Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (5-3) at Tennessee Titans (5-2)

Both of these teams have impressive records that get less impressive when you look at the box scores. The Bears’ five wins have all come by one score, including four games that all came down to the final score and a pair of nearly impossible comebacks. The Titans, meanwhile, have not faced a tough schedule, but have still had to walk the tightrope this season, winning their first 3 games by a combined 6 points and winning a fourth game in overtime.

However, there is plenty of reason to expect the Titans to be the significantly better team going forward. One is simply that, even though the Titans have been unimpressive in the box scores, they’ve still significantly outplayed the Bears overall this season. They won the first down rate battle by 6.99% in their week 5 blowout victory over the Bills, by far more impressive than any of the Bears’ games this season, and last week they won the first down rate battle by 5.87% even in a loss to the Bengals, losing that game primarily because they lost the turnover battle and allowed a ridiculous 11 of 16 on 3rd and 4th down, two things that are very inconsistent week-to-week. The Bears, meanwhile, were down 21 and 16 in the 4th quarter of two of their losses and rank just 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.95%, while the Titans rank 15th at +0.53%. 

On top of that, the Titans are in much better shape going forward because they’re an offensive led team, while the Bears are a defensive led team. Offense is by far the more predictable side of the ball and the Titans rank 6th in first down rate over expected at +2.43%, while the Bears rank 30th at -3.67% and are arguably even worse than that suggests, missing a trio of starting offensive linemen in James Daniels (4th game missed), Cody Whitehair (2nd game missed), and Bobby Massie (1st game missed). 

The Titans have to play another game in 4 days after this one, facing the Colts on Thursday Night Football, and favorites cover at just a 43.8% rate all-time before Thursday Night Football, which limits the amount I like Tennessee as 6.5 point favorites, but the Bears will need to continue being significantly better on defense for this game to be close and that’s far from a given. 

That becomes more likely if the Titans are missing key personnel on defense in this game and edge defense Jadeveon Clowney is a gametime decision after not practicing all week, but even if he doesn’t play, the Titans could offset his absence by getting top cornerback Adoree Jackson back for the first time all season. If one of those two play and this line doesn’t increase, I will bet the Titans and if both play, this could be a big Tennessee bet. For now this is a low confidence pick, but I will likely have an update this weekend, probably after Saturday afternoon, when Jackson’s status will need to be decided.

Tennessee Titans 26 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -6.5

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (5-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1)

This is one of the toughest calls of the week. On one hand, while the Titans are 5-1, most of their wins have been close, with 4 of their 5 wins coming by 6 points or fewer, despite facing a relatively easy schedule and benefitting from a +9 turnover margin (+1.5 per game), which is unlikely to continue going forward. Their one win that wasn’t close was a surprisingly dominant effort against the Bills, winning 42-16 and winning the first down rate battle by 6.99, but the Titans still rank just 18th in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.13%.

At first glance, the Bengals seem like the kind of team that can at least give the Titans a close game. Not only have the Titans struggled to put away inferior teams like the Broncos, Texans, and Jaguars, but the Bengals have played a lot of close games over the past two seasons. They haven’t won a lot of games, winning just 3 games total over 23 games between the two seasons, but the Bengals also have a tie and 12 losses by one score or fewer, as opposed to 7 losses by more than one score.

However, even though the Bengals’ only loss by more than one score this season came against the Ravens, the Bengals have been much worse than that suggests, as the Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 8.20% and 5.56% respectively. They lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns. In total, the Bengals rank just 28th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.77%, actually down from their 23rd ranked finish in 2019 (-1.98%). 

The Bengals offense is better this season with quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins making impacts as rookies and left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green making an impact after missing all of 2019 with injury, but the Bengals’ defense is significantly worse, as their veteran leaders in 2019, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, have been traded and benched respectively, in favor of younger players playing. 

On top of that, the Bengals are extremely banged up on the offensive line this week, missing four of their regular starters from a group that isn’t good to begin with, including Jonah Williams, who is one of their top offensive players, which has pushed them down to 29th in my roster rankings. My numbers suggest the Bengals should still be the pick by the slightest of margins, but this is definitely a no confidence pick and a push might be the most likely outcome.

Tennessee Titans 23 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) at Tennessee Titans (5-0)

Both of these teams are undefeated at 5-0, but both teams have been less than stellar for stretches this season. The Steelers faced one of the easiest schedules in the league in their first 4 games of the season and managed just a +1.39%% first down rate differential, before stepping their play up in a big way last week, winning the first down rate battle by 11.41% in a 38-7 blowout win over a Browns team who was the toughest team the Steelers had faced to date. 

The Titans, meanwhile, have faced a slightly tougher schedule, but four of their five wins have been decided by one score or less, with the exception being a 42-16 blowout victory over the Bills that stands out as being a significantly better performance by the Titans than their other four games, much in the same way the Steelers’ win last week against the Browns was significantly better than their first four results.

This matchup was originally supposed to take place in week 4, but was pushed forward to week 7 because of the Titans’ COVID outbreak. The extra time has benefited both teams, as it’s allowed them to get healthier, but the Titans get the bigger boost, as top cornerback Adoree Jackson and top wide receiver AJ Brown have both missed time with injury, among others, while several other key players have missed time with positive COVID tests. All of those key players are expected to play this week, with the possible exception of Jackson, who has yet to play this season. The Titans are missing left tackle Taylor Lewan now, but he hasn’t played that well so far this season and the Titans have a first round rookie in Isaiah Wilson behind him on the depth chart. The Steelers get stud right guard David DeCastro back healthy after he missed 3 of the first 5 games, but they’ll be without top off ball linebacker Devin Bush and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who will miss their first games of the season this week.

These two teams are pretty even overall, but I give the Titans the edge right now because of their injury situation. Despite that, this line favors the Titans by just 1 point at home, suggesting the Steelers are the slightly better team. This line has moved from favoring Pittsburgh by a couple points earlier this week, but that’s pretty insignificant line movement and the Titans should still have a good chance of covering in a game they basically just need to win to cover. I would need Jackson to play for the Titans to be worth betting, but they’re definitely under consideration and they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes either way.

Tennessee Titans 23 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -1

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) at Buffalo Bills (4-1)

Both of these teams started the season 4-0, but both teams also had disappointing results last week, with the Bills getting blown out on the road by fellow undefeated Tennessee by score of 42-16 and the Chiefs getting upset in shocking fashion at home against a middling Raiders team by score of 40-32. The odds makers seem more concerned about the Titans’ result, as this line has shifted from favoring the Chiefs by 3 points on the early line to now favoring the Chiefs by 5, but the Bills’ disappointing result was more excusable, seeing as they were missing top cornerback Tre’Davious White, top linebacker Matt Milano, and starting wide receiver John Brown, who could all return this week. The Chiefs, meanwhile, will be without starting guard Kelechi Osemele and starting wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

I still have this line calculated at Kansas City -3, so we’re getting good line value with the Bills, but I’m no longer considering this for Pick of the Week, like I was when it seemed like Brown, White, and Milano would almost definitely return. All three practiced all week, but they’re still listed questionable and Brown and Milano were both downgraded to limited on Saturday after full practices all week. My calculated line factors in them all being questionable, but if one of them were to miss, my calculated line would increase, and vice versa if all three were able to play. If the latter ends up being the case, I’ll probably bet on Buffalo, perhaps for a larger wager, but this is a low confidence pick for now. If I decide to bet this one, it’ll be before gametime, when inactives are announced.

Update: Brown will play, but Milano won’t. It’s not ideal, but this line has moved up to 6 in some places. If you can get 6, I think that’s worth a bet. My calculated line is still -3 and this should be a close game.

Kansas City Chiefs 33 Buffalo Bills 30

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +6

Confidence: Medium

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (1-4) at Tennessee Titans (4-0)

This is a tough one, as there are good arguments for both sides. On one hand, this line has shifted significantly since the early line last week, with the Titans going from being favored by 7 to being favored by 3.5. Normally I like to fade significant week-to-week line movements because they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. In this case, the line movement actually comes despite the Titans winning big over another good team in the Buffalo Bills, running away with the 42-16 victory on Tuesday Night Football last week, despite being without starting cornerback Kristian Fulton, starting wide receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries, and defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons, who are all expected back this week. The Texans also had a big win last week, but it came over the Jaguars and I’ve never seen a line drop like this despite the favored team winning big the previous week.

On the other hand, you could make a good case for this line being right. The Texans are 1-4, but they’ve faced one of the toughest schedules in the league this season, starting the season with arguably the three best teams in the AFC in the Ravens, Steelers, and Chiefs and a Vikings team that is better than their record, before their blowout victory in their first easy game of the season against the Jaguars last week. The Texans rank 16th in my roster rankings and realistically are a middling team that just got dealt a tough schedule to start the season.

The Titans, meanwhile, started the season with one of the easiest schedules in the league over their first 3 games and they won those games by just a combined 6 points. That, of course, changed last week against the Bills, but the Titans might have benefitted from the extended rest in that game, while the Bills played the previous week. This time around, the Titans will have to play on a short week after just playing on a Tuesday, while the Texans will be on normal rest. My calculated line is Tennessee -4.5, as the Titans do have a top-10 roster on paper when healthy, but I’m actually going to go with the Texans for pick ‘em purposes because of the scheduling angle. I could really go either way on this one though.

Tennessee Titans 33 Houston Texans 30

Pick against the spread: Houston +3.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (4-0) at Tennessee Titans (3-0)

I think this game is finally safe to write up. A line was posted at Buffalo -3.5 and after two straight days of COVID negatives by the Titans, it seems likely that this game will take place, for the Titans their first game in 16 days. A team having that much time off between games mid-season isn’t unprecedented in the NFL, as three teams went three weeks without playing in 2001 due to 9/11 cancellations, but there is very limited history of how this affects teams and the Titans have also had very little chance to practice and will be playing without several key players, which puts the Titans in uncharted territory historically.

The Titans activated defensive end Da’Quan Jones from the COVID list and they’ll have top wide receiver AJ Brown back from injury for the first time since week 1 and any of their other COVID list players could theoretically be activated before gametime, but right now they are slated to be without starting cornerback Kristian Fulton, starting wide receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries, and top defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons. This is nowhere near their full strength squad. 

Making matters worse for the Titans, they weren’t nearly as good as their 3-0 record suggests, even before all this happened. Their three wins have come by a combined 6 points, despite a +5 turnover margin, something that they’re not necessarily going to be able to count on going forward, and they actually entered week 5 ranking just 25th in first down rate differential at -3.44%. Part of that was due to injury absences, as they’ve also been missing top cornerback Adoree Jackson all season, but they’re in much worse shape now. 

The Titans also haven’t had a particularly tough schedule thus far, struggling to put away the Broncos, Jaguars, and Titans, and now face a much tougher test, as the Bills are off to an impressive 4-0 start and look significantly improved in 2020 thanks to Josh Allen’s improvement and the addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs. This line favors the Bills by 3.5, which would be my calculated line in normal circumstances, but the Titans are also definitely at a disadvantage due to their lack of practice time and unpredictable schedule over the past two weeks. 

I’m not sure if I’m going to bet on the Bills, however, because the Titans have players who could be activated before gametime, while the Bills’ top cornerback Tre’Davious White is questionable after not practicing all week and could join top linebacker Matt Milano on the sideline, though the extended week probably gives White a better than normal chance of playing despite the lack of practice time. Either way, I’ll likely have an update before gametime, but I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick on Buffalo for now.

Final Update: White is out for the Bills, but the Titans won’t be getting any additional players back from the COVID list and this line has dropped to a field goal. I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick, but the Bills should still be the right side.

Buffalo Bills 30 Tennessee Titans 24

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -3

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (2-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-2)

It’s weird to see the Vikings be this bad on defense, after years of consistently strong defensive play under Mike Zimmer, but it’s not a fluke, as this is just not a talented unit. The Vikings lost a pair of mainstays on the defensive line in Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph and, while they were replaced with Yannick Ngakoue and Michael Pierce, the latter opted out of the season, while the former is basically by himself on a defensive line that is missing Danielle Hunter, who is normally one of the top edge rushers in the league. The Vikings also just lost Anthony Barr from their linebacking corps due to injury, while their cornerbacks are very thin in part due to injury, in part due to lack of talent. Adding to their injury list, nominal top cornerback Mike Hughes is expected to be out this week. 

On offense, it’s tough to know what to make of this team because their week 1 and week 2 performances could not have been more different. In week 1, the offense did the most they could with the limited amount of time their defense allowed them to be on the field, picking up 25 first downs and 4 touchdowns on 49 offensive snaps, to give them a ridiculous 59.18% first down rate, but in week 2, they couldn’t get anything going, finishing with a 27.66% first down rate. Guard Pat Elflein didn’t play in week 2 after playing week 1 and he’ll be out again this week, but it’s unlikely his absence alone caused the big drop off from week 1 to week 2.

Realistically, the Vikings should ultimately be somewhere right in the middle of their past two performances this season. They finished 11th in first down rate last season and, while they lost wide receiver Stefon Diggs this off-season, they do have a healthy Adam Theilen. It’s going to be tough for their offense to keep up with what their defense puts up though, at least until Hunter is back, and especially against tougher competition.

The Titans are 2-0 and, though they haven’t been tested yet, I liked their chances of being a top-10 team coming into the season and, while they’re still missing top cornerback Adoree Jackson and top wide receiver AJ Brown, they’re actually healthier now than they’ve been in their first two games. I have them about 6 points better in my roster rankings than the Vikings right now, suggesting the Titans should be favored by about 3.5-4 points in Minnesota. That doesn’t seem like a lot of line value, with this line sitting at -2.5, but about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Titans to beat the Vikings by a field goal or more, with the Vikings banged up and not having a normal homefield advantage, so they’re worth a bet as favorites of less than a field goal.

Tennessee Titans 26 Minnesota Vikings 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-0) at Tennessee Titans (1-0)

The Jaguars pulled the biggest upset of week one, winning at home as 8-point underdogs against the Colts. That is likely to prove to be a fluke though, as the Jaguars still have one of the worst rosters in the league and are not going to be able to rely on winning the turnover battle by 2 every week. If Gardner Minshew can take a step forward in his second season in the league, he can lead this team to a few wins like Ryan Fitzpatrick did with the Dolphins last year when they had a similarly untalented roster, but the Dolphins were also blown out a lot last year.

This seems like one of those instances where the Jaguars are likely to be blown out, as the Titans are at home and became a legitimate top-10 team when they signed Jadeveon Clowney, who should play even more in his second game with the Titans. In his debut, the Titans only won by 2 in Denver, but they lost 10 points on makeable kicks, something that is highly unlikely to continue happening every week. 

The Jaguars likely fluke win shifted this line all the week from Tennessee -11 on the early line last week to -7.5 this week and, while some of that is justified due to the Titans missing starting cornerback Malcolm Butler and top receiver AJ Brown (in addition to fellow cornerback Adoree Jackson continuing to be out), I still have this line calculated at Tennessee -10.5 (it wouldn’t have been about -13 with Butler and Brown in the lineup). There’s enough line value with the Titans for them to be worth a small bet this week.

Update: Some 7s have shown up Sunday morning. This bet is worth increasing if you can get that number.

Tennessee Titans 31 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -7

Confidence: High

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)