FAB 2. Bucs Need To Remember The Titans
Tampa Bay and Tennessee are two franchises with talented, young quarterbacks, best friends as general managers and are separated by one win over the past four years. With both teams coming off 2-14 seasons in 2014, the Bucs had the first overall pick and selected Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Titans, which picked second overall, drafted Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who would outshine Winston in a 42-14 thrashing in the 2015 season opening win for Tennessee in Tampa Bay.
Titans’ Record 2014-17
Bucs’ Record 2014-17
But that’s where the similarities stop. The two franchises are seemingly heading in the opposite direction of each other with the Titans on the way up and the Bucs on the way down following the 2017 season.
Both Tampa Bay and Tennessee were supposed to be teams on the rise this year and projected to make the playoffs. The Bucs failed to meet expectations and finished with a disappointing 5-11 record, while the Titans backed into the playoffs thanks to a Week 17 loss by the Baltimore Ravens and ended up upsetting the Chiefs at home in the Wild Card playoff game.
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter was given another year to turn the team around and enters the 2018 season on the hot seat with general manager Jason Licht, whose contract option year was picked up over the summer, on the very warm seat.
Despite back-to-back 9-7 finishes in Tennessee and a surprise playoff win in 2017, the Titans fired head coach Mike Mularkey and could replace him with Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, who has ties to general manager Jon Robinson from their days together in New England where Vrabel was a defensive end and Robinson worked in the scouting department.
If the Bucs want to reverse course and join the Titans as a playoff-caliber team, Licht would be wise to look at what Robinson, his buddy and Tampa Bay’s former director of player personnel from 2014-15. Robinson inherited two key pieces of the Titans offense in left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was a first-round pick in 2014, and Mariota, the team’s first-rounder in 2015. But what he did next propelled Mariota and the Titans to back-to-back winning seasons.
In 2016, his first year in Tennessee, made three key free agent signings to greatly help Mariota. Robinson signed Houston Texans center Ben Jones, who blocked for quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno at Georgia, signed Miami Dolphins wide receiver Rishard Matthews, and traded for Philadelphia running back DeMarco Murray, who was the 2014 Offensive Player of the Year in the NFL.
But Robinson wasn’t done building around Mariota and would add another starting offensive lineman and another premier running back in the draft. Robinson traded away the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the Los Angeles Rams, who took quarterback Jared Goff. Robinson’s deal acquired the 15th overall pick, two second-round picks and a third-rounder. The Titans also got Rams’ first-round pick in 2017 and third-round pick that year.
With tons of draft capital, Robinson traded up to No. 8 with Cleveland to draft right tackle Jack Conklin and acquired a sixth-round pick, in exchange for the 15th overall selection, a third-rounder and a second-rounder in 2017. Armed with three second-round picks, Robinson drafted pass-rushing linebacker Kevin Dodd, who hasn’t panned out, defensive tackle Austin Johnson, who is a starter, and Heisman Trophy winning running back Derrick Henry.
Johnson and Henry were drafted with picks acquired from the trade with the Rams. In the third round, Robinson selected safety Kevin Byard, who has turned into a Pro Bowler. Granted, Robinson benefitted from a windfall situation by trading away the first-round pick, which the Titans could do because they already had a franchise quarterback in Mariota, but he absolutely nailed four of his first five picks.
Licht has had similarly successful drafts in 2015 and ’17, finding four starting-caliber players in each of those drafts, but Robinson has out-drafted him in terms of the caliber of players in his two drafts with the Titans.
TITANS’ 2016 DRAFT
1. OT Jack Conklin – Starter – First-team All-Pro
2. DE Kevin Dodd
2 DT Austin Johnson – Starter
2 RB Derrick Henry – Starter
3 S Kevin Byard – Starter – First-team All-Pro
5 WR Tajae Sharpe – IR
5 CB LeShaun Sims – IR
6 G Sebastian Tretola – no longer with team
7 LB Aaron Wallace – IR
7 CB Kalan Reed
BUCS’ 2016 DRAFT
1. CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Starter
2. DE Noah Spence – Starter
2. K Roberto Aguayo – no longer with team
4. CB Ryan Smith
5. OT Caleb Benenoch
6. LB Devante Bond
6. FB Dan Vitale – no longer with team
TITANS’ 2017 DRAFT
1. WR Corey Davis – Starter
1. CB Adoree` Jackson – Starter
3. WR Taywan Taylor
3. TE Jonnu Smith – Starter
5. LB Jayon Brown
6. G Corey Levin
7. LB Josh Carraway
7. OT Brad Seaton – no longer with team
BUCS’ 2017 DRAFT
1. TE O.J. Howard – Starter
2. S Justin Evans – Starter
3. WR Chris Godwin
3. LB Kendell Beckwith – Starter
5. RB Jeremy McNichols – no longer with team
7. DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu
Robinson has the advantage, not just with two All-Pros in Conklin and Byard, but also the benefit of more picks due to the Rams’ trade. Licht’s biggest gaffe remains drafting Aguayo in the second round of 2016. The Bucs had obtained an extra pick in the fourth round by trading down two spots from No. 9 to No. 11, but burned that pick, in addition to their third-round pick to move up in the second round to select the Florida State kicker.
Licht has invested similar capital in the Bucs’ offensive line – with three high-priced free agents that haven’t panned out in left tackle Anthony Collins, center/guard Evan Smith and right guard J.R. Sweezy, two second-round picks in left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard/center Ali Marpet, and a decent contract extension to right tackle Demar. Yet Tennessee has the advantage due to the fact that Lewan and Conklin were both first-round hits and are Pro Bowl-caliber players.
The biggest difference between Licht and Robinson’s approach has been the weapons that they have acquired for their young franchise quarterbacks. The Bucs have invested in weapons for the passing game for Winston, while the Titans have built a strong ground game for Mariota to lean on.
Which approach has worked better? Tennessee has the edge for several reasons. The first is the formulaic approach outlined in Fab 1 – building a top 10 running game. The Titans are close with a top 15 rushing attack thanks to the one-two punch of Murray and Henry, in addition to Mariota’s scrambling ability.
Titans RB DeMarco Murray – 6-1, 220
2016: 293 carries for 1,287 yards (4.4 avg.) and 9 TDs with a long of 75
53 catches for 377 yards (7.1 avg.) and 3 TDs
2017: 184 carries for 659 yards (3.6 avg.) and 6 TDs with a long of 75
39 catches for 266 yards (6.8 avg.) and 1 TD
Titans RB Derrick Henry – 6-3, 247
2016: 110 carries for 490 yards (4.5 avg.) and 5 TDs with a long of 22
13 catches for 137 yards (10.5 avg.)
2017: 176 carries for 744 yards (4.2 avg.) and 5 TDs with a long of 75
11 catches for 136 yards (12.4 avg.) and 1 TD
2017 playoffs: 35 carries for 184 yards (5.3 avg.) and 1 TD with a long of 35
5 catches for 56 yards (11.2 avg.)
Robinson got a steal in trading for Murray as the Titans and Eagles simply swapped picks in the fourth round in 2016. That’s a trade that quite frankly the Bucs should have made, pairing Murray with Doug Martin – regardless of the fact that both were high-priced running backs.
If Licht has a fault, it’s thinking that a position is filled when probable starters are acquired. Keep in mind that Licht was backed into a corner and essentially forced to re-sign Martin, who had two previous sub-500-yard rushing years prior to 2015 when he rushed for 1,402 yards and made the Pro Bowl in the first year in Koetter’s offense.
What was Licht going to do – not sign the league’s second-leading rusher, especially in Koetter’s first year as a head coach? He would have been chased around town by Bucs fans with pitchforks and torches for letting Martin walk in free agency. Licht did have his doubts about re-signing Martin because he waited until the eleventh hour, held his nose and got the contract done.
But what Licht should have done immediately there after is not believe that the real Martin was the 1,400-yard guy in the contract year, but rather the sub-500-yard guy the two previous seasons in 2013 and ’14, because that’s who he is – evidenced by two more sub-500-yard seasons in ’16 and ’17. He should have signed Martin and then signed another highly talented running back or do what the Titans did and draft Henry with a premium pick even though they just acquired Murray, who signed an extension worth $6.3 million per season.
Another example of this faulty thinking is when the Bucs had the chance to sign former Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden when he was released from the Browns last September, the Bucs passed because Licht had Brent Grimes, who made $8 million per year, and Vernon Hargreaves, a former first-round pick, penciled in as starters. Haden would command a huge contract averaging $9 million per year for three years in Pittsburgh, and where would he play in Tampa Bay Licht thought – nickel cornerback?
That’s the wrong approach. The right approach would have been to sign Haden and let him and Hargreaves battle it out for the right to start – even if it meant that Hargreaves, the 11th overall pick the previous year, would be forced to play nickel, which is what ultimately happened in 2017 anyways when Hargreaves failed outside. Doesn’t a lineup of Haden, Grimes and Hargreaves sound way more appealing than Ryan Smith, Grimes and Hargreaves?
Now the Bucs have to either spend a premium draft pick this year on a cornerback – instead of another position of need like defensive end, defensive tackle, guard, safety or running back – or spend a good chunk of change in free agency signing a quality starter instead of doing it last year.
The same faulty approach was applied at running back in Tampa Bay where Martin was re-signed in 2016 to a lucrative contract extension, but failed to produce due to injuries and drug usage, which prompted a four-game suspension. When healthy and focused, Martin has proven to be a quality starting-caliber running back. But Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber aren’t in Martin’s league when it comes to talent, and Licht didn’t find another running back with a similar caliber.
So when Martin failed to produce at a high level, Tampa Bay’s ground game became a weakness. That meant more passes for Winston, and more passes for a young quarterback means a greater likelihood for interceptions and fumbles, which has happened.
Remember, the easiest thing for a young quarterback to do is turn around and hand the ball off to a running back. Despite the fact that Winston has broken several passing records in his first three years in the NFL, unless your last name is Marino, Brees, Manning or Brady, it’s not necessarily a good thing to throw for 300 yards a game and over 4,000 yards in a season. It often means that a team doesn’t have a good enough running game, and as we’ve seen this year, the teams that are in the hunt for the Super Bowl all have top 10 running games.
In Tennessee, Robinson acquired a Pro Bowl-caliber player in Murray and then spent a high second-round pick on Henry a month later to give Mariota a significant one-two punch that would better aid in his development than an extra tight end or wide receiver would. Those players would come later a year later in the 2017 draft when Robinson drafted Davis, Taylor and Smith for Mariota to throw to – after he shored up the ground game in 2016.
Over the past two years Murray and Henry have combined to have nine 100-yard games between them (Murray 6, Henry 3) in Tennessee, while Tampa Bay has produced just three 100-yard games over the same span with Rodgers producing two in 2016 and Peyton Barber with one last year. Martin’s last 100-yard game came in November in 2015. He will be released this offseason as a result.
Over the past two years the Bucs have given Winston plenty of weapons in the passing game at wide receiver with Godwin and free agent DeSean Jackson, and another tight end in O.J. Howard to complement Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate. But Tampa Bay has failed to give Winston a very good ground game to rely on. As a result, more pressure has been put on the young quarterback in the second and third years of his development and that has led to more turnovers by Winston and fewer wins by the Bucs as a result.
Marcus Mariota Career Stats
2015: 12 games – 230-of-370 (62.2 percent) passing for 2,818 yards
19 TDs / 10 INTs with 10 fumbles, 3 fumbles lost and a 91.5 QB rating
34 carries for 252 yards (7.4 avg.) with 2 TDs, 2 fumbles, 0 fumbles lost
2016: 15 games – 276-of-451 (61.2 percent) passing for 3,426 yards
26 TDs / 9 INTs with 9 fumbles, 2 fumbles lost and a 95.6 QB rating
60 carries for 349 yards (5.8 avg.) with 2 TDs, 7 fumbles, 3 fumbles lost
2017: 15 games – 281-of-453 (62 percent) passing for 3,232 yards
13 TDs / 15 INTs with 2 fumbles, 1 fumble lost and a 79.3 QB rating
60 carries for 312 yards (5.2 avg.) with 5 TDs, 2 fumbles, 1 fumble lost
Mariota’s 3-Year Totals
787-of-1,274 (61.8 percent) passing for 9,476 yards
58 TDs / 34 INTs with 21 fumbles, 6 fumbles lost and a 88.6 QB rating
154 carries for 913 yards (5.9 avg.) with 9 TDs
Jameis Winston Career Stats
2015: 16 games – 312-of-535 (58.3 percent) passing for 4,042 yards
22 TDs / 15 INTs with 6 fumbles, 4 fumbles lost and an 84.2 QB rating
54 carries for 213 yards (3.9 avg.) with 6 TDs, 3 fumbles and 1 fumble lost
2016: 16 games – 345-of-567 (60.8 percent) passing for 4,090 yards
28 TDs / 18 INTs with 10 fumbles, 3 fumbles lost an 86.1 QB rating
53 carries for 165 yards (3.1 avg.) with 1 TD, 4 fumbles and 1 fumble lost
2017: 13 games 282-of-442 (63.8 percent) 3,504 yards
19 TDs / 11 INTs with 15 fumbles, 7 fumbles lost and a 92.2 QB rating
33 carries for 135 yards (4.1 avg.) with 1 TD, 4 fumbles and 1 fumble lost
Winston’s 3-Year Totals
939-of-1,544 (60.8 percent) passing for 11,636 yards
69 TDs / 44 INTs with 31 fumbles, 14 fumbles lost and an 87.2 QB rating
140 carries for 513 yards (3.7 avg.) with 8 TDs
The big takeaway is that in the passing game, Winston has 270 more pass attempts in two more games than Mariota and has thrown for 2,160 yards and 11 more touchdowns, but also 10 more interceptions and accounted for 10 more fumbles and eight more fumbles lost. Yards don’t win games, and for every extra touchdown Winston has thrown versus Mariota it has come with twice the amount of turnovers.
The biggest way the Bucs can help Winston reduce the amount of turnovers is to remember the Titans, and give him a stout ground game with two elite starting-caliber running backs who are each capable of rushing for 1,000 yards. Licht needs to look west to Tennessee and see how Robinson has built a ground game to aid Mariota’s development and help the Titans make the playoffs even when Mariota has a bad year, as he did this past season.