OFFSEASON REVIEW: TENNESSEE TITANS
By Callum Squires
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Tennessee Titans:
After a breakout 2019 season, the Titans could no longer be considered a dark horse, and had to be recognised as a legit AFC Championship contender heading into 2020. The magical playoff run that included striking at the very heart of the New England Deathstar was enjoyed by many as Mike Vrabel walked back into his old stomping ground and burned that questionably deflated shack to the ground. Then, they dispatched the Ravens (we’ll talk more about them later…) when nobody gave them a chance at stopping Lamar Jackson. I regularly revisit the Derrick Henry halfback jump pass TD from that game. Sidenote: two trick play attempts minimum should be compulsory in every NFL game. Anyway, the Titans had a Cinderella run before finally falling to the eventual SuperBowl Champions, Kansas City. The formula was simple, and it still is for Tennessee: FEED 22 THE BALL.
Derrick Henry’s 2020 season was one for the ages, and should be respected in the annals of time as one of the finest we’ve ever seen by a running back. Is he a threat catching the ball? Not really. Just 19 catches for 114 yards. That said, 378 rushes for 2,027 yards and 17 TDs is INCREDIBLE. Mind-blowing. He was rightly in the MVP conversation. That said, you could argue the reliance on Henry made Tennessee one dimensional at times. Ryan Tannehill has been reborn as the Titans’ franchise QB and perhaps he should be trusted more to carry the load.
Tennessee finished the regular season 11-5, with a number of solid wins – namely over the Colts, Bills and Ravens (again) – but also a couple of head-scratching losses – such as to the Bengals, and being comprehensively blown out by the (admittedly very good) Packers. Tennessee had to wait until week 17 to confirm themselves as AFC South Champions for the first time since 2008, but celebrated accordingly, as yet another 200+ yard performance from Henry helped him eclipse 2,000 for the year, and dispatch the Texans 41-38. The Titans would regularly be in lopsided games one way or the other. They built big leads against Buffalo, Indy and Detroit, and fell heavily behind against Cleveland (before attempting to stage a crazy second half comeback). They were a bit of a strange team, with a severe lack of pass rush often allowing opposing QBs to have success against them, but with such a dominant run game they were often able to control the clock to their own agenda. Sadly, this method didn’t work in the playoffs this time.
It’s always funny when two franchises, especially non-divisional rivals, become intertwined in both their season storylines. Over the past 2 seasons, the Titans have developed a brand new nemesis in the Baltimore Ravens, and it was with Baltimore that Tennessee’s 2020 campaign would end. Before the week 11 meeting, social media was lit up as the Titans had their pre game meeting on the Ravens logo, which was seen by many as a deliberate show of disrespect. This led to an angry Jim Harbaugh confronting Vrabel, and within hours the outcome of a potential boxing match between the two was being debated all across sports media. It was ridiculously enjoyable nonsense. But it left a bitter taste in the Ravens’ mouth, that they would eventually avenge in the wildcard round, halting the Tennessee train with a defensively dominant 20-13 victory sending the Titans back to the drawing board for 2021. Marcus Peters’s game-sealing INT and the Ravens subsequent dash to the Titans logo will surely serve as off-season fuel for this team to revamp and come back stronger.
Largely, the Titans have chosen to promote from within this off-season. It’s an interesting choice, because whilst the 2020 season was undeniably successful, it wasn’t without its issues, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Shane Bowen has been promoted to defensive coordinator from his outside linebackers coach role, and he surely has the most to prove. Tennessee were hampered by a leaky back door the whole season, meaning Arthur Smith’s offense often had to put up large numbers to be able to win the various shootouts they were engaged in. Bowen was unofficially in this role last season, and has somewhat confusingly been rewarded for a mediocre season with an official job title.
Speaking of Arthur Smith, he’s now moved on to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Smith deserved that move up in his status, and that happening has opened the door for Todd Downing to step up from tight ends coach to the position of offensive coordinator. Downing does have experience in this role as recently as 2017 with the Raiders. That season… didn’t go great, so the Titans will certainly be hoping for a better outcome this time round.
State Of The Roster
The loss of Taylor Lewan to injury during the season highlighted the slightly limited cover Tennessee had on the offensive line, which may be something that needs to be addressed. That said, the line has proven to be solid and deserves ample credit for Henry’s remarkable season as well. Ben Jones & Rodger Saffold III are key cogs, with David Quessenberry and Dennis Kelly have proven ample backups. AJ Brown has now officially broken out as a star wide receiver, and we’ve already alluded to the regeneration of Ryan Tannehill’s career. It really is incredible what happens to players once they escape Adam Gase’s clutches…
Defensively, the Jadeveon Clowney experiment didn’t really work, and despite numerous talented players (Kevin Byard, Malcolm Butler, Rashaan Evans) the Titans struggled to make their output equal to the sum of their parts. Most of those players will still be under contract, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tennessee attempt to revamp their rearguard with significant draft capital spent on the defensive side of the ball.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
Currently, the Titans are projected to be marginally over the salary cap, to the tune of about $3m. Some tough decisions are coming in free agency. We’ve already seen that Adam Humphries has been let go recently, saving just under $5million, and another big decision comes in the form of Adoree’ Jackson, who barely played in 2020, due to injury, and is due more than $10million this upcoming season.
The rest of Tennessee’s cap money is largely tied up in big name deals like Tannehill, Henry, Lewan and Malcolm Butler. The Titans might end up being able to restructure some deals and move some pieces to give themselves some working room with the cap, but likely the Titans will need to draft well to set themselves up for the future as big name free agents are likely to look elsewhere to get their money this offseason.
Seemingly the entire tight end room in Tennessee are free agents this offseason. The biggest name on this list is definitely Jonnu Smith. Smith is a very talented and athletic tight end, who will surely have lots of suitors in the free agency market. I would be surprised if he ended up back with the Titans, as the price will be high, and the Titans can re-sign Anthony Firkser and MyCole Pruitt for more sensibly sized contracts, and both have proven to be useful players in their own right. Furthermore, Corey Davis finally started to flash his talent in 2020, and now the Titans have to decide if they believe enough in the former 1st round (top 5!!!!!) pick to pay him accordingly. If not, look for Tennessee to add another receiver in the draft too.
As already mentioned, Clowney didn’t give the game-changing level of performance we know he’s capable of, but I could see Tennessee giving him another shot, with a smaller – maybe more incentive laden deal – for a year to “prove it.” Jayon Brown is surely one the front office will want to re-sign, after a solid start to his NFL career. DaQuan Jones is a big name in need of a new contract, having proven himself a great run defender. His price tag may prove too big for Tennesee GM Jon Robinson, especially if he commits to paying Clowney, Brown or even Desmond King who may be shown the door with his likely price tag too high as well. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Pass rush, pass rush, a little bit of a defensive leader, and a LOT of pass rush. JJ Watt MIGHT have been the answer, but as we now know he’s packed up his bloodied facemask and headed to join Kliff Kingsbury’s sexy desert cult of Cardinals. Will Clowney re-sign and step up? Maybe. I hope so for both parties’ sake. They had just 19 sacks last season, which is fairly miserable considering the talent they had at their disposal. That MUST improve if the Titans are to be a contender next season.
Beyond that, much of the Titans’ need will be decided by their free agency decisions. If Corey Davis does move on, wide receiver instantly becomes a position of need, and with the depth at that position in this draft class it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go down that route. Similarly, with the aforementioned DaQuan Jones and Jayon Brown situations, the Titans may need to spend significant draft capital at either D-Line or LB positions depending on the decisions they make in free agency.
Overall, the Titans need to improve defensively, and find a way to vary their offensive output from being largely 1st and 2nd down runs with Henry. Trust Tannehill, and know that Derrick Henry WILL get his yards, regardless of which down we run the ball on. Vrabel will be back with a vengeance, and the Titans will resume their battle with the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC South, whilst Jacksonville start their trip on the Urban Meyer rollercoaster, and Houston continue to burn themselves to the ground. Tennessee is positioned well, but needs that staunch defensive scheme that was so effective in 2019 to return in order to try and repeat as AFC South champs in 2021.