NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Drafting a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback brings greater attention and expectations to any NFL team.
For the Tennessee Titans, all this buzz has been missing for years, so Marcus Mariota already has provided a big boost to the bottom line.
Now it’s time to start showing he can help them win on the field.
The Titans report for training camp Thursday trying to rebound from the franchise’s worst season since 1994, a 2-14 campaign that included a 10-game skid to end coach Ken Whisenhunt’s debut season. Whisenhunt persuaded defensive whiz Dick LeBeau to work with coordinator Ray Horton, and the Titans also signed a handful of free agents this offseason, including outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.
They also took Mariota with the No. 2 selection overall, hoping he can key a turnaround for a franchise with one winning record since 2008.
“We’ve got to prove to our fans, we’ve got to prove to a lot of people, we can be a better football team than we were,” Whisenhunt said.
Mariota will be on the field Friday for the first practice as the last of the first-round draft picks to sign, a deal announced nine days before training camp. That keeps the rookie on track to start the preseason opener Aug. 14 at Atlanta and the season opener Sept. 13 at Tampa Bay against top pick Jameis Winston.
Mariota already has impressed coaches and teammates alike with his speed, accuracy and work ethic this offseason. The Titans certainly think the former Oregon star eventually will lead them back to the playoffs, where they’ve been only twice in the past 11 seasons.
“It’ll be exciting to be able to watch him grow and see the type of quarterback he’s going to become,” cornerback Jason McCourty said.
Here are some things to watch in Titans’ camp:
MARIOTA TIME: Getting used to working under center is just one of the challenges Mariota faces in transitioning to an NFL offense from the spread he operated at Oregon. Injuries made that even more difficult, with left guard Andy Levitre forced to snap the ball this offseason. The Titans have tried to surround Mariota with lots of targets, including new wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Harry Douglas, along with rookie Dorial Green-Beckham and veteran tight end Anthony Fasano.
“The only way we can make things easy for him is when he throws you the ball, make a play,” said tight end Delanie Walker, who led the team with 63 catches for 890 yards last season. “We all get paid to make the quarterback look good, and that’s what we got to do this year.”
DGB WATCH: The Titans drafted the 6-foot-5 Green-Beckham in the second round, and he towers head and shoulders over the rest of the wide receivers. He also carries 237 pounds. But he watched most of the offseason after aggravating a hamstring injury during a rookie minicamp, so camp offers him a chance to show what he can do.
LEBEAU EFFECT: The man who turns 78 in September has been a welcome addition for a defense that was among the NFL’s worst last year. He has the Titans’ attention as they try to improve in their second season playing a 3-4 front.
HEALTH UPDATE: Defensive tackle Sammie Hill is expected to be ready for the start of camp after hurting a knee this spring. Both centers, Brian Schwenke and rookie Andy Gallik, are expected to be ready after hamstring injuries.
JUSTIN HUNTER: Arrested July 20 for felonious assault for punching a man July 3 in Virginia, the wide receiver is out on bond with a court-mandated curfew until a hearing Sept. 3 — the day the Titans wrap the preseason by hosting Minnesota. A second-round pick in 2013, Hunter needs a strong preseason as he deals with his legal case.