The Tennessee Titans open training camp July 29 at St. Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tennessee. Here's a closer look at the camp, which wraps up Aug. 18.
Top storyline: Can coach Mike Mularkey and his staff create and shape an offense that puts quarterback Marcus Mariota in the best position to excel? He had the third-best passer rating in franchise history as a rookie (91.5) but has plenty of room to get better. Veteran Rishard Matthews and rookie Tajae Sharpe should help provide better targets. And an offensive line that is now coached by Hall of Famer Russ Grimm added right tackle Jack Conklin in the first round of the draft and is expected to provide far better protection and to plow holes for a new 1-2 punch out of the backfield in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Mariota will be under center more to hand off to an I-formation back and create play-action situations. But the team needs to find time for him to be in shotgun as well.
If the Mariota doesn't fumble ... : ... the Titans can make great gains in turnovers. They were minus-14 in giveaway/takeaway ratio last season. Mariota fumbled 10 times, and the team lost six of them. He has consistently mentioned ball security as an area in which he needs to improve. Better pass protection should help him do that, but he's got to have two hands on the ball and better recognize dangerous situations.
Player who will have fans buzzing: Third-round pick Kevin Byard, a ball-hawking safety out of Middle Tennessee, ranks as the third safety at this point. Free-agent addition Rashad Johnson is the starter at free safety opposite Da'Norris Searcy, the strong safety. If Byard can't break into the starting lineup, he could still earn time on the field as a third safety and will certainly be a key special-teamer. Byard had 19 interceptions in college and brings the team ball skills at defensive back that have been lacking during the last few seasons.
Position battle worth watching: Left guard is up for grabs. Incumbent starter Quinton Spain was in the spot as the offseason ended. Can he stay at the head of the line as the team gets in pads? The challengers are second-year lineman Jeremiah Poutasi, rookie Sebastian Tretola and Brian Schwenke, the center who has been displaced by free-agent addition Ben Jones. Whoever wins it needs to be steady and reliable and not leave room for the Titans to reconsider their choice.
That rookie should start: Former UMass receiver Tajae Sharpe blew past some veterans during the offseason and rated as a starter at the end of the offseason. He's a crisp route-runner who reliably gets where he's supposed to be. He's created a buzz among coaches and fans. Things could change through camp, of course, but if the Titans started the season with a three-wide set of Sharpe, Matthews and Kendall Wright, it could amount to a nice upgrade.
Veteran whose job is in jeopardy: It's possible both Harry Douglas and Justin Hunter will be on the final 53-man roster, depending on how many receivers the team chooses to keep. But Douglas and Hunter also could be outranked by Wright, Matthews, Sharpe and Dorial Green-Beckham. While Douglas can work as a returner, if he's not the lead guy fielding punts or kicks, can the Titans have a fifth and/or sixth receiver who is not a big special-teamer? The fates of Douglas and Hunter will depend on the health of the top wideouts and the depth at other positions.
The Dick LeBeau effect: Now fully the defensive coordinator, LeBeau won't be letting someone else call the plays. I expect two changes of note: 1) More blitzing with exotic twists. The team got burned on a giant third-and-super-long by Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and it was a play that symbolized a big defensive issue. LeBeau will work hard to limit the time a quarterback has to convert such a situation. 2) I expect the propensity for Titans defensive backs to play too far off receivers will come to an end. They should also get their hands on the football more.
Enough pass rushers: Coaches say constantly that they can never have enough pass-rushers. The Titans have three who should be good in Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. When Morgan got hurt last year, the pass rush really suffered. The Titans hope second-round pick Kevin Dodd, who is recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot, can provide them with a third outside linebacker who will round out the group. The Titans need those four guys to be healthy and productive to be the sort of defense LeBeau wants them to be. More pass-rush contributions from young linemen such as DaQuan Jones, Angelo Blackson and Austin Johnson can also help.
What fans will be saying after camp: Mariota has gotten better, and these upgrades around him will give him a chance to succeed. But is Mularkey the right guy for this team and that quarterback? Mularkey is comfortable in the job and can spell out his rationale and thinking very clearly. He said circumstances in head-coaching stints in Buffalo and Jacksonville, and as Tennessee's interim coach last year, were big factors in his 18-39 record as a head coach. These are the best circumstances he's had. But confidence in him won't be high until the team shows it can compete -- and win.
For daily updates at camp, check out the Tennessee Titans clubhouse page.