Tennessee Titans 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Prior to a couple of seasons ago, the Titans had not been known for their offense in recent memory, as they went almost two decades without a top-10 finish in first down rate for a season. That changed in 2019, when they finished 9th, and more specifically the change was when the Titans inserted veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill into the starting lineup, replacing inconsistent and injury prone former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota midway through a week 6 loss. Tannehill kept the job the rest of the way, a stretch that saw the Titans rebound from a 2-4 start to go 7-3 in their final 10 regular season games to make the post-season at 9-7, where they pulled a pair of upsets on the road en route to a surprising AFC Championship appearance.

Tannehill was not the only reason for the Titans success during that stretch and I will get into that more later, but he was a clear upgrade at quarterback and allowed an otherwise talented offense to shine. PFF’s top ranked quarterback, Tannehill finished the 2019 regular season with a 117.5 QB rating that also led the NFL, completing 70.3% of his passes for an average of 9.59 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and, while his playoff numbers were underwhelming, as he completed just 36 of 60 for 369 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception in 3 games, the Titans still decided to lock Tannehill up long-term as a free agent last off-season, signing him a 4-year, 118 million dollar deal that functionally guarantees him 91 million through 3 seasons.

As surprising as the Titans’ AFC Championship run was, it was an even more surprising turn of events for Tannehill. In seven seasons in Miami after being selected 8th overall in 2012, Tannehill never posted higher than a 93.5 QB rating or ranked higher than 9th on PFF for a season, and he was especially disappointing at the end of his tenure, missing 24 games with injury in his final 3 seasons and finishing dead last on PFF among 39th eligible quarterbacks in his final season with the team in 2018. That led to Tannehill having to take a pay cut down to 7 million plus incentives for the 2019 season, with the Dolphins paying 5 million of that just to get the Titans to take him off their hands for a mid round pick. A year later, the Titans were guaranteeing him 91 million and, as crazy as it sounds, it was an understandable decision at the time.

It was also a decision that largely paid off in year one, as Tannehill continued to play at a high level, ranking 6th among quarterbacks on PFF, completing 65.5% of his passes for an average of 7.94 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions (106.5 QB rating) and leading an offense that was improved even from 2019, with Tannehill now the season long starter, as they ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate over expected. Unfortunately, while the Titans did exceed 2019’s win total as well in a 11-5 season, they did not exceed their playoff performance, falling short at home in the first round.

Tannehill again struggled in the playoff game, completing 18 of 32 for 165 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, which is starting to become a worrying theme for a quarterback making significant money, but the bigger problem for the Titans last season was their defense, which was almost the polar opposite of their offense, ranking 30th in first down rate allowed over expected, leading to the Titans ranking just 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.31%, despite their record. 

Normally teams with strong offenses and weak defenses can expect their defense to improve more than their offense declines the following season, leading to overall improvement, but the Titans are starting from a lower base point than their 2019 record suggests. Not only did the Titans benefit from a 7-2 record in one-score games last season, but they also had a league leading +11 turnover margin, which is one of the least predictive team stats from year-to-year, and they faced one of the easiest schedules in the league as well.

On top of that, there are reasons to be considered with Tannehill and this offense. Tannehill’s contract may have been justifiable, but it was part of the reason why the Titans lacked financial flexibility this off-season, which caused the Titans to lose four players this off-season who started week one for them on offense in 2020. In addition, the Titans lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the Falcons and his ascension to the Titans’ offensive coordinator job two off-seasons ago coincided with this team’s rise and Ryan Tannehill’s improvement. The Titans are also highly reliant on running back Derrick Henry, arguably even more so than Tannehill, despite Tannehill’s impressive statistical production and, while Henry is clearly one of the best runners of the football in the league, rushing production tends to be much less consistent year-to-year than passing production, which I will get into more later.

All of this is especially a concern because, as well as Tannehill has played over the past two seasons, he still has a significantly longer history of struggling in Miami with lesser supporting casts and coaching. If the Titans can’t be as good around the quarterback or as well coordinated as they have been over the past two seasons, the effects of that could compound with Tannehill’s play dropping off significantly, as well as the play of his supporting cast. If the Titans can’t be noticeably improved on defense, they could have a tough time even topping .500 in 2021.

One particular concern for this Titans offense is their lack of a proven backup quarterback with Logan Woodside, who has just 3 career pass attempts since being drafted in the 7th round in 2018, and Deshone Kizer, last seen as the primary starting quarterback of the 0-16 Browns, currently being their only other quarterbacks on the roster. The Titans were lucky in general last year with injuries, with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, but they were also the only team in the league whose starting quarterback and featured running back(s) didn’t miss any time due to injury, something that could easily not repeat itself in 2021, which would especially comprise this team’s chances to win games. Even if Tannehill doesn’t play as well as he has the past two seasons, the Titans badly need him to continue to stay healthy and not revert to his injury prone days from the end of his tenure in Miami.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, as well as Ryan Tannehill has played over the past two seasons, this offense has been very reliant on running back Derrick Henry playing at a high level. Not only has Henry produced at a high level himself, but the threat of him carrying the ball has led to the Titans having one of the best play action passing games in the league, as Tannehill ranked 3rd in the NFL in 2019 with an increase of 5.7 YPA on play action plays vs. non-play action plays and then ranked 6th in 2020 with an increase of 2.8 YPA.

A second round pick in 2016, Henry didn’t make a huge impact in his first two seasons in the league, rushing for 490 yards and 5 touchdowns touchdowns on 110 carries (4.45 YPC) as a rookie and then 744 yards and 5 touchdowns on 176 carries (4.23 YPC) as a sophomore, but he broke out in his third season in year, rushing for 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries (4.93 YPC) and he has continued to improve his rushing totals in every season since, rushing for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 carries (5.08 YPC) in 2019 and then rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns on 378 carries (5.36 YPC) in 2020, becoming just the 8th running back to surpass 2000 rushing yards in a season. He also finished as PFF’s #1 ranked running back in rushing grade last season, his 3rd straight season in the top-10 at his position.

In Henry’s breakout third season in 2018, he began the season with more of the same from his first two seasons, rushing for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns on 90 carries (3.33 YPC) in the first 8 games of the season, before exploding for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns on 125 carries (6.07 YPC) in the final 8 games of the season. He has continued that trend in 2019 and 2020 as well, rushing for 3.85 YPC on 151 carries in the first 8 games in 2019, followed by 6.31 YPC on 152 carries in the final 8 games, and then in 2020, rushing for 4.63 YPC on 182 carries in the first 8 games in 2019, followed by 6.03 YPC on 196 carries in the final 8 games. A uniquely bruising running back at 6-3 247, Henry seems to get noticeably better as defenses get tired as seasons go on, averaging over 6 yards per carry in the second half of each of the past three seasons.

All of this being said, there is concern that Henry won’t be able to keep this up. Running backs are notoriously injury prone as a position group, but beyond that, running game production also tends to be much more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than passing game production. In fact, there is almost no history of a running back producing like Henry did last season and then repeating it the following season. Of the 22 running backs ever to rush for more than 1,700 yards in a season, only 7 of them ever surpassed that total again in their career, only one of them repeated it a third time, only 3 surpassed that total again the following season, and only 2 improved their rushing total.

In total those 22 running backs rushed for an average of 1,867 yards on 367 carries (5.09 YPC) and 15 touchdowns in 30 total seasons with more than 1,700 rushing yards, but the following season, they saw their YPC fall by 13.9%, their carries fall by 23.7%, their rushing yards fall by 34.3%, and their rushing touchdowns fall by a whopping 41.8%. Applying those percentages to Henry’s 2020 production gets 1,332 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 288 carries (4.62 YPC), which are good totals and he’ll get a 17th game to add to them this season, but if Henry is only good instead of incredible, it’s not hard to see how this offense could fall significantly, especially given the other losses they have on this offense. He could especially struggle by his standards early in the season, like he has over the past three seasons, before turning it up in the second half of the season again.

The worst case scenario would obviously be a Henry injury, especially because they lack a proven backup behind him. The Titans used a 3rd round pick in 2020 on Darrynton Evans to be that backup and it’s possible he still could develop into that, but he barely played as a rookie, seeing just 16 touches on 33 carries. Instead, it was veteran journeyman Jeremy McNichols who ranked 2nd on this team with 271 snaps by a running back, primarily spelling Henry in passing situations, where Henry notoriously struggles (his 19 career catches in 2020 were a career back). Despite being a passing down back specialist, he really struggled in that aspect of the game as well, averaging just 0.36 yards per route run and 3.24 yards per target. 

McNichols didn’t do much as a runner either, averaging 4.34 YPC on 47 carries. McNichols remains on the roster and could remain in his backup role, but the 2017 5th round pick bounced around 7 teams in his first 3 seasons in the league and managed just 2 carries over that span, so he really doesn’t have much of a track record at all. The Titans are almost definitely hoping Evans can show more in year two and beat McNichols out for the passing down specialist role. Either way, neither back figures to see more than a few carries per game and the Titans would be in trouble regardless of which one would be the lead back in Henry’s absence.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Note: This was written before the Julio Jones trade, which I get into in the conclusion.

The group on this offense that lost the most this off-season is the receiving corps, which saw 4 of its top-6 in receiving yards leave this off-season, including #2 wide receiver Corey Davis, starting tight end Jonnu Smith, and week one starting slot receiver Adam Humphries, who was ultimately limited to just 7 games by injuries that led to his release this off-season. The Titans also did very little to replace them, only signing middling veteran Josh Reynolds in free agency and adding a pair of draft picks in the 4th and 6th round. #1 receiver AJ Brown remains and Reynolds is expected to start opposite him, but he may be overmatched in a #2 receiver role and the Titans will need at least one other unproven young player to step up as the 3rd receiver.

Brown should benefit from the losses around him in this receiving corps by seeing more balls come his way, which should benefit a player who has averaged a league leading 2.66 yards per route run and and a league leading 11.1 yards per target since entering the league two off-seasons ago as a second round rookie, but he also figures to see a lot more frequent double teams without another consistent option in this passing game to take away coverage, which will almost definitely hurt his efficiency. Now in his third season in the league, Brown still looks likely to have the best statistical year of his career due to the lack of other targets in the passing game, but he’s also unlikely to be as efficient, which figures to hurt this offense as a whole.

Reynolds, meanwhile, was never more than the #3 or #4 receiver with the Rams in the first four seasons of his career, after being drafted in the 4th round in 2017. His 52/618/2 slash line from last season was a career high, but even still his 1.26 yards per route run average was unimpressive and only a minor improvement over his 1.19 career yards per route run average. Reynolds should get more opportunity than he ever has before (his career high is 81 targets), even on a Titans team that figures to be run heavy once again, but he’s likely to be overmatched as a #2 receiver and even if he does post decent receiving totals, he probably won’t be very efficient.

As for the #3 receiver role, the Titans don’t have a clear option. Cameron Batson is their top returning receiver behind AJ Brown, but he had just a 12/100/1 slash line and has averaged just 0.69 yards per route run for his career since going undrafted in 2018. 2020 undrafted free agent Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was even less productive last season, catching just 3 passes and averaging 0.52 yards per route run. The Titans signed veteran Chester Rogers in free agency, but he averaged just 1.04 yards per route run in 4 seasons with the Colts from 2016-2019 and was out of the league entirely in 2020. Unless one of their rookies, 4th rounder Dez Fitzpatrick or 6th rounder Racey McMath, can step up in a big way, the Titans have a very thin wide receiver group.

Tight end Jonnu Smith is also gone and, while his 41/448/8 slash line from 2020 is both underwhelming and a career high, he has been better than that suggests, averaging 1.64 yards per route run and 8.14 yards per target over the past two seasons. His raw totals are the result of splitting time with other tight ends and of being asked to block on 61.1% of his snaps over that stretch, both in the run game in this run-heavy offense and as a pass protector as well. The Titans did not replace him in free agency and will instead rely on bigger roles from the two tight ends that Smith was rotating with.

Geoff Swaim is a blocking specialist who has just 57 career catches in 53 games, so the majority of tight end targets figure to go to Anthony Firkser, a 2017 undrafted free agent who has flashed potential over the past three seasons, but is a projection to a larger role. He’s never run more than 232 routes in a season, but he has a career 1.69 yards per route run average as a rotational tight end, so he does have obvious upside. 

Whether or not Firkser can translate that into a larger role is a question though, as is his run blocking, so, even though the Titans have still other tight ends, the Titans will still miss Jonnu Smith, their most complete and productive tight end. That is especially true when you consider how thin the Titans are at wide receiver as well. Outside of AJ Brown, who figures to see frequent double teams, the Titans really are lacking for consistent, proven pass catching options.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Titans also lost right tackle Dennis Kelly this off-season, the second straight off-season they lost their starting right tackle. Jack Conklin last off-season was a bigger loss because he was a better player, but the Titans look likely to start unproven second round rookie this season Dillon Radunz in place of Kelly, who last season was a solid starter in place of Conklin. Originally, Kelly wasn’t supposed to be the replacement for Conklin, as the Titans used their first round pick last year on an offensive tackle in Isaiah Wilson, but Wilson proved to be one of the bigger draft busts in recent memory. 

Not only did Wilson lose to journeyman backup Dennis Kelly in the starting right tackle competition, but he didn’t impress the coaching staff enough to get on the field even as the Titans also lost their first and second string left tackles to injury and he caused enough headaches off the field for the Titans to send him to the Dolphins for a late round pick this off-season. That proved to be a relatively smart move, as Wilson never reported to the Dolphins and was released for nothing a couple weeks later.


If the Titans don’t want to start the rookie Radunz to begin the season, their options are limited to swing tackle types in Ty Sambrailo, David Quessenberry, and Kendall Lamm. Sambrailo was a 2nd round pick of the Broncos back in 2015, but the 5 starts he made last season when left tackle Taylor Lewan went down for the season were a career high and he was underwhelming, as he has been throughout his career. 

Sambrailo also suffered a season ending injury of his own, leaving David Quessenberry to make the first 6 starts of his career in his absence and he was underwhelming as well, in his first extended playing experience. A 6th round pick in 2013, Quessenberry’s career was put on hold for several years due to cancer treatments, but, as impressive as his journey and ascension to the starting lineup last season is, he’s already heading into his age 31 season and would be an underwhelming season long starting option. 

Kendall Lamm was added to the mix in free agency, after spending the past two seasons as a swing tackle with the Browns. Lamm made 13 starts for the Texans in 2018, but was underwhelming and has otherwise made just 14 starts in his other five seasons in the league. If any of the Titans’ veterans have to start at right tackle, it would be a bad sign for the rookie and it would likely make right tackle a position of weakness, which could be the case even if Radunz wins the job, although he’d obviously give them the highest upside of their options.

Fortunately, the Titans will benefit from getting left tackle Taylor Lewan back after he was limited to just 237 snaps in 5 games last season. Lewan is coming off of a major injury and is now heading into his age 30 season, but he’s been an above average starting left tackle for this team since the Titans selected him in the first round in 2014, making 85 starts over that stretch and maxing out as PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2016. 

Lewan did show some signs of slowing down even before the injury and, though that was in a small sample size, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play less than his best in his return. Lewan has also missed time with injury in five of seven seasons in the league. Even still, the Titans will take it compared to last season, as, even at less than his best, Lewan should still be a solid starter at one of the game’s most important positions and should be expected to play at least most of the season. Whoever loses the right tackle battle will also provide depth on the left side and would step in if needed, so the Titans don’t have terrible depth.

On the interior, the Titans return all three starters, left tackle Rodger Saffold, center Ben Jones, and right guard Nate Davis, but there are concerns with Saffold heading into his age 33 season, Jones heading into his age 32 season, and with the trio missing just one game between them last season, something that might not continue into 2021. Saffold and Jones still played well last season, ranking 16th among guards and 4th among centers on PFF respectively, but they could easily regress this season, given their ages. They also are both on streaks of 5 straight seasons and 9 straight seasons respectively where they have started at last 15 games and earned an above average grade from PFF, but I would bet against them both doing so this season, as it’s likely at least one of them will significantly decline and/or get hurt.

Davis is much younger than Saffold and Jones, going into just his third season in the league since being selected in the 3rd round by the Titans in 2019. Davis might not be as good as he was last season either though. His 18th ranked finish among guards on PFF well exceeded his rookie rank of 81st out of 82 eligible (in 12 starts), so it’s possible he regresses a little, but he also may have turned a corner as a player and will continue developing into an above average starter, after being overmatched as a rookie. Overall, this offensive line has more questions going into the season than they have had the past few seasons, but the return of left tackle Taylor Lewan will obviously benefit them and it’s possible they could be an above average unit if they can stay relatively healthy.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

While the Titans had problems last season throughout their defense, which was one of the worst in the league, nowhere did they have a bigger problem than their pass rush, specifically their edge rush. The Titans had the third fewest sacks in the league last season with 19 and, aside from Harold Landry and his 5.5 sacks, they didn’t have a single edge rusher with more than a single sack last season. 

That was a massive disappointment for a team that made big investments in the position last off-season, signing Jadevon Clowney to a 1-year, 13 million dollar deal and Vic Beasley to a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar deal, only to watch neither of them manage a sack all season or to finish the season healthy with the team, with Beasley being released midway through the season after being benched and Clowney going on injured reserve after week 10, before signing with the Browns on another one-year deal in free agency this off-season.

With limited financial flexibility, in part due to the big contract they gave Tannehill last off-season, it didn’t seem like the Titans would be able to make the same kind of financial investment at the position this off-season and instead would have to address the position in the draft, but the Titans released players at other positions, most notably cornerback, to free up the money to sign Steelers edge defender Bud Dupree to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that guarantees him 34 million over the next two seasons. The Titans then used that first round pick on a cornerback, as well as a third round pick, and I will get into all of that in the cornerback section, but it’s very possible that Dupree will not prove to be worth what the Titans paid him and that the team will be worse off for having cut salary at other positions to hand him a big contract.

A first round pick in 2015, Dupree looked like a bust in his first four seasons in the league, with 20 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate in 54 games and unremarkable play against the run and, while he broke out with a 11.5-sack season in 2019, his peripheral pass rush stats were not as impressive, as he totaled 9 hits and just a 9.4% pressure rate, suggesting his sack total was more the product of playing on a talented defense with disruptive players all around him. 

Dupree played the run well in 2019 though and overall finished 24th among edge defenders on PFF, but that was an obvious outlier in his career, so the Steelers franchise tagged him for 2020 rather than giving him a long-term extension, making Dupree prove it again. He did not, finishing with 8 sacks, 10 hits, a 11.8% pressure rate, and a middling grade from PFF, before tearing his ACL in December. It seemed like all that would hurt his stock significantly in free agency, but it did not, with the Titans handing out a contract that looks even worse when compared with the cold markets most free agents were met with in a reduced cap year. A player who has never posted an impressive sack total without dominant players around him and who has a concerning injury history, Dupree is the prototype of an edge defender that winds up not being worth his contract.

Dupree will start opposite Harold Landry, who was the only edge defender who did anything beneficial for this team last season. Landry was only a middling edge defender, earning a middling grade from PFF and totaling 5.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate, but that was better than the rest of the position group. That is also in line with what we’ve seen from him in 3 seasons in the league since being selected in the 2nd round in 2018, as he’s totaled 19 sacks, 24 hits, and a 9.5% pressure rate in 47 career games. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he still has another level that he will show this season, but he also could easily remain just a middling starter.

Depth is also a major concern at this position, as their only other edge defender addition this off-season was 4th round pick Rashad Weaver and their top returning reserve is Derick Roberson, a 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled on 248 snaps in the first significant experience of his career, not managing a sack and totaling just 2 hits and a 7.6% pressure rate. Weaver has some upside and could easily win the top reserve job as a rookie, but both would likely be overmatched if they had to see significant action.

Harold Landry played the most snaps among edge defenders in the league last season, after ranking 3rd in 2019, and, even with Dupree coming off of a major injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of them rank among the league leaders in snaps per game at their position because of the Titans lack of depth options. That figures to make them less efficient on a per snap basis and leave them more susceptible to injury, in which case the Titans would be in big trouble. This position group is better than a year before, but only by default, as it’s still a shaky group overall.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Titans are better on the interior, with a group led by 2019 1st round pick Jeffrey Simmons, who may already be their best defensive player. The Titans took a major chance on Simmons when they selected him 19th overall because he had off-the-field concerns and was coming off of a torn ACL suffered in the pre-draft process that caused him to ultimately miss the first 6 games of his career. However, Simmons would have been a likely top-5 pick if not for the injuries and off-the-field concerns and he showed why by making an instant impact as a rookie and not looking back since. 

Simmons flashed on 315 rookie year snaps, particularly against the run, and took a big step forward in his second season, another year removed from the injury. Remaining a dominant run stuffer, Simmons added 3 sacks, 11 hits, and a 7.6% pressure rate from the interior and ended the season as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender overall. Still only going into his age 24 season, Simmons looks like he could develop into one of the better players at his position in the entire league over the next few seasons and, while development isn’t always linear, I would expect another strong season from him in 2021, now over two years removed from his injury.

The Titans lost DaQuan Jones, a long-time starting interior defender and high level run defender for this team, but they replaced him with another veteran in Denico Autry, who seems likely to take over Jones’ old job. Jones and Autry are very dissimilar players though, as Jones is a big 6-4 320 run stuffer who can play some nose tackle, but has just a 5.8% career pressure rate with 9 sacks in 99 games, while Autry is built more like a big edge defender at 6-5 270. He leaves something to be desired against the run, but at the same time, he’s compiled 30.5 sacks, 27 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate in 96 career games. Autry is going into his age 31 season and coming off of a middling overall season with the Colts, so he’s unlikely to be a huge impact player, but he could easily remain a solid starter for a team that badly needed a replacement for Jones.

Autry could also play on the edge at times, to help mask their lack of depth at that position, but that would expose their lack of depth on the interior, which remains a significant concern. No Titans reserve interior defender played more than 197 snaps last season and that player, Matt Dickerson, is no longer with the team, leaving 2020 5th round pick Larrell Murchison as their likely top reserve, even though he struggled mightily on 136 snaps as a rookie. 

Teair Tart, a 2020 undrafted free agent, has some experience on the nose and will likely see a bigger role in base packages with Jones gone, but he also struggled mightily on 155 rookie season snaps. Aside from Tart and Dickerson, inexperienced in their own right, the Titans don’t have any experienced reserves. Simmons is a high level interior defender and Autry is a capable if aging starter, but they are relying on lowly drafted or undrafted second young guys who struggled in limited action as a rookie as their top reserves, so depth is a major concern, especially if injuries strike.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

One key free agent the Titans brought back this off-season was linebacker Jayon Brown, who returns on a one-year deal worth 5.3 million. At one point, it looked like Brown could become one of the highest paid off ball linebackers in the league when he eventually signed his new contract, as the 2017 5th round pick broke out in his second season in the league in 2018, finishing 8th among off ball linebackers on PFF, and then followed that up with a 17th ranked finish in 2019, especially excelling in coverage in both seasons. 

However, a combination of things led to Brown having to take that team friendly deal. First, Brown had a down season in 2020, still covering well, but getting exposed in a big way against the run and falling to 24th among off ball linebackers on PFF. Making matters even worse, his season was limited to 10 games, being ended by an elbow injury that gave teams pause in free agency and dampened his market.

When you add in the reduced cap from lost ticket sales in 2020, you end up with a player who is still very much in his prime in his age 26 season who is one of the best every down linebackers in the league at his best settling for a one-year deal that pays him a third of the top players at his position. Even if it’s only for one year, it’s a smart deal that should pay off for the Titans, as Brown would be worth that salary even if he plays like he did last season, in his worst season as a starter.

Brown returning is especially important when you look at the rest of this linebacking corps. Fellow starter Rashaan Evans was a first round pick in 2018, but has yet to live up to his promise, earning below average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league (39 starts), especially struggling in coverage. Meanwhile, David Long, a 2019 6th round pick, struggled on 378 snaps in the first significant action of his career in place of the injured Brown last season. 

Had Brown not been brought back, the Titans would have had to start Evans and Long together, but instead Brown will start opposite Evans, who the Titans will be hoping can finally take a step forward in his fourth year in the league, and Long will be a reserve, a role he is more qualified for. The Titans also added Georgia’s Monty Rice in the 3rd round to give them even more depth at the position. He’ll begin his career as a reserve, but the long-term plan is likely for him to start, with Brown on a one-year deal and Evans heading into a contract year, now after having his 5th year guaranteed option declined. With Brown being brought back and additional depth being added through the draft, this is a decent group overall.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As I mentioned, cornerback is the group that took the biggest hit from the Titans needing to free up cap space for Bud Dupree. Projected starting cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson were released ahead of non-guaranteed salaries of 12.2 million and 10.244 million respectively, while top slot cornerback Desmond King signed with the Texans in free agency, after the Titans already released their former slot cornerback Johnathan Joseph mid-season when they acquired King in a trade from the Chargers. 

With those players gone, the Titans will rely on some combination of 2020 2nd round pick Kristian Fulton, who saw just 203 snaps as a rookie, veteran free agent acquisitions Kevin Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, and 1st and 3rd round rookies Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden. First round pick Caleb Farley definitely has the highest upside of the bunch, but he’s also a major question mark, coming off of off-season back surgery that dropped him from being a likely top-10 pick to the Titans at 22. 

Farley also has an injury history beyond this recent injury and he opted out of the 2020 season, so he comes into the NFL with limited tape and experience and a major injury history, including a serious injury he is currently dealing with, making him a big risk, especially for a team that already had to cut ties with last year’s first round pick for almost nothing. Fulton doesn’t have the same upside as Farley, but he still projects as a starter long-term, despite an underwhelming rookie year. The slot might be his most likely path to snaps in 2021. Third round pick Elijah Molden projects as a good slot cornerback long-term, but might not be ready to contribute in a meaningful way as a rookie.

As for the veterans, Janoris Jenkins is definitely the more accomplished of the veterans, making 125 starts in his career and earning an average or better grade from PFF in every season of his career, but he’s now going into his age 33 season and hasn’t finished above 42nd among cornerbacks on PFF since 2016. He could remain a capable starter and is likely to see a significant amount of starts even if Farley is healthy, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see his abilities fall off significantly, given his age, and I don’t think he comes with much upside anymore either. He was a bit of an overpay on a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season, given what other cornerbacks received this off-season.

Kevin Johnson comes cheaper than Jenkins, signing a 1-year deal worth 2.25 million, but there is a good reason for that as Johnson has been highly injury prone in his career, missing a third of his career games, 32 of 96, and not playing more than 579 snaps in a season since back when the former first round pick was a rookie in 2015. Johnson flashed potential when healthier earlier in his career, but the injuries have to have caught up with him, as he was PFF’s 107th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible on 575 snaps with the Browns last season. Only going into his age 29 season, Johnson could be better in 2021, but he could just as easily struggle or miss a significant chunk of the season. The Titans have a reasonably deep cornerback group, but are working with a group that is a combination of inexperienced, aging, and injury prone.

At safety, the Titans lost starting safety Kenny Vaccaro, but that was more by design, as Vaccaro struggled last season, finishing 63rd among 99 eligible safeties, and the Titans have a ready made replacement for him in Amani Hooker, a 2019 4th round pick who has flashed a lot of upside on 805 career snaps and arguably should have taken Vaccaro’s starting job last season. Depth is a bit of a concern now, but the Titans did sign Matthias Farley, who has only once played more than 201 snaps in a season in his career, but proved to be a solid starter in that season, finishing 28th among safeties on PFF in 15 starts. That was back in 2017, but Farley is still only going into his age 29 season and is not a bad depth option, as he plays special teams and can start at safety if needed.

The Titans also retain top safety Kevin Byard, although he had a down year last year, a big part of the reason why the Titans struggled so much defensively last season. Byard broke out in his second season in the league in 2017, finishing 8th among safeties on PFF and then followed that up finishing 7th in 2018 and 14th in 2019, but he fell to 34th in 2020 and especially struggled in coverage. He allowed almost as many receiving yards last season as he had his previous two seasons combined and he saw his interception total fall to just 1 after picking off 17 combined over the previous 3 seasons, even though he was also targeted a career high amount in 2020. 

Byard is still in his prime in his age 28 season and he has been otherwise very reliable, not missing a game in five seasons in the league, so last season’s performance was probably random variance more than anything, showing the floor for a durable and otherwise high level safety. I would expect him to bounce back in 2021, perhaps in a big way, which would be a big boost for a defense that otherwise doesn’t look significantly improved over last year’s horrible group, spending what little financial flexibility to overpay Bud Dupree and then having to replace their cornerback group with draft picks and cheap free agent signings.

Grade: B-

Kicker/Punter

Special teams were a big problem for the Titans in 2020, as they finished the season 28th in special teams DVOA. Place kicking and punting were their biggest weaknesses and they were among the worst teams in the league in DVOA on place kicks and punts. Place kicking struggles almost always fall on the placekicker themselves and, sure enough, starting kicker Stephen Gotskowski struggled, making 46/48 on extra points, 18/26 on field goals, and ranking 24th out of 36 eligible kickers on PFF. Sam Sloman made both of his field goals and 5/5 on extra points as a replacement for Gostkowski when he was injured, but he didn’t attempt from deeper than 47 yards and the Titans didn’t retain either him or Gostkowski. 

That being said, the kickers the Titans brought in to compete for the starting job are not guaranteed to be upgrades. Sam Ficken went 13/15 on field goals last season with the Jets, but he went 12/15 on extra points and just 1/3 from 50+ yards, and for his career he’s made just 72.9% of field goals and 87.5% of extra points. He’ll compete with 2020 undrafted free agent Tucker McCann, who didn’t attempt a kick as a rookie and made just 72.6% of his field goals at the collegiate level. Kicker almost certainly figures to be a weakness for the Titans again in 2021, which will become an even bigger problem than it’s been if they can’t be as efficient in the red zone as they’ve been the past two seasons.

Punter Brett Kern, on the other hand, was not the problem with their punting game, as he finished 10th among punters on PFF, but the Titans got terrible play out of their supporting special teams and Kern also missed three games with injury, a stretch in which replacements Ryan Allen and Trevor Daniel both struggled. Kern has been a long-time reliable punter who has finished in the top-2 among punters on PFF in three of the past six seasons, so he should continue his strong play going into 2021 and could even be better. He’ll have some competition from undrafted rookie James Smith, but it would be a massive upset if Smith were to win the job. Punter is at least a strength, but kicker figures to be a major weakness.

Grade: B

Return Specialists

The one aspect of special teams where the Titans finished a little above average was punt returns, which was almost entirely due to the play of Kalif Raymond, who finished 6th among punt returners on PFF and averaged 9.0 yards per punt return on 23 attempts, despite poor supporting cast play. Raymond is no longer with the team though, which will also be an issue on kickoff returns, which he led the team in as well, returning 15 kickoffs. 

The Titans didn’t replace Raymond and seem likely to use Cameron Batson, who had 11 kickoff returns and 1 punt return in 2020, in both capacities in 2021. Batson has averages of just 21.0 yards per kickoff return and 1.3 yards per punt in his career, so the odds are against him having much success in either capacity unless they get drastically improved play from their supporting cast, but the Titans don’t seem to have another option and it may not even be much of a competition for Batson to win both roles.

Grade: C+

Special Teamers

The Titans essentially cleaned house at the special teamer position, letting seven of their top-9 in snaps played in 2020 leave this off-season. It’s not a bad strategy considering how bad they were in this group last season and, aside from Jack Crawford (168 snaps), Tom Compton (178 snaps), and Daren Bates (287 snaps) all of the departed players struggled last season, but the Titans didn’t add a ton of reinforcements, adding three experienced special teamers in free agency and likely relying on rookies and other unproven special teamers to fill in gaps.

Free agent acquisitions Justin March-Lillard and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi are at least coming off of strong seasons, finishing 39th and 13th respectively among special teamers on PFF across 202 snaps and 279 snaps respectively, and, while neither has been that good in the past, they should remain above average players. Matthias Farley, however, is a more middling special teamer who might not move the needle much. Among returning special teamers, Amani Hooker (315 snaps), Khari Blasingame (182 snaps), Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (151 snaps) are all coming off solid seasons and have a history of some success, but the rest of the bunch is very underwhelming. This could be a better group than they were last season, but that could only be by default and, even if they end up as a serviceable group, they should be a top heavy one.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Titans went 11-5 last season, but were reliant on an easy schedule, a 7-2 record in one score games, a league best +11 turnover margin, and the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, four things that all could easily not continue into 2021. On top of that, the Titans lost talent around the quarterback on offense this off-season and, while their defense should be better by default, it still is a below average unit overall on paper. 

The Titans are one of the higher variance teams in the league and could continue winning like they have the past two seasons if Tannehill can continue producing like a top level quarterback despite less talent around him and if Derrick Henry can continue producing like the best runner in the league despite less talent around him and a ton of mileage on his treads over the past few years at a position known for parity and attrition. Those are big ifs however and I would expect the Titans to have trouble making it back to the post-season in the most likely case. I will have a final prediction for the Titans at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Update: The Titans have swung a blockbuster move with the Falcons, acquiring Julio Jones for a 2022 2nd round pick. Jones is a big name and obviously makes the Titans better, but it’s important to realize that the Titans might not be acquiring the prime Julio Jones. Jones still played at a high level when on the field last season, averaging a 2.60 yards per route run average that ranked 9th in the NFL, but, after being plagued by nagging injuries for several seasons, Jones was limited to just 9 games in 2020 and his lowest receiving total at 51/771/3 since his injury plagued 2013 season.

On top of that, Jones is heading into his age 32 season and a look at the history shows that Jones might drop off a lot quicker than the Titans are expecting. Not only is age 31 to age 32 the biggest single season drop off in terms of elite production probability, but a 32-year-old wide receiver is about half as likely to top 1000 yards receiving in a season as a 30-year-old wide receiver and about a third as likely as a 28-year-old wide receiver, a steep drop off in a 4-year span. Even if Jones resembles his prime self for another year, he doesn’t solve all the issues with this team and, with AJ Brown already locked in as a #1 wide receiver, Jones really upgrades the #2 wide receiver spot more than anything.

Jones obviously makes the Titans better and, in an unsettled AFC South, he could be the piece that pushes them over the top, but if the Titans were overrated before this trade, they are overrated after it, perhaps even more so. In addition to giving up a premium draft pick, the Titans will also have to restructure some contracts and eat into future cap space to fit Jones’ 15.3 million dollar salary into their cap for 2021 and he’s owed another 23 million after that for 2022-2023.

8/8/21: The Titans won’t benefit from their special teams, which is more predictive than I realized, while the divisional rival Colts could benefit from that, but the Titans’ chances of winning the division do improve as a result of injuries to Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson of the Colts, who could both miss the first month of the season.

9/4/21: The Titans are starting from a lower base point than most realize because they won a lot of close games last season and had unsustainbly good success with turnovers. They’re getting a lot of attention for adding Julio Jones, but he is likely to be on the decline and will probably not be an upgrade on Corey Davis, who was an underrated part of this offense in 2020. Bud Dupree was their big addition on defense, but he is an overrated player and coming off of a torn ACL and their secondary is likely to be worse than a year ago. They could still win a bad division, but they’re not the contender many expect them to be.

Prediction: 9-8 2nd in AFC South

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