On the 2019 Tennessee Titans

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans, as you might have guessed from the title.

Yes, it’s time for my annual season preview post, in which I give some reasons why the Titans might finish with a better or worse record and eventually end up predicting a particular record. Sometimes this goes okay, and sometimes it doesn’t. Last year, I predicted 8-8, felt like I had missed high in the middle of the season, and ended up missing low by a game. The previous season, I correctly forecasted a 9-7 record and a return trip to the playoffs. The year before that, not so well. The two seasons before that, well, my season predictions got Ken Whisenhunt’d almost like they were a Titans quarterback.

Anyway, what to think about this year’s Tennessee Titans? I was back to covering them for Football Outsiders Almanac, so those of you who read the 2019 version knew I took their idea of “good to great” and tried to look at the team through the prism of Jim Collins’ classic business book of the same title. But my original conception for how I was going to write this post was as an extended riff on the possible Straussian readings of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. I eventually decided (a) even for me, that would be a little too much and (b) to really do justice to the conceit, I’d have to re-read the book and I didn’t have time for that, so I abandoned that idea. But for purposes of my FOA chapter, I just accepted the premise that the Titans were going from good to great. For this post, I’ll start in a different place than the Titans’ three consecutive season records of 9-7.

Pt Diff Pyth Wins Est Wins DVOA
2016 +3 8.1 8.7 3.5% (15th)
2017 -22 7.4 7 -5.7% (18th)
2018 +7 8.2 7.7 -4.9% (20th)

What this table says is that the Titans trying to good to great are starting in the wrong place. By any sort of more sophisticated measure, it’s hard to say the Titans have been anything other than very average the past three seasons. They haven’t outscored their opponents on net. They haven’t performed that well in the key facets of the game that lead to victory (Est. Wins is Football Outsiders’ Estimated Wins, which predicts record based on performance in those particular facets like red zone play that lead more directly to wins than overall DVOA) (I write for FO perma-disclaimer). They haven’t played that well overall. The Titans are instead trying to go from average to somewhere better than that.

The second key aspect of the Titans season is that they’re trying to go from average to somewhere else with, by NFL standards, pretty much the same team. Compare the 2018 Tennessee Titans to the 2019 Tennessee Titans, and where are they different? Ryan Tannehill is a significant upgrade at backup quarterback, but as lousy as Blaine Gabbert was, he only played 211 snaps. Who did the Titans lose that played as many as 300 snaps, and who might they have added this offseason that should play at least 300 snaps? Here’s a rough approximation:

Lost: Josh Kline (975), Derrick Morgan (534), Brian Orakpo (575), Quinton Spain (858), Luke Stocker (476), Taywan Taylor (446)

Added: A.J. Brown, Nate Davis (maybe), Amani Hooker (very doubtful IMO), Adam Humphries, Rodger Saffold, Brent Urban (probably?), Cameron Wake

So outside of wide receiver and guard, the Titans are basically the same team they were last year. I know, “where’s Delanie Walker? Where’s Kevin Pamphile?” They were both on the team last year, but both missed the snap threshold due to injury. But I’m reluctant to count injured players because there will always be injuries. It’s not “adding Delanie Walker” but rather “Delanie Walker missed last year but somebody else will probably get hurt this year.” Mike Vrabel talks a lot about injuries, and his habit of giving players established and not maintenance days was a big highlight of pre-regular season coverage. By FO’s Adjusted Games Lost stat, the Titans were more injured on both offense and defense than they were in either of Mike Mularkey’s two seasons as head coach. The expected number of injuries is not zero.

Back to my point, Jon Robinson highlighted wide receiver and guard (and backup QB) as positions that needed to be changed. And one of the players there, Spain, was actually pretty good at his job, it’s just that Saffold is better at one thing they view as a key aspect for what they’re trying to do (make second-level blocks). Wide receiver, coming into the season, the depth was in my view clearly inadequate so he was just making up for a mistake. That’s an actual upgrade, but unless Brown is a great player after missing most of the pre-season process, it’s hard to see this unit being better than league average at best. And that’s the external case for the Titans being a whole lot different than the team they were last year.

The “good to great” mantra then, as wrongly-conceived as it is, gets at the point that whether the Titans are a better team than the average squad they’ve been for the past couple years depends on internal improvement. With teams hardly trying at all during the preseason, and gameplanning even less, judging internal improvement off what I as a guy not in Nashville am able to see is a fool’s exercise. I’m excited about the things I’ve heard about how Harold Landry looks better and has developed an inside counter move, but I haven’t seen him at all this preseason. I saw ESPN beat writer Turron Davenport describe the improvement in Corey Davis’ game, but preseason isn’t the place to judge whether he has taken the next step from a player who may play extremely well one week and virtually disappear the next (NE-IND last year, for example) to a consistent 16-game threat. At FO, we normally predict offensive coordinator changes to result in some tradition, and Arthur Smith is new. But maybe by keeping the same system it really will be more like a “normal” second year under Matt LaFleur’s system and the offense has a chance to explode. Maybe Dean Pees can get the defense to playing in DVOA how good people think it is by conventional statistics like points and yards allowed (eh). Maybe, maybe, maybe.

What concerns me most, as normal, are the potential disaster areas. A long-term Mariota injury should be survivable, unlike past seasons. Derrick Henry reverting to the back he was the first 2.5 seasons of his career would be trouble, especially with how the Titans want to play. OT depth doesn’t look great during Taylor Lewan’s suspension and will be a constant issue the first four weeks. I don’t know if Arthur Smith will even try to play modern NFL offense or if he’ll listen to Vrabel and the Titans will go as run-heavy as they did last year (why did they abandon the pass game? Marcus? Marcus injury? lack of WRs? philosophy?). I don’t know how they get any pass rush out of the defensive line if Jurrell Casey goes down. The floor at OLB counting on an aging Wake and big jumps by Landry and fellow second-year man Sharif Finch is way lower than it was last year. Will Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson play like their reputations say they can play, or like they did last year?

The probable answer, as is almost always the case, is we’ll get a mixed bag. Some things will go well, others will not. The Titans will try to fix some of the problems and hope some of the others will fix themselves on their own. The schedule gets tougher. Post-Luck retirement, FO playoff odds have them as slight AFC South favorites. My guess is that either Houston or Jacksonville gets their act together enough to have a decent season (both teams have higher ceilings and lower floors than the Titans do IMO) and the Titans probably finish at 8-8 and second in the AFC South.

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Tennessee Titans 2019 Roster Prediction as Training Camp Opens

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

For the past decade-plus, around the start of training camp, I have predicted which players the Tennessee Titans would keep when they cut down the roster to 53. I may only be writing a couple posts a year about the Titans, but this is an interesting enough exercise, and one that allows me to comment on enough parts of the team, to keep it up.

The intro, cribbed from past attempts at the task:

Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp (or thereabouts), I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests. Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I got 43 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of the misses, Kamalei Correa was acquired via trade after my roster prediction, while injuries screwed me up in the defensive backfield, with Johnathan Cyprien, Kalan Reed, and Tye Smith all going on injured reserve after I made my prediction. But my guessing at positional mix elsewhere was off and I also flubbed my WR analysis. So, here’s a chance to do better.

This task is complicated by a first-time offensive coordinator in Arthur Smith, who unlike Matt LaFleur does not have strong connections to a specific coaching tree whose history may assist in making predictions. There’s a lot more continuity on defense in the second year of Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees, but offense is more guesswork. Here’s what last year’s Titans offense looked like as of Week 1:

QB: 2
RB/FB: 3
WR: 6
TE: 4
OL: 9

And here’s the defense as of Week 1 of last year:

DL: 5
LB: 11
DB: 10

Looking at Pees’ prior numbers, that’s a lot of LBs in particular and not as many DBs as he as many kept some seasons. These numbers, especially on offense, are meant as rough guidelines to keep us from going crazy, not set in stone.

First-round pick Jeffery Simmons is current on the Non-Football Injury list, recovering from his pre-draft ACL tear. I am assuming he will not be on the 53-man roster to start the season. I am also assuming that Taylor Lewan will be suspended for the first game. Thus, there will be 55 names on this list to account for the 53 spots. On with the show.

QB (2): Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill
Analysis: Is there room for a third quarterback, and will the Titans be compelled to keep Logan Woodside? Not without either Marcus or Tannehill carrying an injury at the time, in my view.

RB (3): David Fluellen, Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis
Analysis: What happens if Derrick Henry gets hurt, and who becomes to lead ball carrier if that happens, especially if Fluellen is much bigger for playing more of a hybrid FB-type role? Is there a need for a fourth back on the roster for that purpose? I thought there might be a spot last year for a Lewis replacement, but I don’t see enough of a pedigree for a back on the roster unless, say, Alex Barnes has a spectacular camp and preseason. (I’ve never been a Jeremy McNichols fan.)

WR (6): A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, Darius Jennings, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor
Analysis: Ideally, the top three will be Brown, Davis, and Humphries. Who gets the fourth spot? My view is that Taylor is the best fit there, to give them the vertical stretch element if Smith is keeping that aspect of LaFleur’s offense. Jennings is primarily a special teams player, and while kickoff returner isn’t as valuable as it used to be, he was really good at it last year. Sharpe’s versatility earns him likely an inactive fill-in role.

TE (4): Ryan Hewitt, MyCole Pruitt, Jonnu Smith, Delanie Walker
Analysis: First question: just what kind of shape is Jonnu Smith in? MCL injuries don’t normally take this long. Cory Curtis reported it was actually a torn ACL, but I don’t believe that’s been seconded. Jim Wyatt’s indications haven’t been optimistic about his early readiness. I’m leaving him on the 53 Week 1 because the alternative is missing the first six weeks, but keeping Hewitt over Anthony Firkser as a more experienced and better blocker in the H-back role. Pruitt is penciled in for the Luke Stocker mini-tackle role that Lee Smith should’ve been signed to fill, goshdarnit.

OL (9+1): Jack Conklin, Nate Davis, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan (suspended), Tyler Marz, Kevin Pamphile, Austin Pasztor, Rodger Saffold
Analysis: Starters: [Kelly/Lewan]-Saffold-Jones-Pamphile-Conklin looks like the combination. With Kelly in the starting lineup, you need a veteran tackle as the gameday backup. I have Austin Pasztor as the favorite for that spot. The interior swing backup is Corey Levin, whom they seem to like, though Hroniss Grasu might have a chance to beat him out. Nate Davis will replace Pamphile as a starter eventually. They added two starting guards in the offseason, so I see no need to create a roster spot for Aaron Stinnie. The question then is whether there’s room for a ninth. I decided there was, and give it to Tyler Marz.

DL (5): Jurrell Casey, Matt Dickerson, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Jeffery Simmons (not on 53), Brent Urban
Analysis: I won’t be concerned about Casey being on PUP for another month, unless I hear new reason to be. I hadn’t bought into the reports that Austin Johnson may be on the roster bubble until Jim Wyatt’s DL preview recently, where he listed Johnson v. others as a battle to watch. That’s partly because the other names are a bunch of scrubs I’d typically file under roster flotsam and jetsam, some more intriguing to other people UDFAs past and present. Cutting a second-round pick heading into his fourth season, when he should be one of your most valuable players relative to his cap cost, would be awful. Maybe, and that’s the kind of area where I was wrong last year.

LB (11): Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Kamalei Correa, Rashaan Evans, Sharif Finch, Harold Landry, David Long, Derick Roberson, Cameron Wake, D’Andre Walker, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: As in the past, I’m grouping inside and outside linebackers together even though they’re separate positions (though OLB Correa did play ILB for Pees in Baltimore).

The Titans went heavier here last year, and I’m relatively heavy again. At the time of the draft, I speculated Bates and Long might be in a battle for one roster spot, but I’m keeping both of them. Part of that is because I’m down on other candidates like Riley Bullough, but I think they could find room.

At OLB, it feels like there are four locks in Finch, Landry, Wake, and Walker. I’m bothered by inexperience with a rookie and two second-year players, so I gave the fifth spot to Correa while also keeping Roberson.

I don’t need to solve the “how do you distribute snaps between Jayon, Evans, and Woodyard” for purposes of this post, so I won’t address that.

DB (10): Malcolm Butler, Just A Well-Paid Fan Who Gets To Wear #31 And Make The All-Pro Team For Some Reason, Dane Cruikshank, Kenneth Durden, Amani Hooker, Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, LeShaun Sims, Tye Smith, Kenny Vaccaro
Analysis: Four locks at safety between Byard, Cruikshank (primarily a special teams player), Hooker, and Vaccaro. I don’t see a need to find a spot for a fifth.

Butler, Jackson, Ryan, and Sims feel like locks. The other spots are mostly guesswork. Smith was one of the injured players from last year’s season prediction, while Durden was a surprise make.

ST (3): Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, and I’ll start worrying about Succop if he’s still on PUP in a month.

Where will I be wrong?
1. Positional mix. I’m off by a spot or two at a position or two most seasons.
2. Uncertainty on offense, in terms of positional mix, evaluations of current players, and desired attributes at particular positions.
3. Special teams. I may not have the right number of R2/R3 v. R4/R5.
4. They’ll inevitably make a roster move or four, whether because of injury or to add depth at one position or another.
5. I haven’t seen any of these players play since December, and some not since last preseason or hardly at all even then. I read media reports, but I don’t have the same insight into which players have improved much outside of the public eye as coaches do.
6. There are a number of positions where they could plausibly keep one of several players I have as borderline, preferring say Josh Kalu’s versatility to play both corner and safety over Durden’s special teams ability.
7. As noted, last year indicated I overvalued experienced veterans over thinly experienced players. I’ve tried to correct for that here, but there are precisely the sorts of players that need to be seen next to each other to be evaluated most correctly, so I’m probably still doing it.
8. I’m a guy who sits on his couch and makes stuff up. People who talk to people who work inside St. Thomas Sports Park may know important things I do not. I also do not think like Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel but they’re the ones in charge of this project, so I try to think like I think they might think, and without that “talking to people” check, so I end up going on quixotic crusades no matter how much I try not to. Thus, getting 48 of 53 right is a performance I would be very happy with given all the other stuff.

On my roster prediction, not on Turron Davenport’s (pre-Lewan suspension): Daren Bates, Kenneth Durden, Austin Pasztor, MyCole Pruitt
On Davenport’s, not on mine: Anthony Firkser, Isaiah Mack, Aaron Stinnie

On my roster prediction, not on Eric Bacharach’s (post-Lewan suspension but 53 + Simmons anyway?): Daren Bates, Kenneth Durden, Ryan Hewitt, Austin Pasztor, Derick Roberson
On Bacharach’s, not on mine: Alex Barnes, Riley Bullough, Anthony Firkser, Aaron Stinnie

Tennessee Titans 2019 Draft Preview by Position

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. I hope to have another up relatively soon, though since I’m covering the Titans for Football Outsiders Almanac 2019 those thoughts may end up in there. 

One of the staples of my pre-draft coverage for years has been a draft preview by position, including a breakdown of what the Titans have at each position, what they might be looking for, and a probability the Titans draft a player at that position. Because I’m only doing one pre-draft post per year, I will also note the players the Titans have reportedly have had a private workout and/or a visit with (via Titans Report compilation).

Three of the four players the Titans drafted in 2018 they worked out privately and/or had in to St. Thomas Sports Park on a pre-draft visit, and the same was true of every player they selected in 2017. It’s clear that general manager Jon Robinson places a lot of value on that pre-draft contact, and it is worth taking seriously. Of course, we haven’t known about all the visits or workouts of players the Titans would draft before they actually selected that player, so the listing of linked players in this post does not include the entire universe of players the Titans could draft. Still, it has been a useful guide in the past to players and positions the Titans might target.

Mandatory mention for this post: the Titans currently hold 6 picks in the 2019 NFL draft (their own picks in the first five rounds, plus Miami’s sixth-round pick acquired in the Ryan Tannehill trade). To make my probabilities as realistic as possible, I want the sum of the draft probabilities to add up to a number reasonably close to the number of picks the Titans have when I write the post. Last year, that was 5.5 for 6 picks. This year, I chose 5.5. I know, 5.5 is still short of 6, but it puts me in the ballpark. If my probabilities for a position look off to you, it may be a function of trying to work within that limited cap. If you think I am underrating the likelihood the Titans draft, say, a cornerback, then I must by definition be overrating the likelihood the Titans draft some other position(s). Mentally adjust as you see fit, but your adjustment should be net zero.

If things go like they have in the past, the Titans will hit all but one of the positions I think they have them rated as pretty likely to draft while hitting one of the position I think it less likely they will draft.

I should note that, as much as I can, this post attempts to describe what the Titans might think based on how I think the Titans might think. Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel will be setting the direction and making the decisions for the team, so I try to think how they would think. What I would do if I ran the Titans is (a) in some cases quite different and (b) completely irrelevant in terms of predicting what the Titans will do. This task is made more complicated this year given that Arthur Smith is a first-time offensive coordinator. I often feel like I’m guessing more than I want to be in this post, and this year is no different.

On with the show.

Quarterback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Marcus Mariota is the starter. Ryan Tannehill is the backup. Do the Titans want to commit to carrying a third quarterback? The long-term uncertainty at QB, with Mariota and Tannehill out of contract after this season says yes. The idea that a late-round QB from this year might affect what they do at starter next year seems pretty unlikely, and the 2014 selection of Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round when I thought it was asinine and wrong is an example of that. But Mike Vrabel has said he’d like a third quarterback, so I can’t rule it out.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Eric Dungey, Amir Hall, T.J. Linta, John Lovett (alt: H-back/Taysom Hill), David Pindell (alt: WR)

Running Back
Need at position: Moderate-low?
Analysis: Is Derrick Henry actually good? He was very good the second half of last season, so … maybe? Either way, he seems in line for a major role unless he shows he doesn’t deserve one (as was the case the first two and a half years of his career in my view). Dion Lewis is the change of pace and should have a significant role. David Fluellen is a decent three who plays special teams. But a Henry injury might be crippling to a run-oriented team, Lewis seems likely to get cut after this year, and Fluellen is a guy, so you could definitely find a roster space for a player if you wanted to. Maybe on day three.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Alex Barnes, Darrell Henderson, Miles Sanders, Trayveon Williams

Wide Receiver
Need at position: Moderate to high
Analysis: Corey Davis is starting. Free agent signee Adam Humphries plays in the slot. But who will play opposite Davis in most 2 WR packages? Is it Tajae Sharpe, who can’t win against man coverage? Is it Taywan Taylor? Is it “new draft pick”? Is Jon Robinson fine going into another season with a thin receiver group after l’affaire Rishard Matthews destroyed last year’s marginal depth and probably led Matt LaFleur to junk some of what he wanted to do? Isn’t what the Titans really need a veteran receiver with this young group? Does Robinson want a big upgrade here, after his failed pursuit of Brandin Cooks and Antonio Brown? A possibility anywhere.
Draft probability: 80%
Linked players: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Marquise Brown, Jamal Custis, Ashton Dulin, Emanuel Hall, Gary Jennings, Diontae Johnson (alt: RET), Deebo Samuel, Jeff Smith

Tight End
Need at position: Low?
Analysis: Assuming he comes back from injury with no issues, Delanie Walker will play a lot. Assuming he comes back from injury with no issues, Jonnu Smith will probably play some and was better as a blocker last year so could complement Walker better. Anthony Firkser may be just a guy, but he’s a decent depth F. Maybe they could look for a blocker to replace Luke Stocker, or insurance/replacement for Delanie. But I certainly don’t see it as likely to be a priority.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Kendall Blanton, Jace Sternberger

Offensive Tackle
Need at position: Low?
Analysis: Set at one starter with Taylor Lewan. Set at the other starter with Jack Conklin. A quality third tackle capable of filling in in Dennis Kelly. So why the heck are the Titans talking to players like Andre Dillard, Greg Little, and Tytus Howard they’d probably have to draft in the first round? Maybe Conklin gets traded (my policy is to never predict player trades unless there’s a report they’re available). Maybe Conklin gets moved inside. Maybe they think the Texans are taking Dillard or Howard and wanted to know the player. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It may be best to think of this percentage lumped together with OG/C and declare the Titans are taking at least one OL, and maybe it’ll be a guy to play RG or RT now or next year.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Yodny Cajuste, Andre Dillard, Greg Little, Max Scharping, Tytus Howard

Offensive Guard/Center
Need at position: Moderate to high
Analysis: Rodger Saffold got paid a bunch of money to play left guard. The Titans like Ben Jones and what he means to them a lot more than you might. They could decide to get away with a third starter, maybe an interior trio of Jones-Corey Levin-Saffold or Saffold-Jones-Aaron Stinnie or Saffold-Jones-Kevin Pamphile. But Jon Robinson did say in March that he liked this offensive line draft class, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the Titans took a Garrett Bradbury or Chris Lindstrom at #19. In the first three rounds, probably.
Draft probability: 80%
Linked players: Nate Davis, Chris Lindstrom, Dru Samia

Defensive Line
Need at position: High
Analysis: The Titans at DL right now have Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, and not much else. They went thin at the group last year, most playing those three plus Bennie Logan, and Logan is gone. To get what they had last year, they need to add a nose tackle type. If they want to upgrade the interior pass rush (which I’m a little more skeptical of than most people are), that’s probably coming from a different player. A possibility in the first, but I’m thinking two in the middle rounds is more likely.
Draft probability: 90% chance of one, 40% chance of a second
Linked players: Miles Brown, Kingsley Keke, Adrian Middleton, Ed Oliver (alt: OLB?), Chris Slayton, Ray Smith, Jerry Tillery, Renell Wren

Outside Linebacker
Need at position: High
Analysis: Cameron Wake will play some, though preferably only a limited amount given he’s pretty old for a pass rusher. Harold Landry will play a lot. Are the Titans prepared to count on Sharif Finch as a starter playing 700+ snaps after he played 206 as a rookie (Kamalei Correa ain’t starting)? I can’t see it happening. In the first two rounds, almost certainly.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Zach Allen, Jessie Aniebonam, Brian Burns, L.J. Collier, Maxx Crosby, Jaylon Ferguson, Clelin Ferrell, Joe Jackson, Kyle Phillips, Jachai Polite, Derick Roberson, Anree Saint-Armour, Sione Takitaki

Inside Linebacker
Need at position: Low
Analysis: They’re confident with their top three of Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans, and Wesley Woodyard. Daren Bates is a special teams player. Sure, Woodyard’s probably in his final season, at least in Tennessee, but that’s a problem that can easily be addressed next season. If the right player is there at the right price, sure. But I can’t see this being a priority.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Otara Alarka, Blake Cashman, Dre Greenlaw, Connor Strachan

Cornerback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: They’re confident with their top three of Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson, and Logan Ryan. You could do worse at fourth and fifth corner than LeShaun Sims (though don’t play him in the slot, please) and Tye Smith, and they have recently. Sure, maybe you could move Ryan to safety, but you’re set there, and you address his potential departure after this year next year, if he does leave. I’m not ruling this out, but I don’t see this as any sort of priority.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Derrick Baity, Sean Bunting, Lonnie Johnson, Jimmy Moreland, Isaiah Wharton, Joejuan Williams

Safety
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Kevin Byard’s going to get paid, probably in August. Kenny Vaccaro just got paid. Dane Cruikshank showed he can be a good special teams player and is in his second year in the system, so they don’t have to sign Kendrick Lewis as a backup. But teams normally carry four, so there’s room here.
Draft probability: 40%
Linked players: Dereon Carr, Mike Edwards, Cameron Glenn, Will Harris, Amani Hooker, Darnell Savage, Marvell Tell, Juan Thornhill

Some Macro-Level Thoughts

1. A repeated note from past drafts: Jon Robinson values not draft picks, but using the draft capital he has to select players he wants. Since the Jared Goff trade, in three drafts he has moved up in the first five rounds of the draft five times and has not traded back (he has traded back late in the draft, but that’s basically an early start on undrafted free agency).

2. Jon Robinson has spent his early draft picks on players with an immediate role on the team. This hasn’t always been that significant of a role-second-round picks Austin Johnson and Derrick Henry only played so many snaps as rookies in 2016, but they filled a vacant role on the team (or in Henry’s case push David Cobb out of his). If you don’t see a clear path to potential playing time as a rookie, the Titans aren’t taking him early.

3. Some draft picks are comments about particular players on the roster, and I’m not sure which ones the Titans will want to knock off the roster. Wide receiver is a particular case of this-if they’re fine with Sharpe and/or Taylor playing a significant role, they’re not taking one in the first round. If they’re like me and would prefer that that not be the case, it’s a first-round option.

4. Sometimes roles can be filled by more than one player. DL is a case where I see a potential split, a single premium pick or two later picks. I think that’s an easier split, and easier to keep the right players up on gameday, than adding two OLB.

5. Special teams matters. I highlighted Diontae Johnson’s return ability, but he’s not the only one in the class. The Titans may look to get Adoree off return duties, even if Darius Jennings did do a good job returning kicks last year. In this post I concentrate on potential open roles on offense and defense, but coverage ability matters too, especially for players in the later rounds.

6. Defensive line and outside linebacker strike me as the two positions where the Titans would not be able to line up and play if the season started today, which is why I expect those to be addressed in the first three rounds of the draft. Offensive line (right guard) and wide receiver are next on the list.

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

Titans post of some sort likely coming in the next couple weeks, after they hire an offensive coordinator.

Hey, it’s my normal year-end review of what I read the past year. My first post on what I’ve been reading since last year’s year-end review. Alas, that accurately reflects the state of my reading productivity in 2018, which for various reasons I won’t go into here was pretty lousy, particularly on the football and other non-fiction fronts. But I still read a few books, and some of them may be worth discussing.

Fiction

Once again, overwhelmingly genre not worth discussing more broadly. One book I enjoyed much more than I expected to was Go by Kaneshiro Kazuki, though people who haven’t read as much on Japan may not get quite as much out of it. One trend was eighteenth century financial affairs, including Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill and a few titles from David Liss. One set of genre binge-reading was Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. I tried to make it through Cixin Liu’s trilogy beginning with The Three-Body Problem, which I enjoyed a few years ago, but stalled out on the third book and saw no reason to finish it.

Football

Once again, we wrote a book and I didn’t bother to mention it here. I did the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018. Houston was about as good as I expected, a good but not great defense and an offense around average and with some good fortune went 11-5. The Colts were towards the upper end of how good I thought they might reasonably be, particularly on defense (our projections were more bullish on that side of the ball than the general consensus, I thought).

In case you doubted I’m a horrible person, I got a pre-publication copy of ex-FO colleague Doug Farrar’s Genius of Desperation and not only have I not bothered to plug it, I’ve barely mentioned it. This is the sort of book that needed to exist, and I’m glad Doug wrote it because I wasn’t going to and I still want to nitpick a bunch of stuff in it because have I mentioned I’m a horrible person and if you think you have the slightest bit of interest in this book go ahead and buy it because it’s a book that needed to exist and I want books like this to exist and they don’t get written because people don’t buy enough football books.

I found a used copy of David Whitford’s A Payroll to Meet, which had been on my radar since the 30 for 30 on SMU, at the local library. Now of historical interest only, but recommended to the interested.

A history of the USFL is an interesting exercise these days because of the association with the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck takes the conventional route. I would have probably preferred a more structural one. In some ways the USFL’s demise was that of many other startup sports leagues, a too-weak focus on cost control and who they wanted to be and without the internal financial backing to see through franchise stability issues and remain a viable league. From this perspective, D***** T**** took advantage of that institutional weakness to try to reach his own goals, which weren’t consonant with the league’s survivability (cf the early AFL and Al Davis wanting to not merge and try to crush the NFL). Recommended to the interested.

If you’re interested in, say, the development of Rip/Liz or how he’s changed the on-field product in the NFL, Ian O’Connor’s Belichick is not the book for you. For what it is, it’s pretty good, but it’s a journalistic biography rather than a football one.

And that was all I read about football in 2018. I’ll get to Mark Leibovich’s Big Game at some point and maybe some other titles.

Non-Fiction Non-Football

Again, overwhelmingly quick hits since I’m not interested in giving long reviews.

The rare brick I finished was Jurgen Osterhammel’s Transformation of the World, which I acquired when it was a Kindle daily deal a few years ago. Follow R.Albin’s advice to read the final chapter early; I didn’t and wish I had. More conceptual than even most other Big History books, so it’s easy to see why Tyler Cowen, whose Stubborn Attachments might merit a longer review in a different project, loved it.

My eyes typically glaze over when I see blockquotes in anything. That didn’t happen a single time in Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet. That may seem like a weird bit of praise, but it reflects just how good the book is. #TeamWizard, but don’t neglect prophets just because they’ve been wrong repeatedly (my favorite part of the book was the predictions of impending worldwide famine in the 1940’s).

I’m not going to talk about that book. Or that book. Or that book. Or that book, even though I probably could if I wanted to.

Even though I agree with much of what he wrote, I was not nearly as high on Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as other people who agreed with Pinker. It reminded me of Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist, except Ridley pitched his book more toward why you should agree with him instead of Pinker’s drumbeat of data on his obvious correctness.

I probably wouldn’t talk about this book normally, but Bruce Cannon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths hit for me the sweet spot between nodding my head in agreement and wanting to yell at the author to make reading it actually worthwhile.

John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood is great and all, and he’s the perfect guy to write it because of his role in the downfall of Theranos, but after a while I got bored with it and wanted to get more of an inside Elizabeth Holmes story.

I’m not going to talk about that book either, though I have something I want to say about it.

I’m not sure what I want to write about Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, but I enjoyed the book.

My 2018 Favorites

Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.

Note this is a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. Like past lists, whether identified as “favorites” or “best,” this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2018.

I’m not sure just how much it stuck with me, but Go was probably my favorite fiction reading experience.

Aside from, of course, FOA2018, Doug Farrar’s Genius of Desperation is my pick for football book, not that any of the titles I read was bad.

Full credit to Mann and Osterhammel as the top non-fiction non-football books. Of the two, I preferred Mann, though Osterhammel’s work is the more impressive accomplishment. If anything I didn’t mention was at the same level, I would have found a way to mention it.

I didn’t finish any non-fiction books bad enough I want to single any of them out as the worst book I read in 2018. Kyle Mills’ Free Fall was the worst novel I finished, and I only did that because I was in a re-reading rut and needed something to get me out of that. I did not give up on any notable books in 2018.

Things to Read

Always and forever, way too long a list. I did at least manage to control my Amazon purchases last year, so I don’t have more physical books staring me in the face, but I still have enough book spines staring accusingly at me. I made it about halfway through Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands in the fall and other things permitting plan to finish it in February after NFL season ends. Forthcoming long airplane journeys will hopefully see me work on a couple entries in Penguin’s History of Europe series, The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back. Mainstays like Napoleon by Andrew Roberts, The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson, and War and Peace are still around. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis awaits me at the library. Neal Stephenson’s forthcoming (in June) Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is my only extant Amazon pre-order. And, of course, as always, de gustibus non est disputandum.

On the 2018 Tennessee Titans

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

Sunday, Week 1, gameday, which mean it’s time for my to prognosticate about what the Tennessee Titans might look like this year. Offense first, defense second, and then some overall thoughts.

Offense
Much of the talk about the Titans goes about Marcus Mariota. To my way of thinking, the definitive piece about him remains Eric Stoner’s piece from the before the draft dubbing him “The Task-Oriented QB.” Players improve in various areas, but they rarely change their playing identity, and my thinking about Marcus’s style hasn’t progressed from there. When he’s comfortable with the play design and what he’s asked to do fits his skills better, he can be greatly successful. To my way of thinking, Matt LaFleur matters for Mariota much more than Mariota does himself. That’s not to say that Mariota’s offseason work on throwing from a better base is not important, just that it’s not the greatest variable to me.

LaFleur’s job is made more challenging by the wide receiver depth chart. The parallel I settled on was to the Titans’ 2011 receiver group, a group that ended up completely insufficient after Kenny Britt’s torn ACL in Week 3 (don’t let your opinion of Britt now affect what he did his first two seasons, which was a lot more than Corey Davis did as a rookie). The Titans are counting on a lot from Davis, Taywan Taylor who looked lost too often as a rookie, Rishard Matthews who missed the entire preseason, Tajae Sharpe who missed all of last year, and, well, Matthews is still the only receiver on the roster who’s had at least 10 catches in multiple seasons in the NFL, so there are an awful lot of question marks here.

What strikes me the most about this is this is what the situation looked like when I wrote about it before free agency began, and Jon Robinson and company didn’t do anything to change the situation. Since then, we’ve figured out that Taywan Taylor is the guy LaFleur sees as the vertical stretch option and an outside player, Matthews missed the preseason, and well, we’re still waiting to see how it goes after the Titans joined the leaguewide trend in making preseason as boring as possible when it comes to watching starters. Depending on the growth in Davis’ and Taylor’s games, it seems like the Titans will be depending a lot on the scheme to put players in positions to be successful as they’re depending a lot on players who won’t win on physical talent. It could work, well enough. But installing an offense normally takes time. I keep going back to Matt Ryan’s comment to Kyle Shanahan in their first year together in Atlanta that they knew things would come together a lot more the next season; it did, resulting in a trip to the Super Bowl, but it did take that time. And Dan Orlovsky, who played for LaFleur in Los Angeles and spent plenty of time in the system, has stressed that it will take time for Marcus to feel perfectly comfortable in the offense.

For that reason, and others, my expectations for the Titans offense are relatively muted. They’ll stop doing some of the stupid things they were doing last year, like running so much on second downs (where they topped the league in normal situations by a considerable margin) and condensing the field with their routes, instead of spreading the field from condensed formations. But the Titans were just a frustrating offense last year because of their extreme in-game inconsistency rather than a bad one overall. The friction and the questions at wide receiver, where there’s no Eric Decker-like veteran backstop if there’s an injury or struggles, make me think another season of offense around average wouldn’t be unexpected for the Titans (and 15th is where they are in the final DVOA projections; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer).

I haven’t mentioned the run game yet. The Titans had a top ten run game by DVOA last year, and you didn’t notice most of the game because running doesn’t matter that much. My biggest question about the run game is more schematically, whether the Titans will be as much of an outside zone-focused team with everything working off of that as, say, the Gary Kubiak Texans, or whether they’ll be zone-focused but look more to inside zone. My feel from preseason is they won’t be completely outside zone-focused. The risk for that is outside zone at its best is awesome, as the 2016 Falcons showed, and not finding the right blend in a mix can be a bit of a mess, as Steve Sarkisian tries to show (that’s what he’s doing, right?). If they go outside zone heavy, then I have some concerns about Derrick Henry’s vision and decision-making consistency; it can give him the space he craves on the edge, where he can make great use of his powerful stiff-arm, but then we get into the tight end blocking edge-setting questions that were the focus of the offensive half of my season preview last year (though they do at least have Luke Stocker as an option from the start of this season). I trust Dion Lewis a bit more, and he’ll be a nice matchup piece. But it’s about the scheme and pass offense, not how effectively the Titans are able to run the ball. Probably.

Defense
The last year the Titans ranked 21st in defensive DVOA. That was their best ranking since 2011. It’s been since midseason 2010 since the Titans were a top ten defense by DVOA. Brian Orakpo, I believe it was, commented if you just look after the Texans game (the first one, against Deshaun Watson, where they gave up 57 points), the Titans were a good defense. DVOA disagrees, putting them still around average even if you remove the first four games. The Titans should have a good defense. There’s no position that stands out like wide receiver where they’re straddling a thin line between adequate and potentially a disaster. Sure, defensive line depth isn’t great, but they have four players, all acquired by at least semi-significant investments, and that’s the only position that stands out like that. It’s up to Dean Pees and Mike Vrabel to assemble the collection of investments into a really good unit. Fan grumblings about failings in some key situations aside, Pees has coordinated some pretty good defenses. Vrabel’s been around good defenses, even if his Texans unit last year wasn’t one of them.

There are a ton of micro-questions all over the roster. Who’s going to play with Casey in sub package situations, and will they provide enough pass rush now that the Titans don’t have a Karl Klug-like player? Will at least two of Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Harold Landry be healthy for every game? When will Rashaan Evans take the field, and can Will Compton or whoever takes his snaps in base personnel (I expect Jayon Brown to play sub) do enough? How will the Titans match up to the top receivers they face? Which two corners play in base, and will it be the same two every week? What kind of jump can Adoree Jackson make in year two from a player who didn’t allow many yards per play in coverage but didn’t do nearly as well by success rate? How will Pees and Vrabel address the “coverage vs. pressure” problem Dick LeBeau never managed to come close to solving last year? Should we just assume the Titans will give up 28+ points when they face a really good offense? Will there be any dime defense, like Pees and Vrabel have both been associated with in the past, or will the Titans continue to play nickel after keeping so many linebackers (both inside and outside)? Will Kamalei Correa play inside, where he did for Pees in Baltimore last year, outside, or both?

I don’t feel like I have great answers to any of those questions, or that answering them individually will give me the answer to the big question about the year’s Titans defense. Instead, it’ll be the answers to all those and other questions that answer the big question. Maybe if I’d watched enough of Pees to have as good a handle on his defense as I do on Kubiak-Shanahan (still not great, mind you, but enough to feel like I understand a little bit), I’d have a better feel for which questions are more important and which are more minor, but I haven’t and thus my uncertainty.

Overall
Maybe it’s because I just watched the NFL Network specials on last year’s Eagles, but Mike Vrabel in his first year as head coach will probably make some mistakes he won’t make in his second season. I’d feel better about his ability to make fewer mistakes if he’d spent more time in positions of increasing authority instead of four years in college, three years as an NFL position coach, and one year as an NFL coordinator. One thing I thought about him before training camp was “he’ll need 60-hour days to accomplish everything he wants to get done,” and John McClain noted in an article for Paul Kuharsky’s site that how to manage your time is often the hardest thing for first-year head coaches to learn by experience.

Whatever else Mike Mularkey did, he kept the Titans healthy. They were one of the ten healthiest teams in the league on both offense and defense in both 2016 and 2017, with three of those four units ranking in the top four. Especially at thinner positions, health is a huge benefit that isn’t evenly distributed.  It’s hard to evaluate from the outside, but anecdotally, coaches seem to matter a lot. The volume of training camp injuries is an area of at least slight concern with a new head coach, and it’s definitely something I’ll be keeping an eye on during the season. We saw with the offensive line at the end of 2012 what a rash of injuries can mean to a particular unit, with potentially dire consequences for a team. Grumbling about hamstrings aside, that hasn’t been an issue with the Titans the past two seasons.

Another thought: the Titans were a better team in 2016 then they were in 2017. Both years, they went 9-7 in the regular season. 2017’s unit made the playoffs and won a playoff game. The link between team quality, record, and postseason appearance and performance once they get there is not even and absolute. If the Titans are as good as they were last year, they probably won’t win as many games as they did last year. But they could be better. Slightly better on offense, anywhere from slightly worse to much better on defense. But on the other hand, Andrew Luck will play this year and Deshaun Watson probably won’t tear his ACL, so the AFC South should be much more competitive. Luck, good or bad, could be the difference between first place and last place. The Titans could be better than I think they’ll be, or worse than I think they’ll be, and have a better record than I think they will, or a worse record than I think they will. Give me 8-8, plus or minus two games, as the Titans’ likeliest 2018 record.

Thoughts on the Titans’ 53-Man Roster

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

I’ll have some sort of season preview up tomorrow, but wanted to get this post out of the way first.

Last Saturday, the Titans made their required cuts to take the roster from 90 to 53 players. That roster has not been subsequently adjusted, so it seems reasonably safe to assume that’s the 53 players they’ll choose 46 from for tomorrow’s game against the Miami Dolphins. I gave my thoughts on which 53 players those might be at the start of training camp, some of which were on point and others of which were not. I’ll go position by position and think about what kinds of answers the Titans gave us with their roster selections versus the answers I thought they might give us.

QB
On the roster: Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Mariota
Vs. my prediction: Same
Analysis: The question here was simple, whether Luke Falk could show enough that the Titans should carry a third quarterback on the 53. Surprising me not at all, he did not.

RB
On the roster: David Fluellen, Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis
Vs. my prediction: Akrum Wadley OUT
Analysis: With Fluellen more of a match for Henry, I thought the Titans would look to keep a fourth back that’s a better match for Lewis. But neither Wadley nor Dalyn Dawkins showed enough in the preseason (or practices, which matter more not least because there are many more of them) that they had to be on a 53, so the Titans unsurprisingly chose to add Dawkins to the practice squad and go with just the three on the 53.

WR
On the roster: Cameron Batson, Corey Davis, Darius Jennings, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor
Vs. my prediction: Batson IN, Michael Campanaro OUT, Jennings IN, Nick Williams OUT
Analysis: The same top four as I predicted, and the other two jobs went to players based on their versatility and, particularly, special teams value, as I expected but not to the players I expected. Injuries were a factor for both Campanaro (who went to IR) and Williams. Batson was one of the real surprises on the 53, because I thought the Titans would just make do at returner, especially with kick returns likely to be de-emphasized, but you do need one.

TE
On the roster: Anthony Firkser, Jonnu Smith, Luke Stocker, Delanie Walker
Vs. my prediction: Firkser IN, Phillip Supernaw OUT
Analysis: Firkser to me is one some ways the biggest surprise on the 53, or maybe more accurately the biggest puzzle. With Delanie’s new deal locking him up through 2020 and Jonnu also under contract through 2020, the Titans don’t have a need for a flex tight end you’d prefer not to play in-line until 2020 or 2021. Maybe they like his ability to develop into the kind of blocker and all-around tight end Jonnu hasn’t shown the ability to be. Maybe. I’m still figuring this one out.

OL
On the roster: Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Kevin Pamphile, Quinton Spain, Aaron Stinnie
Vs. my prediction: Stinnie IN, Cody Wichmann OUT
Analysis: There were only a couple questions here. One was whether Conklin would be close enough to returning to be on the 53 instead of staying on PUP for at least six weeks; as I expected, that was answered in the affirmative. The second was what the Titans would be looking for in a ninth offensive lineman. I had them keeping Wichmann, a more experienced player with the ability to play center, while the team surprisingly opted for UDFA Stinnie. Like Batson, Stinnie was a name that didn’t appear on 53-man roster predictions. But ninth offensive lineman is kind of a luxury spot, and if the Titans like Stinnie as a potential future starter for Quinton Spain, entering the final year of his deal, keeping him makes perfect sense.

DL
On the roster: Jurrell Casey, Matt Dickerson, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Bennie Logan
Vs. my prediction: Dickerson IN, David King OUT
Analysis: Dickerson flashed some in the preseason, and it was a surprise but not a gargantuan one to see him on the 53. But what was a surprise to me was to see him as the fifth and last defensive lineman. Only keeping five wasn’t a surprise, with a solid top four, but going with a UDFA as the fifth who will be counted on for an important role if there’s any injury at all raised my eyebrows. That goes double after Julius Warmsley had what to all appearances was a strong preseason. I still have my eye on this group for a roster move if the Titans make it through Week 1 healthy at OLB.

OLB/ILB
On the roster: Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Will Compton, Kamalei Correa, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Sharif Finch, Aaron Wallace, Wesley Woodyard
Vs. my prediction: Compton IN, Correa IN, Nate Palmer OUT, Sharif Finch IN
Analysis: In my prediction, I noted linebacker “feels like a position they could easily go overboard at again this year” like they did in keeping 11 last year. And, contrary to Pees’ and Vrabel’s history, they did go overboard there. Finch likely would have been my tenth name had I kept 10 instead of 9, while my guess is Evans’ prolonged absence after an injury early in camp is what let Compton last. Palmer was IR’d with an injury and Correa acquired via trade after the start of camp.

DB
On the roster: Malcolm Butler, Kevin Byard, Dane Cruikshank, Kenneth Durden, Adoree Jackson, Kendrick Lewis, Logan Ryan, LeShaun Sims, Brynden Trawick, Kenny Vaccaro
Vs. my prediction: Johnathan Cyprien OUT, Durden IN, Kalan Reed OUT, Tye Smith OUT, Vaccaro IN
Analysis: I wasn’t sure which of the top six CBs the Titans wouldn’t keep and left them all on my roster prediction, so of course Reed and Smith got injured to open up a spot that Durden was able to grab. I kept Lewis because I wasn’t sure that Cruikshank or Trawick would be even a short-term replacement if Cyprien or Byard went down. Sure enough, once they lost Cyp, they were fortunate enough to be able to go out and sign Vaccaro. Once the injuries happened and Durden showed out in preseason, I thought this position group clarified itself.

ST
On the roster: Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Vs. my prediction: Same
Analysis: As expected, chalk.

Where was I wrong?
1. Injuries. Campanaro, Cyprien, Palmer, Reed, and Tye Smith were all placed on injured reserve, while Nick Williams’ injury issues also likely contributed to his release.
2. Positional mix. I kept an extra running back and defensive back and did not have enough linebackers
3. Roster moves. No chance I was going to predict Correa or Vaccaro, because they weren’t on the roster when I made my (pre-camp) prediction.
4. UDFAs that play on the line of scrimmage. Because I’m not blogging regularly, I didn’t spend a couple hours watching the UDFAs, so players like Firkser, Dickerson, and Stinnie were off or completely under my radar

Tennessee Titans 2018 Roster Prediction as Training Camp Opens

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

For the past decade-plus, around the start of training camp, I have predicted which players the Tennessee Titans would keep when they cut down the roster to 53. I may only be writing a couple posts a year about the Titans, but this is an interesting enough exercise, and one that allows me to comment on enough parts of the team, to keep it up.

The intro, cribbed from past attempts at the task:

Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp, I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests. Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I got 46 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of the misses, as two of my misses were players who ended up on injured reserve and not replaced at their position, while two others were replaced by players not on the roster when I made my prediction. But my guessing at positional mix elsewhere was off (11 was a lot of LB/OLB to keep) and I also flubbed my DB analysis. So, here’s a chance to do better.

This task is complicated by a new coaching staff, including new schemes, and new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The head coach has a background on the defensive side of the ball, but was only a coordinator for one year. The defensive coordinator has a slightly different history (and a lot of recent positional mix changes). The offensive coordinator has never run his own offense before. Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau had a long history to look back on that aided in making all sorts of predictions about the future. This is more guesswork. Here’s what the offenses that have employed Matt LaFleur the last three seasons have looked like as of Week 1:

QB: 2 (2x), 3
RB: 3
FB: 0, 1 (2x)
WR: 6 (2x), 7
TE: 2, 3, 4
OL: 9 (2x), 10

And here’s the past three years of Dean Pees as defensive coordinator in Baltimore, plus Mike Vrabel’s Houston defense last year:

DL: 5, 7 (2x), 8
LB: 8 (2x), 9 (2x)
DB: 8, 10 (2x), 11

Looking at the Titans’ roster, we can say some things with confidence, like that they’re not going to roster an actual fullback because they don’t have one on the team right now. But beyond that, that’s an awful lot of room for keeping an extra body or two at one spot or another.

QB (2): Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Mariota
Analysis: This one is pretty simple: will the Titans feel the need to find a roster spot for Luke Falk? Jon Robinson’s two previous sixth-round picks have both made the team, but he’s cut his seventh-rounders, so I don’t think cutting Falk is out of the question. My view of Falk in 2015 was that he might be more interesting than the bog-standard no serious NFL prospects Mike Leach quarterback, but 2016 convinced me he was not and I hope 2017 was mostly injured-related, because that was awful. I’m betting on my evaluation of the player, something I try to mostly avoid here, but I’m comfortable doing so.

RB (4): David Fluellen, Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis, Akrum Wadley
Analysis: Two starters and two backups, one for each starter. I can’t only keep three backs given how frequently Lewis has missed time over the course of his career, but Wadley is likely a healthy inactive.

WR (6): Michael Campanaro, Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor, Nick Williams
Analysis: I feel good about Davis, Matthews, and Taylor, as long as Rishard is healthy. Tajae is WR4 almost by default. Campanaro’s ability on special teams, both as a returner and otherwise, makes it easy to keep him up regularly. Given the ridiculous inexperience of the whole receiving corps (Matthews is the only player at the position with multiple seasons of 10+ catches in the NFL), Williams’ scheme experience playing in Atlanta makes him the favorite for the reserve spot. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans add a veteran at the position, and if I had a good name for it, I’d suggest one.

TE (4): Jonnu Smith, Luke Stocker, Phillip Supernaw, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three or four, and is the fourth Supernaw or somebody else, like a Tim Semisch or somebody from another team? Especially given the depth of the receiver group, I still expect to see plenty of 2-TE sets in normal down-and-distance with Stocker as the in-line blocker and Smith/Walker as H-backs.

OL (9): Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Kevin Pamphile, Quinton Spain, Cody Wichmann
Analysis: We’ll see what happens to Conklin, and if he’ll start the season on PUP or the 53. I’m taking the optimistic view here, that he’s close enough to being ready they won’t want to put him on PUP and rule him out for 6 weeks at a minimum. But that means they’re keeping at least 8 other OL. In Conklin’s absence, it goes Lewan-[Spain]-Jones-Kline-Kelly, Pamphile at OT3, and I have Wichmann penciled in as interior swing backup over Levin. My guess is that Xavier Su’a-Filo is starting LG or off the team, and I spent enough time watching him in Houston to leave Spain at LG if only for better continuity. I thought about giving them another tackle, either Tyler Marz or John Theus, but decided against it.

DL (5): Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, David King, Bennie Logan
Analysis: Five names I feel pretty good about, so it comes down to whether they need more than that and if there’s a player they like enough to make a spot for him. I’d be dart-throwing if I put anybody else on there right now, but it’s something to keep an eye on for training camp reports and preseason games.

OLB/ILB (9): Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Nate Palmer, Aaron Wallace, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: Grouping inside linebackers and outside linebackers is probably bad practice, especially given they now have separate position coaches, but I’m doing it anyway.

Last year I predicted the Titans would keep 10 OLB/ILB, and they ended up keeping 11. It feels like a position they could easily go overboard at again this year.

The top of the depth chart at both positions seems pretty easy: Morgan and Orakpo at OLB, with Landry backing them up, and Evans and Woodyard at ILB, with Brown also seeing time.

I’m not sure what they’re going to do at ILB. Drafting Evans in the first round seemed like a move to Evans on the field regularly, with Woodyard sitting in sub (like he did in 2016) for Brown, but Evans’ measured transition to the NFL, practicing with backups in OTAs, gives me pause. But Evans was a first-round pick, and they play unless they’re awful and/or behind somebody really good. Given that, Will Compton is in a roster spot competition with Bates and Palmer for primarily a special teams job. Maybe he does win that.

I tried to find room for a fifth OLB, whether Josh Carraway, Sharif Finch, or Gimel President (Vrabel link), but went heavier elsewhere instead.

DB (11): Malcolm Butler, Kevin Byard, Dane Cruikshank, Johnathan Cyprien, Adoree Jackson, Kendrick Lewis, Kalan Reed, Logan Ryan, LeShaun Sims, Tye Smith, Brynden Trawick
Analysis: What a mess. I screwed up this position group last year, and I’m probably going to screw it up again this year.

At cornerback, we have a clear top three of Butler, Jackson, and Ryan. After that, it’s which of Reed, Sims, or Smith they don’t like. I have no idea which, so left all of them on there.

Safety, I feel good about Byard, Cruikshank, Cyprien, and Trawick. Both Pees and Vrabel have been associated with dime defenses in the past, and we saw in multiple episodes of “Igniting the Fire” Trawick lined up in the box or working with the inside linebackers rather than the defensive backs. Cruikshank, who played both safety and corner at Arizona, might also be a good fit as a dime player. Lewis played for Pees in Baltimore, and I don’t trust Cruikshank or Trawick to be ready to step in should Byard or Cyprien get hurt, so I made a roster spot for him.

ST (3): Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, chalk. Like last year, the open questions are at returner, and those affect other positions.

Where will I be wrong?
1. Positional mix, as discussed above.
2. New coaching staff means new schemes and new evaluations of existing players. This is an issue all over the roster.
3. Special teams. I may not have the right number of R2/R3 vs. R4/R5.
4. They’ll inevitably make a roster move or four, like the ones they made last year, and throw off the mix, and I’m not going to predict players not on the 90-man roster when I make my prediction to make the team, no matter how much credit I might have gotten had I put David Bass (then of the Bears) on my 2015 roster prediction.
5. I haven’t seen any of these players play since January, and many of the candidates I’ve seen play rarely or not at all since last preseason, so I may have missed significant improvement on the practice field.
6. Injuries. One year I had eight players on my pre-camp prediction not make the team. Seven of them were placed on injured reserve between the start of training camp and Week 1.
7. There are a number of position groups, particularly wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive back, where I have relatively indistinct views of the difference between and among players at the edge of the roster. I may have misevaluated a player or the Titans may be looking for something slightly different that makes them favor a player I don’t have on the roster over one I predict to make the team.
8. I’m a guy who sits on his couch in Illinois and makes stuff up. People who talk to people who work inside St. Thomas Sports Park may know important things I do not. I also do not think like Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel but they’re the ones in charge of this project, so I try to think like I think they might think, and without that “talking to people” check, so I end up going on quixotic crusades no matter how much I try not to. Thus, getting 48 of 53 right is a performance I would be very happy with given all the other stuff.

On my roster prediction, not on the Tennesseean‘s (only recent one I found quickly): S Kendrick Lewis, LB Nate Palmer, CB Kalan Reed, RB Akrum Wadley, WR Nick Williams, OL Cody Wichmann
On the Tennesseean‘s, not on mine: LB Will Compton, QB Luke Falk, WR Darius Jennings, OLB Gimel President, OL Xavier Su’a-Filo, DL Julius Warmsley