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Exit Interview: Tennessee Titans

Tennessee came within one game of the playoffs under first-year head coach Mike Vrabel. The team has a lot to build upon, but not until it answers the Marcus Mariota question.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of season when some NFL teams have started looking toward next year. As each is officially eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Titans, who will spend January at home after losing a play-in game to the Colts on Sunday.

What Went Right

It’s been a roller-coaster year for the Titans, but they were one game away from the postseason and have now posted their third straight winning season. The only other teams that currently have such a streak are the Seahawks, Chiefs, Patriots, Cowboys, and Steelers. That’s pretty elite company for Tennessee, and there is a lot to build on considering this was head coach Mike Vrabel’s first year at the helm.

Also, Derrick Henry treated the once-vaunted Jaguars defense like they were a pee-wee team, embarrassing a divisional rival. So that has to feel good for Titans fans.

What Went Wrong

How long can the Titans wait for Marcus Mariota? This is the quarterback’s fourth year in the league, and for the fourth straight year, his season can basically be described as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who came over from the Rams, was supposed to revitalize Mariota. But the Titans QB—and the team’s entire offense—has been wildly inconsistent this season. Mariota’s had five games with a passer rating of about 100, but also four games below 75, and entering Week 17, the Titans had the seventh-highest variance in weekly performance on offense, per Football Outsiders. Mariota came into Sunday 22nd in passer rating, 24th in QBR, and 27th in adjusted net yards per attempt. He has thrown nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (11).

To be fair to Mariota, he’s dealt with numerous injuries this season, beginning with an elbow injury in Week 1 that left him with a tingling sensation and numbness. This is becoming a pattern—Mariota has missed time in all four of his seasons. Here’s a list of the maladies he’s had in his career:

  • October 18, 2015: MCL sprain
  • December 20, 2015: MCL sprain
  • December 24, 2016: Fibula fracture
  • October 1, 2017: Hamstring and ankle injuries
  • September 9, 2018: Elbow injury
  • December 22, 2018: Stinger

How can a team evaluate a player who is constantly missing time? The Titans have already picked up Mariota’s fifth-year option so he’ll be under contract in 2019, but teams usually extend their quarterbacks before the final year of a contract, so the Titans are set up for a big decision this offseason. The team must take a risk either way — the Titans can lock themselves to an unproven passer by handing him a considerable contract, or let him play out the fifth-year option and potentially franchise-tag him in 2020. It’s not an enviable position to be in.

Free Agency

With $44 million in projected cap space, the Titans have the 13th-most money to spend in the NFL, though they may have to re-sign at least a few guys. In particular, outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan could be a priority. Both are set to hit the open market, and if the Titans were to let them go they’d have a huge hole in their pass rush, an area that they probably need to upgrade anyway. It is likely that at least one of these guys will return.

After that, the Titans could look to outside help to fill some of their team needs. Getting a pass catcher to pair with Corey Davis is at the top of the list, and Golden Tate will be the best player on the market. If the bidding for his services gets too pricey, though, Tennessee could always turn to the draft.

The Draft

The Titans don’t have their sixth-round pick next year but have all the rest of their selections, and will pick in the mid-first round in April. Tennessee could use its first pick on any number of pass catchers: Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, Ole Miss’s D.K. Metcalf, NC State’s Kelvin Harmon, and Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown could all be first-round picks. The Titans could also address a number of other positions, including outside linebacker and their interior offensive line.