For many years, the Titans were in quarterback limbo. From 2006-2019, the Titans had 13 different quarterbacks make starts for them in 14 seasons, with 11 of those quarterbacks starting multiple games. The Titans used top-10 picks on the position in 2006, 2011, and 2015, but Vince Young, Jake Locker, and Marcus Mariota all failed to live up to their billing. The 13th of those quarterbacks was Ryan Tannehill, who took over for the underwhelming and oft-injured Mariota after week 6 of the 2019 season, ending Mariota’s run as the Titans starting quarterback for good after 61 starts, the most by any Titans quarterback over that 14-year stretch.
Tannehill’s insertion into the lineup made an instant impact, as a 2-4 team that averaged 16.3 points per game to start the season went 7-3 the rest of the regular season, while averaging 30.4 points per game, and ultimately went on a run that eventually took them to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Tannehill didn’t do everything on his own, but he played well enough for the rest of this roster to shine and his 117.5 regular season QB rating was the best in the league that season, as he completed 70.3% of his passes for an average of 9.59 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and finished as PFF’s #1 ranked quarterback on the season.
As great as Tannehill’s breakout was for the Titans, it put them in a tough spot, as Tannehill was set to hit free agency the following off-season and would not be cheap to keep, after he made just 2 million from the Titans in 2019. There is a reason that Tannehill was available for that price and the price of a mid-round draft pick in a trade with the Dolphins, as Tannehill was a largely middling starting quarterback throughout 88 starts in 7 seasons in Miami, completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 123 touchdowns, and 75 interceptions, and he had become increasingly injury prone in recent years, missing 24 games across his final three seasons in Miami.
The Titans would have to decide if Tannehill was worth paying like the quarterback he seemed to be in 2019, or if his seven years in Miami was more indicative of his level of play. To Tannehill’s credit, he rarely had a good supporting cast or coaching staff in Miami, but in Tennessee, he had a supporting cast and coaching staff that would likely not be able to stay together long-term as players started to get paid and coaches got opportunities elsewhere. For Tannehill to be worth the kind of money he would command as a free agent, he would need to be the kind of quarterback who can elevate a team even when everything is not going well around him, not just one who produces at a high level with a high level of talent around him.
Since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players. It’s close to impossible to win with a highly paid starting quarterback unless he is an elite player under center, as it becomes very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win with if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap. The Titans opted to take a chance on Tannehill, lacking a better option, and paid up handsomely on a 4-year, 118 million dollar deal that effectively guaranteed him 91 million over the next three seasons, a huge guarantee for any player, especially one with Tannehill’s limited track record of success.
The contract didn’t look bad from the start. Tannehill’s production fell back to earth a little in 2020, but he still finished in the 5th in the NFL in QB rating at 106.5, while leading an offense that ranked 4th in offensive efficiency for a team that went 11-5. Tennessee sputtered out in the post-season once again, but the season wasn’t a disappointment overall, especially for a franchise not used to having a consistent signal caller over the past decade and a half. However, in 2021, Tannehill regressed even further, as the supporting cast around him declined significantly.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who took over the play calling job in Tannehill’s first season in Tennessee, went to Atlanta to become the head coach. Their aging offensive line continued to decline. Pass catchers Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith went elsewhere in free agency and the trade for Julio Jones to give them another talented receiving option did not pan out as well, as Jones looked old and was injury prone for most of his single season in Tennessee. And, perhaps most importantly, top playmakers Derrick Henry and AJ Brown both missed time with injury.
The result was Tannehill’s worst season since his Miami days, as he completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 7.03 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, with another 10 interceptions dropped (2nd most in the league), on an offense that ranked just 19th in offensive efficiency. The Titans still went 12-5, but that was in large part due to a 6-2 record in one-score games and a +4 return touchdown margin, two things that would be tough to maintain long-term. Both Brown and Henry were back for the post-season, but it didn’t matter, as Tannehill’s 3 interceptions led to the Titans losing to the Bengals in their first playoff game.
Now going into 2022, things could arguably be even worse this season. The Titans lost left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle David Quessenberry in free agency and both were solid starters on the offensive line last season. The Titans traded for veteran wide receiver Robert Woods to replace Julio Jones, but he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of an ACL tear, and, most importantly, Woods won’t have AJ Brown lined up opposite him, as the Titans made the draft day decision to send him to Philadelphia for a package centered around the 18th overall pick, which the Titans used to select Treylon Burks from Arkansas to be Brown’s potential long-term replacement.
It’s hard to illustrate how much Brown will be missed by the Titans, but his three seasons in Tennessee, during which he averaged 2.50 yards per route run, lined up with the emergence of Tannehill and the rest of this offense. During those three seasons, Tannehill averaged 10.15 yards per attempt targeting Brown, as opposed to 7.28 yards per attempt targeting everyone else. In six games without Brown, Tannehill is just 3-3 over those three seasons with a QB rating 17.1 points lower than his QB rating with Brown (104.6). His 87.5 QB rating over those 6 games without Brown is actually about the same as his QB rating in 7 seasons with the Dolphins (87.0). I’ll get into Tannehill’s supporting cast more later, but, with Brown gone, this group should undoubtedly be worse than a year ago, even if they get more than expected from certain players.
This illustrates the reason why non-elite, highly paid quarterbacks have such a hard time winning the Super Bowl. If Tannehill had not been set to make 56 million over the next two seasons, it would have been easier to keep Brown on the 4-year, 100 million dollar extension he eventually got from Philadelphia. Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers also lost their top receivers this off-season for similar reasons, but those quarterbacks are talented enough to compensate for the loss of that top receiver. Tannehill is unlikely to have the same success without AJ Brown.
The Titans are perhaps realizing their mistake with Tannehill a little bit, at least bringing in another potential long-term option, using a third round pick on Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, a raw quarterback prospect with a high ceiling, who would be a significantly cheaper option if he could develop into a starting caliber player ahead of Tannehill’s 27 million non-guaranteed salary in 2023, or the end of his contract in 2024.
I am not as bullish on Willis’ chances of taking Tannehill’s job at some point as some are, because, if the Titans had liked him more, they wouldn’t have let him fall to the middle of the third round before trading up to draft him, but, at the very least, Willis gives them long-term potential on a cheap rookie contract and, in the short-term, a better backup, which the Titans haven’t had the past two seasons, with the inexperienced Logan Woodside as the #2 option. Willis’ addition upgrades this quarterback room, but this is likely Tannehill’s job for at least one more year and his struggles from last season could easily continue, given what has happened with his supporting cast.
I will get into the receiving corps and what the Titans are doing to replace AJ Brown shortly, but the Titans will also be retooling their offensive line this season, after losing starting left guard Rodger Saffold and starting right tackle David Quessenberry this off-season, without doing much to replace either of them. The Titans’ offensive line has been better in the past, but they were still a solid group last season, with Saffold and Quessenberry finishing 24th and 16th respectively on PFF at their respective positions. Without them, they figure to take a big step back.
On top of that, two of their three offensive linemen who remain from last year’s solid group are on the wrong side of 30, with left tackle Taylor Lewan and center Ben Jones heading into their age 31 season and age 33 season respectively. Both still earned above average grades from PFF last season, with Lewan ranking 41st among tackles and Jones ranking 8th among centers, and both have earned above average grades from PFF in throughout most of their career, with Jones finishing above average in 9 of 10 seasons in the league and Lewan doing so in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if one or both dropped off noticeably this season, which would be a problem for an offensive line that already figures to decline regardless this season.
Quessenberry will likely be replaced by 2021 second round pick Dillon Radunz, but he struggled in 124 rookie year snaps and the Titans seemed to hedge their bet with him a little bit by selecting Nicholas Petit-Frere in the third round of this year’s draft. With Lewan aging, it’s possible the Titans view Radunz and Petit-Frere as their long-term bookend tackles, but, in the short term, both are raw and inexperienced players who will be competing to start at right tackle, with Radunz being the early favorite. The Titans could get solid play out of one of the young tackles, but they both come with significant downside and it would be hard for either to be as good as Quessenberry was last season.
Saffold, meanwhile, will be replaced by either 2020 undrafted free agent Aaron Brewer, who was underwhelming across 508 snaps as a versatile reserve in 2021, after playing just 152 snaps as a rookie, or by free agent acquisition Jamarco Jones, a 2018 5th round pick who struggled across 672 snaps in four seasons with the Seahawks. Brewer is likely the favorite as a result of his familiarity with the offense, but it’s likely neither will be a good option and both will probably end up seeing starts at some point, one way or another. The Titans could also potentially kick Radunz inside to left guard if they want to start Petit-Frere at right tackle.
Right guard Nate Davis is the only returning starter under 30 and the 2019 3rd round pick has developed into an above average player. Davis was overmatched as a 12-game starter as a rookie, finishing 87th among 89 eligible guards on PFF, but he’s improved significantly since then, finishing 18th as a 16-game starter in 2020 and 27th as a 14-game starter in 2021. Still only going into his age 26 season, Davis should continue being an above average starter in 2022 and beyond and may even have more untapped potential. He’s a bright spot for an offensive line with significant questions and concerns.
As I mentioned, AJ Brown had a huge impact on this offense in his three seasons in Tennessee. Overall, Brown finished 9th, 3rd, and 9th among wide receivers on PFF, all before his 25th birthday. The Titans also let go of Julio Jones this off-season, but he had just a 31/434/1 slash line in 10 games, so he won’t be missed much, which means that, with Treylon Burks and Robert Woods coming in this off-season, the Titans are essentially replacing Brown with two players, but even that is easier said than done, as neither have Brown’s top level ability.
Woods was a great receiver across his first three seasons with the Rams from 2017-2019, averaging a 86/1166/5 slash line per 16 games and 2.01 yards per route run, but he started to slow down a little bit even before his injury, with a 90/936/6 slash line on 1.60 yards per route run in 16 games in 2020 and a 45/556/4 slash line on 1.74 yards per route run in 9 games in 2021 prior to getting hurt. Now going into his age 30 season, it would be a surprise to see him revert to his old form, especially in his first season removed from the injury.
Woods has been mostly durable throughout his career, missing just 12 games across his first 8 seasons in the league prior to last seasons injury, and could still be a solid #2 receiver at this stage of his career, but it’s not surprising the Rams essentially salary-dumped him on the Titans for a 6th round pick, given that he is owed 10 million in 2022. Burks, meanwhile, comes with a big upside that some are comparing to AJ Brown’s, but he’s far from a guarantee to ever reach the same heights as Brown and, even if he does, that doesn’t mean it will happen in year one.
With Jones missing much of last season, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was the Titans’ de facto #2 receiver for most of the season, finishing 2nd on the team with a 38/476/4 slash line. He earned a middling grade from PFF and averaged an underwhelming 1.40 yards per route run, in what was the first significant action of the 2020 undrafted free agent’s career, but he’s not a bad fit as the third receiver. He would probably be overstretched if he had to spend significant time as the #2 receiver again though, either because of injury or because of rookie year struggles from Burks. The Titans also have questionable depth with 2021 4th round pick Dez Fitzpatrick (five career catches), 2021 6th round pick Racey McMath (two career catches), and 5th round rookie Kyle Phillips likely to be their top reserve options.
With Jonnu Smith gone, tight ends were not much of a factor in Tennessee offense last season, being targeted on just 20.5% of pass attempts and combining for just 18.1% of their receiving production, with none of their top-3 tight ends (Geoff Swaim, Anthony Firkser, and MyCole Pruitt) averaging more than 1.11 yards per route run. To try to improve the position, the Titans added veteran Austin Hooper in free agency and will plug him in as the starter. Hooper was released by the Browns, but he was always overpaid on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal and is a much better value at a 6 million dollar salary in 2022, rather than the 9.5 million he was scheduled to make before the Browns released him.
Hooper had fewer receiving yards in two seasons in Cleveland (46/435/4 and 38/385/3) combined than he had in his final season in Atlanta in 2019 (75/787/6), but much of that had to do with going from a pass oriented to a run oriented offense and not getting the same amount of opportunity to run routes, with his 1.29 yards per route run average over the past two seasons not being a huge drop off from his 1.65 average in his final season in Atlanta. His 1.39 career yards per route run average is pretty solid for a tight end, especially compared to what the Titans had at the position last season, and he’s a decent blocker as well, so you could do worse than him as your starting tight end. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, he figures to be an upgrade for this team.
Geoff Swaim is the only one of the Titans’ top tight ends from a year ago to return and he figures to be the #2 tight end. Having never surpassed 242 yards receiving in seven seasons in the league, Swaim isn’t a bad #2 tight end, but he has averaged just 1.05 yards per route run for his career and isn’t more than a middling blocker either. It’s possible he could be pushed for the #2 tight end job by 4th round rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo, but he’s not a guarantee to be better. This was a top heavy receiving corps last season, led by AJ Brown, but, even though they might be deeper this season, there is no replacing the impact that Brown had on this offense.
I haven’t mentioned Derrick Henry much, but obviously he’s been a big part of the Titans’ success over the past few seasons and he was missed in a big way when he was out last season. Unfortunately, just because of the nature of his position, it’s fair to wonder if we’ve seen his best days. Henry rushed for 4,626 yards and 45 touchdowns on 896 carries (5.16 YPC) in 3 straight 1000+ yard seasons from 2018-2020, including 2000+ yard season in 2020, and he was on pace for almost 2000 yards again in 2021 before he got hurt, but his YPC average fell to 4.28 YPC in 2021 (2nd lowest of his career) and his 2000 yard pace was largely as the result of an unsustainable workload, on pace for an absurd 465 carries in 17 games. Given that pace and the 681 carries he had in 2019 and 2020 combined, it’s not all that surprising he got hurt and his efficiency seemed to be dropping off even before he got hurt, which was not all that surprising either.
Henry had an incredible season in 2020, rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns on 378 carries (5.36 YPC), becoming just the 8th player to rush for more than 2000 yards in a season and just the 22nd player to even rush for 1700 yards. The history of those 22 running backs shows that it’s very tough to do again though and that they usually fall off drastically as soon as the following season. Only 7 of those 22 running backs 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 the following season.
In total those 22 running backs rushed for an average of 1,867 yards on 367 carries (5.09 YPC) and 15 touchdowns in their 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 you 1,332 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 288 carries (4.62 YPC) and Henry didn’t even match that, rushing for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns on 219 carries (4.28 YPC).
On top of that, running backs don’t usually bounce back after a big drop off like that. Of 33 running backs who have had 200+ carries in a season in back-to-back years who drop off by more than 1 YPC from one season to the next season, just one of them ever returned to his previous YPC average. This doesn’t mean that Henry is about to drop off completely, but it’s much more likely that he’ll just be one of the best runners in the league, rather than the league’s best runner by a wide margin like he’s been in the past. It also won’t help that his offensive line is not what it’s been in recent years.
Henry will also likely continue to drop off in the next few seasons, as elite running backs tend to do around age 29-32. On average, a 28-year-old running back like Henry is about 4 times as likely to surpass 1000 yards in a season than a 31-year-old running back, a huge drop off over just three seasons. The Titans somewhat prepared for Henry’s future by using a 4th round pick in this year’s draft on Hassan Haskins, but that was also a necessary move for short-term depth purposes.
Dont’a Foreman was their top running back in Derrick Henry’s absence last season, but he’s no longer with the team. Jeremy McNichols was their passing down back last season, which is a necessary role even when Henry is healthy because Henry is only ordinary at best on passing downs (0.98 yards per route run), but McNichols is also no longer with the team. The Titans are unlikely to want to give Henry an expanded passing down role, wanting to preserve him for passing downs, but Haskins was not much of a receiver in college, so he’s not a great fit for that role either.
Instead, the Titans will likely turn to Dontrell Hillard, their top returning reserve running back (56 carries), in passing situations. Hillard hasn’t played much in his career (119 career touches in 38 games in 4 seasons in the league), but he does have a 1.20 yards per route run average in limited passing down action and he gives them a little bit of running ability as well, with a 5.73 YPC average for his career, albeit across just 78 carries. He and Haskins will compete to be Henry’s backup and would likely split carries in his absence if he were to get hurt, but both are questionable options, so the Titans will obviously need Henry to stay healthy all season this year. Even if he does, he’s unlikely to return to his 2020 form.
Not much changes on the Titans’ defense in 2021, for a team that finished 16th in defensive efficiency in 2022. Interior defender Jeffery Simmons was one of the leaders for this group and his 8.5 sacks are a very impressive total for an interior defender. A 2019 1st round pick in 2019, Simmons only had 3 sacks in 2020, but he’s not a one-year wonder, as that 2020 campaign was arguably a better year overall than his 2021 campaign, even though his sack total wasn’t impressive.
What Simmons lacked in sacks in 2020, he made up for with 11 hits on the quarterback, as opposed to just 7 in 2021. His overall pressure rate went up from 7.6% to 9.6% from 2020 to 2021, but his run defense was significantly better in 2020 and, overall, he “fell” from 11th among interior defenders in 2020 to 23rd among interior defenders in 2021. Still, any way you look at it, Simmons, who also flashed on 315 snaps as a rookie, despite coming off a torn ACL, is coming off back-to-back strong seasons and, not even turning 25 until later this off-season, his best days could still be ahead of him. The 19th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Simmons could have been a top-5 pick if not for the ACL injury he was coming off of.
The rest of this position group, however, is not nearly as good. Naquan Jones (328 snaps), Teair Tart (334 snaps), Larrell Murchison (200 snaps), and Kyle Peko (157 snaps) all saw action at the position as well and all four struggled, especially as pass rushers, combining for just 3.4% pressure rate. All four players are also recently late round picks or undrafted free agents who played career highs in snaps last season and have no history of superior play. With the exception of Peko, all return to the Titans this season, but I wouldn’t expect any of them to be significantly improved or to play significantly more action. They’ll primarily compete for run stopping roles in base packages, but would likely be overmatched even in that limited role.
With none of those four providing much pass rush, the Titans frequently relied on edge defender Denico Autry lining up as an interior defender in sub packages. Fortunately, opposing offenses had a hard time blocking Autry regardless of where he lined up, leading to him finishing with 9 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. However, there is reason for concern that he won’t keep up that level of play into 2022, as a player coming off of a career best year and now going into his age 32 season.
Autry has consistently been an above average pass rusher in his career, but his 8.4% pressure rate from his previous four seasons prior to last season is a big drop off from last season’s rate, and, getting up there in age, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he regressed to the mean or even regressed lower than the mean this season. He’s also left something to be desired against the run in his career, regardless of whether or not he’s playing outside or inside. He should still be a useful player for the Titans in passing situations, but I wouldn’t expect him to be even close to as good as he was a year ago.
The one addition the Titans made to this group this off-season was signing ex-Texan DeMarcus Walker, another hybrid player who could serve as Autry’s backup and play a similar role. A second round pick in 2017 by the Broncos, Walker didn’t do much at all in his first two seasons in the league, but he’s developed into a useful rotational player in the past three seasons, averaging 354 snaps per season and pressuring the quarterback at a 9.1% rate as a hybrid player who plays on the interior and on the edge. He should play a similar role, now with a new team.
The Titans also took a flyer late last season on ex-Lion Da’Shawn Hand and he has a chance to carve out a rotational role as well. A 4th round pick in 2018, Hand flashed a lot of potential on 455 rookie year snaps, especially as a pass rusher, totaling a 9.5% pressure rate. However, injuries have completely derailed his career, limiting him to a 3.6% pressure rate and 556 snaps total in the past three seasons and ultimately leading to the Lions releasing him late last season, with the Titans then adding him to their practice squad and playing him 6 snaps in their final regular season game. If he’s healthy, he could prove to be a useful rotational player and sub package interior pass rusher, but he could just as easily get hurt again or not make the final roster. Jeffery Simmons elevates this position group significantly in a big way, but the rest of this group is much more questionable.
The Titans are better at the edge defender position, as, not only is Denico Autry an effective pass rusher, but they also got a big pass rushing season from edge defender Harold Landry, who led the team with 12 sacks and added 14 hits and a 12.1% pressure rate. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Landry has never shown much against the run and is a one-year wonder in terms of being the pass rusher he was last season, but he’s still in the prime of his career, going into his age 26 season, so it’s not surprising the Titans paid expensively this off-season (87.5 million over 5 years) to keep him long-term, given the premium teams pay for edge rushers.
Landry has had decent sack totals in the past, with 9 sacks in 2019 and 19 sacks total in his first three seasons in the league, but his peripheral pass rush numbers have never been nearly as good as they were last season, with a 9.5% pressure rate across his first three seasons. Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed in 2022, but, unless he regresses significantly, he should still remain an above average pass rusher. The Titans also have another highly paid edge defender, signing ex-Steeler Bud Dupree to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season.
Dupree was not worth that contract at all in year one though, struggling across 398 snaps in 11 games in an injury plagued season. Dupree was a risky and questionable signing from the start at that price, so it’s not all that surprising that the contract has looked like a big mistake thus far.
A first round pick by Pittsburgh in 2015, Dupree broke out with 11.5 sacks in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, after totaling just 20 sacks across his first four seasons in the league, but the Steelers were rightfully skeptical of Dupree’s ability to continue producing at that level long-term, franchise tagging him for the 2020 season, rather than paying up on a big money extension.
Not only was Dupree a one-year wonder in terms of having double digit sacks in a season, but his peripheral numbers during that double digit season weren’t much better than his peripheral numbers in the past, as his 9.5% pressure rate in 2019 was underwhelming and was in line with his 9.4% pressure rate from his first four seasons in the league, suggesting that his big sack total in 2019 was mostly the result of playing on a dominant defense and getting to clean up after more consistently disruptive pass rushers, rather than being a consistently disruptive pass rusher himself.
Dupree was not bad on the franchise tag in 2020, totaling 8 sacks, 10 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate in 11 games, but he suffered a torn ACL late in the season, which made him an even more questionable signing on a big, long-term contract. Rather than forcing Dupree to settle for a one-year prove it deal on which he could rehab his value for another trip to free agency, the Titans decided to give him the big money contract the Steelers wouldn’t and, thus far, they have not been rewarded, with Dupree dealing with lingering leg injuries for most of 2021 and, as a result, being ineffective even when on the field.
Dupree has a good chance to be better and healthier in 2022, another year removed from the injury, but he’s only earned two above average grades from PFF in seven seasons in the league, so his bounce back potential isn’t as high as his contract would suggest. It’s very possible Dupree will be a cap casualty after the season unless he bounces back in a big way, as his 17 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2023 would be very tough to justify if he doesn’t improve drastically, especially with Landry also commanding significant money.
Landry, Dupree, and Autry figure to play the vast majority of the snaps on the edge, but they also bring back Olasunkanmi Adeniyi as a reserve, after he played 207 middling snaps last season. The 2018 undrafted free agent has never had a snap total higher than last season and has mostly been underwhelming in his limited career action, but he could remain decent in a similar role in 2022. The Titans could also give an expanded role to 2021 4th round pick Rashad Weaver, who played just 12 snaps as a rookie, but has the potential to develop into a useful player going forward. Even with Landry and Autry coming off career best years that they might not repeat, this is still a talented group, especially if Dupree can give them more this season.
The Titans’ off ball linebackers are probably the position group that has changed the most for the Titans next last season, with a pair of contributors in Jayon Brown (421 snaps) and Rashaan Evans (445 snaps) no longer with the team and effectively being replaced by Zach Cunningham, a long-time Texan who played the final four games of the season with the Titans last season, after Houston cut him mid-season for disciplinary reasons. He’ll play close to every down and start in base packages opposite David Long, a 2019 6th round pick who finished as PFF’s 23rd ranked off ball linebacker last season in the first significant action of his career, albeit in just 10 games in an injury plagued season.
A consistently above average off ball linebacker across his first four seasons in the league, including a 22nd ranked season among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2019, Cunningham struggled for most of last season in Houston, but he bounced right back to being an above average player after joining the Titans. Despite his strong close to last season, the Titans were still able to get Cunningham to agree to a pay cut for 2022, but he’ll still make good money at 8.5 million, even if it’s down from his previously scheduled 10.5 million. Only in his age 28 season, Cunningham should continue being at least a solid every down starting linebacker for the Titans. Claiming him on waivers from a division rival was a wise move for this franchise.
The Titans also have 2021 3rd round pick Monty Rice, who played 179 snaps as a rookie, but he was middling at best across those snaps and he should enter the season behind David Long on the depth chart, even if Long is still an unproven player who has not played a full season as a starter yet. Long has a good chance to have at least another decent season, but Rice isn’t bad insurance to have if Long regresses or if injuries strike. This isn’t an elite linebacking corps or anything, but it’s a solid group overall.
The Titans used the first round pick they got from Philadelphia for AJ Brown on Brown’s replacement, Treylon Burks, but, with their own pick, originally 26th overall, the Titans traded down and drafted Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary with the 35th overall pick, at the top of the second round. This comes after the Titans used the 22nd overall in the 2021 NFL Draft on cornerback Caleb Farley, as well as using a third round pick in 2021 on Elijah Molden and a second round pick in 2020 on Kristian Fulton. This is a very young cornerback group with a lot of upside, but the potential downside and lack of experience is obvious as well.
Veteran Janoris Jenkins led this group with 862 snaps played last season and wasn’t bad, but the Titans opted not to bring him back at a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and will instead go with a youth movement at the position. Farley has the most talent of the bunch and could have been a top-10 pick if not for durability concerns, but those durability concerns continued into his rookie year and limited him to just 60 snaps in 3 games, before a torn ACL ended his season. Farley should be healthy for the start of the 2022 season and still has the upside to develop into a #1 cornerback long-term, but his long-term outlook is clouded by his lack of durability and experience.
Farley will compete with the other three young cornerbacks for playing time. Molden played 632 nondescript snaps as a rookie, while Fulton played 738 nondescript snaps last season, after struggling on 203 rookie year snaps, so neither have proven much yet, but they both have the upside to take a step forward in 2022. McCreary also has a lot of upside, but he could struggle through some growing pains as a rookie.
The only veteran cornerback the Titans have is Buster Skrine, who is going into his age 32 season and his 11th year in the league. It’s impressive that Skrine has lasted this long in the league, but he has never been more than a middling cornerback. He provided some stability to this secondary as a mid-season signing last year, playing 218 regular season snaps and earning an average grade from PFF, but he could easily struggle if forced into significant action again in 2022.
The strength of the Titans’ defense last season was their safeties, with Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker finishing 1st and 5th respectively among safeties on PFF. For Byard, a season like this was nothing new as, even though he has been somewhat inconsistent in his career, he’s still finished in the top-8 among safeties on PFF in three of the past five seasons. Going into his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect a sudden dropoff from him, although it’s possible that he isn’t able to maintain his high level of play across the whole season, which has been the case for him in some years.
Hooker, meanwhile, had a breakout year last season, after the 2019 4th round pick flashed as a reserve on 335 snaps and 470 snaps in his first two seasons in the league. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the high level safety he was last season and even last season he only made 12 starts because of injury, but he should remain at least an above average starter and could develop into one of the best safeties in the league for years to come, still only going into his age 24 season.
Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Hooker figures to get a top of the market deal at some point, whether from the Titans or from another team on the open market. Depth is a bit of a concern, but the Titans’ have arguably the best safety duo in the league. Their cornerbacks are not nearly as proven, but they have the upside to take a step forward as a group in 2022, though that’s far from a guarantee.
The Titans finished last season ranked 23rd in special teams DVOA and there’s a good chance they struggle in this aspect again this season. The Titans didn’t make any significant positive changes to this group, keeping punter Brett Kern and kicker Randy Bullock, losing top return man Chester Rogers without a replacement, and losing their top core special teamer Nick Dzubnar, leaving them without a player who finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season. This looks like it’ll be a below average unit again this season.
The Titans finished last season at 12-5, with the AFC’s best record and #1 seed by virtue of tiebreakers, but they ranked just 19th in team efficiency, benefiting from a 6-2 record in one-score games and a +4 return touchdown margin, two things that would be tough to maintain long-term. They especially struggled without AJ Brown last season, which is a problem because they traded him this off-season and, while they have Robert Woods and Treylon Burks to replace him, they still figure to miss Brown significantly. On top of that, they lost a pair of starting offensive linemen and, while Derrick Henry will probably be healthier this season, he figures to not be nearly as productive as he’s been in the past, given his age, workload, and the declining talent and blocking around him on this offense.
If the Titans had just brought back last year’s exact team, they would be unlikely to match last year’s 12 wins, given that they benefited from things statistically they won’t be able to rely on going forward, but the Titans are also noticeably less talented on paper than a year ago, so they could easily be worse in efficiency this season than they were last season. If that happens, it’ll be tough for the Titans to make the post-season this year, in the loaded AFC. It helps that they play in the weakest division in their conference and their easiest path back to the post-season is by winning that division, but the Colts looked noticeably better right now, having upgraded their quarterback situation this off-season, while the Titans have seen their roster decline. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC South