The Tennessee Titans and New York Giants open their respective 2022 campaigns on Sunday afternoon in the Music City.
When the new season kicks off, Tennessee will be fighting for a third straight AFC South crown and fourth consecutive playoff appearance. But the road ahead could prove to be more dangerous this time around with an improved Colts squad looming in the division and a loaded AFC West looking to poach additional wild-card spots. Defensively, the Titans should be solid, even with leading pass rusher Harold Landry III out for the year after tearing his ACL earlier this week. It's the Tennessee offense where questions loom surrounding quarterback play going forward and a lack of playmakers.
The Giants are in a perpetual state of rebuilding, and 2022 is no different. After last year's grisly 4-13 outing and fifth straight postseason lockout, the Giants brought in new general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll to right the ship. What direction the new brass will steer this oft-lost football vessel remains to be seen, as much of that direction depends on the play of quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley, both in the final year of their respective contracts. Expectations for the season are hard to pinpoint for this Giants team, but Sunday's road opener against the Titans should be a decent measuring stick.
New York (0-0) at Tennessee (0-0)
Three Things to Watch
1. Replacing A.J. Brown
Outside of Derrick Henry, Titans fans might be hard-pressed to name another skill position player on their favorite team's roster. After refusing to give Brown the contract he desired (and deserved), GM Jon Robinson traded the team's No. 1 wide receiver to Philadelphia. He then drafted rookie Treylon Burks from Arkansas, traded for former Ram Robert Woods, and signed former Browns tight end Austin Hooper in free agency.
The only returning pass-catcher from last year's squad, aside from Henry, is slot man Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. A fine player (2021: 38 rec., 476 yds., 4 TDs), but not exactly a circled name in defensive coordinator meetings. Burks is a promising rookie but noticeably struggled in the preseason, and Woods is a No. 2 receiver who missed most of last year with a torn ACL. The fact of the matter is, we don't know what we don't know. We don't know how the rookie Burks will react when the real games start, and we don't know if Woods is still explosive enough, let alone talented enough to be a primary target for a contender.
In order for the Titans to take that ever-elusive next step, they'll have to find that explosive passing attack they've been lacking and that every other Super Bowl contender has. While the Giants defense shouldn't be too troublesome, the New York secondary can be formidable with Xavier McKinney and former Titan Adoree' Jackson lurking. The team also drafted Kayvon Thibodeaux fifth overall in this year's draft to bolster the pass rush, but his status for Sunday is up in the air as he's been limited in practice by a knee injury.
2. Saquon Barkley is … dare we say, back?
When he's healthy, Barkley is one of the NFL's most dynamic and exciting playmakers of his generation. Problem is, for the last few years, Barkley has hardly been on the field. In the last three seasons, he's missed a total of 21 games. He missed 15 games in 2020 after tearing an ACL and sporadically missed significant time in '19 and '21 with re-occurring ankle problems.
Barkley has been outspoken about his desire to be seen as a franchise cornerstone running back, much like Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor. But unlike Henry and Taylor, Barkley has to prove that he can stay healthy long enough to warrant that foundational contract — and do it with a new front office in a market in which every-down-backs have been largely less valued.
So, 2022 is a make-or-break year in a lot of ways for Barkley. It's the final year of his rookie contract, and the new Giants brass have been coy as to whether they want to offer him an extension. Under new management, Barkley may not fit into the team's future plans regardless of how much he plays this year given his injury history at such a young age (25). But what I do know is this: football games are a helluva lot more fun when Barkley is at 100 percent.
We'll see what kind of spark Barkley still has when he faces a Titans defense that was one of the best at stopping the run (84.6 ypg, second) and keeping opposing teams out of the end zone (20.8 ppg sixth) a season ago.
3. QBs facing the pressure
Ryan Tannehill and Jones are used to facing the pressure from opposing defenses — they're two of the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL over the last three seasons. But this type of pressure is different; it's the pressure that comes from their jobs being on the line. Tannehill is trying to prove he's the guy to lead the Titans to the promised land, and not the one to drive them off a cliff. On the other sideline, Jones is suiting up for the Giants this year, but he's playing for his future employer next season.
More than likely, this will be the last we see of Jones in New York blue. It made more sense to have him play the final year of his contract this season, and take a much closer look at the upcoming crop of draft-eligible QBs, than it did to trade him in the offseason. The Titans are already one step ahead, having drafted Tannehill's heir apparent in Liberty's Malik Willis in the third round (86th overall) back in April.
Sunday, Jones will be facing a Titans defensive secondary that could be among the league's very best. Led by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard and young, dynamic cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley, this group very well could lead the NFL in interceptions. Keep an eye on the Titans' corners playing physical at the line of scrimmage against the Giants' unsung receiving core of Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, and Sterling Shepard (who is dealing with an Achilles injury) — a group that averaged 37 catches and 435 yards and combined for just one touchdown a season ago. Jones should have better protection this year with Andrew Thomas and seventh overall pick Evan Neal bookending the Giants' offensive line.
Given the fact that Tannehill was sacked an astronomical 47 times last season, it's probably not a great sign that two backups from last year could likely be starters this year in Dillon Radunz and Aaron Brewer. Mix in rookie tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, whatever is left of Taylor Lewan, and no known commodities at receiver, and the Titans might not be starting Tannehill's make-or-break season on the best foot either.
The bottom line is simple. The Titans have more talent across the board and in pretty much every facet compared to the Giants. The best-case scenario for New York is Barkley runs wild against the Titans' stout defense and keeps King Henry off the field. But I wouldn't bank on it.
Prediction: Titans 24, Giants 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
*Price as of publication.