10:10 EST, ESPN – Line: Titans -3, Over/Under: 41
The National Football League’s Opening Weekend comes to a conclusion in the Rocky Mountains, as the Tennessee Titans look to build upon a surprising 2019 campaign against the Denver Broncos, who appear to be on the cusp of finally escaping mediocrity. Last season was a tale of two halves for the Titans (9-7, 2nd in AFC South in 2019), who overcame a disappointing 5-5 start to catch fire and advance all the way to the AFC Championship Game. In his second year on the job, Mike Vrabel had to do something, and in football the quickest way to institute a change is at Quarterback, where Tennessee changed hands from Marcus Mariota (59.4%, 1,204 YDS, 5.63 NY/A, 7 TD, 2 INT in 2019) to his veteran counterpart Ryan Tannehill (70.3%, 2,742 YDS, 7.98 NY/A, 22 TD, 6 INT in 2019), who picked up the ball and never looked back, completely transforming the passing attack into a threatening group for the first time in ages. While a rash of injuries and a revolving door of Offensive Coordinators have kept Mariota from reach his potential, it was time for the former No. 2 Overall Pick and Heisman to take a back seat, though you’d have been hard-pressed to have found many people suggesting that Tannehill would be the man to flourish in his stead. Another former First Round Pick who had struggled to meet expectations, the 32-Year Old put together the most impressive string of football in his career, completing 70.3% of his Attempts for 2,742 Yards and Twenty-Two Touchdowns in comparison to just Six Interceptions, all the while airing it out on a robust 7.98 Net Yards per Attempt, which led the league.
Simply put, the Offense absolutely opened up with Tannehill pulling the trigger, with the unit as a whole averaging 30.4 Points per Game on a whopping 406.2 Total Yards over the final ten games of the campaign. Rookie Wide Receiver, A.J. Brown (52 REC, 1,051 YDS, 20.2 Y/A, 8 TD in 2019), exploded with 1051 Yards and Eight Touchdowns on a staggering 20.2 Yards per Reception, with 778 Yards and Six Touchdowns coming after Tannehill was named the Starting Quarterback following a miserable 16-0 shutout loss to the Broncos. With that said, as integral as Tannehill’s presence under Center was to their success, the biggest proponent to their run to the AFC Championship Game was the play of Derrick Henry (303 CAR, 1,540 YDS, 5.1 Y/C, 16 TD in 2019), who finally put it altogether en route to steamrolling the competition. In his fourth season with the Titans, the former Second Round Pick has straddled the line of being a decent Starting Tailback and a bonafide bust, only starting four games in his first two years in the league. However, in 2018 he came on strong late, rushing for 1,059 Yards and Twelve Touchdowns on 4.9 Yards per Carry, only to blow those figures out of the water with a league-best 1,540 Yards and Sixteen Touchdowns. At a hulking 6-3, 247 lbs, the 26-Year Old is a proverbial wrecking ball once he gets rolling downhill, shrugging off Linebackers and straight up plowing over helpless Defensive Backs. Just as he did two years ago, Henry closed strongly, rushing for 896 Yards and Ten Touchdowns over the final six games of the campaign, and carried that form into the Playoffs where he trampled over the New England Patriots (182 YDS) and Baltimore Ravens (195 YDS) in successive weeks. Tennessee avoided any drama of a prolonged contract dispute as the Rushing Champion entered into Free Agency, swiftly signing him to a four-year, $50 million deal, with $25.5 million in guarantees, eschewing any doubts or concerns as to whether or not he’ll be able to maintain his form moving forward. With that said, Management went out and found him some help in the Backfield, drafting Darrynton Evans from Appalachian State (93rd Overall), who has the speed and pass-catching skills to be an excellent complement to Henry’s bruising style. One thing to keep an eye though is how the Titans replace the presence of Right Tackle, Jack Conklin (3-years/$42 million, $30 million guaranteed), who signed a rich contract with Cleveland Browns in Free Agency. Vrabel and General Manager, Jon Robinson, addressed this need in the Draft as well, selecting massive Offensive Tackle, Isaiah Wilson (29th Overall), out of Georgia, where he played in a similar road-grading, run-heavy Offense.
On the opposite side of the ball, Mike Vrabel and Defensive Coordinator, Dean Pees, continue to oversee the growth of what is becoming a physical, nasty unit. While they didn’t necessarily rank highly in terms of Total Defense (21st Overall, 359.5 Y/G), they were among the best at generating big plays, forcing Twenty-Three Turnovers (10th Overall) and totaling Forty-Three Sacks (14th Overall), while proving staunch on Third Down, where opponents converted against them on just 36.3% of their opportunities (8th Overall). Though they said goodbye to Pro Bowl Defensive Lineman, Jurrell Casey (45 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR in 2019), they will be adding a pair of beasts in place, welcoming in last year’s First Round Pick, Jeffery Simmons (38 TKL, 4 TFL, 2 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 PD in 2019), and former Pro Bowler, Jadeveon Clowney (31 TKL, 7 TFL, 13 QBH, 3.0 SK, 4 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD, 2 TD in 2019). Well, Simmons isn’t actually a new addition, for after missing the first seven games rehabbing from a torn ACL, the Nineteenth Overall Pick in the 2019 NFL Draft played sparingly, making Seven Starts down the stretch in which he totaled Thirty-Two tackles, Four Tackles for Loss, and a pair of Sacks, ultimately making Casey expendable in the process. Word out of Tennessee is that another year removed from that injury has him in much better shape, which should have a positive ripple effect across the Defense. And then there’s Clowney, who meandered along through Free Agency, firing his Agent a week before finally signing a one-year deal with the Titans, reuniting with Vrabel, who was his former Defensive Coordinator in Houston. The former No. One Overall Pick has always been a bit of an odd package, sporting loads of talent, though rarely putting it altogether on a consistent basis due to injury, but in this case is a solid gamble. Clowney enjoyed what was statistically his finest season under Vrabel’s watch, posting Twenty-One Tackles for Loss and Quarterback Hits, along with 9.5 Sacks back in 2017, which are all career-highs for the 27-Year Old.
Meanwhile, 2019 is shaping up to be a very important season for the Broncos (7-9, 2nd in AFC West in 2019), for this is the first time in about half a decade in which there are legitimate expectations placed upon them. Since winning the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50, this has been one of the most disappointing teams in the league, having gone a mediocre 27-37 (.422) over the past four seasons, cycling through three different Head Coaches and a litany of Quarterbacks in search of the right fit offensively. Granted, Denver’s Defense has remained largely among the best in the NFL over that span, ranking Fourth, Third, Twenty-Second, and Twelfth, though it wasn’t enough to propel this group back into the Playoffs. However, there are good vibes around the franchise for the first time in quite a while, and that isn’t the marijuana, folks; Vice President of Football Operations, John Elway, has enjoyed quite the Offseason addressing the issues that have plagued his club, and if Drew Lock (64.1%, 1,020 YDS, 6.17 NY/A, 7 TD, 3 INT in 2019) continues to develop at Quarterback, and the Offensive Line can keep it together, then the Broncos could very well be one of the sleepers in what figures to be a largely wide-open AFC.
The irony in watching Elway spend offseason after offseason in search of a Quarterback that can lead his franchise is absolutely delicious, and after whiffing on Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco, he may have found something in the form of Lock, whom he selected 42nd Overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. After Flacco struggled mightily through the first eleven games of the campaign, the 23-Year Old came in and sparked the Offense en route to a 4-1 finish, completing 64.1% of his Passes for 1,020 Yards, Seven Touchdowns and Three Interceptions down the stretch. The Hall of Fame Quarterback must see something in his young employee, for he’s spent much of the Offseason bolstering the supporting cast around him. In Free Agency, Denver added former Pro-Bowl Tailback, Melvin Gordon (162 CAR, 612 YDS, 3.8 Y/C, 8 TD in 2019), who should form one of the more interesting Backfield Duos with Philip Lindsay (224 CAR, 1,011 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 7 TD in 2019). In the Draft, he picked Alabama Receiver, Jerry Jeudy (77 REC, 1,163 YDS, 15.1 Y/R, 10 TD in 2019), in the First Round, immediately followed by Penn State speedster, K.J. Hamler (56 REC, 904 YDS, 16.1 Y/R, 8 TD in 2019) at Forty-Sixth Overall. Coupled with last year’s First Rounder, Noah Fant (40 REC, 562 YDS, 14.1 Y/R, 3 TD in 2019), at Tight End, and emerging Wideout, Courtland Sutton (72 REC, 1,112 YDS, 15.4 Y/R, 6 TD in 2019), there is now a plethora of playmakers to be found on this unit. Furthermore, Elway brought in former New York Giants’ Head Coach, Pat Shurmur, to run the Offense, which given his track record (as an Offensive Coordinator NOT a Head Coach) should mean good things for Denver and Lock, who will be his top priority in 2020. If the Offensive Line can take a step forward (and we’re looking at you, Garrett Bolles), then this unit has the potential to be one of the most improved in the NFL.
How much improvement is really necessary on the offensive side of the football for the Broncos to make the leap from 7-9 to 8-8 or 9-7, you ask? Well, it may take quite a bit given the blow that the Defense took earlier this week; it was a major one, folks, as former Defensive Player of the Year, Von Miller (46 TKL, 10 TFL, 20 QBH, 8.0 SK, 2 PD in 2019), tore a tendon in his ankle, sidelining him for the entirety of the season. Needless to say, this is quite a blow for a unit that was really counting on having both Miller and his young understudy, Bradley Chubb (21 TKL, 5 TFL, 56 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD in 2019) healthy at the same time. Of course, Chubb looked well on his way towards turning into a Pro-Bowl talent before tearing his ACL just four games into the previous term. Though Vic Fangio was a bit of an odd choice for Head Coach last season, the longtime Defensive Coordinator certainly made the most of the talent that he had on Defense, with Denver ranking Tenth Overall in Points Allowed (19.8), Twelfth in Total Defense (337.0), Eleventh against the Pass (225.6), and First in the Red Zone (39.1%). Now without his most decorated playmaker, he’ll have to use all the coaching acumen at his disposal to make the most of a unit that still has a good deal of talent with Defensive Backs, Kareem Jackson (71 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 FF, 2 INT, 10 PD, 1 TD in 2019) and Justin Simmons (93 TKL, 2 TFL, 4 INT, 15 PD in 2019), setting the tone in the Secondary. Elway added the aforementioned Casey after he was released from the Titans, along with former Pro-Bowl Cornerback, A.J. Bouye (60 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 8 PD in 2019) to replace the outgoing Chris Harris Jr. (56 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF, 1 INT, 6 PD in 2019). These additions look like excellent fits for Fangio’s aggressive 3/4 scheme, which should allow this unit to make some more plays in comparison to the meager Seventeen Takeaways (25th Overall) and Forty Sacks (17th Overall) that they produced in 2019.