The time is now for the Tennessee Titans. All the big pieces are in place, punctuated by a huge trade in June. Owner Amy Adams Strunk continues to build upon the legacy of her father, Oilers-Titans founder Bud Adams. GM Jon Robinson has yet again put together a roster that checks all the boxes, at least on paper. Head coach Mike Vrabel has a 29–19 record, an AFC title game appearance, and a playoff win over Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on his resume after only three seasons. On the field, there is more name-brand star power wearing two-tone blue than in any era since Steve McNair, Eddie George, Jevon Kearse & Co. Expectations entering the 2021 season are AFC South title and playoff run. But really, all eyes are on the prize at Super Bowl LVI in sunny Southern California.
Speaking of star power, Derrick Henry became the eighth 2,000-yard rusher in NFL history while leading the league in rushing yards and rushing TDs for a second straight season. King Henry inspired internet memes and Old Spice ads. And wherever he turned up in pop culture, the 6'3", 247-pounder was humiliating the poor defenders trying to tackle him. At 27, Henry is coming off back-to-back 380-plus-carry seasons (including playoffs). But he did split carries with DeMarco Murray until his third NFL season and with T.J. Yeldon until his junior year at Alabama, so there’s theoretically less long-haul mileage. Henry’s health will be paramount over a 17-game season. Last year’s third-round pick Darrynton Evans was slowed by hamstring issues as a rookie but could become a triple-threat runner-receiver-return man.
Receiver A.J. Brown enters his third season on a SpaceX rocket trajectory. In his first 30 games, Brown has 125 total touches for 2,186 yards from scrimmage and 20 total TDs. Another half-step forward would put Brown among the best in the game. Early on the in offseason, it looked like Brown would be asked to carry a heavy load following the free-agent departures of tight end Jonnu Smith (Patriots, four years, $50 million) and former No. 5 overall pick receiver Corey Davis (Jets, three years, $37.5 million). But in June, Robinson swung for the fences and acquired Julio Jones in a trade with the Falcons after the seven-time Pro Bowler expressed his desire to find a new team. Jones was limited to nine games last season because of injuries but before that had posted six seasons of 1,300 or more receiving yards. If he's healthy, Jones will pair with Brown to give Tennessee one of the top wideout duos in the NFL.
Josh Reynolds also was signed in free agency. Reynolds brings size (6'3"), dependability (64 straight games), and valuable playoff experience (six games in four years with Rams, including Super Bowl LIII). Fourth-round rookie receiver Dez Fitzpatrick is a jack-of-all-trades. Tight end Anthony Firkser has been solid in limited action (39 catches, 387 yards, TD in 2020; TD in AFC title game in 2019). The tight end trade market could also be an option, as names like Zach Ertz and O.J. Howard have been rumored.
Robinson brought quarterback Ryan Tannehill to Music City for a song in 2019 — in a brilliant trade with the Dolphins — before committing long-term to the tune of four years, $118 million prior to last season. Cap-wise, the actual deal is more like a three-year, $91 million commitment, since the Titans can move on after the 2022 season for only a $5 million dead cap hit. So that leaves the play-action bootlegger entering his age-33 season with two guaranteed years left and a lot more money to make if things continue to go well. Former tight ends coach Todd Downing, 40, got the in-house promotion to offensive coordinator, replacing new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, who himself was previously an in-house promotion to replace current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur as Titans’ play-caller in 2019.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan was limited to five games due to an ACL injury last season after playing only 12 games due to a banned substance suspension in 2019. Prior to that, Lewan went to three straight Pro Bowls and signed the richest deal ever by an O-lineman at the time (five years, $80 million). Lewan’s dominant run ended when his contract kicked in, and he’ll likely always frustrate fans with untimely penalties. But Lewan has proven to be able to punch with the best edge rushers in the game and run block with a mean streak. Left guard Rodger Saffold III is quietly one of the team’s best players. Ben Jones is entrenched at center. Right guard Nate Davis took a quantum leap in his second season and may have a higher ceiling than expected. Right tackle options are intriguing second-round rookie Dillon Radunz and free-agent addition Kendall Lamm, who could follow in the footsteps of outgoing free agent Dennis Kelly by being a versatile swing tackle if he doesn’t win the starting job.
When Robinson selected Jeffery Simmons at No. 19 overall in 2019 — when the NFL Draft was a party hosted by Nashville on Lower Broadway — the idea was to gamble on an injured top-10 talent. That bet paid off in a gigantic way. Simmons is a 6'4", 305-pound force of nature and the centerpiece of the Titans defense. There are parallels that could be made to this year’s first-round pick, cornerback Caleb Farley. One knee and two back surgeries likely led to Farley falling to No. 22 overall, despite having coveted size (6'2", 197), production (six INTs in 24 games at Virginia Tech) and Pro Bowl upside.
After swinging and missing on high-dollar rental edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney ($12.7 million, no sacks in eight games) and Vic Beasley Jr. ($9.5 million, no sacks, cut after five games), the Titans went all-in on free-agent pass rusher Bud Dupree, who inked a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $35 million guaranteed. Dupree suffered an ACL injury in December. And unlike draft picks Simmons and Farley, Dupree didn’t come at a slight injury discount; Tennessee paid full price for an upgrade at a premium position. Dupree had 19.5 sacks and six forced fumbles over his last two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Last year the Titans’ stop-unit struggled, ranking 24th in points allowed (27.4 ppg) and 30th in sacks (19). Outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen called plays on game day and will do the same this season. The 34-year-old has officially been given the DC title.
Up front, Simmons will be joined by free-agent signing Denico Autry, who had 20 sacks in three seasons with division rival Indianapolis and should help provide an interior push in the pass rush. On the edges, Harold Landry III enters a contract year lining up opposite Dupree. Patrolling the middle, linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown are both in “prove it” seasons, with Evans’ fifth-year rookie option declined and Brown signing a one-year deal this offseason. Third-round rookie Monty Rice is waiting in the wings.
The secondary is led by ballhawk safety Kevin Byard. The former first-team All-Pro was stretched thin last year but should be able to play more center field this season. Third-year safety Amani Hooker has excelled in a variety of roles, while Dane Cruikshank brings downhill thump. At corner, Farley, second-year former second-rounder Kristian Fulton and third-round rookie nickel Elijah Molden form an exciting young corps. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins turns 33 this year, but “Jackrabbit” is still twitchy and fearless.
At 35, three-time Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern has a track record that speaks for itself. Field-goal kicking was a disaster last year, as fans witnessed former Patriots great Stephen Gostkowski (18-of-26 FG; 11-of-18 from inside 50 yards) fall off a cliff in real-time. Practice squad kicker Tucker McCann will be given first shot at the job. Receiver Cameron Batson and Darrynton Evans are home-run threats in the return game. And always keep an eye on Byard, who has had a 66-yard fake-punt TD pass and a couple other gadget plays on special teams over the years.
Outside of Tennessee, the AFC South is in flux. Indianapolis has a new injury-prone QB, Jacksonville has a rookie head coach and QB and Houston has a dumpster fire not seen since the Oilers had a game canceled at the Astrodome due to unsafe turf — right before the team moved to Tennessee. The key Titans are battle-tested. Tennessee has recent wins over Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. There won’t be a scenario that scares this team. But the rest of the league might be having nightmares about King Henry come playoff time.