If you are a Jets fan that loved Mariota in this past year’s draft, you may have believed some crazy reports in order to keep the fantasy of Mariota falling to pick number six alive. No such thoughts seem crazier in hindsight than the Titans passing on Mariota on the basis of he “not fitting Ken Whisenhunt’s mold” or the organization “believing in Zach Mettenberger.” After just seven games played, Ken Whisenhunt was relieved of his duties while Zach Mettenberger led the Titans to a combined 13 points in two games Mariota would miss due to injury.
Meanwhile, Mariota has already shown evidence of being the franchise elevating player he was pegged as. He announced his debut with great fanfare in a four touchdown, perfect passer rating performance in a blowout opening week victory against Tampa Bay. Despite missing two games due to injury, Mariota is on pace to tie the rookie passing touchdowns record jointly held by Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning. Just last week in what was one of the year’s most entertaining games, Mariota led Tennessee to victory over Jacksonville in a shootout with four total touchdowns including a highlight reel 87-yard run. Granted, there has been the fair share of rookie struggles as well. With 9 interceptions and 8 fumbles in 10 games, he has given plenty of opportunities for opposing defenses to take the ball away.
His overall season performance has been extremely variable week-to-week. Tennessee’s 3 wins have come on the back of a trio of real outstanding performances from Mariota, whereas the others have been a mixed bag.
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Before speculating which Mariota will show up on Sunday, factor in this: his three standout performances have come against the Saints, Jaguars and Buccaneers. Those teams rank last, 29th, and 24th respectively in passer rating against. He is a clearly talented player with a bright future, but the expectation should be that the Jets can make him look more like a rookie than a future star.
A Secret Weapon?
Tennessee’s commitment to getting better on offense through the draft did not end with Mariota’s selection. They paired him with arguably one of the draft’s most talented players in round two with wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.
The Titans passing offense to this point has been simple enough, relying heavily on tight end Delanie Walker as the primary target. Their ideal scenario down the stretch would be to get Green-Beckham and Mariota establishing an on-field connection, and signs are this is their intent. As of late, the snap counts at receiver show the Titans beginning to ease in Green-Beckham as a starter while reducing the role of 2012 first rounder Kendall Wright. Last week’s performance versus Jacksonville was the one Tennessee was waiting for and is possibly a sign of things to come. Green-Beckham caught 5 of 6 targets for 119 yards, including a huge 47-yard score.
Here he is channeling his inner Brandon Marshall:
Green-Beckham, of course, was selected just two picks after the Jets drafted Devin Smith. Time will tell whether both these players will be a success in their own rights, but there are fans out there that are probably already fearing Green-Beckham being the next Alshon Jeffrey to Smith’s Stephen Hill. For the sake of avoiding a letdown in a very important game, but also to quiet the way too early what-could-have-beens, Todd Bowles’ defensive unit should not take Green-Beckham lightly.
The Mularkey Effect
Also known as the Dan Campbell Effect, the best thing anybody can really say about the job Mike Mularkey has done is that he’s not doing as poorly as the man he replaced. And just as crucially for the long-term health of the Titans, he is not doing a good enough job to warrant worrying talk about him keeping his job long-term (a miraculous late winning streak not withstanding). The Titans will end this season probably with a top five pick, in need of a new head coach and the ability to dangle the carrot that is a very promising young quarterback to any potential new head coach.
Still, there does appear to be a little bit more of a competitive spirit from Tennessee under Mularkey. His 2-3 record is a lot more attractive than Whisenhunt’s 3-20 with the Titans, and outside of simply being outclassed by the undefeated Carolina Panthers the Titans have been competitive each week.
The last time a Mike Mularkey coached team played the Jets, it was in December 2012 and undoubtedly one of the saddest games of the season (Solomon Wilcotts on the call level sad). The Jets beat Jacksonville in a 17-10 snoozer of a game where neither Mark Sanchez nor Chad Henne surpassed 200 yards passing or threw a touchdown. If there are any parallels to hope for from that game, here is one: that win kept the 2012 Jets’ slim playoff hopes alive.
Key in on Casey
Should there be one unit as a whole to worry about when it comes to Tennessee it is their talented group of pass rushers, headlined by Jurrell Casey. The 2011 third round pick has been a starter for Tennessee since day one and has consistently been one of the better pass rushing interior players in the league throughout that time. While he is not on the level of J.J. Watt or even the Jets’ own pair of stud veterans, he can certainly look that way if he is not planned for. He is not the only name to think about though, with former first round picks Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan flanking Casey at outside linebacker. Orakpo in particular, signed in free agency, has had a bounce-back year after an injury-plagued 2014 season in Washington. The trio of Casey, Orakpo and Morgan have combined for 17.5 sacks.
Casey shows the athletic ability to spy Tyrod Taylor and bring him down for the sack here:
Another Top Pick on the Horizon?
It looks as if the Titans hit it big with their latest 2nd overall pick, and they may get another crack at taking one of the draft’s top two players this upcoming draft as well. Tennessee sits at second overall in the projected draft order currently, and with their last four games all against playoff contenders (@ Jets, @ Patriots, vs. Texans, @ Colts), they could struggle to find a win throughout any of those match-ups. While this will make it 7 years without a playoff berth, the attractions of a top draft pick and young stud quarterback are enticing building blocks for whoever they decide to hire after Mularkey’s interim period runs its course.
*Snap count data courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All other data taken from nfl.com.
Photo Credit: TitansOnline.com