Our 2022 NFL Preview winds down in Nashville, where the Titans look to pick up the pieces following consecutive postseason defeats. Despite playing much of the campaign without a number of their offensive playmakers, chief among them (two-time Rushing Champion) Derrick Henry (more on him shortly), Tennessee exhibited their resilience in capturing a second straight AFC South title en route to securing the no. one overall seed in the conference for the first time since 2008. Unfortunately, Henry’s return couldn’t inspire them to victory in a mistake-laden loss at home to the (eventual AFC Champion) Bengals in the divisional round of the playoffs. Now, following an offseason in which the offense has suffered heavy losses, will (Head Coach) Mike Vrabel’s troops remain among the contenders in the AFC, or will they regress to the mean? Let’s listen to the sounds coming out of Music City, shall we?
King Henry’s Revenge
Few teams are capable of performing well, let alone staying competitive, after losing their most productive player, and even fewer are capable of doing so when forced to compete without an Offensive Player of the Year winner for a prolonged period of time. However, that’s what the Titans managed to do once (All-Pro Tailback) Derrick Henry (pictured) went down with a broken bone in his foot missing the final nine games of the regular season. After leading the NFL in rushing attempts (303), yards (1,540), and touchdowns (16) in 2019, Henry put pen to paper on a four-year, $50 million contract extension, and proceeded to lead the league in those same categories once again, totaling 378 carries for 2,027 yards and seventeen scores. Through the first eight games of the 2021 campaign was EASILY the most prolific rusher in the league; the two-time Pro-Bowler churned out 937 yards and ten touchdowns though the first half of the schedule, averaging 117.1 yards per game along the way as the Titans marched on to a 6-2 record and a commanding lead within the division. With that said, they really didn’t miss a beat without him, going 6-3 the rest of the way and averaging a stellar 135.8 rushing yards in the process, with the likes of (fellow Tailbacks) D’Onta Foreman (566 yards) and Dontrelle Hilliard (350 yards) performing well in his absence. Now 28-years old, it’s become a legitimate question as to how the hulking rusher will bounce back from that injury, and how it will affect the Titans attack moving forward. Needless to say, in an era in which just about everyone is throwing the football all over the gridiron, Tennessee is very much a throwback to the previous century where the ground game serving as the foundation for just about everything that they do on the offensive side of the football. The very threat of Henry in the Backfield forces the opponents to stack the box, creating wide-open spaces for Receivers and Tight Ends to occupy, with play-action becoming a dangerous weapon for (Offensive Coordinator) Todd Downing to utilize. However, this season will be his last with the franchise, for he could have been released during the summer for a minimal dead cap figure ($6 million), with that number shrinking to $3 million as he approaches that dreaded 30-year threshold. Fortunately for Henry, leaving Nashville this summer would have been untenable for the Titans, who suffered HEAVY losses on offense, and we have a feeling that Vrabel & Co don’t quite have the appetite for a full-on rebuild at the moment.
Back to Basics
While it’s easy to point to Henry’s rushing dominance as the greatest component of the Titans’ success over the past three years, the ascension of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Ryan Tannehill (pictured) has been equally, if not more, valuable to a franchise that prior to his arrival in 2019, had advanced to the postseason just once in ten years. Indeed, after spending six uneven seasons with the Dolphins, the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft absolutely flourished in Nashville, taking the starting job from Marcus Mariota, and going on to lead the NFL in a slew of categories, including yards per attempt (9.6), net yards per attempt (7.98), yards per completion (13.6), and passer rating (117.5) en route to winning Comeback Player of the Year honors and leading Tennessee to a surprise run to the AFC Championship Game. As a result, the club rewarded him with a four-year, $118 million contract, with the veteran passer returning that investment in kind; in forty-three starts, Tannehill has completed an efficient 67.3% of his passes for an average of 228.8 yards per game on 6.85 net yards per attempt, with seventy-six touchdowns in comparison to twenty-seven interceptions, and above all else a stellar 30-13 record and a pair of division titles. However, there were signs of regression last season, as the veteran threw just twenty-one touchdowns opposed to tossing fourteen interceptions, his most since 2013, while taking a staggering FORTY-SEVEN sacks, which again, was the most that he’s suffered since his sophomore campaign. Furthermore, his last showing of the season was easily his worst; Tannehill was intercepted three times in last January’s narrow 19-16 loss at home to Cincinnati. So, what was the problem for the 34-year-old you ask? Did Henry’s absence change the approach of his opponents? Has the transition to the aforementioned Downing as chief offensive play-caller stymied his growth? Did injuries to (Receivers) A.J. Brown and Julio Jones interrupt any chemistry to be found in the passing game? Each of those queries could be answered with a simple “yes”, which is why (Vrabel and (General Manager) Jon Robinson opted to search for a potential replacement, drafting Malik Willis with the eighty-sixth overall pick in last spring’s NFL Draft. Though he’s still too raw to wrestle the job away from the veteran this fall, Willis’ tools and skillset are very similar to Tannehill’s, and given that the Titans could move on from him after this season, incurring $18.8 million in dead cap as a result, it’s likely only a matter of time before there is a changing of the guard under center in the Music City.
Aside from the familiar faces of the aforementioned Henry and Tannehill, the Titans’ offense will feature a largely different supporting cast than that of the one that took the field in January’s loss to the Bengals. The Receiving Corps and Offensive Line have experienced heavy turnover over the last six months, which in turn leaves the offense as a whole with a variety of concerns. After attempting to open up the passing game in 2020 with the addition of (former All-Pro) Julio Jones, Vrabel and Robinson opted to completely remake the group following disappointing returns. Simply put, Jones never came close to living up to his reputation, hauling in just thirty-one receptions for 434 yards and a single touchdown, all of which were career-lows for the aging veteran, who was released in the spring. Tennessee then opted to trade A.J. Brown, their leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns in each of the last three seasons, to the Eagles during the Draft in exchange for first and third-round picks, with the former being used to select his replacement, Treylon Burks (pictured), eighteenth overall. A physical, wide-bodied pass-catcher, Burks made a name for himself in making plays after the catch, averaging a healthy 9.4 yards, which ranked seventh among all FBS Wideouts last fall. Joining him in Nashville is (veteran Receiver) Robert Woods, who during his time with the Rams saw him become one of the most sure handed at his position, owning a 1.3% drop percentage over the last five years (6th Overall). However, the 30-year-old tore his ACL last November, and may not be ready to contribute until the midway point of the schedule, making it all the more imperative that Burks hit the ground running. Furthermore, the Titans placed an emphasis on getting more out of the Tight End position, which was a serious weakness in 2021. Vrabel and Robinson signed Austin Hooper in free agency and drafted Chigoziem Okonkwo in the fourth round. of the 2022 NFL Draft. Despite posting career-lows in receptions (38) and yards (345), Hooper’s haul would have seen him rank second and fourth in those categories with his new team. Lastly, the Offensive Line underwent a wealth of change too, with longtime starters (Left Guard) Roger Saffold and (Right Tackle) David Quessenberry leaving in the spring. (Sophomore) Dillon Radunz will move over to the right flank after spending his rookie campaign at Right Guard, while Aaron Brewer and Jamarco Jones are expected to vie for Saffold’s vacated position. Simply put, this group MUST be better this fall after seeing their Quarterback sacked forty-seven times.
Projected Finish: 7-10
Though they ran away with the AFC South and secured the no. one seed in the AFC last season despite playing over half of the schedule without Derrick Henry, there are too many uncertainties to lead us to believe that the Titans won’t be taking a step backward this fall. How will Henry bounce back from that broken foot? How will Ryan Tannehill perform with an overhauled Receiving Corps and Offensive Line, while his potential successor breathes down his neck? The AFC is loaded and the schedule is anything but kind, particularly throughout the middle, which spells trouble for Tennessee…