NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Marcus Mariota's athleticism and playmaking ability are what sets him apart from most quarterbacks, and the Tennessee Titans will spend this offseason figuring out how to maximize that skillset without risking his health.
"We have an idea of what plays he may end up running and what plays he may end up handing it off and throwing. We’ve got to be smart, and he’s got to be smart," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. "How much are we going to use him to run the ball? How much harm is he going to put himself in? The risk-reward of when he does run with the football."
The Titans believe they can unleash Mariota without necessarily putting him in more harm.
Mariota has 60 carries in each of the past two seasons, but he had a significant uptick in rushing frequency and success in his last three games last season, including the playoffs -- 22 carries, 143 yards.
Titans players were excited about that version of Mariota, who often made improvisation plays with his legs and carried the team on his back. A few of those players called for a more college-oriented offense in 2018.
The issue with that, of course, is keeping Mariota healthy. The Titans' starting quarterback hasn't played 16 games in an NFL season, and was limited much of last season with a compilation of minor injuries, resulting primarily from when he chose to run.
"The first thing we’re going to be very conscious of is how we can protect the QB. That is the foundation," Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said. "When you do get out of the pocket, whether it’s designed or it goes off-schedule, he has to do a good job of being smart. He’s such a competitor, you can see it on the tape where he’s fighting for extra yards where I’d rather him preserve himself and get down."
Vrabel said the plan is for the players to start offseason workouts April 9 with a finished version of the Titans' offensive plan. From there, the Titans will encourage Mariota to vocalize his comfort in the scheme while working with him to improve his passing.
The core of the offensive scheme will be derived from LaFleur's experiences, particularly last season with the Rams, and offensive line coach Keith Carter's time with Atlanta. LaFleur brings a strong level of expertise working with quarterbacks and the passing game, while Carter will have his hands all over the run game.
Tennessee plans to put a big focus on creating easy throws for Mariota generated off screens, play-action, pocket movement and exploiting mismatches with playmakers. There has also been a lot of talk of scheming receivers open rather than relying on difficult route combinations like how the Titans employed in 2017.
"I told Marcus, 'It’s not going to ever be all about you or me. It’s going to be about us, we and holding the guys around accountable,'" Vrabel told ESPN a few weeks ago. "If he misses a throw, I’ll let everybody know and he’ll know we have to make this. Same with missed blocks and drops. People are going to bitch about Marcus and his completion percentage, but it’s a collective effort."
Vrabel doesn't want Mariota to have to be Superman for the Titans to be successful. That links up with their plan to unleash Mariota, but not necessarily running him more. Navigating that balance will be a yearlong exercise for Vrabel and LaFleur.