The promotion of tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator allows the Tennessee Titans to avoid a major overhaul of their system following the departure of 2018 play-caller Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers head coach).
Familiarity for quarterback Marcus Mariota and Co. is helpful, and head coach Mike Vrabel understood this with the decision to ascend Smith in the ranks. However, familiarity doesn’t necessarily translate to continuity in play-calling philosophy. Smith, after all, was a holdover and not a direct hire by Vrabel or a disciple of LaFleur.
What exactly are the Titans getting in Smith as a first-time play-caller? The short answer is no one really knows. He isn’t a product of LaFleur and has no clear style or ultimate lineage. It’s a positive he has been involved with the offensive line in the past, since it was a disaster in 2018 for Tennessee. The intangible aspects no one can address are Smith’s willingness to gamble, his in-game ability to adjust when things aren’t going his way, his disposition on allowing Mariota to check out of plays, and an overall feel for game flow. All of these aspects are crucial game in and game out. Rarely are they ingrained without experience. Some coaches absolutely have a knack or intuition to make the right decisions in key situations without extensive experience, but it is not a given. For every Sean McVay, we’ve seen an endless supply of Todd Downing.
From an experience perspective, Smith joined the Titans in 2011 as a quality control coach and defensive assistant, which gives him an an interesting perspective on constructing an offense. He held those same positions in 2007 and ’08 for the Washington Redskins. Smith manned them for one season with Tennessee and dropped the defensive role to become an offensive assistant coach in addition to his title of quality control coach. In 2013, he became an offensive line coach and assistant tight ends coach. The next season saw Smith get promoted to the full-blast TEs coach with nine remaining games. From 2016-18, Smith solely focused on coaching tight ends.
Working under four coaches in Tennessee, Smith has climbed the ladder within the organization for eight years and has contributed in a substantial way to the Titans consistently fielding capable fantasy tight ends over that span. In 2015, Delanie Walker enjoyed a career season with 94 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns. The next year, at 32, Walker went for a career-best seven scores.
Walker blossomed late in his career, breaking out at 30. From 2014-17, he ranked third in the NFL in yardage at the position. Walker went on to record 139 catches for 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns in his age-32 and 33 seasons combined before a broken ankle and ligament damage ended his 2018 campaign after one game.
Tennessee has no impending free agents who are deal-breakers should they defect. Improving offensive line depth should be of importance, and another receiving option would be a welcomed addition to the passing game.
Fantasy football takeaway
Mariota now enters his fifth season with as many different coordinators. The system won’t be drastically different, which bodes well for him in what has to be considered a make-or-break season for the oft-injured Hawaii product. Durability is a major concern and a huge red flag. Mariota is still raw as a pure passer and doesn’t have the greatest cast of targets. He remains a suspect QB2 and will have a few big-time performances with the right matchups.
The running back position was mostly dormant until the final month of the regular season. Derrick Henry struggled mightily to find room early in the year and then lost touches to Dion Lewis. The latter wasn’t able to create explosive plays that were his 2017 hallmark with the New England Patriots. He scored once in the opening week and that was it on the ground. Lewis added a receiving TD in Week 9 for his only one of the season. As the year progressed, his attempts diminished. Lewis didn’t even carry the ball in the season finale with the playoffs on the line. He averaged 12.2 carries in the first 10 games and just 5.5 in the last six outings, including only one game with at least 10 totes.
The drop in action was due to the emergence of Henry. He, on the other hand, saw his workload explode. During the first six contests, the Alabama standout carried it 12 times a game (0 TDs). Over the next five appearances, he averaged nine touches on the ground (4 TDs). In the last five, Henry went for 19 attempts, on average, with no fewer than 16 handles in the last four weeks (8 TDs). Henry simply looked like it clicked in the last five weeks, and the offensive line played much better in that window.
Fantasy gamers should treat Henry as a high-upside RB2 in summer drafts. He was the No. 12 back in standard scoring after the combustible late-season stretch. Lewis will be 29 before the 2019 season and is a low-end flex or RB4. He has more value in PPR leagues and could rebound with improved touchdown efficiency.
Wide receiver is an interesting position for fantasy purposes. The likelihood this offense produces volume is low based on Mariota’s aerial deficiencies and Vrabel’s preference for a balanced approach. Corey Davis is the most desirable target of this cast, but there is tremendous room for improvement, even after a substantial step forward on his part. Coming from Western Michigan, hampered by limited offensive systems through two years, Davis could emerge in Year 3. Some players simply take longer to develop, and it’s not like he has had stability through his first two seasons. There is potential for a breakout year, even if it is only in the WR2 stats range for fantasy.
Taywan Taylor brings some upside for a step forward in his own right. He is a capable deep threat, even though the numbers through two years haven’t agreed. He will need to make considerable strides in efficiency to matter outside of a few matchups. Unless he makes noise in training camp, Taylor is best left on the wire in most formats.
Tajae Sharpe has flashed at times but is not starter material in the real world and doesn’t warrant fantasy consideration. Tennessee boasts no one else of consequence at the position, and the upcoming market for proven help is limited in a major way.
Walker will be playing in his age-35 season and returning from a significant injury. The history with Smith suggests Walker should be good for another fine fantasy season, provided he is healthy. The positional volatility makes the vet a high-risk, low-end TE1, in the best-case scenario. TEs Anthony Firkser and Jonnu Smith could contribute enough to bump Walker down a peg or two.
“The unknown” is the story of Smith’s promotion to offensive coordinator. Gamers will have to pay attention to reports out of Tennessee practices this upcoming summer. Unfortunately, no one will be able to definitively say how he will call plays in a real-game setting. Cautious optimism is the best policy when assessing anyone in this offense.