The Tennessee Titans can’t get on the field fast enough after last season’s thrilling playoff run — which included ending Tom Brady’s reign in New England and knocking out NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, before ultimately losing the AFC title game to eventual Super Bowl LIV champion Kansas City.
The Titans’ brain trust of GM Jon Robinson and third-year head coach Mike Vrabel, both 44, decided to double down on the driving forces behind 2019’s success — locking up quarterback Ryan Tannehill with a four-year, $118 million contract and, right before the franchise tag deadline passed, agreeing to a four-year, $50 million contract ($25.5 million guaranteed) with running back Derrick Henry.
But “running it back” is never that simple. Tennessee is moving on without stalwarts like five-time Pro Bowl D-tackle Jurrell Casey, three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker and versatile cornerback Logan Ryan.
And let’s not forget Marcus Mariota, who never became the “next Steve McNair” that everyone hoped the Hawaiian Heisman Trophy winner would be as the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2015. But he was a respected competitor who won a wild road playoff game in Kansas City three years ago. That’s more than Vince Young and Jake Locker can claim.
The biggest loss of the offseason might be 70-year-old retiring defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who has Patriots and Ravens championship pedigree. But the Titans were already playing with house money, since Vrabel persuaded Pees to un-retire prior to the 2018 season.
Speaking of Vrabel... did anyone else see him outcoach his old boss Bill Belichick in the playoffs? That must have been especially sweet for the former New England linebacker and part-time tight end who won three Super Bowls under Belichick.
Depending on your historian, the Titans had a choice between Brady and Tannehill — a soon-to-be 43-year-old six-time Super Bowl champion vs. a 32-year-old Comeback Player of the Year. Tannehill was the choice. Upon further review, his resume is that of a potential franchise quarterback. Tannehill has led two teams to playoff berths (Dolphins and Titans) and has ample athleticism (played WR at Texas A&M), elite draft status (No. 8 pick in 2012), big numbers (NFL passer rating leader at 117.5 in 2019) and a hot hand (9-4 record, including playoffs last year). Robinson’s trade for Tannehill looks better by the day.
Henry was the league leader in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540), rushing TDs (16), and rushing yards per game (102.7) last season. At 26 and with a new deal secured, the 6'3", 247-pound Heisman Trophy winner is primed to have another huge season. Rookie third-round pick Darrynton Evans will add triple-threat speed, replacing Dion Lewis as the Titans’ change-of-pace back. FedEx Ground should continue to deliver in Arthur Smith’s second year as play-caller. The 38-year-old son of FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith had a wildly successful debut.
A.J. Brown’s rookie year was the start of what could be a supernova career. Brown had 605 yards and five TDs in his final six games, looking like the No. 1 receiver the Titans have perpetually lacked. Former No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis had his fifth-year option declined this offseason but remains a breakout candidate. Jonnu Smith is on the verge of establishing himself as an elite tight end. Belichick said Smith was “great after the catch, probably the best in the league.” Adam Humphries is a dependable slot receiver with upside.
The Titans made Taylor Lewan the highest-paid left tackle in the game in 2018. Is he the best? No. Is he worth the money and headaches? Yes. Expect Lewan to bounce back after last season’s suspension-marred campaign. Massive 6'6", 350-pound rookie right tackle Isaiah Wilson has a high ceiling and floor. Swing tackle Dennis Kelly was one of Robinson’s first moves as GM (remember 2016’s Dorial Green-Beckham trade?), and his versatility is worth 321 pounds in gold. Ben Jones mans the pivot with a passion, but for how much longer?
Losing Casey hurts; he was shipped to Denver for a seventh-round pick in a cost-cutting maneuver. The heir to Casey’s throne in the trenches is 6'4", 305-pound second-year stud Jeffery Simmons, who was immediately disruptive after returning from a knee injury in Week 7 last year. Simmons will be joined by nose tackle DaQuan Jones, free agent signee Jack Crawford and rookie Larrell Murchison.
Trading Casey’s contract ($11.8 mil in 2020) also opened up room on the books for another potential high-dollar acquisition. Jadeveon Clowney’s name has been mentioned, as the former No. 1 overall pick was coached by Vrabel in Houston from 2014-17, and edge rush remains the team’s most glaring need. As it stands, Tennessee will lean on a pass-rushing rotation of third-year man Harold Landry III (nine sacks in 2019), Kamalei Correa and free agent signee Vic Beasley Jr., who led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016 and this offseason signed a one-year deal worth up to $9.5 million.
Inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown continue to improve year over year. The dynamic duo will be leaned on heavily to erase any mistakes made around them and make more game-changing splash plays. There is breakout potential for both.
In the secondary, Ryan left in style, picking off Brady’s final pass as a Patriot and scoring the game-sealing TD against his former team. His production as a hybrid slot-corner-blitzer will be tough to replicate; last year, Ryan became just the third player since 2000 with at least four sacks (4.5), four INTs and four forced fumbles. Adoree’ Jackson’s fifth-year option was exercised, and this could finally be the year he takes the leap from solid to spectacular. Jackson’s electric athleticism could also allow him to play both outside and inside, possibly filling Ryan’s role. Malcolm Butler is coming off a season-ending wrist injury. Rookie second-rounder Kristian Fulton is a physical corner and battle-tested from LSU’s title run. Free-agent signee Johnathan Joseph is also in the mix at corner.
Centerfield safety Kevin Byard is among the best ballhawks in football and quite possibly the best player on the team. Heavy hitter Kenny Vaccaro is a perfect match, while Amani Hooker and Dane Cruikshank allow for countless sub-package options. But with Pees gone, who will set those lineups? Vrabel has been coy on the subject of “official” D-coordinator, but new inside linebackers coach and former NFL Coach of the Year Jim Haslett certainly has the chops to be the de facto leader of the stop-unit.
Punter Brett Kern has made three consecutive Pro Bowls and remains a valuable field-position weapon, especially considering the Titans’ ground-and-pound style. Field-goal kicking was a major problem last year, with four different kickers used and multiple games lost due to routine misses. A few days before final roster cuts, Tennessee signed Stephen Gostkowski, a three-time Super Bowl champion during his 14-year tenure in New England. He appeared in just four games last season because of a hip injury and the Patriots released him in March. The Titans are hoping he will be able to return to the form that got him named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2010s. The return game is in sure hands with rookie Evans, Humphries, Kalif Raymond and even Jackson, if necessary. Expect newly acquired special teams ace Nick Dzubnar to make noise in kick coverage.
Amy Adams Strunk has quietly become one of the best owners in the NFL since inheriting the team from late Oilers-Titans founder Bud Adams. Robinson has built a roster with no obvious holes. Vrabel is a star in the coaching ranks after boldly benching his starting QB and outfoxing the greatest coach ever last season. The Titans are the AFC South favorite and a squad no team wants to face in the playoffs. Health permitting, Tennessee is a contender for Super Bowl LV in Tampa.