NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Marcus Mariota sees a noticeable upgrade in the talent around him when he looks around the Tennessee Titans’ locker room.
“We have a lot of guys in here now that are just studs, and that’s exciting,” Mariota said. “At the same time, now the expectations are higher, the standard’s higher, and that’s what you’ve got to live by. We can’t just come out here and be satisfied with enough. We’ve got to be coming out here trying to get better.”
Well, at an NFL-worst 5-27 the past two seasons, the Titans certainly have lots of room for improvement.
Amy Adams Strunk, who took charge as controlling owner in March 2015, fired Ken Whisenhunt after a 1-6 start and chose to keep Mike Mularkey as head coach after he went 2-7. When she also hired a new general manager in Tennessee native Jon Robinson, who got his NFL start with the Patriots, it marked the first time since 1981 this franchise changed both coach and GM in the same offseason.
Robinson started revamping the roster, bringing in a handful of free agents and trading for DeMarco Murray. He also traded away the No. 1 overall draft choice and brought in 10 draft picks for Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense designed to help out Mariota, the quarterback taken No. 2 overall in 2015.
“Last season was tough,” said Mariota, who lost only five games in his career at Oregon. “At the same time, now we have an opportunity to build from that and get better. I’m totally excited about it.”
Here are some things to watch for when the Titans report for training camp July 29:
TENNESSEE BORDER: Mariota missed a combined four games as a rookie because he hurt each knee when hit in the pocket. Robinson signed center Ben Jones away from Houston and drafted Jack Conklin out of Michigan State eighth overall to bolster an offensive line that gave up an NFL-worst 54 sacks. An offseason injury to veteran Byron Bell erased the opportunity to move right guard Chance Warmack to left guard, and the Titans hope someone pushes undrafted free agent Quinton Spain, who started the last seven games in 2015 at left guard.
IMPROVED BACKFIELD: Mularkey wants to run the ball much better to help Mariota and improve an offense that ranked 30th, averaging 311.8 yards per game. Robinson picked up Murray for the price of a revised contract and swapping 13 spots with Philadelphia in March, hoping the running back looks much more like the NFL’s 2014 Offensive Player of the Year. For insurance, Robinson also drafted Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry out of Alabama with his third selection in the second round.
The new running backs could help Tennessee end an ugly drought. Only Mariota has run for 100 yards or more over the past two seasons, and the quarterback needed the longest run in the league last December to reach 100 yards.
CATCHING ON: Mularkey challenged the Tennessee wide receivers this offseason to step up and play better. Injuries ended the season for both Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, and Dorial Green-Beckham showed tantalizing flashes without consistency. Mularkey has made it very clear to Hunter he expects the fourth-year player to be a receiver defenses can’t stop. Robinson also signed Rishard Matthews from Miami and drafted Tajae Sharpe of Massachusetts in the fifth round; the rookie was working with the first team as the offseason program ended.
LEBEAU IN CHARGE: Ray Horton left for Cleveland after losing the head job to Mularkey, and Dick LeBeau stuck around to be defensive coordinator. He’s made it clear the Titans will go after the quarterback much more this season, trying to improve from 12th in total yards allowed but 27th in points given up. Robinson brought in veteran cornerbacks Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, and Arizona safety Rashad Johnson. Linebacker Kevin Dodd of Clemson was the No. 33 draft pick overall.
INJURY UPDATE: Linebacker Derrick Morgan, who had season-ending shoulder surgery in 2015, is expected to be fully available at the start of camp. He was limited at times during the offseason. Dodd also is expected to be available after having preventative surgery on his right foot in late May.