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Front Page - Friday, July 7, 2017

Titans will have best roster in more than a decade

The folks at Pro Football Focus recently ranked the Tennessee Titans’ roster No. 3.

Not third in the AFC South. Third in the entire NFL.

This means one of two things: Either Pro Football Focus has gotten hold of some bad videotape or the Titans finally have some really good players.

On paper, things are looking up for the Titans. Only Atlanta and New England rank above the Titans, according to Pro Football Focus, in terms of cumulative grades of all 32 NFL rosters.

Even if you take such grades lightly, it’s safe to say things are on a definite uptick since this franchise bottomed out in the 2014-15 seasons.

Does a No. 3 ranking by Pro Football Focus mean the Titans will finish with the third-best record in the NFL. Of course not. There are too many variables in play, and I’m not just talking about injuries.

The Titans have a very young team. You can make the argument that as many as seven first- or second-year players will start for the Titans this season. That kind of inexperience can catch up to you over a 16-game schedule.

Beyond that, every NFL team has talent. Just because one team graded out above another based on performance in the previous season doesn’t mean things will follow a predictable pattern once the ball is kicked off.

For the most part, this is still a fourth-quarter league, where the team that makes the most plays in clutch moments wins.

Pro Football Focus is a website that relies on the trained eyes of football analysts to grade the performance of every player on every play in every game. Granted, there are some drawbacks.

Having referenced PFF in the past, I can tell you that coaches and general managers often point out that it is impossible for a third party to grade a tape unless the analyst knows the specific scheme and the concept of a play.

That’s a fair point.

On the other hand, grades are derived in large part from individual matchups and how skill position players perform with the ball in their hands. Because of that, it is a reasonable tool for overall analysis.

The fact that the Titans’ ranking is even a point of debate is a credit to Jon Robinson and his roster makeover in 19 months on the job as general manager. Robinson isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on trades or free-agent acquisitions. Beyond that, he has a keen eye for talent.

Of all the things she has done since taking over as principal owner, Robinson’s hiring is the top accomplishment for Amy Adams Strunk.

Now things are coming together. The Titans are in their window of opportunity for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the NFL salary cap.

Their franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is still on his rookie contract, which means he counts $6.6 million against the cap this season. Compare that to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, whose cost is $19.4 million against the cap, according to Spotrac.com.

Likewise, bookend offensive tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin are still on their initial contracts, which makes them remarkably cheap compared to their peers on other teams.

All of which means the Titans can spend money elsewhere. That’s why they were able to sign free agents like Logan Ryan and John Cyprien to upgrade their defensive backfield, as well as add versatile wide receiver Eric Decker.

The addition of Decker is of particular note. While playing for the New York Jets last season, he suffered a shoulder injury. With a base salary of $7.25 million on the books for the upcoming season, Jets management cut him.

He signed a one-year deal with the Titans that could pay $5.35 million, including a $2.5 million signing bonus. That’s a lot of money for a 30-year-old receiver.

But if his shoulder is fully healed and he hasn’t lost a step, it could be a steal.

 When healthy, Decker has been extremely productive. He caught 74 or more passes in four straight seasons in 2012-15, including 41 touchdown receptions.

After so many years of mediocrity on the offensive perimeter, the Titans should have their best wide receiver corps since landing on Tennessee turf in 1997. Robinson spent the No. 5 overall pick in the most recent draft on Corey Davis of Western Michigan.

He followed that by drafting Taywan Taylor of Western Kentucky in the third round.

Decker, Davis and Taylor join holdovers Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Harry Douglas and Tre McBride. The Titans also brought in Eric Weems as a kick returner/wide receiver.

Obviously, not all of them will make the final roster. Coaches like Douglas’ leadership both on and off the field but his days with the franchise likely are numbered.

In order for the Titans to make another move up the standings, they must continue to take strides in the passing game while also making dramatic improvement on defense, particularly against the pass. That’s why it was so important to draft a player like Adoree’ Jackson in the first round and to get Ryan in free agency. It’s been years since the Titans have had even average play at cornerback.

While the Titans’ improved roster has Robinson’s fingerprints all over it, let’s give credit where it is due to his predecessor as general manager, Ruston Webster. While Webster’s overall performance was sorely lacking, he had his moments in both the draft and free agency.

Some of the Titans’ top players came aboard on Webster’s watch – defensive end Jurrell Casey, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and tight end Delanie Walker. Webster’s first-round draft picks in 2014 and ’15 were Lewan and Mariota, respectively.

All in all, this is the Titans’ best roster in more than a decade. The offensive line is a particular strength. If the DeMarco Murray-Derrick Henry tandem continues to produce in the running game and the wide receivers play up to their pedigrees, Mariota will have a lot of buttons to push on offense.

Defensively, the Titans still are short on playmakers and inside linebacker remains a concern. But considering where this franchise was a couple of years ago, things definitely are looking up. Just ask Pro Football Focus.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.