Marc Mariani did an admirable job in 2016, but it’s time for the Tennessee Titans to find a more dynamic kick and punt returner for 2017.
I hate having to write this article, mainly because Marc Mariani has been a great Titan for many years. His first two years in Tennessee were a godsend. The Tennessee Titans finally had a return man that made smart decisions and could rip off big gains on a consistent basis. Back in 2010, Mariani averaged 25.5 yards per kick return and 12.2 per punt return, while adding a kick and punt return touchdown a piece. In 2011, he averaged 23.8 yards per kick return and 10.7 per punt return, with one punt return touchdown.
But in the preseason of the 2012 year, Mariani suffered a gruesome leg injury that resulted in the end of his time with the Titans and a layoff from NFL football until 2014. He joined the Chicago Bears that year and spent a couple of seasons in the Windy City. His time there was short, lasting just 22 games, and he failed to make much of an impact for the team outside of some good kick returns.
After being released before the start of the 2016 season, the Titans scooped him up to be their main returner. The Titans were coming off a season in which they experimented with the likes of Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey, Harry Douglas, Tre McBride, and even some Perrish Cox on kick and punt returns. Needless to say, the Titans were one of the worst return teams in the league that year. Those faces, and a lone Antonio Andrews kick return, amassed just a 20.6 yard average on kick returns and 8.1 on punt returns. Well below the league average.
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The signing of Mariani wasn’t much of a surprise, as the Titans didn’t have a clear frontrunner in the returner battle. They gave McBride and rookies Kalan Reed and Kevin Byard chances to earn their returning stripes in the preseason, but they failed to make a positive impression. So in came the Montana man, hoping to recreate the magic of his first two years with the Titans. Unfortunately, the Titans’ entire special teams unit was abysmal all year. And Mariani didn’t do much to change that fact.
Mariani 8.1 yards per return (sound familiar?) and 21.5 yards per kick return. He didn’t return any for a touchdown, and his longest punt and kick returns were just 18 and 37 yards, respectively. The lack of a touchdown prolonged a touchdown drought that extends back to the 2012 season, where Darius Reynaud returned two punts and one kickoff for a touchdown. Tommie Campbell also returned a punt for a touchdown that year. That’s four years since the Titans have produced a big play for six in the return game.
Mariani was fine last season. He was smart and knew when to return a kickoff and when to field a punt. But he lacked any type of explosion, he ran stiff, and he didn’t provide big plays in the third phase of the game that’s so important. I would expect Jon Robinson to add some competition at returner this offseason.
We’ve talked a lot about Cordarrelle Patterson, who would be a massive upgrade at the position. Carolina’s Ted Ginn Jr. is getting up there in age, but he could be another option in free agency, as could Atlanta’s Eric Weems. The NFL Draft could also provide a dynamic returner. Defensive backs like University of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, USC’s Adoree Jackson, or Iowa’s Desmond King can fill that void for the Titans. As can offensive players like Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, Washington’s John Ross, or East Carolina’s Zay Jones. The great part about these young guys, is that they will also contribute on offense and defense. We haven’t had a returner who isn’t just on the roster for one sole reason in a while. It’s time to change that.