Tennessee Titans 2015 Year in Review: Light at the End of the Tunnel?
The Tennessee Titans had some serious struggles and a lot of areas that needed improvement in the 2015 offseason.
Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics (which you can read more about in our glossary) had them ranked 29th offensively and 30th on the defensive side of the ball in the 2014 season.
They couldn't pass, couldn't run, couldn't stop the pass, and couldn't stop the run. They stumbled into a 2-14 record.
After some speculation about potential trades with the Eagles, to reunite Mariota with head coach Chip Kelly, the TItans pulled the trigger on the Oregon quarterback, handing him the keys to the franchise right from Week 1.
They lost two starting tackles in Michael Oher and Michael Roos, which was a blow for the offense, but they made a concentrated effort to keep building on that side of the ball. With their second-round pick in the draft, they took a risk on Dorial Green-Beckham, hoping he could overcome his off-field struggles and show why he was such a talked about prospect.
In total, the Titans spent seven of their nine draft picks on offensive players.
There weren't any big losses on the defensive side of the ball (not that they had many players good enough to consider a big loss), but they made some personnel upgrades, bringing in linebacker Brian Orakpo and cornerback Perrish Cox. They also brought in long-time Steelers' defensive co-ordinator Dick LeBeau as an assistant head coach.
These changes didn't bring major improvement for Tennessee -- they only managed to improve their record by one win, going 3-13, the worst record in the league.
What Went Right
Probably the biggest bright spot for the Titans this year was the play of Marcus Mariota.
He finished 23rd out of the 37 quarterbacks to record 200-plus drop backs on the year with a 0.07 Passing NEP per drop back, and of the 18 of those quarterbacks to run the ball at least 25 times, his 0.50 Rushing NEP per carry ranked 3rd.
Over the past five seasons, 18 rookie quarterbacks have dropped back at least 200 times, while 15 of that group ran the ball at least 25 times. Among the full 18, Mariota posted the fifth-best Passing NEP per drop back, and among the rushers, he ranked fifth in Rushing NEP per carry.
It was a very encouraging year for Mariota, despite missing four games due to injury, and he very well could be the future of the Titans' offense for a long time to come.
Helping out Mariota, and contributing to the encouraging future for the Tennessee offense, is a talented young receiving corps headlined by Kendall Wright and Dorial Green Beckham. While Wright hasn't been especially efficient through his four seasons, he is a relatively consistent contributor, averaging 4.6 receptions for 51.4 yards per game in his career, and in 2015 he posted a career-high 83.3 percent Reception Success Rate, which measures the percentage of receptions on which he generated positive NEP.
Green-Beckham finished the season ranked 21st among the 86 receivers to see 50-plus targets on the year with a 0.80 Reception NEP per target. Mariota and DGB had some trouble getting onto the same page, and Green-Beckham only had a 47.8 percent catch rate on the year, but when he did catch the ball, he made plays, sporting a 100 percent success rate.
In addition to showing big-play ability, finishing eighth in the league with 17.2 yards per reception, he established himself as a viable red-zone threat already, recording 3 touchdowns on 9 red-zone targets.
The improvement the Titans showed on the defensive side of the ball were also encouraging. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, and Brian Orakpo came in and made a big impact.
They each recorded 7.0 sacks on the year, while anchoring a run defense that improved from 29th with a 0.05 schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play in 2014 to 14th with a -0.02 in 2015 (lower is better for Defensive NEP scores, as they indicate points denied).
What Went Wrong?
Obviously, a team doesn't land the first overall pick without a lot going wrong.
Despite the big improvement in run defense, the Titans still struggled mightily against the pass. They finished 2014 ranking 30th with a schedule-adjusted 0.18 Defensive Passing NEP per play and finished 29th with a 0.10 in 2015.
The Perrish Cox signing didn't end up having a big impact, Blidi Wren-Wilson is one of the worst cover corners in the league and still saw a decent number of snaps in 2015, and Coty Sensabaugh, who lead Titans defenders in snaps, showed some serious struggles in coverage.
They were also awful running the ball this year. Their schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP ranking dropped from 23rd in 2014 to 25th in 2015, and none of their backs had any success.
The Titans had three backs, Dexter McCluster, Antonio Andrews, and David Cobb, record at least 50 carries on the year, and all three finished with -0.15 Rushing NEP per carry. This had them ranking 61st, 62nd and 63rd out of the 72 backs with 50-plus carries. While part of that is on the very weak stable of backs, it also reflects very poorly on the Titans' offensive line, which, as I mentioned, lost their two starting tackles from 2014.
Coaching was also a big issue for Tennessee, and they fired head coach Ken Wisenhunt after a 1-6 start, leaving him with a 3-20 record as Titans' head coach. Mike Mularkey was named interim head coach for the rest of the season and will be the full-time head coach for 2016.
Mularkey isn't exactly an encouraging hire at head coach. He has a coaching record of 18-39, and in his four seasons as a head coach, his teams only posted a winning record once. His teams have also finished with a negative Adjusted NEP per play in every season he's been a head coach.
If Mularkey can step things up though, the Titans are well-positioned to grow in the future. Looking at snap-weighted age data by Rich Hill of PatsPulpit, they are effectively the fifth-youngest team in the league.
They have a young core to build their offense around, with Mariota and Green-Beckham only entering their sophomore seasons and a young (if so far ineffective) group of offensive linemen.
They've also already acquired DeMarco Murray and will hope that they can build a well-rounded offensive attack. The improvements on the defensive side of the ball were encouraging, and if they can step up against the pass the way they have against the run, they could be a respectable unit.
With the first overall pick, the Titans are once again positioned for a great potential draft. With such an influx of young talent coming in and a handful of young players already playing very well, Titans fans have lots of reason to believe that there will be a light at the end of their rebuilding tunnel.