By Matt Citak
The start of the 2017 NFL season is finally here. It is reasonable to expect teams like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers to have strong years, as these franchises tend to be regulars in the playoffs. However it is a lot more difficult to predict which under-the-radar clubs will find their way to postseason play come January. Who will be this year’s Oakland Raiders or Dallas Cowboys? We asked several members of the NFL on CBS team who they believe will be the biggest surprise team this season. Although it may come as a shock to some, most agreed on one team: the Tennessee Titans.
“They’re poised to make a run in that division,” said NFL on CBS analyst Jay Feely. “They could very well surprise everybody and win that division. They have a lot of talent, they have a good balance. Offensively, running the ball, Marcus Mariota is going to take another step and become a star. They’ve got two guys at wide receiver that I really like as rookies. Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor as well, who can take the top off of any defense. He’s got that top-end speed. They’re ready to make a run and surprise a lot of people.”
Mariota is coming off a strong second season in which he threw for 3,426 yards, 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The 23-year-old quarterback continued to be a threat running the ball as well, adding 60 carries for 349 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns to his season statistics. Titans general manager Jon Robinson has done a fantastic job of surrounding Mariota with talent on the offensive side of the ball. As Feely pointed out, Tennessee drafted Corey Davis (5th overall) and Taywan Taylor (72nd overall) to provide their third-year quarterback with more weapons to target in the passing game. They join Rishard Matthews and the newly signed Eric Decker in a suddenly strong and deep wide receiver corps. In addition, veteran tight end Delanie Walker returns to Nashville after catching 65 passes for 800 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns in 2016.
“From what I’ve seen and heard so far, Tennessee is going to be a team to reckon with,” said NFL on CBS play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins.
Perhaps the most talented group on this Tennessee roster is the team’s offensive line. Former first-round tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, as well as former fourth-round center Ben Jones, all finished last season ranked in the top 10 among players at their position, according to Pro Football Focus. Those three are joined on the line by undrafted guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline, who both put together solid 2016 campaigns. These linemen combine to form one of the NFL’s top offensive lines, which PFF ranked as the league’s fourth-best group, and were the biggest reason why the Titans ran the ball so well last year. The duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined to carry the ball 403 times for 1,777 yards, good for 4.4 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. Add in Mariota’s rushing totals, and the Titans finished the year with the third-most rushing yards per game at 136.7.
“With Mariota back, they’ve got a lot of young pieces,” said NFL on CBS lead reporter Tracy Wolfson. “I saw them in the preseason last year. I loved the pieces they had, and then Mariota gets hurt. They couldn’t put it all together. Maybe they were still a little too young. Derrick Henry is a talent. You’ve got DeMarco Murray… Offensively, they’re there… We have them Week 1 against Oakland. So that’s going to be a big measuring test for them… The Titans are one of those teams that can surprise a lot of people this year, just like Tampa Bay was last year.”
While Tennessee was certainly the most popular pick to be the NFL’s most surprising team in 2017, they were not the only franchise that came up. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Mariota’s fellow third-year quarterback Jameis Winston, also look primed for a breakout season.
“It’s interesting because teams that normally would fit into that category seem to be getting a lot of reaction early, based on the changes they’ve made. So the Buccaneers and Titans are normally teams that you wouldn’t think of right away,” said NFL on CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle. “But based on the adjustments they’ve made in their lineup, based on how they’ve drafted, and whatever they’re building so far in the preseason, those two teams to me have come the farthest in the shortest amount of time. From the end of last year to now, you’re going to see the biggest jump in those two teams…”
While both the Titans and Buccaneers missed out on the playoffs in 2016, they both came incredibly close. Tennessee finished tied with the Texans for the division title, but Houston’s win percentage in division games was higher, thus giving them the fourth seed in the AFC. Over in the NFC, Tampa Bay and Detroit were tied at 9-7 for the second Wild Card spot, but the Lions had a better win percentage in common games. So although these two teams are led by 23-year-old quarterbacks, they both came within just one win of participating in each franchise’s first postseason in almost a decade.
“The other team [in addition to Tennessee] I’d put in that boat as a team that might have a chance to do some things is Tampa Bay,” said NFL on CBS analyst Adam Archuleta. “I always said it when they came out, not that I didn’t like Mariota, but when it was all said and done, Jameis is going to be a better passer in the NFL. Whether that’s true or not is yet to be seen, but his arrow is going up. He’s going to get even better than he was last year. And they have the makings of a pretty sneaky-good football team. So I’m excited to watch both of those football teams, to see if, after showing signs of having potential, they can really take the next step and be a playoff team.”
Even though he did not experience the same jump from his first to second year as Mariota, Winston still had a strong 2016. The former Florida State quarterback threw for 4,090 yards on a 60.8 completion percentage with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. It was Winston’s second straight season throwing for over 4,000 yards, which is an impressive way to start a career. The third-year QB will have to work on limiting turnovers this season, as his 24 total turnovers was the second-highest among quarterbacks in 2016 (Philip Rivers led the NFL with 28).
Throughout the offseason, it was clear the Buccaneers wanted to give Winston more weapons in the passing game. They signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafted tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Chris Godwin to join an offense that already includes star receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate. Tampa Bay’s passing offense finished in the middle of the pack last year. But with all of the new weapons, they could easily wind up in the top 10 this season.
“I like Tampa Bay. I know it’s the toughest division in football, but they’re primed and ready to go,” said NFL Today analyst Bill Cowher. “I like Jameis Winston. He finished strong. I love DeSean Jackson, along with Mike Evans. Doug Martin is back. Defensively they’re very solid, particularly up front.”
Both Tennessee and Tampa Bay are hoping to ride the play of their young quarterbacks all the way to a postseason berth. The road for Tampa Bay will likely be a bit bumpier, as they play in what Cowher called “the toughest division in football.” However both teams have solid defenses to go with very promising offenses, and should see improvements from their 2016 campaigns. Don’t be surprised to see the Titans and Buccaneers fighting for playoff spots come December.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.