2017 NFL Preview: All aboard the Tennessee Titans' bandwagon

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Some NFL team is going to make a huge jump this season. Last season it was the Oakland Raiders. Just about every season, some team surprises us.

Step right up, Tennessee Titans.

Tennessee has come together fast, and last season was a nice growth season. Nobody expected them to go 9-7, but it didn’t seem all that fluky. Quarterback Marcus Mariota had a strong season. Running back DeMarco Murray revived his career, and rookie backup Derrick Henry looked like the real deal. The offensive line was the best in the NFL outside of Dallas (and, if you believe some metrics, even better than the Cowboys). The defense wasn’t too bad either. Tennessee finished in the top half of the league in yards per rush, yards per pass, yards per rush allowed and yards per pass allowed. The Titans were solid all around.

After improving by six wins in 2016, I think the Titans will find themselves in the playoffs this season.

If there was any complaint last season, it was that Mariota didn’t have enough help. So Tennessee fixed that this offseason. They drafted receiver Corey Davis out of Western Michigan fifth overall. Maybe that was a bit of a reach, but it was the pick obtained from last year’s brilliant trade with the Los Angeles Rams for the No. 1 overall pick. Tennessee had a surplus, and using it on the best receiver in the draft isn’t bad. Eric Decker fell in their laps in June after the New York Jets cut him. Rishard Matthews had a solid 2016 season, but he’s not a No. 1 receiver. He doesn’t have to be anymore. A position of weakness in 2016 looks pretty good now.

The key to the Titans’ resurgence, this season and for the foreseeable future, is Mariota. From Tennessee’s fifth game through its 12th, Mariota had 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. In those eight games Mariota completed 163-of-242 passes (67.4 percent) for 2,073 yards. That’s a 117.7 rating. He did all of that with one of the thinnest receiving corps in the NFL. When you hear that Mariota might turn into a star this season, know that it’s wrong. Mariota has already played like a star. Now the trick is doing it over a full season. He’ll need to prove he’s healthy after breaking his leg late last season, but that’s the only obstacle to him having a big season and being widely recognized as one of the league’s best quarterbacks.

It has been a long road for the Titans. Last season’s 9-7 record was just their second winning mark since 2008. They have missed the playoffs eight straight seasons, and have made it to the postseason just twice in 13 seasons. They haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Baltimore Ravens 20-17 on Jan. 3, 2004.

That seems to be turning around. The Titans have built a competitive roster around their fantastic young quarterback. They play in a division that remains the easiest in the NFL. When the Titans take the next step and get back to the playoffs this season, don’t be too surprised.

Marcus Mariota looks to improve upon a promising 2016 season. (AP)

The Titans knew they needed to upgrade Marcus Mariota’s targets. Corey Davis was the best receiver in this draft. Eric Decker is a consistent veteran who happened to be hurt most of last season. Receiver Taywan Taylor and tight end Jonnu Smith, both third-round picks, were good investments too. You have to respect the way the Titans attacked an obvious deficiency. The Titans added a pair of cornerbacks, free-agent Logan Ryan and first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson. Safety Johnathan Cyprien wasn’t great with the Jaguars, but he’s young and physical. Former Broncos first-round pick Sylvester Williams was added to help at defensive tackle. All of the free-agent losses were players who probably won’t be greatly missed. The Titans had a winning record last season and upgraded the roster in a big way. Grade: A

The Titans are the rare team with a young, exciting quarterback that hasn’t built its entire identity around that quarterback. The Titans’ biggest strength is a fantastic offensive line, led by tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan. Pro Football Focus ranked the Titans as the best offensive line in the NFL last season, ahead of the Dallas Cowboys. I’d still pick Dallas, but the Titans line is great too and it can push opponents around. Tennessee was third in the NFL in rushing yards and fourth in yards per carry last season. That’s why it was no surprise Tennessee was fourth in the NFL with 476 rushing attempts. DeMarco Murray rushed for 1,287 yards and Derrick Henry came off the bench for 490 yards on just 110 carries. This is a run-based team that just happens to have a future star at quarterback. The Titans have put Mariota in a great spot. He doesn’t need to do everything for Tennessee to win.

The defense, with legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau, was competitive last season but not great. It’s a defense that allowed Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles to throw for 325 yards – by far his best game in a terrible season – in a 38-17 loss late in the season. Cornerback play was an issue, and the Titans hope they have fixed that. But if the Titans don’t improve as a team, it’s probably because the defense posts another below average season.

It’s probably not smart to brush aside concerns about Marcus Mariota’s health. He has finished both of his NFL seasons on injured reserve. He broke his right leg in late December and he was still rehabbing it in mid-June. Mariota sounded like he was on the right track when he spoke to reporters after a minicamp practice on June 14.

“I think from a strength standpoint I’m good. I’ve been doing everything lifting-wise. My body feels at a point where I can do all those things,” Mariota said, according to Jason Wolf of the Tennessean. “Now it’s getting to the point of trusting myself to do it, because a lot of it, even through this entire rehab process, it’s going through that mental obstacle of, you want to protect it.

“Now it’s good; you’ve done everything. Just trust it, that you can do the movements that you’ve been doing. For me, that’s my next step. I’ve got to just go out and do it.”

That sounds great, but Mariota needs to prove he’s healthy in training camp. Then he needs to show he can stay healthy over a full season.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is the best defensive player the Titans have. Pro Football Focus’ grades placed Casey as the 71st best player in the NFL last season. Casey is a disruptor in the middle, especially rushing the quarterback. He has made two straight Pro Bowls and at 27 is still squarely in his prime. If the Titans defense moves to above average, it might be because Casey was closer to his 2013 sack total of 10.5 than the five he posted last season.

From Yahoo Sports’ Andy Behrens: “Marcus Mariota has pretty much every individual trait we like to see in a QB for fantasy purposes, and he now has a loaded receiving corps at his disposal. Not only did the Titans add Corey Davis, the consensus top receiver in the 2017 draft class, but they also managed to pluck Eric Decker from the discard pile. Decker is one of the best red-zone receivers of this era. Don’t be a bit surprised if Mariota delivers a top-five positional finish in his third NFL season. He’s accurate, mobile and he limits turnovers. Mariota is also a year younger than Carson Wentz, so he’s still a young, ascending talent, directing a fun offense.” 

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Titans]

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DeMarco Murray led the NFL in carries by a wide margin with the 2014 Dallas Cowboys. After getting almost 500 touches (including postseason) that season, Murray’s yardage dropped 1,143 yards in 2015 with the Philadelphia Eagles. That was the biggest drop ever for a reigning rushing champ. Murray looked like he might be prematurely on the back nine of his career, but he wasn’t. Tennessee struck gold on a low-cost trade, as Murray bounced right back to being one of the best running backs in the NFL. If there’s an issue, it’s the 293 carries Murray got last season. That ranked third in the NFL. Eventually these huge workloads will catch up with Murray. The Titans hope it’s not this year, though they have Derrick Henry ready if Murray slips.

WHAT’S A REASONABLE EXPECTATION FOR ERIC DECKER?

Decker’s 2016 was an injury-filled mess. He played just three games due to shoulder and hip injuries, and had just nine catches for 194 yards. He has turned 30 years old, so a bounce-back to his previous levels isn’t a sure thing, even if he stays healthy. Decker got just $4 million on a one-year deal from Tennessee, which is an indication teams are wary. But Decker had at least 80 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns three times in a four-season stretch before 2016. Even if Decker doesn’t reach those levels again, he can still be valuable to the Titans. It’s not ideal to rely on any rookie as a No. 1 option, even if he’s as talented as Corey Davis. Decker’s arrival means less pressure on Davis while he learns, and that will probably be a good thing.

Nobody figured on the Raiders improving by five games last season and leading the AFC West when Derek Carr got hurt. The Titans won’t improve by five wins (what a story that would be), but you can see some similarities. And the Titans play in a much easier division than last year’s Raiders. The Titans look like the best team in the AFC South, and their schedule is pretty easy (the sixth easiest in the NFL, according to analyst Warren Sharp). If everything comes together it’s not crazy to believe they could be in the mix for a first-round bye … kind of like the Raiders were last season.

While the Titans’ arrow seems like it’s pointed up, teams that make a huge leap often regress the next season. The Titans won two games in 2014, three in 2015 and nine last season. They also posted a 4-0 record in games decided by three points or less, and that’s fluky. As much as I like the Titans this season, there’s good reason to believe they were out over their skis last year and are due for a correction. That would be tough for a fan base that hasn’t had much to cheer for in a long time.

Whenever I’ve been asked who this year’s surprise team will be, the Titans have always been my answer. I believe Marcus Mariota is the most underrated quarterback in the NFL. I don’t think the Titans’ offensive line is as good as Dallas’ line, but it’s elite. The defense is not great but not weighing Tennessee down either. And Tennessee plays a favorable schedule in a division that has no other top-shelf team. Maybe the Titans don’t quite reach 2016 Raiders levels, but picking them to win the AFC South was easy for me. If everything goes right, the Titans could pile up wins in an easy division while the AFC West and AFC North cannibalize each other, and Tennessee could end up in the hunt for a top-two seed. Tennessee has done a great job building the roster, and this is the year it starts to pay off.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!