The Titans look to build off their improbable playoff run in 2019 which saw them a few quarters away from eliminating three MVP’s to represent the AFC. If you had told Titans fans that after a 2-4 start in the 2019 season that they would be up 10 with less than five minutes to go in the first half of the AFC Championship game, they would have also believed that Jeff Fisher was coming back as head coach. That is how implausible their playoff run was last year.
After career years from Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, the Titans front office looked to secure that winning formula by signing both players to long term contracts. Tannehill signed a 4 year extension worth $118 million, which includes $62 million in guaranteed money. Former Heisman winner Derrick Henry also signed a 4 year deal, that is worth $50 million. The question will be can the Titans replicate their success or were they swayed into funding a pipe dream?
On the offensive side of the ball, the Titans will continue to rely on their heavy run attack spear-headed by Derrick Henry. Henry led the league last year in rushing yards and touchdowns among running backs. However, Ryan Tannehill may be a prime candidate for a season of regression.
The 31 year old quarterback had a career year and completed 70% of his passes, which ranked third among quarterbacks in 2019. He was extremely efficient, which was a perfect tandem for the Titans dominant running attack. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan Tannehill threw for a first down on 41% of his drop backs, which led the NFL. Nevertheless, no quarterback had fewer attempts than Tannehill that ranked in the top ten in completion percentage last year.
A small sample size to judge, and therein lays a problem for the Titans. Surely, Tannehill will have more attempts this upcoming year barring any missed time to injury. Opposing defenses will make it a priority to stop Derrick Henry and stack the box. It should not be surprising if defenses blitz heavy and put Tannehill’s efficiency to the test and question if his success last year can be duplicated.
It should be noted that the former Miami quarterback has always been a relatively accurate passer during his career; however the big knock on him has been his play under pressure and avoiding sacks. Will Tannehill be able to continue his impressive efficiency or will he regress to the mean?
Even if Tannehill regresses, more attempts in the passing game for the Titans can bring some exciting projections for the offense. One of those is the continued growth and emergence of A.J. Brown. Brown had an explosive rookie year posting impressive stats especially yards after the catch and yards per reception.
Brown ranked second among receivers averaging 20.2 yards per reception. He also posted 447 yards after the catch which was 6th among wide receivers. Expect these numbers to drop but not because Brown will have a sophomore slump, but rather the former Ole miss receiver should see a significant rise in targets and receptions.
I would be shocked if 42 other wide receivers in the NFL have more receptions than Brown this upcoming season. A.J. Brown should also receive more attention from opposing defenses and will be game planned more as there will be a full year of tape on him. This should present more opportunities for the rest of the offense.
In order for the Titans offense to continue to improve, offensive coordinator Arthur Brown has to open the play-book up more and present defenses with multiple threats on the field. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown will draw the most attention on the field. In order to mitigate double teams on A.J. Brown and defenses stacking the box against Henry, the Titans have to get Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and rookie Darrynton Evans more involved.
Davis is entering a contract year and should be hungry to prove his worth on a long term deal. Jonnu Smith is potential candidate for a breakout year. Last year, Smith had approximately 63% of his receiving yards after the catch.
An athletic tight end, Evans should help the Titans offense be more diverse. Lastly, there is an opportunity for rookie Evans to have a role in the passing game and become a third down back. Dion Lewis was cut after the 2020 season and there is a role to fill. Evans’s speed can become a factor for the offense; he ran a 4.41 forty-yard dash in the combine, which ranked second among running backs.
On the defensive side of the ball the Titans have an impressive secondary and Adoree’ Jackson is quickly becoming a potential top-5 cornerback in the league. Their safety duo of Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard is one of the best in the NFL. Byard a former First-team All-Pro, was once mistaken as a “fan” by Deion Sanders on Twitter in 2018 when Byard questioned Deion’s analysis that Tyrann Mathieu was the best safety in the league. Titans fans won’t care much of Sanders’ opinion, as Kevin Byard has been graded a top four safety from 2017-2019 by Pro Football Focus.
The Titans biggest weakness is their pass rush. After committing long term money to Tannehill and Henry, the Titans traded five-time pro-bowler Jurrell Casey to the Broncos. Casey was a stud for Tennessee throughout his career in the Music City. Instead of strengthening through the draft, the Titans looked to free agency.
Jadeveon Clowney finally has a home after months of free agency. Clowney surprisingly had not signed with a team in the first few months of free agency. One explanation is the money he was demanding was not in correlation with his sack production over his career. The former number one overall pick is a disruptive force on the front line, however in terms of production he has not lived up to his potential.
Over his six year career, Clowney has had 32 career sacks. Many elite pass rushers post those numbers in two to three seasons. Nonetheless, Clowney ranked fifth in pass rush win rate at 24.8% in 2019, according to ESPN. The former Seahawk and Vic Beasley should help bolster the Titans pass rush.
AFC South Prediction
The South should be close and competitive this year much like usual. The Indianapolis Colts made some key additions this offseason. They have brought in veteran quarterback Phillip Rivers and traded for former 49er DeForest Buckner. It will be curious to see how much Rivers has left in the tank.
The 38 year old quarterback’s arm strength has significantly decreased over the years and there will be questions marks about his addition if he puts in poor performances. Buckner looks to be a terrific addition and helps an improving pass rush which also added Justin Houston the previous year. Perhaps one of the biggest stories in the offseason was the Texans trading Pro-Bowler DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals. That leaves Deshaun Watson relying on the likes of Will Fuller who although talented, has shown to be injury prone throughout his career.
With all that in mind, I believe the Titans can and will win the division. Although Tannehill may not a replicate his impressive 2019 season stats, I think he will outperform Phillip Rivers and that should edge the Titans to win the division. The Titans have a tough schedule especially early in season, but surely they cannot go 9-7 for five straight seasons right? Prediction: 10-6 and AFC South Champions.