By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — No one knows this early how any team will do, but if you believe the national media’s predictions this will be a rough year for the Titans. After three straight 9-7 seasons and one playoff win, most observers see the Titans taking a step backward in 2019. Bleacher Report has them at 7-9, while Sports Illustrated sees them occupying the basement among AFC South teams at 6-10. Pro Football Weekly, Monday Morning QB, Deadspin and many others have similarly bad forecasts. What makes all of this even scarier is that some of these predictions came BEFORE it was known that All-Pro left tackle Taylor Lewan was going to miss the first four games of the season. Barring some last second reversal on appeal, Lewan’s now out until October, which makes an already questionable part of the team (the offensive line) even more shaky.
Dennis Kelly, ordinarily a right tackle, has moved over to Lewan’s spot for now. Jack Conklin was an All-Pro as a rookie, but things have gone downhill since. The Titans hope that he’ll return to his rookie season form this year, but he’s already had some health problems. Making matters worse is the fact tackle wasn’t even the real problem area. Guard play was abysmal for the Titans last season, and it’s remained unsettled so far. A variety of players have been shuffled in and out of the starting right guard spot, among them Kevin Pamphile, Nate Davis and Ben Jones, who’s normally the center. No one knows who’ll start there Thursday night against Philadelphia in the season’s first preseason game, and no matter who that is, there’s no assurance they’ll be there when the regular season opens in Cleveland. If Jones has to play guard then Corey Levin shifts to center.
There are also questions regarding Derrick Henry, who had a very slow start and sizzling finish. He’s yet to appear in practice due to injury, but there don’t seem to be any worries about him. Dion Lewis will be back in his customary change-up/pass-catching threat role. There’s a possibility either Dalyn Dawkins or Jeremy McNichols might make some waves as well, especially if Henry is out the entire preseason. McNichols is also a pass catching threat from the backfield.
The early word is tight end Delanie Walker, a Pro Bowl selection two years ago, looks good returning from the injury that sidelined him for all but one game last year. Corey Davis needs to continue improving, and thus far looks good, as does new acquisition slot receiver Adam Humphries and holdover Tajae Sharp. With his new multi-year deal secure, safety Kevin Byard is set to anchor a secondary that played well in basic coverage, but wants to make more interceptions and create more turnovers. Likewise the Titans are looking for big things from young linebackers Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry and Shariff Finch. The hope is they mesh with veterans Cameron Wake and Wesley Woodyard to give the Titans more of a pass rush and take some of the pressure off star defensive tackled Jurrell Casey for QB sacks.
Still, the person that everyone will be watching from start to finish is QB Marcus Mariota. He’s in year number five, and that’s the year when the team must decide whether to take the next step and pay him as a franchise QB or cut him loose and start over. The addition of veteran Ryan Tannehill was both as a safety measure and possible bridge QB should Mariota not stay healthy or not have the kind of year that encourages the Titans to move ahead and re-sign him.
No one wants to see that happen, but the Titans know they can’t afford to assume it won’t. It’s doubtful Mariota plays much against the Eagles, and probably won’t play at all in the final preseason game. It’s games two and three against the Patriots and Steelers at Nissan Stadium that should provide a better read on what kind of year may be in store. He’ll have to have a good one for the Titans to prove the naysayers wrong. With three of the first four games on the road, including the opener at Cleveland and then the Indianapolis Colts in the home opener the first two weeks (September 8 and 15), fans should discover in a hurry just how good the Titans either will or won’t be this season.