Quick. Pop quiz. Who was the number one seed in the AFC in the 2021 playoffs? The Chiefs. Nope. The Bills. Wrong. The AFC Champion Bengals. Incorrect. The correct answer is the Tennessee Titans, although I do not blame you for not remembering that.
The Titans did in fact earn the top overall seed on the AFC side of the postseason. It was an impressive performance from a team without its best player, Derrick Henry, for the second half of the year. the Titans rallied their way to a 12-5 finish, playing tough, gritty football led by a decent offense and a stout defense.
Tennessee may have trouble repeating that success this year, as they aren’t really being taken seriously as a contender in the AFC. Sure, there are some justifiable reasons for the doubt, but the Titans also have head coach Mike Vrabel who seems to just know how to win. If Vrabel can guide this year’s version of the Titans to similar success, then he will earn his rightful place amongst the top coaches in the league.
Having Henry around for an entire season is one way to ensure that the team will have a good season. He might be the single most dominant offensive player in the NFL. He was on pace to break the single-season rushing yard record last year before going down to injury and missing the rest of the year. He still finished in the top 10 in both rushing yards and touchdowns in 2021, despite only playing eight games.
It is clear that when Henry is healthy, he is unstoppable. There is no reason to dispute that. But he will still need solid play from the line in front of him if he wants to continue to dominate the league in rushing.
The offensive line used to be a strength of Tennessee’s but it could struggle this year. The players that are still around from that period of strong play up front (center Ben Jones and tackle Taylor Lewan) are getting older and starting to regress on the field. But the team is still relying on those guys because they haven’t been able to successfully bring in the next wave of players on the line.
Guard Nate Davis is the closest thing the Titans have to an up-and-coming offensive lineman. He has started for Tennessee in all of his first three seasons in the league but he still seems a ways off from becoming a leader on the line. Then there is the collection of Aaron Brewer, Dillon Radunz, JaMarco Jones, and Nicholas Petit-Frere. Radunz, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, and Petit-Frere, a third-round pick this year, have the most potential and may have to show that potential this year if they are thrust into starting roles.
Whoever ends up starting on the offensive line for the Titans better be up to the task because they will be needed to make life easier for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill has been a good quarterback for the Titans, but that might be his ceiling. He is not the type of quarterback that can elevate a team and lead them to success while shouldering most of the load.
He is a game manager, a very high-quality one but a game manager nonetheless. He must be surrounded by a good offense at every level in order to get the most out of him. That is what the Titans have had in the past when they experienced some success, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Usually, the Titans have a dominant run game and an explosive passing attack. With Henry still around, one of those facets is still in place, while the other is up in the air.
The most drastic changes that Tennessee has made to the roster have been in the passing game. The team will be without wide receivers A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and Chester Rogers, along with tight end Anthony Firkser. They account for four of the five most productive pass-catchers from the 2021 team.
That means that Tannehill will be throwing to almost entirely completely new weapons this year. The only notable player returning is wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who is solid but probably can’t be counted on for much more than the 476 yards he had last year.
The Titans have made several additions to the passing attack. Starting with the addition of veteran wide receiver Robert Woods, who was having a great season with the Rams last year before suffering a season-ending injury. Woods can be a reliable target for Tannehill but he won’t be able to replace a player of Brown’s caliber.
That is where rookie receiver Treylon Burks comes in. He won’t be expected to be as good as Brown right away but he is the dynamic and explosive playmaker that the Titans need at the position. There is a lot of uncertainty with Burks and what he can ultimately do at the next level, which is common for rookies, but if he can live up to his first-round draft selection then the Titans will have a very valuable weapon on the offense.
Tennessee made another move, one that is far less flashy, by signing tight end Austin Hooper. He isn’t the most exciting option at the position, but the Titans didn’t need exciting, they needed productive. Hooper, a former Pro-Bowler, can be productive in the offense. He probably won’t end up posting gaudy stats with massive games, but if he can catch a handful of passes and contribute in the blocking game he will be a great addition.
One thing that would really help the offense out this year is if the defense can be efficient once again. With a great defense, the offense wouldn’t be feeling as much pressure and can just wear opponents out with the running game.
If Tennessee’s defense is going to be good again, or take the next step into greatness, defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons will play a large role in that. Simmons probably isn’t known by many casual football fans outside of Tennessee, those people should learn his name quickly because the dude is a star.
He is a total game-breaker on the interior. It is hard to have a massive impact on the game from the defensive tackle spot, and few players are as impactful as Simmons. He recorded 8.5 sacks last year, only behind Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, and Jonathan Allen at the position.
Now, it also helps that Simmons has such productive players alongside him in the front seven. Outside linebacker Harold Landry led the team with 12 sacks and has developed into one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the NFL. Defensive end Denico Autry also had a great year, tying his career-high nine sacks in 2021. If outside linebacker Bud Dupree can stay healthy and play like the player that had 11.5 sacks for the Steelers in 2019, the Titans can be one of the best defenses up front in the entire league.
Strong play from those guys will also translate to more production from the inside linebackers, a position that has been a weakness of the team recently. The Titans lost linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown who started 11 and six games, respectively, in 2021. But they didn’t produce too much, just 112 tackles combined, so they shouldn’t be that difficult to replace.
Linebacker David Long is ready for an increased role in the middle of the defense. He actually finished with more tackles (75) than either Evans or Brown, so he may have been in line for a more significant role even if they stuck around. Tennessee also brought in veteran linebacker Zach Cunningham to fill their gap at linebacker and they have young players such as Dylan Cole and Monty Rice who can step up if needed.
The player who actually led the Titans in tackles last year was safety Kevin Byard with 88. Byard might currently hold the title of most underrated player in the sport because he has been elite for a few years now but he doesn’t get as much praise as some other safeties.
Byard is coming off of a season in which he was named to the All-Pro first-team for the second time and had his fourth season with four or more interceptions. That aren’t too many players in the secondary that are better than Byard and hopefully, 2022 will be the year that fans finally start to appreciate how good he truly is.
Byard’s excellent play might be the reason why fellow safety Amani Hooker is also flying under the radar. Hooker has been a valuable asset to the Titans’ defense due to his versatility. He has lined up and made plays all over the field, becoming an invaluable member of the unit. He may finally break out this year and form an elite safety duo with Byard.
The cornerback position is a much different story because there is no player of Byard’s level in the group. The Titans’ corners are incredibly young (the oldest is 28 years old) but that means they are full of untapped potential. That means Tennessee could end up with five very good corners this year or none, it is entirely up in the air.
There should be at least two or three players from the bunch that are ready to start and be effective in 2022. Kristian Fulton has already proved himself as at least a solid outside corner while Elijah Molden demonstrated some potential in the slot last year. That just leaves Caleb Farley, Lonnie Johnson, Chris Jackson, and rookie Roger McCreary to fight over the last spot. If one of them steps up and claims the position then the Titans’ secondary could be pretty good this year.
With all that being said, I don’t think the Titans will be nearly as good as they were last year. I still think they will be a good team, just not a great one. A 9-8 record feels appropriate for Tennessee, given their mix of proven and uncertain position groups.
The main reason I feel the Titans may take a step back this year is that I’m not sure if Henry can carry this team as he has in years past. Most of the success that Tennessee has experienced is because Henry has been so dominant that he has led them to victory. Even if he is completely healthy this year, the coaching staff will probably be more cautious with him and give him fewer carries in order to prevent another injury.
That would then put more pressure on Tannehill, and I don’t think he is cut out for a bigger role. Especially after losing such talented receivers as Brown and Jones and some key players on the line, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tannehill takes a step back this year.
And while I do believe in some of the individual players on the defense such as Simmons and Byard, I feel like some of the holes on the roster may show up. Having inexperience at cornerback can be really dangerous in the league due to the sheer number of talented quarterbacks and pass-catchers, especially in the AFC.
I am not saying that the Titans are going to be horrible in 2022, I still think they’ll finish with a winning record. I just think a lot of teams in the conference have surpassed them in terms of talent, especially at the most important positions. Because of that, and the significant players Tennessee lost over the offseason, I think they will finish right outside the playoff picture.