While Christmas Eve is usually a joyous occasion, last December, Tennessee Titans fans decked the halls with a little less joy, their eggnog tasted a bit rancid, and they sang Christmas Carols with a bit less passion. For in Jacksonville, their fearless leader had fallen earlier that day. Marcus Mariota’s season had ended in the form of a fractured right fibula, and he bowed into the abyss as the golf cart took him deep into the guts of EverBank Field. The Titans went on to finish their season 9-7, losing the tiebreaker for the AFC South crown to the Houston Texans. That loss in Jacksonville held them out of the playoffs for the 8th consecutive season and left their future in a cast from the knee down.
While that balmy December evening was shrouded in disappointment, it would be foolish not to recognize the progress that their sophomore quarterback made last year. Since coming into the league, Marcus has shown that he is not a “one-trick-pony” and is able to absorb a non-spread offense. He’s shown poise in the huddle and has adapted to the pro game quite well. In 2016, the Titans were armed with one of the league’s top rushing attacks, and were anchored by arguably the best performing Offensive Line in the NFL; both were keys to Mariota’s progression. Before his season ended that day in Jacksonville, Mariota sported a 95.6 passer rating, tossing 26 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions. His decision-making ability had improved markedly, and his downfield ball was much more efficient than in his rookie campaign. Additionally, Mariota’s improved blocking led to 15 fewer sacks and allowed him to keep drives alive. Further adding to his appeal from a fantasy perspective, Mike Mularkey took the reins of caution off his QB1 a bit more last season, allowing Mariota to run 26 more times than in 2015. The former Heisman Trophy winner made the most of those increased attempts, taking 60 rushes for 349 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with 3,426 passing yards; when combined with his rushing statistics, that was good for about 260 fantasy points. Now, these numbers don’t jump off the page yet… but when you consider the supporting cast Mariota had last season, you can’t help but salivate at the 3rd year quarterback’s fantasy outlook for 2017.
In 2016, the Titans didn’t have a receiver with more than 65 receptions. Rishard Matthews was their go-to man on the outside, averaging 14.5 yards per reception and scoring 9 TDs. Delanie Walker continued his model of consistency, also catching 65 balls for 800 yards and 7 TD. After that, the Titans receiving corps was among the league’s worst. Tajae Sharpe did not live up to the hype he received coming out of training camp; Kendall Wright showed flashes, but could never find consistency, and Harry Douglas only logged 15 catches. Titans GM Jon Robinson went into this offseason knowing that he needed to upgrade his receiving corps if he wanted this team to take their next big step forward—and boy, did he commit.
The Titans held fast at #5 in the NFL Draft and took Corey Davis, an electric playmaker from Western Michigan. Many thought Davis might still be around when the Titans had their 2nd pick, but Robinson wasn’t going to risk not getting “their guy.” In his time at Western Michigan, Davis posted a whopping 5,278 yards and averaged 13 TD per season. Widely regarded as the top WR in the draft, Davis stands 6 foot 3 inches and weighs in at 209 lbs. He undoubtedly has the size to be a legitimate WR1 in the NFL for many seasons to come. Robinson wasn’t finished though.
Marcus Mariota 2016 Gamelog
He continued to bolster his pass-catchers by trading up to pick Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor with the 72nd overall pick in the 3rd round. Early on in OTAs, Taylor impressed the Titans’ brass by making plays constantly, leaving many to believe that he could be a legitimate contender for the Titans WR3 job this season and a stalwart in the lineup for years to come. Finally, with the 100th overall pick, Robinson drafted Jonnu Smith, a big-bodied tight end out of Florida International who tore up the combine, posting ridiculous numbers for someone of his size. Smith complements veteran Delanie Walker quite well in the Titans offense; he will undoubtedly see the field a fair share in his rookie campaign, as the Titans run a wealth of two tight end sets.
Such upgrades would have made the Titans a team to watch in 2017, but Robinson put the icing on the cake with his signing of Eric Decker to a one-year contract worth $3.85 million. Decker provides the young Titans receiving corps with a veteran presence. His versatility in the slot and ability to excel in the Red Zone could undoubtedly give him the most TD catches on the squad in 2017.
Now that he has the weapons let’s get back to the quarterback at hand. Mariota proved his elite upside in 2016, as he was fantasy football’s overall QB1 from Week 5 through Week 12. However, the rest of the season proved to be a roller coaster for the former Oregon Duck, as he posted just about 10 FPPG in all other contests. Consistency will be the key for Mariota this year if he wants to take “the next step.” At the end of the day, many quarterbacks in the NFL can perform at a high level for chunks of the season. The truly elite, like Rodgers, Brady, and Brees, however, do it on a weekly basis. Mariota is currently finding himself lost in the “next” tier of QBs, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins. Should he find some level of consistency, he might be able to vault forward and separate himself from the crowd.
With his new troupe of receivers, one of the league’s best offensive lines, and a rushing attack among the league’s elite, Mariota seems to be in the perfect spot to vault himself to QB1 status on a weekly basis. Provided he can stay healthy and play a full season; the sky is the limit for Mariota and this young Titans team. Should he avoid the injury bug, I expect Marcus to have a banner year in all categories, eclipsing 4,000 yards and 30 TDs. He’ll need the play of a Pro Bowl caliber receiver to take his team to the playoffs, though— so look for Corey Davis to have a standout rookie campaign, or for a healthy Eric Decker to return to the touchdown magnet, he was with the Broncos and the Jets. Provided that all the stars align, there could be playoff football in Nashville for the first time in almost a decade, and Marcus Mariota might end the regular season as a Pro Bowl QB with his sights set on playing deep into January.