Greetings, Titans fans. Some of you will – hopefully – recognize the byline from the several years I spent covering your team for The Tennessean.
I'm pleased to say I'll be contributing to Titans coverage once again this season, working alongside my friend and former co-worker, Jim Wyatt, for titansonline.com. The plan is for me to chip in with a couple of articles per week, ranging from game analysis to opinion to human-interest stories. I'm thankful to the Titans for giving me this opportunity and looking forward to writing about this up-and-coming team.
We'll take a by-the-numbers approach for today's offering.
Here are five numbers to keep in mind Sunday when the Titans host Oakland in the season opener:
37 —** This is the percentage increase in touchdown passes thrown by Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota last season, as he increased his total from 19 as a rookie to 26 in 2016. There are plenty of reasons to believe Mariota will take another big step in Year Three:
First, he's entering his second season under offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie and quarterback coach Jason Michael. Mariota got more and more comfortable as last season progressed, throwing for 22 of his touchdowns (versus just four interceptions) over his last 11 games.
Second, he will be throwing to his most talented receiving corps, a group that includes Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Delanie Walker.
Third, we've recently seen some other talented quarterbacks – like Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Oakland's Derek Carr – make big stat jumps in their third year. Carr, for instance, produced career-bests in touchdown-interception ratio (28-6), quarterback rating (96.7) and yards per game (263) in his third year.
18.1 — This was the number of yards per catch Taylor averaged on his eight preseason receptions. It wouldn't be fair to assume he'll keep up that pace during the regular season, but Taylor certainly shouldn't be stereotyped as just a shifty slot receiver who will catch short passes. As evidenced by what he did at Western Kentucky – averaging almost 18 yards per catch on 98 receptions as a senior – this guy has the wheels to get downfield on a regular basis.
Taylor's also made good progress during training camp and the preseason, transforming himself from a raw athlete to the kind of detailed receiver coach Mike Mularkey wants for his system.
"He's come a long way," Mularkey said. "You can tell that it's important to him. He spends a lot of time studying. He still has a lot of work to do, but he's come a long way since his first couple days. It's a very detailed, be where you're supposed to be, line up where you're supposed to be (system), and he's getting better at it."
9 — This is the number of playoff teams – out of 12 total – that finished the 2016 season with a positive turnover ratio. The Titans made huge strides in the turnover department last year, going from minus-14 in 2015 to even in 2016. Still, it was no surprise to hear Mularkey say earlier in the preseason that his biggest priority for the defense this season is creating more turnovers. It's a theme he hammered home again on Monday, as the Titans prepare to face a Raiders team that finished tied for the best turnover ratio in 2016 ( 16).
"Victory," Mularkey said, "will favor the (team) that makes the least mistakes."
15 —** This was the number of yards Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson averaged on 21 punt returns at USC last season, a figure that was third-best in the nation. He also took two punt returns back for touchdowns.
In other words, Jackson should make a significant impact on a Titans team that's been starved for explosiveness in the return game. The last Titan to return a punt for a touchdown was Darius Reynaud back in 2012, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jackson bring an end to the dry spell this year.
40 — This is the number of sacks the Titans produced last season, which was tied for sixth in the league. You'd have to go back to 2008 to find the last time the Titans recorded more than 40 sacks (they had 44 that year), but it certainly wouldn't be out of the question to see Tennessee top that mark this season.
We know what Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan – who combined for 19.5 sacks last year – bring to the table, but this group is deep on the edge. Veteran Erik Walden had 11 sacks last season in Indy, second-year linebacker Aaron Wallace flashed big-play potential during the preseason and talented former second-round pick Kevin Dodd is working his way back from two foot surgeries. You can bet defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will find creative ways to get more than two of these guys on the field at the same time if need be.
—* Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.*
Here's an initial look at your 2017 Tennessee Titans!