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2021 Team Report: Tennessee Titans

Last updated: Thu, Aug 26

Offensive Philosophy

Ever since elevating backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill in 2019, the Tennessee Titans offense has been one of the most unlikely success stories in the NFL. It's largely based around the "wide zone" running plays popularized by the late-1990s Denver Broncos, which calls for running back Derrick Henry to take the handoff at a full sprint and head directly toward the defensive lineman who is "widest", or closest to the sideline. Henry is the best runner in the NFL (and is two inches taller and fifteen pounds heavier than any other top running back, yet still has one of the fastest top speeds of any player at any position in the league, per player-tracking data), which forces defenses to overcommit to the threat, which opens up the counter of Tannehill bootlegging to the back side and taking shots down the field. As a result, Tannehill leads all qualifying passers in yards per attempt over the last two years, and receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis were two of just eight players last year to average 70+ yards per game and 15+ yards per reception.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ryan Tannehill
Backup(s): Logan Woodside, Matt Barkley

Starting QB: Many predicted that Ryan Tannehill would flounder in his first full year as the Titans signal caller and that his 2019 production was a fluke. Tannehill proved doubters wrong by posting just short of 4,000 passing yards and a career-high 33 passing touchdowns. He also kept his interceptions to seven, just one more above his career best. When considering his 2021 prospects, it is not insignificant that Tannehill will no longer have Arthur Smith calling his plays, as Smith left to become Head Coach for the Atlanta Falcons. Instead, the Titans will rely on Todd Downing, whom they promoted from tight ends coach. Unlike Smith before him, Downing has play calling experience from his time with the Raiders. Tennessee will hope that his poor results in Oakland stemmed from Derek Carr suffering a transverse fracture rather than just lack of ability to design plays effectively. Head Coach Mike Vrabel has said publicly that Downing's play calling will not vary wildly from what we saw from Smith--the heavy use of play action and feeding the football to Derrick Henry often. The offense line will also see only slight shuffling. The team released Dennis Kelly and traded away first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, while bringing in Kendall Lamm to compete for the starting right tackle spot with Ty Sambrailo. All things considered, the Titans will likely continue to execute an offense that is efficient and effective, not asking Tannehill to create outside of the structure of the play.

Backup QB: Logan Woodside has yet to be battle tested in regular season action and Tennessee hopes that it remains that way. Woodside's last significant assignment was as a starting quarterback in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. He has seen no action apart from preseason games for the Titans, so it has been difficult to evaluate his progress heading into his fourth season on the Titans roster. The Titans also added reclamation project DeShone Kizer late last year and have kept him on the roster since. They released Kizer during training camp to add Matt Barkley, who has more extensive experience in the league. Neither Woodside or Barkley has seized the backup job as camp has worn on.

Running Backs

Starter: Derrick Henry
Backup(s): Darrynton Evans, Brian Hill, Jeremy McNichols, Mekhi Sargent, Khari Blasingame
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Derrick Henry is the back-to-back rushing title champion and remains unchallenged in terms of significant competition for touches, a real rarity among NFL running backs in this era. His 2,758 yards after contact since 2019 leads all active running backs. At 27 years old, he is in the prime years of his career, one that looks increasingly as if it is trending toward challenging Chris Johnson, Earl Campbell, and Eddie George for franchise rushing leader.

Backup RBs: The Titans may have found a compliment to Henry in Brian Hill. The free agent from Atlanta is one of the more capable between-the-tackles options on the roster. Khari Blasingame has been used as more of a fullback, but there have been times he has been asked to catch passes and he has shown competency with this task. Darrynton Evans was sidelined with hamstring ailments for much of last year, so it will be interesting to see if the former Appalachian State runner can recapture the speed in the open field and pass-catching prowess that made General Manager Jon Robinson fall in love with him in the 2020 Draft. Jeremy McNichols is a no-nonsense, straight-ahead runner that can bully defenders with his punishing style, but has little to offer in terms of elusiveness or pass catching ability. Mekhi Sargent has been a nice undrafted free agent find that has been able to gain traction with Evans hurt and McNichols missing time due to COVID. He has an outside chance of sticking on the roster.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Josh Reynolds, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
Backups: Chester Rogers, Cameron Batson, Rashard Davis, Cody Hollister, Marcus Johnson, Mason Kinsey, Dez Fitzpatrick [R], Racey McMath [R]

Starting WRs: This offensive group saw the most turnover, with Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, and Khalif Raymond all no longer with the team. Josh Reynolds signed in free agency and has the potential to be an underrated addition. Reynolds is not only a willing blocker as Davis was, but he also has pass catching ability, including adeptness at tracking deep targets that Davis did not necessarily possess. A.J. Brown continues to grow into not only the team's foremost option, but one of the better pass catchers presently in the league. The team traded for Julio Jones before training camp in an effort to bolster their passing offense. Jones is an effective upgrade for the offense, but a chronic foot issue has caused him to miss quarters of work in recent seasons for Atlanta. Expect that physical decline cause him to miss games in upcoming seasons. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine caught only three passes for 33 yards and his upside as pass catcher is limited. Still, he was an excellent special teams contributor and the Titans liked what he could do as a blocker.

Backup WRs: Cameron Batson is the most tenured Titan of the group, but the Titans have managed to collect other receivers that have NFL experience. Chester Rogers spent a few years with the rival Colts and proved he can hold down one of the starting spots in a pinch. Cody Hollister, Rashard Davis, and Marcus Johnson have had stints with other teams, but none have played extended time as a starter. Signed from Division III Berry College, Mason Kinsey will need to be a quick study in this year's offseason program to make any impact. The Titans moved up in the fourth round of the Draft to select Dez Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has more developing to do, but he is an excellent route runner and catches the football well downfield. McMath is a speedy addition that languished on LSU's depth chart behind Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase, and Terrance Marshall. He is an ideal special teamer that will have the opportunity to earn a bigger role if he can flash in camp practices.

Tight Ends

Starters: Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim
Backups: Jared Pinkney, Tommy Hudson, Luke Stocker

With Jonnu Smith now in New England, it is going to be up to Anthony Firkser and Geoff Swaim to fill his shoes. It is likely the Titans will use Firkser more as a pass-catcher and Swaim on blocking assignments. This limits the offense somewhat, as their presence on any given play may telegraph what the offense intends to do. Jared Pinkney and Tommy Hudson are both younger, developmental options that Tennessee will hope they do not have to call on due to injury during the season. The most interesting of the duo is probably Jared Pinkney. A former Vanderbilt standout, many thought the undrafted free agent could challenge for the primary backup spot to Hayden Hurst. The Falcons cut him before the 2020 season, instead opting to roll with Jaeden Graham.

Place Kicker

Sam Ficken: The Titans kicker situation is the worst in the league. Stephen Gostkowski was disappointing and then hurt last year, but did recover to play better as the season went on. The team did not bring him back, leaving Tucker McCann as the #1 even though he has never attempted a kick in a regular season game. After one week of camp, the team claimed Sam Ficken post-Jets release to compete with McCann and released UDFA Blake Haubeil. McCann was having a good camp when he was suddenly injured by a cheap shot in the team's first preseason game. The team waived him days later. Bringing back Gostkowski or claiming a loser of a kicker battle elsewhere seems like a stronger possibility than a kicker on the roster now starting Week 1.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Cameron Batson, Darrynton Evans

With top returner Kalif Barnes no longer on the roster, an opportunity has opened up for both Cameron Batson and Darrynton Evans-- last year's #2 and #3 options-- to expand their role in 2021.

Punt Returners: Cameron Batson, Darrynton Evans

With top returner Kalif Barnes no longer on the roster, an opportunity has opened up for both Cameron Batson and Darrynton Evans-- last year's #2 and #3 options-- to expand their role in 2021.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Taylor Lewan, LG Rodger Saffold, C Ben Jones, RG Nate Davis, RT Dillon Radunz [R]/Kendall Lamm
Key Backups: OT Ty Sambrailo, OL David Quessenberry, OL Aaron Brewer

Left tackle Taylor Lewan returns after missing eleven games last year with an injury. Ty Sambrailo started in his place. Sambrailo, Kendall Lamm from Houston and second round rookie Dillon Radunz from North Dakota will compete to be the new right tackle starter. The line's interior is a tough run-first group of veterans: Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis. This line has potential, but the change at right tackle holds back their grade.

Team Defense

The Titans defense added some big talents in the offseason. Denico Autry gives Jeffery Simmons a running mate at defensive tackle, Bud Dupree gives Harold Landry a running mate at edge rusher, and Janoris Jenkins and first-round pick Caleb Farley are as good as or better than any cornerback the team has had in recent years. Can coordinator Dean Pees improve this unit that mustered only 15 sacks and was soft against the run? The pieces are there, but it's best to leave them undrafted and see if there's something there ahead of matchups with the Jets and Jaguars in Weeks 4 and 5.

Defensive Line

Starters: LDE Denico Autry, NT Teair Tart, RDE Jeffery Simmons
Backups: DE Larrell Murchison, DE Woodrow Hamilton, DE Freedom Okinmoladun, DE Rashad Weaver [R], NT Daylon Mack

Starting DL: By adding a few new faces and hoping for better injury luck along the defensive front, Tennessee endeavored to help their defensive line unit gel. Jeffery Simmons must remain healthier in 2021 if this defense is to improve its pass rush. He dealt with an undisclosed injury that seemed to hamper his effectiveness for most of last year. In the offseason, the Titans inked former division rival Denico Autry to a multiyear deal. Autry provides another interior force that can create pass rush from the inside out. He terrorized Tennessee as a Colt with five sacks, six QB hits, and 17 tackles (four for loss) in five games played. Teair Tart will move into the starting nose tackle role with Daquon Jones' departure. Tart had positive moments in limited work last season, but also was suspended for one game after stepping on the leg of Cleveland offensive lineman Wyatt Teller. Whoever mans the nose will be well behind Autry and Simmons in snap count.

Backup DL: For the second year in a row, the Titans lack depth in their backup group and will need to potentially add veteran help to this bunch as they get closer to the season. Larrell Murchison did not show much growth from year one to year two. Rashad Weaver is a prospect that analyst Justis Mosqueda compares to Derek Barnett. Weaver was picked over 100 picks from where Barnett was selected. If Weaver can make that kind of impact, the Titans will have landed a major steal in the Draft. However, Weaver is facing a potential assault charge, putting his NFL future in doubt.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Harold Landry, OLB Bud Dupree, ILB Rashaan Evans, ILB Jayon Brown
Backups: OLB Derrick Roberson, OLB Wyatt Ray, OLB Justin March-Lilliard, ILB David Long, ILB B.J. Bello, ILB Monty Rice [R]

Starting LBs: Following an embarrassing performance in 2020 in which they logged just 19 sacks, the unit dismissed Vic Beasley after three games and let Jadaveon Clowney walk in free agency. Their splashiest signing of the offseason came when they added Bud Dupree. His eight sacks before injury in Week 12 was still more than the Titans sack leader Harold Landry (seven) put up all season. After a promising sophomore campaign, Rashaan Evans took a step back last season and is very much on the hot seat during this contract year. The team re-signed Jayon Brown to what essentially amounts to a one-year deal because of the voidable years appended to the contract. Brown tore his ACL in Week 11 of 2020, but was having a stellar season in terms of tackling and effectiveness in coverage.

Backup LBs: The Titans' lack of depth at pass rusher is starkly apparent. Wyatt Ray and Derrick Roberson have been favorite developmental projects of the coaching staff, but have produced very little in game action. If Rashaan Evans' poor play continues, the Titans may have no choice but to turn to David Long, who has had some success over the past two years in limited fill-in duty. B.J. Bello, like spent time with Jim Schwartz and the Eagles, and his signing was likely an effort to increase depth on a very thin unit. Monty Rice was on his third agent headed into the Draft, which is typically a red flag. The Georgia linebacker is a thumping, punishing inside linebacker that likes to hit. Expect him to develop into a two-down run stopper.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Kristian Fulton, CB Caleb Farley [R], SS Amani Hooker, FS Kevin Byard
Backups: CB Elijah Molden [R], CB Chris Jackson, CB Breon Borders, SS/FS Dane Cruikshank, SS Matthias Farley, SS Brady Breeze [R]

Starting DBs: A mass exodus at the defensive back position took place when Adoree Jackson, Kenny Vaccaro, and Malcolm Butler were all cut by the team. The Titans signed veteran Janoris Jenkins, formerly of the Saints and Giants. Tennessee has indicated they want to move to playing more of a press-man style. The very physical Jenkins fits that desired play style to a tee. More will also be expected of second-year corner Kristian Fulton, who spent much of last season injured. The team used their first round pick on Caleb Farley, who is on a par with Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II in talent and ability, but has a troubling history of back problems. He should be ready for the regular season. Amani Hooker will take Kenny Vaccaro's place in the lineup and should be ready to produce after being an understudy to Vaccaro for the past two years. Kevin Byard will hope to rebound from a down year. While he did manage a career-high 111 combined tackles, his coverage struggles were a contributing factor to why the Titans had the worst third down conversions allowed rate in the modern era with a whopping 51.98%.

Backup DBs: A lack of proven depth at corner also haunts this position group on the Titans' defense. Corner Elijah Molden is ready-made to play slot corner and may have to do that from the get-go because of Kevin Johnson's sudden retirement. Reserves Josh Kalu and Kenneth Durden did not return for 2021. 2020 seventh-rounder Chris Jackson made his way into the lineup at times last year. Breon Borders also saw full-time work on certain weeks of 2020. Both failed to stem the bleeding in the oft-abused secondary. Safety is one of the rare places the Titans have depth. Dane Cruikshank and Matthias Farley are both quality backup options who can step in for certain packages or relieve an injured starter. Brady Breeze is the quintessential special teamer. He played every special teams snap in his tenure at Oregon and has a reputation as a punishing hitter.