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2020 Team Report: Tennessee Titans

Last updated: Sun, May 17

Offensive Philosophy

The Tennessee Titans opened the 2019 season at 2-4, scoring seven points or fewer in three of those games and 17 points in a fourth. They nearly finished their season in the Super Bowl, taking a 17-7 lead in the AFC Championship Game before Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs came back to win. In between, they averaged a blistering 29 points per game and never once failed to score at least 20. Their nearly-miraculous offensive turnaround coincided with a switch from quarterback Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill, who had a season for the ages, averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt⁠- the 8th-best mark in league history and 2nd-best since 1960, behind only Kurt Warner's 2000 campaign. But while Tannehill was remarkably efficient with his opportunities, those opportunities were limited; the Titans ranked just 31st in pass attempts in 2019. Instead, the offense was based around the old zone-blocking run concepts brought into the NFL by the 1990s Denver Broncos, and especially the "wide zone" run play, calling for the back to take the handoff at a full sprint and head directly toward the defensive lineman who is "widest", or closest to the sideline. When that back is as big and as fast as Derrick Henry (who was two inches taller and fifteen pounds heavier than any other top running back, yet still had one of the fastest top speeds of any player at any position in the league, per player-tracking data), defenses must devote extra attention to stopping it, which opens up play action bootlegs to the back side (a huge driver of Tannehill's efficiency). Even with the extra defensive focus, when Henry managed to get around the corner he was off to the races. Only Lamar Jackson had more carries of at least 10 yards last year.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ryan Tannehill
Backup(s): Logan Woodside

Starting QB: 2019 saw Marcus Mariota benched and Ryan Tannehill leading the team from a 2-4 start to an improbable deep playoff run that ended in the AFC Championship game. During this historic run, Tannehill set a variety of records. He recorded a 117.5 passer rating over those weeks, which was the fourth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. He set a new franchise single-season record and ranked third in the NFL with a 70.3 completion percentage. He also set a franchise record and led the NFL with an average of 9.6 yards per passing attempt. Tannehill signed a four-year extension with the team in the offseason, but the way the deal is structured will give the team an option to cut ties after two years. It will be interesting to see if Tannehill can sustain the progress that was made with Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith calling the plays. One barrier to that may be the departure of right tackle Jack Conklin. Conklin and the line finally began to gel in the latter half of the year and protected better than the unit had in some years. His departure will place greater pressure on 30-year old veteran Dennis Kelly to step up to full-time duty, but Kelly has shouldered this burden reasonably well when he has been asked to play full-time in the past.

Backup QB: Marcus Mariota had been serving as the backup to Tannehill, but has now moved on to compete with Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders. Logan Woodside, who has had some success as a quarterback in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football, remains as the primary backup. He has seen no action apart from preseason games for the Titans, so it has been difficult to evaluate his progress heading into his third season on the Titans roster. The Titans added an interesting developmental prospect when they took Cole McDonald in the seventh round. McDonald is athletic and aggressive with the football, but will need to develop his velocity and touch on his throws if he hopes to become anything more than a scrambler. Woodside is unlikely to be challenged by McDonald this year and the Titans still may see fit to add another veteran to the roster before the season begins.

Running Backs

Starter: Derrick Henry
Backup(s): Darrynton Evans [R], David Fluellen, Dalyn Dawkins, Khari Blasingame
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Derrick Henry remains the lead dog in this backfield and does not have significant competition for touches, a real rarity among NFL running backs in this era. Henry signed his franchise tag tender as he and the team explore a more long-term deal for the upcoming seasons. Henry won the NFL rushing title in 2019 with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns. In the postseason, he piled up a whopping 446 yards in three games. He and the Titans look to, as he put it, "run it back," keeping most of their personnel intact and hoping they can keep the momentum going as they head into the new league year.

Backup RBs: Dion Lewis was jettisoned in free agency after having another down year. Only David Fluellen, Dalyn Dawkins, and Khari Blasingame remain on the roster. None of the three are ideal to be the primary backup to Henry. Both Fluellen's and Dawkins' values are more wrapped up in being special teams contributors. Blasingame is used as more of a fullback, but there have been times he is asked to catch passes and he has shown competency with this task. Still, the Titans used relatively expensive Draft capital to acquire third-round draft pick Darrynton Evans. The Appalachian State runner is very speedy when he is in the open field, is a decent receiver, and already can step in to be the team's return specialist from day one. If Dion Lewis' play last year is the standard, the bar is set very low in terms of expectations for Evans' rookie year.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, Adam Humphries
Backups: Khalif Raymond, Cameron Batson

Starting WRs: Corey Davis and Ryan Tannehill do not seem to be on the same wavelength, and it contributed to a disappointing season for Davis in 2019. For the first time in his career, he logged less yardage and fewer touchdowns than the previous year. His proficiency and willingness as a blocker makes him valuable to the team in football terms, but it is frustrating for his fantasy general managers. The emergence of rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown also cut into Davis' production. Brown was the first rookie since 1970 with 1,000 or more receiving yards and an average of 20-plus yards per reception. He also became just the fourth rookie since 1970 with at least four touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more. His after-the-catch abilities are likely to mean that Brown continues to be the focal point of this passing offense. Adam Humphries was injured for much of last year, but when healthy, he did prove to be a valuable third-down option for Tannehill and the Titans. Both Humphries and the team will hope that he can build on that late-season momentum that made the Titans one of the more explosive offenses in the NFL last year.

Backup WRs: Tajae Sharpe and Darius Jennings signed with the Vikings and Chargers respectively, leaving some holes to fill in the backup group. Batson was hurt in camp last year, but the Titans extended him on a one-year deal in the offseason, undoubtedly to provide a known commodity for this thin group. Khalif Raymond was able to provide a reliable deep speed threat for the team that they had lacked for many years. He made a couple of splash plays during their playoff run and showed that the drop issues that plagued him earlier in his career have been resolved. He is signed to a very affordable contract through the end of 2020.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jonnu Smith
Backups: Mycole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser

Delanie Walker has not been able to stay healthy for the past several seasons, so the Titans finally decided to part with the veteran by cutting him. That move brings Jonnu Smith squarely into the spotlight. Smith finally started to blossom last year, including making a pivotal one-handed touchdown grab on a poorly placed ball in the playoffs that contributed to Tennessee's victory against the Ravens. His targets, yardage, and touchdowns were all the highest of his young career. He ranked eighth among all tight ends last year in yards after the catch. He could produce more "chunk yardage" if the Titans offense continues to manufacture explosive plays as they did in the second half of last year's season. The Titans wisely re-signed both Anthony Firkser and Mycole Pruitt on one-year deals. Pruitt proved once again to be a very good blocker last year, but was a reliable pass-catcher in third-down situations as well. Anthony Firkser also continues to grow in terms of catching the football. He had a pair of touchdowns for the Titans in their playoff run in 2019 and caught the ball on a third down that effectively sealed Tennessee's playoff upset win against the Patriots.

Place Kicker

Greg Joseph, Tucker McCann [R]: The Titans had quite the kicker odyssey in 2019, going from Ryan Succop to Cairo Santos to Cody Parkey back to Succop, then to Joseph, who was perfect on 18 extra point attempts and his only field goal attempt (from 30 yards out) in two regular season games and three playoff games. Joseph was serviceable for the Browns in 2018, but lost his job ot Austin Seibert last summer. The Titans have seemingly de-emphasized field goals in their offensive game plan, so Joseph has about as little appeal as any of the 32 starting kickers, not to mention GM Jon Robinson signed Tucker McCann from Missouri as an undrafted free agent. McCann's dad said he was told the job was wide open.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Kalif Raymond, Adoree Jackson

The Titans have one of the more exciting returners in the league on their roster in Adoree Jackson. Unfortunately for Jackson, special teams coaches prefer reliability to excitement, so veterans Kalif Raymond and Adam Humphries handled the bulk of the kickoffs and punts (respectively) last year. All three players return in 2020, and unless Jackson can regain the coaches' trust, expect to see lots of Raymond and Humphries once again.

Punt Returners: Adam Humphries, Adoree Jackson

The Titans have one of the more exciting returners in the league on their roster in Adoree Jackson. Unfortunately for Jackson, special teams coaches prefer reliability to excitement, so veterans Kalif Raymond and Adam Humphries handled the bulk of the kickoffs and punts (respectively) last year. All three players return in 2020, and unless Jackson can regain the coaches' trust, expect to see lots of Raymond and Humphries once again.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Taylor Lewan, LG Rodger Saffold, C Ben Jones, RG Nate Davis, RT Isaiah Wilson [R]
Key Backups: OT Dennis Kelly, OL Kevin Pamphile, OL David Quessenberry, OL Jamil Douglas

Left tackle Taylor Lewan is a former Pro Bowler who continues to lead this strong, primarily outside zone running attack. There will be one new starter compared to last year as the team invested a first round pick in right tackle Isaiah Wilson from Georgia. Dennis Kelly could also compete for this spot, as he has several seasons of experience subbing for departed right tackle Jack Conklin when Conklin was injured.

Team Defense

The Titans defense posted respectable numbers of 43 sacks, 23 takeaways, and 3 defensive/special teams scores while transforming into a different team with Ryan Tannehill at the helm. The bend but not break unit was 22nd in yards allowed, but 10th in points allowed. The offseason saw them trade away their best defensive lineman for a late round when Jurrell Casey was sent to Denver. They did add Vic Beasley in free agency to improve the edge rush and the team will again count on their offense to set up the defense in favorable situations. They are going in the 13-20 range in drafts, which is about right, but there's not a lot of room for growth.

Defensive Line

Starters: LDE Jack Crawford, NT DaQuan Jones, RDE Jeffery Simmons
Backups: LDE Matt Dickerson, DE/NT Larrell Murchison [R], NT Amani Bledsoe, RDE Isaiah Mack

Starting DL: For the first time in years, it is the Titans defensive side of the ball that will see the most change in the offseason. Jurrell Casey was shipped out for a seventh-round pick to the Denver Broncos in what appears to be a salary cap dump move. That leaves Jeffery Simmons stepping into his spot playing 3-technique. Simmons seemed ahead of schedule on his injury rehab last season and was able to get snaps during Tennessee's second-half postseason run. The team will be relying on him in a full-time capacity going forward. DaQuon Jones is the only returning starter on this front and it remains to be seen who will win duties opposite Simmons. The best guess at present is Jack Crawford, a journeyman tackle the Titans picked up in free agency who most recently played with the Atlanta Falcons. A camp battle may be necessary to determine who will man that spot.

Backup DL: The Titans lack depth in their backup group and will need to potentially add veteran help to this bunch as they get closer to the season. Matt Dickerson, Isaiah Mack, and Amani Bledsoe are three players who bounced back and forth between the practice squad and active roster in 2019. With a strong camp performance, each could earn a more permanent backup role going forward. Tennessee has also added fifth-rounder Larrell Murchison to the mix. Murchison has a great motor, but is not going to blow his new team away with lateral agility and short-area quickness. He projects to be a solid rotational three-technique defensive end.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Harold Landry, OLB Vic Beasley, ILB Rashaan Evans, ILB Jayon Brown
Backups: OLB Deandre Walker, OLB Kamalei Correa, ILB David Long, ILB Darren Bates

Starting LBs: The team cut injured Cameron Wake, who had virtually no impact for them last year. They have decided to take another gamble by adding Vic Beasley, who fell out of favor with the Falcons and hopes to resurrect his career. Beasley should start opposite Harold Landry, who was the team's leader in sacks in 2019. The Titans did not retain Wesley Woodyard, whose contract expired. Woodyard has slowed significantly in recent years and last year Rashaan Evans truly took the mantle. Evan showed growth and progress last season as a run-stuffer. His ankle injury in the AFC Championship was a pivotal turning point in the game, showing just how much the Titans have come to rely on him. Jayon Brown was also banged up during that playoff run, but had another solid season opposite Evans. He broke into the 100 combined tackle club for the first time in his career.

Backup LBs: In last year's camp, the then rookie Deandre Walker tore his ACL. He will be recovered in time for this year's activity and will work to carve out a rotational role. The Titans re-signed Kamalei Correa, who has been a decent stopgap option for them for the last two years as they have searched for more production at the position. Darren Bates and David Long continue to contribute mainly on special teams, but Long also filled in admirably for Jayon Brown while he was hurt during Tennessee's playoff run. Long is one of the few defenders on the roster who can approximate Brown's speed in coverage and was able to hold down the fort until Brown was healthy enough to play in the AFC Championship game.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Adoree Jackson' CB Kristian Fulton, S Kenny Vaccaro, S Kevin Byard
Backups: CB Malcolm Butler, CB Josh Kalu, CB Kenneth Durden, CB Kareeem Orr, CB Jonathan Joseph, CB/S Dane Cruikshank, SS/FS Amani Hooker

Starting DBs: The Titans also have moving pieces when it comes to cornerbacks. Logan Ryan remains an unsigned free agent and it is unlikely he will re-sign with Tennessee. Tremaine Brock, who signed mid-way through 2019, was also not extended. Much maligned Adoree' Jackson put together his best season as a Titan and will hope to build on that momentum in a contract year. The team added Kristian Fulton in the second round of this year's Draft. Many thought Fulton would be a first-round selection, but his fall is likely due to perceived character concerns for falsifying a specimen for a drug test in 2017. Fulton is a natural cover corner with good movement skills and instincts. He is comfortable playing either outside or inside, which will make him an instant starter for Tennessee. Thankfully, a competent safety group helps mitigate some of the uncertainty in the defensive backfield. Both Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro play a style in which they are responsible for their respective side of the field instead of having high and low responsibilities. Both managed to log an over-80 combined tackle season and held up well when tested in coverage.

Backup DBs: Once again, the common theme for the Titans on defense has been lacking depth. Malcolm Butler broke his wrist defending Curtis Samuel in the regular season and was out for the remainder of the year. It looks like the team has reduced his role in hopes that he can hold up better with less responsibility. LeShaun Sims headed to Cincinnati in free agency, leaving a three-way competition between Kareem Orr, Kenneth Durden, and Josh Kalu. Kalu has become an important special teams contributor, so he is likely to stick around. The competition became a four-way battle when the Titans added Jonathan Joseph in free agency. Joseph did not play especially well in the last few years in Houston, but the Titans may not mind if Joseph is merely relied upon as a reserve. Dane Cruikshank and Amani Hooker have enjoyed limited snaps because of the competency and durability of Vacarro and Byard, but we could see more of both this year as Vaccarro moves into the second half of his four-year contract with the team.