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John Clayton Ponders: Can Titans Take the Next Step?


NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Long-time NFL writer John Clayton observed the Titans from afar in 2017, and he felt like something wasn't right.

Even during a 9-7 season that included the first playoff win in 14 years, the team looked out of sync with quarterback Marcus Mariota. He didn't like the negative buzz, even after some wins, that he heard late in the season.

So the Clayton, of 710 ESPN in Seattle, liked what the Titans did last month. And he believes they'll be a contender in the AFC in 2018.

"The best thing the Titans did is figuring out they needed to get more out of things," Clayton said. "They didn't just stay the same. They saw there was a need to get better, and they made a move. With new coach Mike Vrabel, you know now you have a general manager in Jon Robinson who now has somebody in place that he knows from his days with the Patriots, so they can be together on certain things.

"In Mike Vrabel, the Titans are getting a guy who is going to be a good leader. I thought he did sensational in his press conference. He was very clear and to the point of what he is going to do. Now, activity has to happen, and moves have to be made. I like the hiring of (defensive coordinator) Dean Pees, and I know they are working to help Marcus Mariota. The team needs to keep getting better, like everyone else is going to do. And Mariota has to take the next step."

Clayton, who covered his 41st Super Bowl on Sunday, thought the addition of Pees was a good one.

Pees spent the last eight seasons (2010-17) with the Ravens, including the last six years (2012-17) as the defensive coordinator. He joined Ravens in 2010, as the linebackers coach. Three (2014,'15,'16) of his six years as defensive coordinator for the Ravens resulted in top 10 rankings on defense. Prior to coaching defense in Baltimore, Pees served as defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.

"I love Pees," Clayton said. "He is brilliant. He is a solid football-based and that is the great part. He has always been good, and he's a guy I've always respected. And there is such familiarity there, and getting Pees there is going to help them out."

Clayton said Kevin Byard "came out of nowhere and became one of the best safeties in the league" after leading the NFL in takeaways, and tying for the NFL lead with eight interceptions. He said he's a big fan of cornerback Adoree' Jackson, the 18th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Clayton likes the idea of opening things up with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who joined the Titans last month after serving as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams.

The Rams led the NFL in scoring in 2017, averaging 29.9 points per game. In his first season with the Rams, LaFleur was instrumental in the development of quarterback Jared Goff, who threw for 3,804 yards with 28 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 2017 en route to reaching the Pro Bowl.

"Is there another level? Yes," Clayton said of Mariota. "First he has to stay healthy, and they need to get more out of him and get him more comfortable in the offense. There was so much grumbling at the end of the year about what they should be doing (to maximize his talents). … They have to get on the same page, and they have to take advantage of his ability."

On Sunday, Clayton watched the Eagles beat the Patriots to win Super Bowl LII.

In 2018, he expects a wide open AFC, but he pointed out what a lot of folks are thinking – the AFC South should be tough, with a vastly improved Jacksonville team, and a pair of teams in Houston and Indianapolis who will welcome their star quarterbacks back from injuries at the start of the year.

"I know there are two solid teams in Pittsburgh and New England, but I also think you look around and everything is up for grabs," Clayton said. "Can the Titans be in it? Tennessee has proven is can be a nine-win team. The Titans won a playoff game last year.

"The question now is: Can the Titans take the next step?"

New Titans head coach Mike Vrabel arrives in Nashville, Tenn. on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. (Photos: Gary Glenn)

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