2018 NFL Over-Under Win Totals: Titans could be a Super Bowl sleeper if offense clicks
Tennessee has quietly put together some serious talent on both sides of the ball
Talk me out of the Titans. Someone, please do it. I'm in love with the offseason moves made by GM Jon Robinson, even if there's a little bit of "Single White Female" to the way they're approaching the Patriots.
Robinson's squad made the playoffs last year, but he still decided to move on from Mike Mularkey, a smart move, even if the process they went through was less than ideal. (You can't let it leak someone is going to get fired for missing the playoffs, then have them make the playoffs, then have it leak they'll be fired if they lose their playoff game, then win a playoff game, then fire them after losing a playoff game. It just looks bad.) Whatever: they went through the process and came out with what should ultimately be a net positive, hiring Mike Vrabel (a former Patriots player) and bringing on Matt LaFleur and Dean Pees to help Vrabel in his first year.
The addition of Dion Lewis (a former Patriots player) should go a long way towards improving the offense, with Lewis combing with Derrick Henry to form a potent combination in the running game. Marcus Mariota not making marked improvement with a new offense would be a pretty big surprise to me, especially with some decent talent at pass catcher (Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith) and a run game. The offensive line needs to return to 2016 form, too.
The addition of Malcom Butler (a former Patriots player) should go a long way towards improving the defense, with Butler able to pair with Logan Ryan (a former Patriots player) and Adoree Jackson to form a dangerous trio of cornerbacks. Throw in Jonathan Cyprien and Kevin Byard and you're cooking with gas in the backfield. First-round pick Rashaan Evans should improve the run game out of the gate and if Harold Landry is healthy, the front seven (which also has Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey) will be better than people think.
This is a balanced team with untapped offensive upside and the potential to be sneaky on defense. The division is tough, though, and Vegas recognizes it, by.
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Early Schedule Analysis
The biggest impediment to the Titans success might be the early part of their schedule: it sets up well for them if they are ready to be good, but will be tough if they're figuring out who they are. For instance, they open against the Dolphins in Miami, a winnable game for a good team. Then they have the Texans at home, the Jaguars on the road and the Eagles at home in their next three, all of which are tough matchups. The Bills (road), Ravens (home) and Chargers (road) close out their pre-bye schedule. Woof. Three of their first four games out of their bye are on the road, with the Titans drawing the Cowboys, Colts and Texans as away games. The home game in that stretch? The Patriots in Week 10. The closing run sets up well: four of the final five games are at home. Tennessee plays the Jets, Jaguars, Giants (road), Redskins and Colts. If this team is legit and can win games early it'll have a nice opportunity to push for the playoffs late.
Why They'll Go Over
As much credit as the Bears get for being the 2018 version of the 2017 Rams, it's worth highlighting the Titans for the upgrades they made in free agency (Lewis, Butler) and the draft (Evans, Landry) and, maybe most importantly, coaching. Mike Mularkey shouldn't be buried -- he did make the playoffs -- but the offense was limited and couldn't find consistency with a run-heavy approach last year, falling to 18th in DVOA after a top-10 season in 2016. LaFleur should change that, or at least make the offense more explosive: the Rams were the NFL's top-scoring team with him as offensive coordinator last season. Sean McVay was calling the plays, but the pedigree for high-scoring offenses is still there. LaFleur served as the QB coach under Kyle Shanahan while the Redskins were a top-five offense and the Falcons were the best offense in football. Speed should be at a premium and they have the weapons to make a lethal play-action passing game work. If the offense clicks along any sort of lines like the previous offenses LaFleur worked with, this is going to be an exciting team to watch for the first few years. Defensively they don't have many weaknesses anymore; credit Robinson for using both free agency and the draft to secure weapons at multiple levels. If it makes any strides under Pees and becomes a top-half of the league team, there should be some good balance with this club. If everything clicks for both units, the upside for this team is tremendous.
Why They'll Go Under
Neither unit has to take a massive leap forward. It's easy to say the Titans offense will be substantially better, but the offensive line fell off a cliff last year (from fifth in adjusted line yards to 23rd) and Taylor Lewan is already holding out from minicamp. Mariota could have hit a ceiling (I don't think that's the case, but no one can be sure) and injuries have been a problem. The wideout group isn't elite. The offense doesn't have to be a top-tier unit. Defensively they're definitely improved, but changing coordinators can create a lack of consistency that causes issues to start the season. The Titans have a tough stretch to open the year schedule-wise, and if they don't come out semi hot, they'll need a dominant run late in order to be in the playoff conversation.
I'm too in love with the Titans additions and the changes they made from a coaching perspective not to be all over this team heading into the year. Most people are going to pick them to finish third in the division, maybe second at best. They won't be trendy but they should be and that makes me a large fan of this team.
VERDICT: OVER (8)
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