Welp. That was a season to remember. The bad news? The Tennessee Titans certainly let a potential Super Bowl season slip by the wayside in 2021. No two-tone-blue ways about it. Last season was a missed opportunity but also an affirmation that the Titans' process is powerful and the ultimate goal of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy is within reach yet.
After a dramatic retooling this offseason, GM Jon Robinson and reigning NFL Coach of the Year Mike Vrabel have a veteran team that must be considered a threat until proven otherwise, while also adding a wave of exciting new talent and cap space that could extend Tennessee's title window.
Last year, the Titans lost running back Derrick Henry to a Jones fracture in his right foot in Week 8. But Nashville's team didn't miss a beat. Vrabel continued his rise as arguably the NFL's best all-around head coach, leading Tennessee to a 12-5 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff bracket for the third time in Titans history. King Henry came back to a hero's welcome in the Divisional Round, after the first-round bye week.
There, the Titans lost to a Bengals franchise that had never won a road playoff game (0-7 all-time previously) in 54 years of existence. Then, Cincinnati upset Kansas City, a team Tennessee had already defeated. For the Titans, it's hard not to say, "What if?" But it should also be a reminder that anything is possible. The Titans lost Henry and, against all odds, still earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Tennessee has a toughness that starts with Vrabel and permeates throughout the roster.
Ryan Tannehill is still seen as a Super Bowl-caliber QB among believers, but rookie Malik Willis has loud tools and fits the mold of historic Titans' bootlegger play-action passers. If Willis hits, he's a Russell Wilson-type cap savior and game-changing QB on a similar run-first and D-up team that the young Wilson had in Seattle.
Either way, the Titans' plan is reminiscent of what the Chiefs did with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes, and the 49ers are attempting with Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance. Take an already solid playoff team and add massive raw upside at QB. Both Mahomes and Lance were able to redshirt Year 1, and that will be the plan for Willis as well.
Talk about burying the lede… Trading rising superstar wideout A.J. Brown was a painful shock to fans on draft night. In a strong-arm play, the YAC stud leveraged the timing of draft weekend and volatile WR market conditions into a trade and new four-year, $100-million deal in Philadelphia.
First-round rookie Treylon Burks is also a tank after the catch, and he even drew comps to Deebo Samuel and Brown during the pre-draft process. Former Ram Robert Woods landed in Tennessee via a trade but is coming off an ACL injury suffered in mid-November. Woods is one of the best run-blocking wideouts in the game but has a chance to be way more than that when he's back at full speed. Rookie slot Kyle Philips has a distinct Patriots vibe. How much Tennessee leans on Nick Westbrook-Ikhine might be a litmus test for how the receiver corps is doing in 2022. There's a lot of pressure on a rookie and a guy coming off major surgery.
Tennessee missed tight end Jonnu Smith after losing him in free agency last year, but free agent veteran Austin Hooper and rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo add an instant influx of talent at the position. Geoff Swaim also returns, giving the Titans an opportunity for more two-tight end sets.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan is one of the highest paid at a premium spot. The Titans need Lewan now more than ever. Right tackle has been burning a hole in Robinson's pocket with draft capital, as 2020 bellyflop first-round pick Isaiah Wilson (now out of the NFL), 2021 second-rounder Dillon Radunz and 2022 third-rounder Nicholas Petit-Frere all add up to a pricey question mark. Ben Jones enters his age-33 season having played in 80-of-81 games since signing in 2016. Right guard Nate Davis is sturdy. Left guard and right tackle (and overall O-line depth) remain concerns.
Henry entered 2021 as the reigning two-time NFL rushing champ and bulldozed his way to 937 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns through seven-plus games before breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Despite playing less than half the season, Henry still finished ninth in the NFL in rushing yards. Rookie Hassan Haskins was viewed as a luxury pick by some but provides valuable Henry insurance and the power running style to plausibly replicate the success of D'Onta Foreman (566 yards in nine games).
In his first year as coordinator, Todd Downing, 41, exceeded all expectations after replacing current Falcons coach Arthur Smith — who himself had replaced current Packers coach Matt LaFleur two years prior.
Jeffery Simmons has shown flashes of dominance at defensive tackle not seen in Nashville since "contract year" Albert Haynesworth. Anything close to that level of production should put the 6'4", 305-pounder in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation if anyone is paying attention nationally. That would also mean Simmons would soon command Haynesworth money, which the Titans refused "Fat Albert" but might be willing to pay "Big Jeff." Denico Autry teamed with Simmons to give Tennessee one of the most devastating interior pushes in the entire league.
Off the edge, Harold Landry III finally turned the corner, so to speak, with 12 sacks and 22 QB hits. The Titans rewarded him with a five-year, $87.5-million deal this offseason. Bud Dupree was fresh off ACL surgery when he signed for five years and $82.5 million last offseason but could prove a valuable signing if he bounces back to his Pittsburgh form, when he had 19.5 sacks in 27 games from 2019-20. Zach Cunningham, David Long Jr. and Monty Rice provide a sure-tackling linebacker rotation.
Free safety ball hawk Kevin Byard is one of the best in the business. The spotlight is on last year's first-round pick, cornerback Caleb Farley, whose most prolific numbers are all medical (multiple back surgeries and ACL injuries). Kristian Fulton has been one of the most underrated players on the team since arriving ready for combat out of LSU. The Titans are hoping second-round corner Roger McCreary is another battle-tested SEC corner who hits the ground running and covering at a pro level right away. Safety Amani Hooker and nickel back Elijah Molden give second-year coordinator Shane Bowen, 35, schematic versatility.
Punter Brett Kern remains one of the most dangerous weapons on the team. The 2019 first-team All-Pro has a knack for flipping the field at opportune times. Kicker Randy Bullock was re-signed after providing much-needed stability last year. The return game could use a spark. But Vrabel's teams are always a threat to break out gadget plays on special teams.
Owner Amy Adams Strunk has provided the type of low-key leadership most franchises can only envy. She has empowered and entrusted Robinson and Vrabel to make the necessary moves to keep Tennessee in the hunt. The Titans may or may not have taken a half-step back in 2022. But it was in an effort to take multiple steps forward in the near future. This season isn't "all-in" and that's a good thing. In Strunk, Robinson and Vrabel, the Titans have maybe the best (and youngest) owner-GM-coach trio in the NFL.