The Titans decision to sign Ryan Tannehill this offseason gave fans a clue that Marcus Mariota’s grasp on the starting quarterback job wasn’t all that firm. If Taylor Lewan is forced to serve a four game suspension to start the season under the NFL’s PED policy, Mariota could lose the job altogether.
For the record, Lewan insists that he’s innocent and promises to appeal his positive test for a banned substance. Other than the talented left tackle himself, Mariota is the player with the most on the line when it comes to any potential appeal.
The fifth-year quarterback endured his worst season as a professional in 2018. Mariota’s passing yards total of just 2,528 yards represents the worst output of his NFL career. His touchdown to interception ratio of just 11:8 really illustrates how ineffective Mariota was at the helm of the Tennessee offense. The organization would like to believe his struggles were purely related to his injury issues, but regular observers of the Titans understand just how inconsistent Mariota can be when there’s any sort of chaos around him.
That’s precisely why forming a comfortable pocket for their somewhat-brittle quarterback is such a priority for the Titans this season. Losing a left tackle of Lewan’s caliber for any meaningful stretch of time could destroy Tennessee’s efforts to creative a peaceful ecosystem for Mariota.
It’s unclear exactly how the Titans might try to shuffle their offensive line without Lewan in the mix. Austin Pasztor is currently listed as the backup at left tackle, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be thrown into the starting lineup. Look for either Jack Conklin or Dennis Kelly to move over from right tackle to fill in during Lewan’s absence.
Neither player can give Mariota quality protection. Lewan is a Pro Bowl caliber offensive lineman. One of his greatest strengths as a player is keeping opposing edge rushers off balance. With Lewan out of action, Mariota will need to worry about pressure emanating from his blindside on a regular basis.
That’s not a good situation for a quarterback who is playing for his future with the franchise. Mariota is slated to make over $20 million this season in the last year of his current deal with the Titans. Ideally, he’d like to turn in a career season that could entrench him as his team’s starter for years to come. If he doesn’t enjoy the most productive campaign of his career in 2019, the Titans will face a massive decision about his future in the offseason.
It’s very easy to envision a scenario where the Titans decide their future under center lies elsewhere. The 2020 Draft projects to have a very strong group of signal callers for teams to choose from. If Mariota can’t prove that he’s capable of leading the team to a deep postseason run, the franchise should shift gears and give another quarterback the chance to do so.
Letting Mariota hit free agency would also free up cap room for the Titans to address other needs on their roster. Retaining him would likely cause the team to give him a multi-year deal paying him an absolute minimum of $15 million per year. Any quarterback they select in the draft will represent significant cap savings compared to that potential number. A number of NFL teams have used cap savings during a rookie quarterback’s deal to make aggressive signings at other positions. The Titans might decide that’s their best route towards forging a Super Bowl contender.
All of the uncertainty surrounding Mariota and his protection make it easy to understand why the Titans have the longest odds in the division to secure the AFC South crown. Right now, you can get odds as long as 7:1 for Tennessee to best the favored Colts to win the division outright.
This isn’t the year to back the Titans to make any sort of magic. It will take a breakout campaign from Mariota to get this offense anywhere near a top-10 unit in the league. There’s much more potential for the Titans to finish at the bottom of the AFC than there is for them to make a meaningful postseason run. Mike Vrabel might turn this team into contenders one day, but that day won’t occur during the 2019 season.