NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have spent months being ridiculed as possibly the NFL's worst team, compounding the pain of the franchise's poorest season since 1994.
Now they'll find out just how motivating a 2-14 record can be.
"That's just one thing here that nobody wants to experience, ever again," safety Michael Griffin said.
Not that the Titans are looking back. The biggest benefit of a season that ended with 10 straight losses was the No. 2 overall draft pick, and the Titans believe they found their franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Oregon. Revamping this roster to better fit what coach Ken Whisenhunt wants in his second season in Tennessee means eight starters with two or fewer years of NFL experience.
Combining Mariota with all that youth and key free agents such as three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo has Griffin very excited about this season. The 2007 first-round pick has been on this roster longer than anyone else, and Griffin says he's seen these Titans improve each week.
Still, the Titans have to prove it starting Sunday in Tampa Bay against Jameis Winston, the top pick overall. They also must show they can win at home and convince fans to fill the thousands of seats that stayed empty last season.
"We don't have much equity," Whisenhunt said. "We've got to build that up. The only way you can do that is to consistently do those kinds of things."
Mariota's impressive performance since being drafted has fed the Titans' confidence that they finally have the man to settle down a position where Tennessee has started eight quarterbacks and played nine since trading Steve McNair in June 2006. Mariota was intercepted only once by teammates in training camp, and he posted a 102.9 passer rating this preseason while completing 70 percent of his passes.
"By the end of the season, they'll know who we are," wide receiver Kendall Wright said.
Here are some things to watch with the Titans:
PROTECT MARIOTA: The Titans cut their losses, releasing right tackle Michael Oher in February and benching left guard Andy Levitre before recently trading him to Atlanta for two draft picks. That leaves new left guard Byron Bell as the veteran going into his fifth season after making only one start at guard in his career. This youthful group is being led by left tackle Taylor Lewan, the 11th pick overall last year, with this year's third-round draft pick Jeremiah Poutasi replacing Bell at right tackle.
DEFENSE: Dick LeBeau heads into his 57th NFL season facing the challenge of improving a unit that was next to last stopping the run, and tied for 29th while giving up 27.3 points per game. The defensive schemer has a healthy Orakpo, who has 40 sacks in his six seasons, with linebacker Derrick Morgan on the other side looking to build on a career year. That duo should free DL Jurrell Casey, who earned a lot of attention in 2014 after getting 10 ½ sacks in 2013. The Titans have linebacker Zach Brown healthy after missing last season, and they brought in cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da'Norris Searcy to bolster the secondary.
HURTING D: The Titans placed 15 players on injured reserve last season, and they start this season with a pair of starters recovering from surgery. Cornerback Jason McCourty had his groin repaired Aug. 24 and may not return until after the bye in October. Nose tackle Sammie Hill had his right knee repaired Sept. 2 in an injury that could keep him out of the first three games.
BACKFIELD COMMITTEE: Tennessee didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or a running back with a 100-yard game last season, which is why the Titans ranked 26th, averaging 90.4 yards rushing per game. Mariota, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry at Oregon, didn't show off his legs much this preseason. Rookie David Cobb will miss the first eight weeks on injured reserve-designated to return because of an injured calf. That leaves Bishop Sankey, the first back drafted in 2014; veteran Dexter McCluster; recently acquired Terrance West; and undrafted free agent Antonio Andrews.
CATCHING ON: Free agent signee Harry Douglas joins Wright with 1,000-yard seasons on their resumes. Tight end Delanie Walker led the team in both catches and yards receiving last season, but the Titans need rookie Dorial Green-Beckham to develop after sitting out last season at Oklahoma, and receiver Justin Hunter to show why they traded up in 2013 to pick him.