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Talking AFC South: On the Titans


JACKSONVILLE – during July will speak with a writer or media member covering each of the Jaguars' AFC South rivals. Up today: senior writer and editor Jim Wyatt on the Tennessee Titans, who went 9-7 in 2017 and made the AFC playoffs as a wild-card team:

Question: This was an offseason of major change around the Titans, with Mike Vrabel being hired as head coach to replace Mike Mularkey. What's the level of change around the organization?

Answer: The team has a new head coach in Mike Vrabel, a new offensive coordinator in Matt LaFleur and a new defensive coordinator in Dean Pees and the roster has changed a lot during the course of the offseason. What Vrabel brings is a different tone, a different feel for how he's going to go about doing things. Whether that's how he conducts practices, how things are going to be inside the building … just his overall mindset is different coming in here.

Q: Where do you expect to see improvement on the field?

A: I think offensively they're going to be better. Really, that's why the coaching change was made – to try to spark the offense, to try to get more out of [quarterback] Marcus Mariota and to really try to improve across the board on the offensive side of the ball. LaFleur comes in with a great track record in working with quarterbacks like Jared Goff [of the Los Angeles Rams] and Matt Ryan [of the Atlanta Falcons] and RG III (Robert Griffin III) in Washington [with the Redskins]. They have added [running back] Dion Lewis from the [New England] Patriots, which should help [Titans running back] Derrick Henry. I think LaFleur's offense will be more conducive to take advantage of what Marcus Mariota can do, and I think you're going to see an offense that will allow him (Mariota) to make more plays to allow this team to score more points.

Q: Mariota obviously is the Titans' most high-profile player. He probably didn't have the season he wanted last season. How much will he benefit from the changes?

A: He'll benefit from the changes without question. I just think he'll play a little bit looser and will be able to distribute the ball to players around him – and he'll be able to make different plays. Where he will benefit the most is he will have the entire offseason to get ready for the year. In May of last year he was just getting to where he was feeling like himself again and wasn't even there yet. He was recovering from the injury (fractured fibula) he suffered in Jacksonville at the end of the 2016 season, so he was rehabilitating and trying to get his strength back in his leg. He was trying to get right mentally, and now it has been all about football. He has been able to work with some of his receivers, whether that has been away from building or in the building. That's going to help him as much as anything – just being able to concentrate on football and not his injury.

Q: Assess the Titans' 2018 draft and 2018 offseason. Where did they get better and what did you like about it?

A: The defensive side of the ball is where you're going to some bigger impact plays because of the guys they brought in. They signed cornerback Malcolm Butler from the New England Patriots in free agency, and what that allows them to do is pair him with [cornerbacks] Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson; that gives them a lot of flexibility in the secondary. They brought in [first-round linebacker] Rashaan Evans and [second-round defensive end] Harold Landry as an edge rusher, and both of those guys have a chance to make an impact. They also brought in [defensive tackle] Bennie Logan [as an unrestricted free agent from Kansas City]. Those are four guys who weren't with the team last season who have a chance to really make a difference in what really is a new defense with Dean Pees running the show.

Q: You mentioned earlier the biggest improvement could come on offense. Considering Vrabel's background is defense, that may surprise people …

A: Vrabel's going to let his coaches coach. He has said that from the beginning. He's going to let Matt LaFleur call the plays on offense and he's going to let Dean Pees call the plays on defense. The addition of LaFleur is going to change some things. It's going to be a different look and it's going to be an offense that's going to work to give Marcus Mariota freedom and give him the ability to do more. Just that along with the addition of Lewis will help. Also, factor in the fact that [2017 first-round wide receiver] Corey Davis has a year under of his belt and should be healthy at the start of the season; he has a chance to make a huge leap. [2017 third-round receiver] Taywan Taylor, a second-year receiver, has a chance to make a big jump as well. I think the improvement of players on the team, Mariota being able to do more and LaFleur changing the look of things … those are reasons I think the offense will take on a different look in 2018.

Q: Henry's a guy a lot of Jacksonville fans are familiar with, being from nearby Yulee. Is this a big year for him show he's the guy with DeMarco Murray now gone?

I think you're going to see both Henry and Lewis. There's no question Dion Lewis is going to be a factor this season, but Henry will have a chance to prove his worth more than ever before. He deferred some to Murray his first couple of years in the league because of the respect he had for Murray. At the end of last season, Murray couldn't play. Henry got a chance in the playoff game against Kansas City; he had a great game and showed what he's capable of doing. He's going to get more chances like that to wear defenses down and impose his will on opposing defenses. Something he will like, too, is Dion Lewis is a completely different [style of] back. He's a change-of-pace back and they will be able to complement each other. I think Henry will benefit from that because Lewis can keep a defense on their toes a little bit himself.

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