By Terry McCormick
With the 2016 season in the books for the Tennessee Titans, it is time to begin analyzing the roster for the coming season. TitanInsider.com will go through each position group to look at where the team is sound and where there are likely to be roster moves.
Let’s start by looking at the most important position on the field – quarterback.
In two seasons, Marcus Mariota has shown every sign of becoming the Titans’ first franchise quarterback since Steve McNair.
You need only see how the franchise did at the position between McNair’s departure in 2006 and Mariota’s arrival in 2015 to see just how important stability at the quarterback position is.
The Titans tried several times through the draft to address the issue – using first-round picks on Vince Young and Jake Locker, only to have them flame out and not earn a second contract. They tried the “diamond in the rough” way with Zach Mettenberger, and that also failed.
In between, there were plenty of stop-gap quarterbacks who manned the offense with varying degrees of success. Kerry Collins oversaw the Titans’ 13-3 season in 2008, and Matt Hasselbeck played well for the most part in 2011 while serving as a placeholder for Locker. Even Ryan Fitzpatrick, forced into action in 2013 after Locker was injured, had a few moments of good mixed with a few moments of bad.
But none of those quarterbacks, whether drafted or brought in as a free agent, were on the trajectory that Mariota is on after just two years. This season, he completed 276 of 451 passes for 3,426 yards, becoming the Titans’ first 3,000-yard passer since Hasselbeck five years ago He also threw 26 touchdown passes to just 11 interceptions. That TD pass number is the highest for any quarterback with the franchise since Warren Moon had 33 in 1990.
His impeccable work in the red zone, where he still has yet to throw his first interception there, indicates that Mariota is on the fast track to becoming a true franchise QB. His run of eight straight games with two more touchdown passes is also indicative of that.
There are still plenty of things that can be improved upon for Mariota. There were a handful of games this season where he appeared out of rhythm and struggled to move the offense, including the key loss in Jacksonville. Perhaps some of that will correct itself as he gains experience and the supporting cast continues to improve. There is also the fumbling issue, which was with Mariota even in college. It is something that got better through the course of the season, but likely will still be somewhat of an issue from time to time.
You need only compare Mariota’s numbers to Young’s and Locker’s to see that his ceiling is much higher than those two former first-rounders. In 27 career games (five missed due to injury), Mariota has thrown for 6,224 yards with 45 touchdowns to 19 interceptions, while completing 61.1 percent of this throws.
Young, in five years with the Titans, which included 54 games and 47 starts, completed just 57.8 percent of his throws, passed for 8,098 yards. He also had fewer touchdown passes (42) and more than twice as many interceptions (42) as Mariota does in just two years.
As for Locker, whose career was derailed by injuries, four years amounted to just 30 games with 23 starts. He threw for 4,967 yards, a total that included 27 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions.
By all indications, Mariota is solid. So what about the backup position?
There is a fairly likely possibility that the status for 2017 could be like it was in 2016. Matt Cassel is a free agent, who came to the Titans on a one-year deal. But there is the belief that the Titans will entertaining bringing him back again, as he performed OK in starting the season finale against Houston and helping the Titans to a win. Cassel is the type of quarterback who needs a good line, and a good running game, which the Titans have both, and some help from his receivers, which he got from Rishard Matthews in the Titans’ final game. Besides, having an experienced voice in the quarterback room is something most teams like to have.
As for Alex Tanney, who spent most of the year on the practice squad, he turned out the Browns’ bid to put him on their active roster to stay in Tennessee. That indicates that he could have some future in Tennessee. But Tanney is getting to the age where something must break for him one way or the other. He turns 30 in November, not exactly the prime age for grooming a young quarterback for a No. 2 role. Tanney could be in the plans again, but probably needs to earn his keep in preseason like he did in 2016.
Starter: Marcus Mariota.
Backups: Matt Cassel (free agent), Alex Tanney
Will QB be addressed in free agency: Only if Cassel is not brought back to be the No. 2.
Will QB be addressed in the draft: Probably not, unless a late-rounder or undrafted free agent is brought in to develop as a long-term backup.