(Mandatory Photo Credit: Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com)
Written by: Joseph Yun | Twitter: 2Yoon2ZeroBlitz
The top-seeded Tennessee Titans fell to the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals at home in the divisional round, 19-16 in heartbreaking fashion. What happened during the tumultuous yet brilliant run to the AFC’s top seed? What needs to happen for the franchise to ascend to the throne that the Bengals currently occupy? In what was to be an ostentatiously resplendent celebration down Broadway-worthy of the gaudiest and luxuriant of French kings at the Palace of Versailles in February, the Titans season ended in a fashion worthy of the most eternally damning excoriation from Voltaire and a fanbase demanding an exorbitant Robespierre like an answer from Mike Vrabel’s staff (namely, the continually mismanaged “reign of error” by OC Todd Downing). Is there a Duke of Wellington-like general that can take control and lead the Titans into the bright lights of an enlightened empire?
1. Defensive Resurgence
- The much-maligned stop unit from the 2020 season was under a new (old) full-time steward Shane Bowen. A familiar face in former Tennessee DC Jim Schwartz was hired as a “Senior Defensive Consultant” to be a shadow analyst of sorts. All this to say that the improvement was markedly tangible. Multiple players helped lead the way, like astute signing Denico Autry and high-priced Bud Dupree contributing. The front four were a menace and quite in favor of tackling the quarterback to the tune of 32.5 sacks, accounting for 75% of the team’s 43 sacks. Schwartz has reportedly interviewed for the vacant Colts and Giants defensive coordinator jobs so it remains to be seen if he wants to return to a full-time role or just be an off-field analyst.
2. BIG JEFF
- The third-year man from the ‘Sip grew up into becoming a top-five interior defensive lineman in the league. While he isn’t in the Aaron Donald tier just yet, he showed up in a big way this past season with 54 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, 6 passes defended, and a whopping 8.5 sacks. It’s quite remarkable that the Titans just went straight from the dominance of Jurrell Casey to now Simmons making an indelible mark. Offenses have been planned around him instead of against him for the better part of two seasons. Tennessee definitely got a steal with the new Pro Bowl selection. What will a fourth-year bring for the former Mississippi State product?
3. Harold Landry’s future income
- Landry picked a perfect time to break out with 12 sacks and 22 quarterback hits. He led the team in sacks, led the team in tackles for loss, and was joint second in tackles. Spotrac has his next contract listed with an annual value of $17.1 million over four years. Which is to say, quite an upgrade over his initial second-round rookie contract. If the deal comes to pass, Tennessee will have one of the more expensive EDGE duos in the whole league. He will be handsomely paid, will it be with the Titans or elsewhere? Can the Titans come to an agreement with the former Boston College man to keep a dominant front four going?
4. The Replacements
- Isn’t just a random movie airing on the Turner media networks on a random Wednesday night. Tennessee managed to win the AFC South despite suffering through the most hideous injury luck this side of the Mississippi. Fill-ins like RB Dontrel Hilliard, RB D’onta Foreman, CB Buster Skrine, DT Kyle Peko, DT Naquan Jones, and LB Zach Cunningham stepped in and performed well. There were moments of fleeting brilliance and consistent performances throughout the year from these replacements when the starters went down to either injury, COVID, or both. It speaks to the developmental ability of the coaching staff that the players were ready to go on such short notice.
1. Ryan Tannehill
- Tannehill’s season ended on a horrifically poor note, throwing three interceptions to an underrated Bengals defense, squandering his defense’s own elite efforts. He isn’t the franchise type of passer that many Titans fans were espousing. After the horrendous effort in the divisional loss, many people have a bitter taste in their mouths. Still, the franchise has thrown their weight behind the beleaguered signal-caller recently. As controversial as that decision is, it makes the most financial sense as Tannehill would cost a whopping $57 million in 2022 if he is released. There’s also minimal cap gain if he is traded prior to or post-June 1. 2021 was an inconsistent season for the point man despite all the injuries and inconsistencies at his skill positions. It remains to be seen if he will be the starter beyond 2022.
2. The 2021 NFL Draft class
- It could’ve gone a bit better, to say the least. First-round selection Caleb Farley tore his ACL early on in the season alongside fourth-round pick Rashad Weaver who broke his leg. Third-round selection Monty Rice played decently in his limited snaps until he too was knocked out by injury. Second-round pick Dillon Radunz barely saw the field after the coaches bizarrely tried to stunt his development by playing him as a guard when his natural position was tackle (a position in which he succeeded when called upon, no less). Fourth-round receiver Dez Fitzpatrick and sixth-round receiver Racey McMath made minimal to zero impact. Sixth-round safety Brady Breeze was released during the season. Third-round selection Elijah Molden was the most effective of the bunch. Safe to say that GM Jon Robinson needs a better hit rate in the 2022 class.
1. OC Todd Downing
- The offense under veteran offensive coordinator Todd Downing was an unmitigated disaster of biblical proportions even with Derrick Henry healthy for half the season. The warning signs of impending doom were there with Downing’s tenure in Las Vegas née Oakland. Yes, star acquisition Julio Jones was hurt and unable to practice or play much. Yes, Derrick Henry was hurt a large portion of the season. Again, yes, Ryan Tannehill was inconsistent at best. But the offensive production should’ve been far better given the pedigree of the quarterback and his weapons. The Downing era needs to end quickly in order to resuscitate Tannehill’s sinking prospects as the franchise passer. Tennessee’s offense regressed under Atlanta Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith’s heir. Tim Kelly was recently hired to be a “pass game consultant” and “senior offensive assistant” to help Downing out or be a ready-made internal replacement when he inevitably fails to be any more innovative or unpredictable.
- Tennessee destroyed the league record for players used with 91 throughout the 2021-22 campaign due to injuries, COVID, and other things. The biggest injury was Derrick Henry’s foot fracture. If there was a team that used the newish IR rules that allow players to return after 3 weeks to their advantage, it was the Titans. Both Julio Jones and AJ Brown were such cases. Credit goes to the medical and strength staff for getting the players healthy and ready to play. They can’t possibly suffer that kind of injury luck again, right?
1. Free Agency
- Tennessee has some important decisions to make this coming window as the aforementioned Landry is a free agent alongside veteran stalwart center, Ben Jones. Joining the pair in key assets testing free agency are LB Jayon Brown, LB Rashaan Evan (who probably is a lock to not return), TE Anthony Firkser, LS Morgan Cox, and S Dane Cruikshank. The Titans are projected to have just over $7 million in cap space to play with. Candidates to be released could be G Rodger Saffold and CB Janoris Jenkins, who was a flop.
2. Rookie extensions
- The primary extension candidate is star wide receiver AJ Brown, who the team indicated it wants one with. Jeffery Simmons is obviously another. CB Kristian Fulton could be another down the road. The price of having no fifth-round options on Fulton and Brown as a fallback option is coming due soon.
3. Tannehill outlook
- Like it or not, the palpable distaste in the matter in which the season ended has left his future in doubt going forward. The cost of doing business with a high-priced quarterback who can’t deliver in primetime is a high one to pay. The team has fervently supported their supposed franchise signal-caller (whether rightly or wrongly is the subject sure to be scrutinized heavily). Perhaps the team takes the 49ers approach and drafts a replacement in the first round (Malik Willis or Carson Strong, pls) with RT playing the Jimmy G role. Maybe RT finds that inner demon and goes on an Elite Flacco-like tear next season, proving all his haters wrong. 2023 is the first offseason that the Titans could realistically get out of the deal. It’s entirely possible that Trader Jon strikes again but it's doubtful given the financial ramifications.