Jim Wyatt, SENIOR WRITER/EDITOR
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans missed out on the playoffs in 2018, so general manager Jon Robinson knows there’s still work to do as he looks ahead to the 2019 season.
But Robinson is optimistic, and some of that comes from watching the team’s first-year head coach work.
Mike Vrabel guided the Titans to a 9-7 record during a season when the team was ravaged by injuries. Nine of the team’s 16 games were against teams that made the playoffs.
“I’m really proud of him and his staff,” Robinson said of Vrabel. “It is really a unique situation when you come into a playoff team, and I thought he really did a good job of earning the players respect, holding everybody to a standard. I thought he really did a good job of trying to teach and coach and improve all of the players, not just some of the younger players on our team. I thought he had a weekly plan in place for that opponent, ways to attack them, ways we needed to defend them. And he tried to put the team in the best position to win the football game.
“I thought he had great leadership. He had his hand in the offense, defense, kicking game – all the things a head coach, in my opinion, should have.”
The Titans went 3-3 against teams in the final eight in the NFL this season — wins over the Patriots, Eagles and Cowboys, with losses to the Chargers and Colts (twice).
Early season losses to the Bills and Dolphins came back to haunt the Titans.
“We didn’t get into the tournament, which is the goal every year,” Robinson said. “There were plays in three or four games that we lost that ultimately affected the outcome of the season as a whole. But I thought the team stuck together, they kept working hard, and they took to coaching.
“I thought we did some good things offensively, we did some good things defensively and on special teams and there’s definitely stuff we can build on.”
Here’s more from Robinson on a number of topics…
Vaccaro and Cyprien
The Titans lost safety Johnathan Cyprien prior to the start of the 2018 season with an injury, and signed Kenny Vaccaro as his replacement.
So, who will be back alongside safety Kevin Byard in 2019?
Cyprien remains under contract, while Vaccaro’s deal is set to expire.
It might take a while to find the answer. Robinson said Vaccaro did enough to keep him interested.
“I thought Kenny did a good job for us,” Robinson said of Vaccaro, who recorded 70 tackles, two sacks and three quarterback pressures in 2018. “I thought he came in and fit in really well with our locker room, and did a really good job, brought a physical presence to that position group.
“We’ll just kind of see where it goes moving forward, and see how he fits into the mix here. But I really appreciate what he did for us this year. … I think he earned the right for us to have to discussions (about returning), and when the time comes we’ll kind of circle through that and see if we can get it figured out.”
Derrick Henry’s Surge
Titans running back Derrick Henry ended the 2018 season with a bang.
In five games in the month of December, Derrick Henry’s rushing totals included 97 carries for 625 yards and eight touchdowns. Henry’s final numbers for 2018 were impressive: 215 carries, 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns, with a 4.9 yard average.
“I thought he really stepped up for us,” Robinson said of Henry. “He made some decisive runs. He ran physically, he ran hard. He showed what he is capable of doing.
“It will be a big offseason for him to work hard and prepare like he always does, and hopefully he can build on next season kind of how he finished off this season. … The hope is he can be as good, and hopefully better than he was at the end of this season.”
Promising Draft Class
The Titans draft class wasn’t a big one, but it produced some players who produced as rookies – linebacker Rashaan Evans, edge rusher Harold Landry and safety Dane Cruikshank.
“I think Rashaan, he battled through the injury in training camp and kind of got off to a slow start but started to find his way about the middle of the year,” Robinson said of the team’s first-round pick from Alabama. “He made some pretty impactful plays, and I think he has a bright future here.”
Evans finished the year with 63 tackles and six quarterback pressures.
Landry, selected in the second round, recorded 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback pressures while tallying 46 stops. Cruikshank was productive on special teams.
“I think Harold factored some, but I think there’s some things all rookies have to work on,” Robinson said. “There’s things he has to work on and develop as an edge defender in this league, but I thought he made some good plays for us. He has a great motor and brought some speed off the edge.
“Dane made several key plays that were impactful in the kicking game, and we’re looking forward to him taking a step defensively to try and help in that phase of the game.”
Robinson also mentioned some of the team’s undrafted rookies, from linebacker Sharif Finch to receiver Cameron Batson to defensive back Josh Kalu.
Robinson provided few clues on needs heading into the offseason.
He repeated his stance from previous offseasons when looking ahead at the Senior Bowl later this month, and the NFL Combine next month. The NFL Draft is scheduled for April.
“This is the fourth year I’ve said this now: You can never have enough good football players,” Robinson said. “There’s obviously some positions we have to focus on. Not to show all of our cards, but we are kind of going through that now, finishing up our team evaluations and turning the page to the potential free agents that are going to be available and balancing that with draft preparation.
“You really have to weigh the supply of players that are available in free agency, and what that’s going to cost you, relative to the supply of players in the draft.”
Robinson was asked specifically about three positions that figure to be areas of need – receiver, edge rusher and offensive line.
When discussing receivers, Robinson said Corey Davis showed improvement in his second NFL season, but said he needs to continue to work on his consistency.
“But we are certainly encouraged,” Robinson said of Davis. “He played some good football for us. With that position group, it is a young position group and we’ll see what’s available out there. You can never have enough guys who can get open and catch the football. We’ll see whether that falls in the free agency/draft player acquisition process.”
Robinson thanked retiring linebacker Brian Orakpo for his contributions to the team, from his production to his leadership.
“He was a good example of what we want our Titans to be like,” Robinson said of Orakpo. “I think that position group, like a lot of position groups, we’ll look at the supply of players that are out there in free agency and the draft. … You can never have enough pass rush in this league.”
On the offensive line, he said he saw improvement during the end of the season. He believes another offseason should help right tackle Jack Conklin return to form. Conklin ended the 2018 on Injured Reserve.
“I am sure with an offseason and getting healthy and ready to go will be good for him,” Robinson said of Conklin.
The Titans are set on the defensive side of the ball after defensive coordinator Dean Pees informed the team he plans to return for the 2019 season.
The Titans ranked 3rd in the NFL in scoring defense in 2018, and eighth overall in total defense. The Titans recorded their first shutout since 2000 in a 17-0 win over the Giants in December.
“I thought Dean did a great job,” Robinson said. “He’s a football guy. He’s a loyal guy. I thought he did a really good job of putting a system in place to play team defense.
“We may not have had a lot of superlatives as far as individual efforts. I would say we had some on a weekly basis. But I thought he did a good job of trying to put the players in the best position to make plays to help us win football games.”
Titans QBs Mariota, Gabbert and a New OC
Four seasons into his NFL career, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has dealt with plenty of changes around him. (A complete version of this story can be found HERE).
Heading into 2019, Mariota will be faced with another challenge – adapting to yet another offensive coordinator. On Tuesday night, the Green Bay Packers officially hired former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as their new head coach.
LaFleur’s departure means Mariota will have his fifth offensive coordinator since being drafted in 2015.
“It is always challenging when you are talking about terminology, and concepts. I kind of liken it to learning a foreign language, and he is on his fifth language now,” Robinson said of Mariota, and the change a OC. “But we’ll do our best to try and help the team and keep a lot of that the same. We’ll talk to coach Vrabel and we’re still just going through that process now about the direction that we’re going to go.
“But it is always difficult with any player when there is change because you have to learn new things. One thing was called “this” with this coach, and this is called “that.”
The Titans are confident Mariota will be able to adapt.
“Marcus is a smart guy,” Robinson said. “We’ll work at it. Whatever we ask of him from a studying and learning and terminology standpoint, I am confident that he’ll definitely put the time in to try and be his best.”
Mariota started 13 of the team’s 16 games in 2018, and played in 14 of 16. He finished the year with 2,528 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He set the franchise record with a completion percentage of 68.9 %. Mariota missed the regular season finale vs. the Colts because of neck and foot injuries.
“When he was healthy and out there, he certainly gave us a really good chance to win the game, and made some big plays for us,” Robinson said of Mariota. “Kind of at the end there, the health and safety of our players is at the top of the list, and we really don’t want to put anybody out there that we don’t feel like can protect themselves or they’re at risk for an injury.”
At season’s end, Vrabel said the decision to keep Mariota sidelined vs the Colts was made by a group of people, and Mariota said himself that’s true. Concerns about a nerve injury – and how it could impact his future – played a role, Mariota said.
Robinson said the decision to hold out Mariota was made with the future in mind.
“It was a collective decision,” he said. “We talked about it, and talked about it with Marcus and got opinions. I keep coming back to player safety, and I think Marcus is a tough guy. He has played through a lot during his career. I don’t question his toughness. He has shown that he loves his team and he wants to be out there with his teammates. But when you are risking something, you have to weigh the future relative to what’s the cost of putting him out there.
“It will be important for him this offseason to take some time to get healthy and come back ready to go.”
Mariota said the day after the regular season finale he’s been told he won’t need surgery, just time to heal and get healthy.
When Mariota couldn’t play in 2018, the Titans leaned on veteran Blaine Gabbert, who started the season finale and ended up playing in eight games, including three starts.
Gabbert’s final numbers: 61-of-101 for 626 yards, with four touchdowns, four interceptions and a 74.9 rating. Gabbert remains under contract through the 2019 season. Robinson didn’t discuss the team’s thoughts on adding another quarterback to the mix. The Titans drafted Luke Falk in the sixth round of last year’s draft, but he was released.
“I thought when he stepped in, he won a couple of games for us – the Washington game and the Houston game,” Robinson said of Gabbert. “I thought he was good for the room, I thought he was good for the team. Are there some things he needs to continue to work on? Sure. But I thought he did a solid job in what was asked of him. He prepares like a starter on a weekly basis, and is ready when called upon.”