NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Here's a look at the Super Bowl prospects of the Tennessee Titans, who finished the regular season 9-7 and lost in the divisional playoff round to the New England Patriots.
The tiers consist of: Realistic Super Bowl expectations; Should contend, but there are question marks; Middle of the pack; Lots of work to do; and Nowhere close.
Westgate odds to win Super Bowl LIII: 40-1
Should contend, but there are question marks: The Titans didn't get much respect from the oddsmakers (40-1 was tied for 19th-best, behind the 5-11 Denver Broncos and tied with the 4-12 Indianapolis Colts). Maybe lower national expectations will pay off better for the Titans after their 2017 hype dissolved quickly thanks to an offense that fell short of what many expected.
It all starts with Marcus Mariota, who had his worst year as a pro, throwing for a career-low 13 touchdowns and a career-high 15 interceptions in 2017. There's plenty of excitement around new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who is likely to design an offense better suited for Mariota's strengths such as play-action, run-pass options and pocket movement.
Beyond scheme, the onus will be on Mariota to stay healthy and improve his inconsistent footwork and mechanics.
Head coach Mike Vrabel has the rare responsibility of taking over a team that actually won a game in the playoffs. Will Vrabel be able to get more out of an already strong Titans locker room? How important is his lack of coaching experience? These are questions that can only be answered once the 2018 season begins.
The expectation is Mariota, and the offense as a whole, will be better with a more innovative scheme. The Titans offensive, and sometimes defensive, problems won't all magically disappear with a new coaching staff.
It's up to general manager Jon Robinson to be aggressive, as he typically is, to fill roster holes, make improvements and transition between a Mike Mularkey to Vrabel-type team without taking a step back.
Tennessee has a solid young core of players still on their first contract such as Mariota, running back Derrick Henry, receiver Corey Davis, stout bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, all-pro safety Kevin Byard and cornerback Adoree' Jackson.
Key areas of improvement include adding more young talent to an aging defense -- particularly at edge rusher, which may be the Titans biggest need. Tennessee also could use more coverage specialists, possibly at linebacker and safety, to help better defend tight ends and running backs.
On offense, adding overall speed should be a priority while seeking out depth/competition at running back and receiver. Upgrades at guard seem like a necessity and the backup QB position needs further evaluation.
This Titans team isn't too far from playing in February, but like Doug Pederson on Super Bowl Sunday, aggression and innovation will be key factors as to whether the Titans make that next step toward Super Bowl contender or fall back as a middle of the pack squad.