Training camp is here and so is a new era in Tennessee Titans football.
Jon Robinson is the new General Manager and has provided a new direction with bold offseason moves like the trade for DeMarco Murray, the trade of the number one overall pick to stockpile picks that turned into Jack Conklin, Austin Johnson and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
Mike Mularkey is the new (old) head coach, winning over ownership and the team with the job he did navigating a tough interim coaching situation the final nine games of last season.
Even the team's training complex at St. Thomas Sports Park's new. A multi-million dollar renovation sprucing up the locker room and team areas in a dramatic and long overdue way. As Linebacker Brian Orakpo said Friday, "It looks like a winning organization now."
After winning a league worst five games over the past two seasons, the Titans should be better in 2016. But just how improved they are will depend in large part on these questions that we begin to get answers to as training camp kicks off.
1.) A Sophomore Sensation?
Marcus Mariota lived up to the hype as the number two pick in the draft, setting franchise rookie records for pass completions, yards, and touchdowns in 2015 all while battling a pair of knee injuries. He showed flashes of brilliance with a pair of four TD performances in wins at Tampa Bay and New Orleans. If he can stay healthy, expect the former Heisman winner to take another step towards being one of the league's most dynamic dual threat quarterbacks in 2016.
2.) Whats the Identity?
From the moment Robinson and Mularkey were hired into their roles, they spoke of their desire for the Titans to be a physical, smashmouth football team. Much of their offseason moves were catered to becoming just that, but can an offensive line that will have three new starters this season (left guard, Ben Jones at center and Conklin at right tackle) gel quick enough for the Titans to be able to impose their will on teams in the second half of games? We should get some answers throughout the preseason.
3.) More weapons = More points?
Without a running game that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in 2015, the Titans struggled to put up points consistently. But the blame isn't solely on the run game. Other than Pro Bowl Tight End Delanie Walker's 94 catches, Mariota didn't have many options in his rookie season. The Titans believe they've bolstered the running game with Murray, the 2014 rushing champ, and Henry. How those two backs are used will be an interesting storyline throughout this season.
The more important question, perhaps, is who will step up in the passing game to take pressure off Walker? The team signed free agent Rishard Matthews from Miami this offseason and took a flier on aging future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson this week. Can either of them become a top target for Mariota? Or will high draft picks like Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Dorial Green-Beckham finally reach their potential?
4.) Does Quantity = Quality in the Secondary?
The Titans defense spent much of 2015 in the top 10 in the NFL statistically, but it's weakness was clearly in the secondary where injuries and inexperience took a toll. Jason McCourty is back at 100 percent following the groin surgery that shut him down a year ago and should draw the opposing team's toughest cover each week. But who starts opposite him or plays in the slot remains a mystery. Perrish Cox struggled last season filling in for McCourty and will battle with free agent Brice McCain for the starting job. Whoever falls in that competition will have to fend off youngsters that gained experience last year like Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Cody Riggs and B.W. Webb and rookies LeShaun Sims and Kalan Reed.
There's also a question of roles at Safety where veteran Rashad Johnson was brought in on a one-year deal to replace Michael Griffin, but the team also drafted former MTSU star Kevin Byard in the third round as the heir apparent at that position.
It's unlikely any of those guys will be Pro Bowl players, but the Titans hope the quantity of depth and competition will push some of them into being quality players to lock down the back end of the defense.
5.) The Hall of Fame Touch
When Dick LeBeau was hired as Assistant Head Coach in charge of the Defense after the 2014 season, it was just assumed that the legendary defensive mastermind would actually be in charge of the defense on gameday. But as last season went on we learned that Ray Horton was still calling defensive signals during games. Now Horton is gone and LeBeau is fully in charge as defensive coordinator. How much of an impact that will have remains to be seen, but expect more blitzing and more deception from the 78-year-old architect of the 3-4.
6.) Third Time the Charm for Mularkey?
If fans could gripe about one thing from an active offseason it would be the decision to retain Mularkey as permanent head coach. The 54-year-old is just 18-39 in his career, including the 2-7 mark as interim coach with the Titans. He says this is a better situation than the ones he was placed in in Buffalo and Jacksonville, but this is still a team that had arguably the worst roster in the NFL the past two years. Has he learned enough from past experiences to be able to successfully navigate this team towards improvement and, ultimately, the playoffs?
Mularkey says he's more laid back now in his third time around. Players say he's a straight shooter. On day one of training camp it's a happy marriage. We'll see how long that continues and if it leads to better results for coach and team.
It's been a busy offseason for the Titans. Now that the season is finally here, there's a lot of reason for excitement. But there's still a lot of questions left to be answered.