2019 Cap Hit: $1.6M
2018 PFF Grade: 75.4 (18th)
Kelly was phenomenal as a swing tackle in 2018 and is under contract for the final season of his current deal in 2019. Right now, I would expect Kelly to enter next season as the 3rd tackle again, but if Conklin fails to return to something close to his pre-injury levels, the Titans have a more than capable replacement already on the roster.
Corey Levin, C/G
2019 Cap Hit: $672K
2018 PFF Grade: 54.3 (N/A)
Levin is the wildcard on the interior of the offensive line. He can play center or guard and got mixed reviews during the action he saw in 2018. Making his first career start at left guard when Quinton Spain was out against the Chargers, Levin struggled badly and spent entirely too much time on the ground. However, when he entered the game at center against the Jets, he was excellent and looked the part of a guy who could be a starter in the NFL.
What Jon Robinson thinks of Levin as a potential 2019 starter will have a big influence over the way the Titans GM approaches this offseason. If the team feels good about Levin as a starter at center, they could slide Ben Jones over to fill Quinton Spain’s spot at left guard. That would allow them to spend their free agent dollars elsewhere — pass rush, wide receiver — and plan on addressing the interior offensive line in the draft.
I’ve always liked Levin’s potential and his fit in the zone blocking scheme the Titans seem intent on keeping helps his case. At the very least I think the former UTC Moccasin gets a real chance to compete for a starting job in camp this season.
Aaron Stinnie, G
2019 Cap Hit: $572K
2018 PFF Grade: N/A
Stinnie was one of three undrafted rookies who stuck on the 53-man roster for all 16 games this season, joining defensive lineman Matt Dickerson and outside linebacker Sharif Finch. He was one of the biggest surprises on the original 53-man roster coming out of camp so clearly the Titans like something about the raw-but-athletic big man from James Madison.
It would obviously be a major surprise if Stinnie got in the conversation for a starting job, but the Titans must think he at least has a chance to be quality depth if they were willing to use a roster spot on him all season.
Tyler Marz, T
2019 Cap Hit: $645K
2018 PFF Grade: N/A
Marz got one start in 2018 when Lewan, Conklin, and Kelly were all out against the Texans. He performed moderately well given a game plan designed to protect him. He’s a decent depth tackle and has even played a little guard during his time in Tennessee, but I would expect him to end up off the roster if the Titans make some additions to the offensive line this offseason.
Quinton Spain, G
2018 PFF Grade: 58.0 (51st)
The Titans have a decision to make at their left guard spot this offseason. Spain has been the starter there for each of the last three seasons and has played quite well for the vast majority of that stretch, but the Titans seem to be less enamored with him than outside observers. He was only tendered the lowest level of RFA tags last offseason, had competition brought in for his starting gig, and then was benched mid-game against the Jets.
Guessing what Spain’s market might be is tough. Last season the Titans only gave him the “first right of refusal” RFA tender which means another team could have signed him without giving up draft picks, but the Titans would have had the right to match the contract. However, Spain never found a deal worth taking which tells me either his contract expectations were unrealistically high or a market never materialized. After a down year by his standards it’s hard to see a big jump in interest coming this offseason. If I had to guess, I’d peg Spain somewhere around $6M a year on a relatively short term deal, but he could go for less than that if interest isn’t higher than it was last offseason.
Kevin Pamphile, G/T
2018 PFF Grade: 52.0 (N/A)
During his brief time with the Titans, Pamphile proved valuable. He made starts at both left and right tackle early in the season before tearing his biceps against the Jaguars (he somehow finished the game) and also competed briefly with Spain for a starting spot at left guard. It’s hard to find a more versatile, experienced backup on the offensive line and I’d imagine the Titans could have some interest in bringing him back if they don’t re-sign Spain.
How can the Titans improve the line this offseason?
The answer to this question depends a lot on whether you view the final five weeks of the 2018 season as a fluky run of good play or as the result of the new zone blocking scheme finally starting to click for the offensive line. I tend to lean towards the latter and I have a feeling that the Titans do as well based on some of the comments from Jon Robinson since the end of the season.
#Titans GM Jon Robinson: "DaQuan Jones got better as the season went on and we are counting on him into next season. Same with Josh Kline, it is important to have continuity within the offensive line. He has a lot to work on going forward, as does most of team."— The Midday 180 (@Midday180) January 9, 2019
I would be pretty surprised to see Josh Kline or Ben Jones released and I’d imagine the Titans will at least make an offer to see if they can keep Quinton Spain on board. If they don’t get Spain back, that obviously creates a hole at left guard. They could theoretically fill it with the Jones-Levin-Kline combination they used for the second half of the Jets game, but I’d imagine they’ll at least want to bring in some competition for those guys.
Free agency offers very few proven commodities on the interior offensive line this year. Kansas City’s Mitch Morse and Denver’s Matt Paradis headline the centers currently slated to hit the market, but the Chiefs and Broncos could opt to re-sign them before March 13th.
At guard, the Rams Rodger Saffold and the Steelers Ramon Foster would be veteran upgrades to the left guard spot. Both are over 30 years old — Saffold will be 31 next season, Foster will be 33 — but that could be a benefit for the Titans as it could keep their cost down. Saffold makes sense from a scheme fit standpoint if the plan is to stick with the zone blocking scheme that Matt LaFleur installed in 2018 (which it seems to be). Foster is from Tennessee, went to the University of Tennessee, and lives in Nashville during the offseason. If the career Steeler was going to leave Pittsburgh to head anywhere, it makes sense that it would be here. There are a few other lower tier options as well — Denver’s Billy Turner, San Francisco’s Mike Person, Atlanta’s Ben Garland, Indianapolis’ Mark Glowinski — but to me, Saffold and Foster are the only clear cut upgrades.
Whether the Titans sign a new interior offensive lineman or not, I would expect them to address this position early in the draft and possibly even spend multiple picks here before the weekend is over. Since taking over as General Manager in 2016, Jon Robinson has spent just two 6th round picks — Sebastian Tretola in 2016 and Corey Levin in 2017 — on the interior of the offensive line. The only position he’s spent less draft capital on during this time is quarterback, where the Titans had spent the No. 2 overall pick the season prior to his arrival. Tennessee is due for a splurge on interior offensive line talent.
I don’t want to dive too deep on specific draft prospects for right now — there will be plenty of time for that in the coming months — but there are some potential difference makers that I’ve already seen on the interior offensive line. Guys like Cody Ford from Oklahoma and Dalton Risner from Kansas State are possible tackle prospects who could go in the first round, but would be tremendous guards if the Titans wanted to spend a first round pick there. NC State’s Garrett Bradbury, Oklahoma’s Dru Samia, and Wisconsin’s Michael Deiter are all likely Day 2 picks (though Bradbury could end up pushing into Round 1) that could fit what the Titans want to do with their zone blocking scheme.
With the investment the team is set to make at tackle — assuming they decide to exercise Jack Conklin’s 5th year option and follow that up with an extension — getting some young, cheap talent on the interior offensive line is going to be crucial for Jon Robinson. You simply can’t have expensive players everywhere and if you want to spend big on tackles, you need to find good interior linemen on rookie deals. Restocking this position has to be a priority for the Titans.