During the 2016 NFL season, the Tennessee Titans offensive line was heralded as a strength of the team.
Now, two years later, that same offensive line is facing questions as to how successful it can be, and what players will be starting when the regular season begins.
The line took a step backwards last season, especially in the running game, as the Titans’ “exotic smashmouth,” wasn’t’ quite as, well, smashing as it had been in ’16.
That was a bit of an oddity as the same group of linemen from two years ago were all back last season – Ben Jones at center, Quinton Spain and Josh Kline at guards and Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin at tackles.
Now, entering 2018, there are even more questions.
First off, Lewan, whose game continues to ascend, might not be on hand at the start of training camp, depending upon what happens with his contract situation. Lewan is in his fifth-year option, and left the club after OTAs, skipping the mandatory mini-camp upon the advice of his agent. Whether a new deal – one that could potentially pay Lewan in the $15 million range – gets done and whether Lewan reports on time for camp without an extension are up in the air at the present time.
Assuming the Lewan situation is eventually worked out, the Titans still have issues at the other tackle spot, where Conklin suffered a torn ACL in January against New England, and probably begins camp on the physically unable to perform list. The big question is whether he will start the regular season there too, and be out the first six games. If his recovery is ahead of schedule, it is not out of the question that Tennessee could carry Conklin on the 53-man roster at the start and just deactivate him until he is ready.
Conklin’s absence means that swing man Dennis Kelly will start at right tackle in the interim.
The guard situation is interesting too, as both Spain and Kline were free agents at the end of last season (Spain restricted, Kline unrestricted), but both were brought back into the fold. The catch is that the Titans brought in competition in Kevin Pamphile and Xavier Su’a Filo. Both have starting experience in the league, and could snag a starting spot with a strong camp. Right now, Spain appears to be the more vulnerable of the two, but when Lewan was missing, Spain bumped outside to play left tackle in his absence.
At center, Jones had his ups and downs a year ago, after solidifying the middle in 2016. The Titans need him to bounce back to his 2016 level and anchor the center spot.
Depth-wise, whoever loses out in the guard competition will back up on the interior and possibly outside as well. Once Conklin returns, Kelly will slide back into his backup role too. The other option is second-year pro Corey Levin, the only true backup center on the roster, though Pamphile and Kline can play there in a pinch.
If everything comes together, there is no reason that the Titans offensive line can’t turn the clock back to 2016 and be a dominant entity for the offense. But it won’t necessarily just happen as they are in the process of learning a new offense, and a more zone-oriented scheme. It is one of the under-reported areas to watch in camp, just how quickly things can jell for the unit that protects Marcus Mariota and keys the run game.