Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)

The Titans got a big boost on the eve of the season, signing edge defender Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal to give them a much needed boost on the edge. The Broncos, on the other end, were dealt a crippling blow on the eve of the season, losing edge defender Von Miller, likely for the season, with an ankle injury. The Broncos also will be without linebacker Mark Barron and possibly #1 wide receiver Courtland Sutton, while Bradley Chubb, now their top edge defender, is expected to be limited in his first game back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season. 

Because of all of this, this line has shifted up to a full field goal in favor of the visiting Titans. What seems to be ignored is the injuries the Titans have, with top cornerback Adoree Jackson and starting edge defender Vic Beasley both out. The Titans also might not get a full game from Jadeveon Clowney, who is very new to the team. I still have this line calculated at Tennessee -4, so we’re getting some value with the Titans, but there isn’t enough here to bet the Titans as long as this line is at 3. If Sutton is ruled out, it’s possible I’ll reconsider.

Tennessee Titans 20 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans’ season looked to be over early last season, as they were shut out in Denver week 6 in a 16-0 loss that dropped them to 2-4. Instead, that loss ended up saving their season, as that game convinced them to swap starting quarterbacks, inserting Ryan Tannehill into the lineup instead of Marcus Mariota. From that point on, the Titans won 7 of their final 10 regular season games to qualify for the playoffs at 9-7 and then pulled big post-season upsets in New England and Baltimore before coming up short in the AFC Championship in Kansas City against the eventual Super Bowl winning Chiefs.

The Titans were better than their 2-4 suggested during their rough start, as they managed a +1.76% first down rate differential, but it was their defense that was carrying them early in the season, as it had the season before, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed through the first 6 games after finishing the 2018 season also 4th in first down rate allowed. Down the stretch in 2019, the Titans’ defense actually got worse as the team went on their hot streak, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over the final 10 games of the season, but the offense more than compensated, going from 26th in first down rate through the first 6 games of the season in 2019 and 24th in 2018 with Mariota to 2nd over the final 10 games of the season with Tannehill. 

Tannehill wasn’t the only reason for their offensive improvement, but he was the most noticeable one and by all measures was one of the top quarterbacks in the league in his 10 regular season starts. He finished the season with 70.3% completion, 9.59 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, a 117.5 QB rating that ranked #1 in the NFL, and he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback on the season. Tannehill wasn’t needed as much in the post-season as the Titans went run heavy and attempted just 60 passes in 3 games, but Tannehill didn’t lose them any games, with a 5/1 TD/INT ratio. 

Wanting to see what Tannehill can do in a full season as the starter and beyond, the Titans opted to keep Tannehill on a 4-year, 118 million dollar deal with 91 million guaranteed this off-season, even with Tom Brady available as an interested potential replacement. Given the size of his contract and how successful this team was when he played well last season, the big question becomes whether or not Tannehill can keep this up beyond a single season or if his 2019 will prove to be a fluke. 

As well as Tannehill played last season, it’s important to remember he never topped a 93.5 QB rating in 7 seasons in Miami (88 starts) and that he was available via trade last off-season and no one, including the Titans at the time, were interested in him as an outright starter and even the Titans only took a chance at a base salary of 2 million. You can definitely argue that Tannehill had the best supporting cast of his career last season, but it’s still unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback overnight, now already in his age 32 season. I would expect him to play better in 2020 than he did in any season in Miami, but likely significantly worse than he played in 2019.

With Mariota signing with the Raiders this off-season, the Titans needed to find a new backup quarterback, but didn’t do anything to address the position outside of using a 7th round pick on Hawaii’s Cole McDonald, who will likely be too raw to be the #2 as a rookie. Instead, the most likely #2 is Logan Woodside, a 2018 7th round pick who has been on the practice squad for his whole career and has never thrown a pass. The Titans must like him somewhat to be comfortable with him as the backup right now, but he’d almost definitely struggle if he had to see action. The Titans will need Tannehill to stay healthy, even if he’s unlikely to be as good as he was last season.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Tannehill had a strong supporting cast around him last season. It’s impossible to talk about that supporting cast without starting with running back Derrick Henry, who, aside from Tannehill, was the biggest reason for this team’s offensive turnaround, rushing for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on 190 carries (5.92 YPC) in his final 9 games of the season after 416 yards and 4 touchdowns on 113 carries (3.68 YPC) in the first 6 games of the season. Henry then added 83 carries for 446 yards (5.37 YPC) and 2 touchdowns during the Titans’ 3-game playoff run, in which he was the obvious feature of this offense. In total, Henry rushed for 1,570 yards and 18 touchdowns on 273 carries in 12 games that he played with Tannehill, a ridiculous 364/2093/24 pace over 16 games.

Some of that had to do with Tannehill making defenses respect the pass, but Henry also had Pro Football Focus’ highest rushing grade against 8-man boxes and he has a history of getting much better as the season goes on, rushing for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns on 125 carries (6.07 YPC) in his final 8 games of the season in 2018 after 300 yards and 2 touchdowns on 90 carries (3.33 YPC) in the first 8 games of the season. Much like how he was PFF’s #3 ranked running back in rushing grade from week 8 and beyond in 2019, Henry ranked #1 in rushing grade during that 8-game stretch in 2018. It’s likely Henry would have seen his production increase drastically down the stretch even without Tannehill in the lineup, although Tannehill obviously helped.

Normally I don’t put much stock into certain players being better at certain times a year, but, given Henry’s unique running style, it makes sense that he would get better as the season goes on and defenses tire out, as they simply become unable to bring him down consistently late in the season. Given that, it’s likely that Henry will again struggle by his standards early in the 2020 season, before hitting his stride late in the year. That could easily still be enough to put him in the mix for the rushing title on a team that figures to feed him the rock regularly, but I wouldn’t expect him to pick up quite where he left off.

All in all, Henry has totalled a 5.02 YPC average and 28 touchdowns on 518 carries over the past 2 seasons. The 2016 2nd round pick wasn’t as good in his first 2 seasons in the league, averaging 4.31 YPC and scoring 10 touchdowns on 286 carries, but he’s consistently been able to keep this offense on track, finishing in the top-17 in carry success rate in all 4 seasons. He’s also consistently been a physical runner who gets significant yardage after contact, with a 3.77 YPC average after contact for his career, including a 4.19 YPC after over the past 2 seasons, with 103 broken tackles. Despite that, he has missed just 1 game in his career due to injury and he obviously doesn’t wear out as the season goes on. As a pure runner, he’s obviously one of the best in the entire league.

Like Tannehill, Henry was a free agent this off-season and, like Tannehill, the Titans obviously did not want to lose him, as he’s such a big part of their offense. Once Tannehill was locked in on a long-term extension ahead of free agency, that allowed the Titans to make the no brainer decision to apply the franchise tag to Henry and keep him for at least one season at a 10.278 million dollar guaranteed salary. Like many high level running backs, the decision of whether or not to pay Henry at the top of the running back market is a tricky one, given their short career spans and the ease of finding replacement level running backs, but it’s hard to imagine the Titans aren’t going to come to terms with such a key offensive player on a long-term deal.

One area where Henry does not play well is in the passing game, as he’s totaled just 33 catches over the past 2 seasons and 57 catches for his career, while receiving a below average grade from PFF for his pass catching in all 4 seasons in the league. Dion Lewis has served as the passing down back over the past two seasons, putting up slash lines of 59/400/1 and 25/164/1 respectively, but he’s no longer with the team. The Titans used a third round pick on running back Darrynton Evans, who could fill that passing down role, although he’ll need to learn to pick up NFL blitzes quickly. 

Henry could easily see a career high in catches if he’s used more in the passing game without a true replacement for Lewis on the roster, but he’ll need to get a rest sometime and it’s hard to see the Titans taking him off the field in too many running situations, so it makes sense that Evans would see the majority of the passing game work. Evans probably won’t take many carries away from Henry, but his third round draft status suggests the Titans may view him as long-term insurance in case they can’t get a deal done with Henry. He does have the potential to be a starter long-term and he’s likely not a bad backup in the meantime. With Henry leading the way, this is a dominant backfield.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Another reason why this offense got better down the stretch was the emergence of second round rookie AJ Brown, who broke out as a legitimate #1 receiver in just his first season in the league. Brown never surpassed 40 snaps in a game in his first 8 games of the season, but still managed to put up a 52/1051/8 slash line on the season, including a 38/778/6 slash line in 10 games with Tannehill (61/1245/10 extrapolated over 16 games).

Some of that increased production was because of the quarterback switch, but Brown also played at a high level himself, finishing 9th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in overall grade. In terms of yards per route run, he ranked 3rd among wide receivers with 2.67. Brown is still relatively unproven and he’s unlikely to be as efficient in 2020, especially since Ryan Tannehill unlikely to be as efficient under center, but Brown looks like an obvious #1 receiver long-term and he could exceed last year’s numbers due to increased volume.

The rest of this group was pretty underwhelming with their production, with no one else exceeding 601 receiving yards, but that’s unsurprising for secondary passing options on a run heavy offense and they still got solid play overall from their complementary receivers. Corey Davis (713 snaps), Tajae Sharpe (431 snaps), and Adam Humphries (375 snaps) all earned average or better grades from PFF and they averaged a respectable 1.48, 1.42, and 1.40 yards per route run respectively. Sharpe is no longer with the team and they didn’t replace him, so they’ll need their top-3 receivers to all stay healthy this season, with unproven speedster Khalif Raymond (148 snaps in 4 seasons in the league) likely to be the 4th receiver.

Humphries did not stay healthy last season, limited to 375 snaps in 12 games, but he wasn’t bad when on the field and he topped 600 yards receiving in each of his three previous seasons prior to last season, posting middling grades in 2016 and 2017, when he had slash lines of 55/622/2 and 61/631/1 respectively, and then having a career best 76/816/5 line and finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver in 2018. Still only in his age 27 season, Humphries could easily bounce back to being a consistent slot receiver if he can stay healthy in 2020.

Corey Davis, meanwhile, will remain the primary outside receiver opposite AJ Brown. In many ways, Brown is what Davis was supposed to be, as Davis was selected 5th overall by the Titans in the 2017 NFL Draft. Instead, Davis hasn’t been a standout and it’s understandable that the Titans would want to decline his 5th year option for 2021, given that it would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury, which would make him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league.

Injuries haven’t really been a problem for Davis outside of his rookie year when he was limited to a mediocre 34/375/0 slash line in 11 games, but he hasn’t shown himself to be worth top end wide receiver money either, putting up on underwhelming 65/891/4 slash line as the #1 option on a bad passing offense in 2018 and then settling in as the #2 option on a good passing offense in 2019, posting a 43/601/2 slash line. Still only in his age 25 season, Davis still has upside and the Titans could still try to sign him long-term, but he could stand to make a good amount of money if he takes a step forward, which might price him out of the Titans’ range.

Tight end Jonnu Smith had a 35/439/3 slash line last season, seemingly underwhelming, but on a per route run basis he actually greatly outperformed all of the wide receivers except Brown, averaging 1.83 yards per route run, 8th highest at his position. The problem is Smith didn’t get a lot of opportunity to run routes, splitting playing time with Delanie Walker for half the season and primarily operating as a blocker when he did play, not only playing 53.2% of his snaps on run plays, but also staying in to block as a 6th pass protector on 24.1% of his pass snaps. All in all, he ran a route on just 35.5% of his 701 snaps, despite showing significant potential as a pass catcher. He also showed his athleticism on 4 carries, taking them for 78 yards, which is not terribly common for a tight end.

Smith is a one-year wonder in terms of even playing well in limited action as a receiver though, as he struggled as a pass catcher in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2017 and 2018 (1.01 yards per route run) and has never been a particularly good blocker either. Still, he’s a former 3rd round pick who has always had upside and he’s still in only his age 25 season, so he deserves a larger target share in 2020. He should get at least a small bump from Delanie Walker being gone, even if Walker was limited to 7 games last season, but the Titans should also strongly consider leaving Smith in to block less in passing situations and making use of his athleticism in the seam more often.

With Walker gone, Mycole Pruitt looks likely to be the #2 tight end. Given how much time Walker missed last season, Pruitt basically already was the #2 tight end, ranking 2nd on the team among tight ends with 441 snaps played. He didn’t show much in that role, as he was middling at best as a blocker and caught just 6 passes, which brings his career total to just 27 in 5 seasons in the league. This season, I wouldn’t expect much more than his career high of 10 catches and he’s unlikely to improve significantly as a blocker either, already in his age 28 season. His primary competition will be Anthony Firkser, who has shown promise over the past 2 seasons, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has still only played 379 snaps in his career and is highly unproven. Depth is a concern, but this is a solid top group, led by young #1 receiver AJ Brown.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Titans did a good job of keeping most of this offense together, but one key player who is no longer with the team is right tackle Jack Conklin, who signed a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season. It’s understandable the Titans had trouble keeping Conklin after paying Tannehill and tagging Henry, but he’ll still be a big loss, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked offensive tackle last season and was only heading into his age 26 season. Fortunately, the Titans have a couple potential options to replace him, re-signing talented swing tackle Dennis Kelly in free agency and using the 29th overall pick on Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson, a massive 6-6 350 pounder with a high ceiling. 

Wilson’s draft slot would suggest he’ll start as a rookie, but I wouldn’t rule out Kelly getting the nod, at least to begin the season. Kelly is going into his age 30 season with just 31 career starts and he’s never gotten an extended run as a starter outside of his rookie season in 2012, when he was overmatched as a 10-game starter, but he’s been solid as a spot starter throughout the rest of his career, especially over the past two seasons (9 starts). His 3-year, 17.25 million dollar contract suggests the Titans view him as a starter and, while that was before the Titans drafted Wilson, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the veteran beats out the rookie in training camp. Regardless of who wins this job, the loser will be a very highly qualified swing tackle.

Even though Dennis Kelly was solid in 4 starts in place of Taylor Lewan to start last season, the Titans still got a big boost when he returned, which is another reason why they were so much better offensively down the stretch. Lewan finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF, his 5th straight season in the top-22 at his position in as many seasons as a starter (74 starts). Lewan was a first round pick in 2014 and, unlike fellow former first round pick Jack Conklin, the Titans locked Lewan up long-term two off-seasons ago on a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal that makes him the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL. It’s hard to argue he’s not worth it and, still only in his age 29 season, he’s still very much in his prime.

The interior of this offensive line remains the same, with Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis starting at left guard, center, and right guard respectively. In the case of right guard, continuity isn’t a good thing, as Davis struggled mightily last season, finishing 86th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF and at one point getting benched for career backup Jamil Douglas, who unsurprisingly wasn’t much better, playing his first offensive snaps since 2015. Davis was just a third round rookie, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he’s hardly a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter.

Saffold and Jones, on the other hand, are coming off of strong seasons, finishing 16th among guards and 3rd among centers on PFF respectively. For Saffold, that was actually a down year compared to 2017 and 2018, when he finished 5th and 7th respectively among guards, but he’s on the wrong side of 30, going into his age 32 season, and, though he’s been a consistent above average starter for several years, he’s probably unlikely to match his career best years again at this stage in his career. 

Jones is also getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season and, while he didn’t show any signs of dropoff in a career best year last year, that’s a double edged sword as it’s also unlikely he’ll match the best season of his career at his age, especially since he’s never finished higher than 12th among centers in any of his other seasons in the league. Both on the wrong side of 30, Jones and Saffold are likely to take a step backward this season and the Titans lost right tackle Jack Conklin as well, so this is unlikely to be the same caliber of offensive line as last season, which will hurt this offense as a whole, but they should remain a solid group.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

While the Titans’ offense got significantly better as the season went on, their defense went the other way, allowing a 37.89% first down rate over their final 10 regular season games, compared to a 30.93% first down rate in their first 6 regular season games. Their offense played so well over that 10-game stretch that their defensive issues weren’t as noticeable, but if the Titans’ offense is likely to be less efficient on offense this season due to likely regression at the quarterback position and a diminished offensive line, they’ll need their defense to bounce back to compensate if they are going to continue being legitimate contenders like they ended up being down the stretch last season.

Injuries were a big part of the problem down the stretch last season. The Titans didn’t have substantially more injuries than an average team, but the players they lost were some of their best, as from week 9 on, top defensive lineman Jurrell Casey (2 games), top edge rusher Cameron Wake (5 games), and starting outside cornerbacks Adoree Jackson (4 games) and Malcolm Butler (7 games) all missed significant time with injury. Brown, Jackson, and Butler return, but the Titans did have some significant losses on defense this off-season that will make returning to their former level a problem. No off-season loss was more significant than Jurrell Casey, who was still their best defensive lineman in an injury plagued down year.

Casey is going into his age 31 season and had a down year by his standards last year, but for a player who finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons prior to last season, a down year still means he ranked 26th among interior defenders, so it’s surprising the Titans moved him in what amounted to a salary dump, getting a 7th round pick and getting out of the 11.85 million he would have been owed if they had kept him. Casey wasn’t really replaced this off-season, with the Titans only adding veteran rotational player Jack Crawford, and the Titans also lost situational run stuffer Austin Johnson, who was capable across 325 snaps last season, so this is a much thinner position group than last season.

Given their lack of depth, holdovers Daquan Jones and Jeffrey Simmons will have to play larger roles in 2020. Simmons has the biggest room for growth as the 2019 first round pick was limited to 305 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued rookie season, but fared well when on the field and still has the potential to develop into an above average every down player long-term. He’ll have plenty of opportunity with Casey gone and figures to more or less take over Casey’s old role (53.1 snaps per game over the past 7 seasons), though it’s far from a guarantee that Simmons will be able to match Casey’s level of play in such a big role in just his second season in the league.

Daquon Jones, meanwhile, is probably overstretched as it is, playing 679 snaps last season when he’s best as a situational run stuffer. Jones has a nose tackle’s frame at 6-4 322 and has earned an above average grade as a run stuffer from PFF in five straight seasons, including a 15th ranked finish among interior defenders in that aspect in 2019, but he’s managed just 7 sacks and a 5.7% pressure rate for his career. Jones thrives in his base package nose tackle role, but is a liability when left on the field in sub packages, something the Titans will likely have to do even more out of necessity this season. Last year’s 679 snaps were a career high and it wouldn’t surprise me if he surpassed that total in 2020.

Veteran free agent acquisition Jack Crawford will primarily compete with Matt Dickerson and Isaiah Mack and all three are very underwhelming options. Crawford has been in the league 8 seasons, but he’s averaged just 311 snaps per season and has consistently struggled as both a pass rusher (6.5% pressure rate) and a run stuffer. Last season with the Falcons he finished 117th among 125 qualifying interior defenders on 431 snaps and now he’s going into his age 32 season. 

Dickerson and Mack, meanwhile, are former undrafted free agents (2018 and 2019) respectively who have shown very little thus far in their careers. Mack at least showed some promise on 172 snaps last season, but Dickerson has been very underwhelming in 83 snaps over two seasons. I would expect both to surpass their career highs in snaps and for Crawford to play a similar amount to the 431 snaps he played last season, as the Titans have a big depth problem at this position. In addition to their depth problem, they also lack a top end player with Jurrell Casey gone, so this is an underwhelming position group.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Titans also lost edge rusher Cameron Wake this off-season. That might not seem like a big deal, considering he played just 195 snaps in 9 games last season, but 183 of those snaps came on passing plays and he managed 2.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 17.1% pressure rate in his limited action. When he wasn’t on the field, the Titans consistently struggled to get pressure on the quarterback in obvious passing situations. Without him, the Titans desperately needed to find edge rush help this off-season.

To fill that need, the Titans signed ex-Falcon Vic Beasley to a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar deal, which is a curious contract. Beasley is a former first round pick who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in his second season in the league in 2016, but he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested that year, managing just a 11.9% pressure rate, struggling against the run, and finishing 22nd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, which is good, but not as good as you’d expect from someone with 15.5 sacks. That year also stands out as an obvious outlier in his career, as he’s consistently struggled against the run and has just a 9.6% pressure rate for his career. 

The Titans are paying a lot of money on a one-year deal for a guy who has had one good year in five seasons and if he does happen to have another good year in 2020 they’ll have to pay even more to keep him long-term next off-season. I would consider it unlikely he develops into a consistently above average starter, 4 years removed from his last good season and already going into his age 28 season, but if this was a 2-3 year deal that only guaranteed his first year I would have seen the upside. This only being a one-year deal limits the potential upside significantly.

Beasley will start opposite Harold Landry, a third year player who will remain in an every down role. Not only did Landry play every down last season, he actually ranked 3rd in the NFL in snaps played by an edge defender with 953. The Titans have said they want to get that number down this season and that’s probably a good idea, as Landry is likely to be more efficient on a more reasonable snap count. 

Landry earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in 2019 and led the team with 9 sacks, but for as much as he played he arguably should have had more sacks and his 9.9% pressure rate left something to be desired. A 2018 2nd round pick, Landry still has good upside as an edge defender long-term and could take a step forward in 2020. Between that and a likely smaller snap count, Landry should become a more efficient pass rusher this season.

Landry and Beasley are both still likely to play significant snap counts though, as the Titans’ depth is questionable on the edge, in addition to on the interior. Behind Landry, Kamalei Correa (432 snaps) and Reggie Gilbert (294 snaps) were 2nd and 3rd respectively on the Titans among edge defenders in snaps played, but they hardly got to the quarterback, totalling 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate. Both were adequate run stuffers, but little else and that’s been the case for them their whole careers, as they have pressure rates of 7.4% of 8.4% respectively in their 4 years in the league. Even as reserves, both are underwhelming options.

Rashaan Evans, who primarily plays off ball linebacker inside in the Titans’ 3-4 defense, also played some snaps off the edge last season and the Titans have said they want to use him more in that position in passing situations in 2020. It makes some sense, given the Titans’ lack of edge rush depth and given that Evans has struggled mightily in coverage in two seasons, but he hasn’t shown much more as a pass rusher and him moving to the edge more often says more about their lack of depth on the edge than anything.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Titans also lost depth at linebacker this off-season as Wesley Woodyard, a capable situational player who saw 325 snaps last season, is no longer with the team. With Woodyard gone and Evans playing on the edge more often, the Titans have a big depth problem at linebacker and could regularly use three safeties in sub packages to compensate. Base packages won’t be a problem because Rashaan Evans, a 2018 first round pick, has consistently been an above average run stuffer in two years in the league, while fellow starter Jayon Brown is an every down player who fares well both in coverage and against the run, but Evans has yet to find a sub package role he can fare well in on this defense and their top true reserve linebacker is 2019 6th round pick David Long, who played just 68 snaps as a rookie.

Jayon Brown is the biggest bright spot in this group, as the 2017 5th round pick has developed into an above average starter over the past 2 seasons, finishing 7th and 17th respectively among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after a rough rookie year. He’s best in coverage, but the 6-0 226 pounder isn’t a liability on the ground either and, only going into his age 25 season, he has the ability to continue developing. The Titans would be wise to lock him up long-term ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. He significantly elevates this group by himself.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Titans’ have issues in their defensive front, but their secondary should be their strongest unit. They had problems defending the pass down the stretch last season, but this season they get starting cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler back after they were limited to 11 games and 9 games respectively last season, which is an obvious boost, as both players received above average grades from Pro Football Focus when on the field last season. Jackson was the better of the two last season, finishing 15th among cornerbacks on PFF, and the 2017 first round pick has the brighter future too, only in his age 25 season, with 35th and 30th ranked finishes in his first two seasons in the league also on his resume. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jackson had his best year yet in 2020.

Butler, on the other hand, is coming off the worst year of his career, finishing 57th among cornerbacks on PFF, just slightly above average. He also had a 55th ranked finish in his first season in Tennessee in 2018, after finishing 25th, 6th, and 46th his final three seasons in New England. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he should remain a capable starter at the very least and his return will still be a boost for a Titans team that struggled to find a consistent replacement for him last season.

Slot cornerback Logan Ryan is no longer with the team, but he was more of a snap eater than anything and the Titans did a pretty good job replacing him, signing veteran Johnathan Joseph and using a 2nd round pick on LSU’s Kristian Fulton. Joseph has been a long-time above average starter in this league, making 14 starts in 186 seasons with the Bengals and Texans, and he finished 12th among cornerbacks on PFF as recently as 2018, but he fell to 64th in 2019 and is now in his age 36 season, so he could easily continue declining. He’ll have a chance to win the #3 cornerback job with the Titans to start the season, but Fulton was a good value with the 61st overall pick and should find his way on the field sooner rather than later, leaving Joseph as a reserve. Going four deep at cornerback certainly isn’t a problem though.

At safety, the Titans go three deep, which is why they’ll likely use three safeties in sub packages frequently to mask their lack of linebacker depth. They did this occasionally last season and third safety Amani Hooker showed himself to be pretty capable on 335 snaps, 89.9% of which came in passing situations. Hooker was just a 4th round rookie, but he was a strong value where he was taken and could easily develop into a starter long-term or at least a capable third safety. He’s also versatile and can play the slot if needed, so he should find a way to exceed last year’s snap total.

Kevin Byard and Kenny Vacarro remain as the starters, after playing 98.7% and 95.5% of the snaps last season. Vacarro is primarily a box safety and has the size at 6-0 214 to play some linebacker in sub packages, though he was below average on PFF in coverage grade last season. His issues in coverage have been pretty consistent throughout his career, but on the flip side of that he’s also finished above average against the run in 5 straight seasons. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, you can certainly find worse starting safeties than Vacarro.

Byard, meanwhile, plays deep more often and is one of the top safeties in the league in that role, as his 17 interceptions over the past three seasons rank lead the NFL over that stretch and he has finished in the top-14 overall among safeties on PFF in all three of those seasons. Byard led the league in interceptions with 8 in just his second season in the league in 2017 and, though he has “just” 9 over the past two seasons, that’s largely because quarterbacks have stopped throwing at him, targeting him just 66 times total in two seasons after 47 in 2017 alone. He headlines a strong unit that is the saving grace of this defense.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Titans were one of the better teams in the league by season’s end last year, but there are reasons to expect their offense to not quite be as efficient in 2020, with Ryan Tannehill likely to regress and an offensive line that looks likely to be noticeably worse. Their defense wasn’t particularly good down the stretch last season, but it’s unlikely they’ll be better this season to compensate for offensive regression, as they got rid of their top defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and are very underwhelming on the defensive front, especially if injuries strike, as they lack depth across the board. The Titans will be in the mix for a playoff spot in the AFC, especially with three wild card spots available, but I have them behind the Colts in the division and I wouldn’t consider them true contenders.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Titans get a big boost from signing Jadeveon Clowney, who fills a huge need on the edge. I still have them slightly behind the Colts in the AFC South, but the Titans are definitely a candidate to go on another deep playoff run, even if they have to do it as a wild card again.

Projection: 11-5 (2nd in AFC South)

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Championship Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

Like the NFC Championship between the 49ers and the Packers, the AFC Championship is also a rematch of a regular season game, with the Titans and Chiefs meeting in Tennessee back in week 10. Few expected the Titans to win that game, as they were 6-point home underdogs, and even fewer expected that the Titans would go on to meet the Chiefs in a rematch in the AFC Championship. Even after their surprise win over the Chiefs, the Titans sat at just 5-5 and needed to win 4 of their next 6 games to qualify for the post-season as the 6th seed at 9-7. Overall, a Titans team that started the season 2-4 has won 9 of past 12 games, including huge upsets over the Patriots and the Ravens in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The offense has led the way for the Titans, as their defense has actually fallen from a 30.93% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season, 4th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 36.90% first down rate allowed over the past 12 games, 3rd worst among playoff qualifiers, primarily due to injury absences by players like linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (4 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (9 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (9 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). On offense, the Titans have gone from a 32.69% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, 26th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 41.44% first down rate in the past 12 games, 2nd among playoff qualifiers over that stretch. 

The turnaround coinciding with quarterback Marcus Mariota being benched for Ryan Tannehill is obvious, but running back Derrick Henry of course deserves a lot of credit as well. Tannehill’s play hasn’t been quite as good in the post-season thus far and it’s reasonable to expect that Tannehill, who led the league with a 117.5 QB rating in his 8th season in the league after previously maxing out with a 93.5 QB rating in 2016, will continue to fall back to earth a little bit going forward, but the way Henry is running right now is making up for it. Henry might not be quite as good going forward due solely to regression to the mean, but defenses are tired at this point in the season and Henry, who is very physical and tough to tackle, is taking advantage of it for the second season in a row. 

The Chiefs have also had a strong second half of the season, in fact not losing once in the 7 games since their week 10 loss in Tennessee. That loss was quarterback Pat Mahomes’ first game back from missing two and a half games with a knee injury and, even if he might not have been 100%, he was far from the reason for their loss, as the Chiefs had a 39.74% first down rate, but a 46.94% first down rate allowed. On the season, the Chiefs have a 43.41% first down rate with Mahomes on the field, including a 63.16% first down rate against the Texans last week that was the highest in the NFL for any team in a game this season. The Chiefs scored 51 despite converting just 2 third downs all game, which is just ridiculous.

Last week’s strong performance, which came after a week off for Mahomes and company, was part of a larger trend for the Chiefs offense, who rank first among playoff qualifiers with a 44.57% first down rate since their week 12 bye. Dealing with a variety of injuries, Mahomes hasn’t been at 100% even when on the field for most of the season, but he’s still become a more efficient quarterback in terms of ball security this season compared to his MVP season last year and he is arguably playing the best football of his career right now, looking very healthy after the Chiefs’ first round bye. He also has all of his weapons healthy around him, which hasn’t been the case for most of the season.

The Chiefs’ defense struggled in the first matchup, but that was an exception to the recent trend for their defense, which has allowed a 33.29% first down rate since week 7, 3rd among playoff qualifiers. That’s a massive shift for a team that allowed a league worst 42.20% first down rate last season and a 29th ranked 40.91% first down rate through the first 6 games of this season. Outside of the Tennessee game, the Chiefs defense has played consistently strong defense for several months. 

The Titans could have a good offense performance again this week in Kansas City though. They have a lot of offensive firepower and I don’t fully trust that the Chiefs defense has suddenly become a consistently strong unit. That’s especially true with the Chiefs defense not at full strength, missing safety Juan Thornhill and possibly defensive tackle Chris Jones. However, as good as those two players are, the Chiefs’ defense still performed well in their first game without them last week, allowing the Texans to move the chains at just a 33.33% first down rate, after finishing the regular season 8th with a 38.35% first down rate, so I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have as much offensive success in this matchup as they did in the first matchup even if Jones doesn’t play.

Speaking of Jones, he’s one of a few key players that are uncertain to play in this game, along with Titans linebacker Jayon Brown and Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. The uncertainty of that trio makes this game tough to pick, with the Chiefs currently favored by 7.5 points at home. Brown missed the first matchup and if he plays, their defense will be healthier than it’s been since their strong start to the season, which would go a long way towards their chances of slowing down Mahomes and company and keeping this game within a touchdown, but if Conklin were to miss this game it would be a huge blow to a Titans offensive line that has very healthy this season. Jones, meanwhile, is arguably the Chiefs’ best defensive player and has been a huge part of the Chiefs’ late season defensive turnaround. I’m tentatively taking the Chiefs, but for a no confidence pick. I’ll likely have an update when inactives are released and may actually end up betting on either side depending on injuries and line movement.

Final Update: Conklin, Brown, and Jones are all active, though Jones could be very limited after barely practicing over the past couple weeks. This line has fallen to 7, perhaps due to Jones’ injury uncertainty, so I still like the Chiefs for a no confidence pick even if Jones might not be 100%.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

The Titans looked in the middle of a lost season when they started 2-4, bottoming out with a shutout loss in Denver week 6. That loss ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as that was the performance they needed to pull the trigger on the switch from former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota to veteran off-season acquisition Ryan Tannehill under center. Since making that move, the Titans rank 4th among playoff qualifiers with a +4.47% first down rate differential.

Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.43% first down rate over Tannehill’s 11 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries to key players like defensive linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (2 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (7 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (7 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). Tannehill and the offense have carried this team, picking up first downs at a 41.90% rate in Tannehill’s 11 starts, only behind the Ravens over that stretch, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season. Tannehill also finished the regular season as the league leader in QB rating. 

The switch to Tannehill took this team from seemingly dead in the water at 2-4 to not only qualifying for the post-season at 9-7, after winning 7 of their final 10 regular season games, but also winning a playoff game last week in New England against the Patriots. Tannehill didn’t do much in a game in which the Titans called 40 run plays to 17 pass plays to attack a Patriots defense that is significantly better against air attacks than ground attacks, but this offense is much more than just Tannehill, as they have a strong offensive line, a great feature back in Derrick Henry, and a downfield #1 receiver in AJ Brown. They’re multi-dimensional and can have offensive success in different ways.

This should be where the Titans’ season ends though and they could really struggle in this game in Baltimore, for several reasons. For one, Tannehill probably won’t be quite as good as he’s been going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league. Tannehill won’t necessarily struggle going forward, but if he’s not the quarterback that led the NFL in QB rating going forward, that will have a noticeable effect on a team that has been so reliant on their offense in recent weeks with their defense struggling.

Speaking of that defense, the Titans still have a lot of injury concerns on that side of the ball. Even with starting cornerback Malcolm Butler and key edge rusher Cameron Wake out for the season, things appeared to be looking up last week when they got top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence, but they lost top linebacker Jayon Brown with an injury in the first minute of their win in New England, which is a huge absence, as Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked off linebacker during the regular season.

The Patriots, who have been stagnant on offense for months and couldn’t take it to another level in the post-season, were unable to exploit Brown’s absence in any significant way, but the Ravens should have a much easier time. In fact, given the way the Ravens run their offense, Brown is probably the worst possible player the Titans could be missing on defense for this matchup. Brown not only is the one Titans linebacker with the speed to contain Lamar Jackson in the open field, but he’s also easily their best coverage linebacker, a big absence against a team that relies heavily on tight ends in the passing game.

Even if Brown was playing, the Titans would have a tough time slowing down a Ravens offense that not only lead the league with a 41.73% first down rate, but that has actually been even better than that over the past few months, as Jackson and company have gotten more comfortable in the scheme. Over their past 10 games since week 7, the Ravens have a 42.47% first down rate, despite resting their key players in a meaningless week 17 game against the Steelers. The Ravens have won 12 straight games overall, but have been especially dominant over their past 10 games, covering in all but one game and winning by an average of 20.5 points per game, including an 18-point week 17 win with backups against a capable Steelers team.

That impressive stretch isn’t just because of the offense either, as their defense has allowed just a 30.00% first down rate over those 10 games and ranks 1st among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed over that stretch. That’s in comparison to a 37.95% first down rate that ranked 24th in the NFL over the first 6 games of the season. It’s easy to point to the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters between week 6 and week 7 as the reason for their drastic improvement and certainly he has been a big part of the reason, but the Ravens also added key linebacker Josh Bynes between week 4 and week 5 and have gotten significantly better play at safety since Tony Jefferson got hurt and was replaced with breakout player Chuck Clark. With an elite offense and defense, the Ravens are obvious Super Bowl favorites and I don’t expect this game to be close. There’s not quite enough here to bet the Ravens with confidence as 9.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 31 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -9.5

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: 2019 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (9-7) at New England Patriots (12-4)

This is a tough game to predict. If I were basing this pick solely off how these teams have played recently, the Titans would be an easy choice. Since turning to Ryan Tannehill under center following their week 6 loss in Denver, the Titans are 7-3 and have a +4.51% first down rate differential, 4th among qualifying playoff teams over that stretch. Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.89% first down rate over Tannehill’s 10 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries. Tannehill and the offense carried this team, picking up first downs at a 42.39% rate in Tannehill’s 10 starts, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season, and Tannehill finished the season with a 117.5 QB rating that led the entire NFL.

I don’t expect Tannehill to be quite as good going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but the Titans have plenty of talent around Tannehill on offense and any drop off from Tannehill and the offense could be compensated for by a defense that is getting healthier. They’re still without cornerback Malcolm Butler and outside linebacker Cameron Wake, but they get top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence this week. Jayon Brown (2 games), Jeffery Simmons (7 games), and Jurrell Casey (2 games) are other key players who have missed time with injury and have since returned. They ranked 4th in the NFL in first down rate allowed through the first 6 games of the season and, though I wouldn’t expect them to be quite that good going forward, the arrow is pointing up on defense for the Titans with Jackson returning.

The Patriots, meanwhile, had some dominant performances early in the season and have a +5.06% first down rate differential on the season that ranks 3rd among qualifying playoff teams, but you’d have to go all the way back to week 5 to find a stretch of time in which they are better than +2% in first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule. The Titans have been better than +2% in every week since Tannehill took over. If these were normal circumstances, I would have this line calculated at New England -2, suggesting the Titans have a good chance of pulling the upset.

However, these are not normal circumstances, as Tannehill will be making his first career playoff start on the road in arguably the toughest place to play in the NFL. Quarterbacks are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002 in their first career playoff start and Tannehill has the added challenge of going into New England, where the Patriots have won 84% of games since 2001, and facing a quarterback/head coach duo that is making their 41st post-season start together. Brady is 48-19 ATS at home in his career unless he’s favored by a touchdown or more, including 6-2 ATS in the post-season. On top of that, the Patriots are 43-14 ATS since 2000 off of a loss unless they are favored by a touchdown or more. After last week’s shocking home loss to the Dolphins, the Titans are just 5-point favorites in this game.

Even the way the Patriots ended the season, statistically they had a better regular season this season than last season, when they went on to win the Super Bowl. Last year, they finished outside the top-10 in both first down rate and first down rate allowed. This year, their defense led the NFL in first down rate allowed by a wide margin, even when adjusted for schedule. They don’t have Gronk or a first round bye this year and the AFC is tougher than last year with both Kansas City and Baltimore playing at a high level, so they might not necessarily make another Super Bowl run, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they came out in the first round and looked much better than they have in weeks. I expect a particularly strong performance from their defense against a quarterback making his first career playoff start. This is a no confidence pick because the Titans could easily win this game if the Patriots look like they have in recent weeks, but I’m taking New England for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 23 Tennessee Titans 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (8-7) at Houston Texans (10-5)

The Titans lost last week at home to the Saints, but because it was a non-conference game and division and conference records are tiebreakers for playoff qualification, that was a completely meaningless game for them in the standings. As a result, they rested running back Derrick Henry and defensive end Jeffrey Simmons to get them closer to 100% for this much more meaningful week 17 divisional game against the Texans. The Saints are also one of the top teams in the league, so there’s no shame in losing that game, especially since it was close for most of the game before the Saints pulled away at the end. 

That was just the Titans’ 3rd loss in 9 games since switching to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, after losing 4 times in 6 games started by Marcus Mariota. The previous two losses could have gone either way, with the Titans losing by 10 to the Panthers in a game in which they missed 3 makeable field goals and had a couple fluke giveaways (+3.95% first down rate differential) and losing by 3 to the Texans in a game in which they had a field goal blocked and allowed a long interception return (-0.97% first down rate differential). Some of the Titans’ wins have been close, but they’ve undoubtedly been a better team since switching quarterbacks. Through the first 6 games of the season, they ranked just 12th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.76%. Over the past 9 games, they have ranked 7th at +3.21%. 

Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed at +38.31%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 41.52% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018. 

The Titans’ offense might not be quite that good going forward, as it’s unlikely Tannehill has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but they have plenty of talent around the quarterback, especially with feature back Derrick Henry back in the lineup this week, so this is one of the better offenses in the NFL. Their defense is still missing key players like cornerback Adoree Jackson, cornerback Malcolm Butler, and edge rusher Cameron Wake, but I still have the Titans’ 8th overall in my roster rankings. 

The Titans have a rematch this week with the Texans, who narrowly defeated them a couple weeks ago, but the Texans have been pretty underwhelming overall this season, entering this game just 17th in the NFL in first down rate differential. They’re 10-5 on the season and have the AFC South locked up, but 8 of their 10 wins have come by a touchdown or less and they’ve undoubtedly been a worse team than the Titans since the Titans changed quarterbacks, especially with stud defensive end JJ Watt out with injury. 

One thing complicating this pick is the uncertainty over whether or not the Texans will play their starters. The line, favoring the Titans by 5 points on the road, suggests the Texans will rest starters, even though Bill O’Brien has shot that idea down during the week. I would expect the Texans to at least rest starters like quarterback Deshaun Watson, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and cornerback Bradley Roby, who have been limited in practice this week with injury, assuming the Texans are locked into the 4th seed when this game begins, but that’s dependant on the Chiefs winning earlier in the day and locking up the 3rd seed. The Chiefs are favored by 9 points at home over the Chargers, but the Chiefs winning isn’t a lock and the Texans could play this like a real game if they’re still alive for the 3rd seed at gametime. 

Seeding isn’t a huge deal in the first round, but in the second round I imagine the Texans would rather face the Patriots, who they’ve already beaten, than the Ravens, who absolutely destroyed them earlier this season, and if both the Texans and Chiefs advance to the AFC Championship, the Texans would obviously want to have homefield advantage in that matchup. If the Chiefs win as expected this week, I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have too much trouble with the Texans’ backups and we’re getting line value with the Titans as 5-point favorites if the Texans are somewhere around the 22nd best team in the league or worse with key players missing, which would almost definitely be the case, but I’m going to hold off on placing any sort of bet on this game until the Chiefs’ game is decided.

Update: The Texans are resting starters in this game locked into the 4th seed, but the line has skyrocketed to -10, so I can’t take the Titans with any confidence.

Tennessee Titans 27 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-3) at Tennessee Titans (8-6)

Since turning to backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill in week 7, the Titans rank 5th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.37%. They are 6-2 over that stretch, after starting 2-4, with their only losses coming in games against the Panthers and Texans that they easily could have won if a few snaps went differently. Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team either, as the Titans’ defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 24th in first down rate differential at 37.28%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 42.18% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018. 

That being said, the Titans offense is unlikely to be quite this good going forward. They have talent around the quarterback position and Tannehill has proven he can be a capable starter, but it’s unlikely he has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league. It would be reasonable to expect regression from him going forward, which the defense will need to compensate for. Unfortunately, their defense remains banged up, with edge defender Cameron Wake and cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler still out and defensive end Jeffery Simmons possibly joining them after missing practice on Friday with a lingering knee issue.

The Titans are still a competitive opponent, but we’re not getting the line value with them that we were a few weeks ago. With a dominant Saints team coming to town, the Titans are only 2.5-point home underdogs. The Saints lost a pair of key defensive linemen in their loss to the 49ers a couple weeks ago, with Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins done for the year, and their defense ranks just 35.78% in first down rate allowed at 17th even with Davenport and Rankins playing most of the season, but their offense is definitely good enough to compensate. 

They have a 41.41% first down rate when Brees is on the field, which would be second best in the NFL on the season, and that arguably understates how good their offense will be going forward. They had a 43.48% first down rate differential in Brees’ starts last season and have been even better than that in recent weeks, with a 45.19% first down rate over the past 4 games. We’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Titans, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, but we’re not getting enough line value with the Titans at +2.5 for them to be worth betting. The money line at +115 is worth a small play because the Titans odds of winning this game are close to 50/50, but this is a low confidence pick for pick ‘em purposes, unless the line moves up to a full field goal.

Final Update: Not only is Simmons out for the Titans, but running back Derrick Henry is a surprise inactive as well. Henry’s absence is obviously big, but, beyond the impact his absence will have on this team, the reasoning behind Henry being inactive is even more important to predicting this game. Due to how tiebreakers work, because this is a non-conference game, this is actually a rare case of a week 16 game not mattering at all for a potential playoff qualifier. With the Texans winning yesterday, the Titans have been eliminated from contention for a division title, but, regardless of the outcome of this game against the Saints, the Titans can still clinch a wild card berth if they beat the Texans next week and the Steelers lose one of their next two games. If the Steelers win out or the Titans lose to the Texans next week, the Titans are eliminated regardless of what happens in this non-conference matchup with the Saints. This line has skyrocketed to 3.5, but I’m really concerned about the Titans’ psyche in a meaningless game, so I’m switching this pick to New Orleans for a no confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: None

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (8-5) at Tennessee Titans (8-5)

The Titans saved their season by switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Sitting at 2-4 after week 6 when they made the switch, the Titans have won 6 of 7 games to get to 8-5 and climb into a tie for the AFC South lead with the Texans, who they will play twice in the next three weeks in games that would decide the division if either team managed to sweep both. 

Tannehill isn’t just game managing the Titans to victory either, as Tannehill’s run at quarterback has actually coincided with a significant decline on defense. After finishing last season 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.77% and ranking 4th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 30.93% through 6 games this season, the Titans have allowed a 37.37% first down rate in Tannehill’s 7 starts, 24th in the NFL over that stretch, due to injuries to players like linebacker Jayon Brown, cornerback Malcolm Butler, defensive end Jurrell Casey, and cornerback Adoree Jackson. This offense is carrying the team, ranking 2nd in first down rate at 42.50% since Tannehill entered the starting lineup, giving them the 3rd best first down rate differential over that stretch at +5.13%.

Tannehill probably won’t continue playing this well going forward, but the Titans have a strong running game too and a good supporting cast around the quarterback, so the Titans’ offense is legitimately a strong unit. Defensively, they’ve gotten Casey and Brown back from injuries, though the two cornerbacks Butler and Jackson remain out, leaving them very thin at a key position. They’re still a couple points better than the Texans in my roster rankings though, ranking 11th, while the Texans rank 14th. 

Deshaun Watson leads a strong Houston offense that ranks 4th in first down rate at 39.47%, but their defense ranks 27th at 38.12% and has been even worse in 5 games without JJ Watt, with a 39.51% first down rate allowed in those 5 games. We’re not getting a ton of line value with the Titans, but this line favoring them only by a field goal at home suggests these two teams are about even, which isn’t the case. I like the Titans for a small bet as there’s a good chance this game at least pushes.

Tennessee Titans 30 Houston Texans 24

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (7-5) at Oakland Raiders (6-6)

The Titans saved their season by benching Marcus Mariota for veteran Ryan Tannehill after week 6. After finishing last season 24th in first down rate at 34.12% and ranking 26th at 32.69% through 6 games this season, the Titans have had a 40.76% first down rate in 6 games with Tannehill under center, 2nd best in the NFL over that time period, only behind the Ravens. During that stretch, the Titans have lost just once and even in that game they won the first down rate battle, losing by 10 to the Panthers in a game in which they missed 3 field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. The Titans probably won’t continue being the 2nd best offense in the league the rest of the way, but they have a strong supporting cast around the quarterback on both sides of the ball and don’t need elite quarterback play to be competitive. 

This week, the Titans face a 6-6 Raiders team that hasn’t played nearly as well as their record suggests. While all 6 of their wins have come by 8 points or fewer, all but one of their losses has come by at least 18 points, with the one exception being a 3-point loss in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28%, but managed to score from 46 and 65 yards out. They rank 27th in point differential at -87, 29th in first down rate differential at -5.56%, and they have been even worse in recent weeks. 

Dating back to week 7, the Raiders rank dead last in the NFL in first down rate differential at -8.32%, more than 12% worse than the Titans over that span. The Raiders’ record is a farce and the Tannehill led Titans should be able to beat them pretty easily, even in Oakland. I have this line calculated at Tennessee -7, so we’re getting good line value with them as only favorites of a field goal. It’s concerning that the Titans are missing top cornerback Adoree Jackson, but they haven’t been healthy on defense for most of the season and the Raiders will be without talented right tackle Trent Brown, so that sort of evens out. I like the Titans a lot this week.

Tennessee Titans 31 Oakland Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: High

Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (6-5) at Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

The Titans have been significantly better offensively since switching quarterbacks from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill before their week 7 game. Through their first 6 games of the season with Mariota under center, the Titans had a 32.69% first down rate that ranked 26th in the NFL. In 5 games since switching to Tannehill, the Titans have a 42.76% first down rate that is only behind the seemingly unstoppable Ravens over that time period. This offense probably won’t be the second best in the league over the rest of the season, but Tannehill is a capable starting quarterback and they have a good supporting cast around him, so they don’t need great play from him to be a tough opponent. 

They’re especially strong on defense, finishing last season 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.77% and they rank 9th this season at 33.88%, despite key players like Jurrell Casey (2 games), Jeffery Simmons (6 games), and Jayon Brown (2 games) having missed time with injury. All three players have since returned. Relatively healthy overall, the Titans rank 9th in my roster rankings and could easily end up playing their way into a playoff spot in the unsettled and underwhelming AFC.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Titans in the past week, as a result of their blowout victory over the Jaguars last week. Underdogs of 3.5 points a week ago on the early line in this matchup with the Colts in Indianapolis, the Titans are just 1.5-point underdogs this week. I have the Titans as the better team in this matchup, but the Colts are no pushover, entering this game 11th in first down rate differential at +2.03% and 12th in my roster rankings. I have this line calculated at even, so we’re still getting a little bit of line value with the underdog, but not enough for this game to be worth betting.

Tennessee Titans 26 Indianapolis Colts 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +1.5

Confidence: Low