The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: AFC South – Tennessee Titans

TheProfessor_NFL Preview-Titans

Tennessee Titans

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins

I give general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel a lot of credit for their selection of corner Caleb Farley with their first-round pick. As Tennessee’s selection came on the board, I was convinced they would be dead set on selecting a “safe” prospect after last year’s debacle with first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, but Tennessee didn’t get gun-shy because of one bad pick. There’s a good reason for that. After all, this is the team that selected defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons when injuries forced him down the board in the 2019 Draft, and if Farley pays off in a similar fashion, they’ll have injected a blue-chip talent into a roster that sorely needs such players.

Tennessee followed up the Fulton selection by taking offensive tackle Dillon Radunz out of North Dakota State with their second-round pick, a move that could solidify a line that presently doesn’t have longtime tackle Dennis Kelly on the roster. Kelly had been the swing tackle for several years before he took over the right tackle spot in 2020, and the massive man was a good fit in this physical rushing attack. If Radunz lives up to expectations, and left tackle Taylor Lewan returns healthy from his torn ACL, the Derrick Henry-led rushing attack should once again be prolific.

The number of carries Henry has piled up in the past few seasons brings some level of concern, but while no player will ever defeat Father Time, Henry’s freakish traits and intense training regimen have thus far allowed him to keep the Old Man at bay. It’s essential Henry continues to do so, because the offense around Ryan Tannehill has been stripped down in notable fashion, although that equation changed when they acquired wide receiver Julio Jones from Atlanta, which forced me to update this piece!

Tennessee saw receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries depart in free agency, along with tight end Jonnu Smith. Humphries failed to live up to the contract he’d signed with the Titans and isn’t a huge loss, but Davis posted a career-best season in 2020, and Smith brought exceptional athleticism as a move tight end. However, as mentioned, the addition of Julio will more than cancel out the loss of Davis if Julio is healthy this season, which makes Smith the key loss.

However, the biggest loss may have been that of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Smith oversaw Tannehill’s ascension from Dolphins castoff to Titans star, and his ability to scheme up an offense to fit Tannehill’s skillset was very impressive. Arguably the most notable feature of Smith’s offense last season was his ability to tailor roles for a deep cast of tight ends. Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, Geoff Swaim, and Khari Blasingame (more of a FB, but that actually supports the point) were all able to contribute to this unit because Arthur Smith found a way to get each player into an ideal role for their skill sets. It synced up with his background as a tight-end coach, but while that’s a nice side note, there are plenty of coaches who try to feature a particular position group but lack the creativity to do so.

The tight-end contribution certainly won’t be what it was without Jonnu Smith in the fold, and MyCole Pruitt is now on to San Francisco. With Julio and free-agent addition Josh Reynolds in the fold, the Titans may use more 11 personnel, but to keep the run game going, it will be important that new offensive coordinator Todd Downing finds a way to feature the remaining trio of Firkser, Swaim, and Blasingame.

On defense, Tennessee is expecting that Janoris Jenkins will be an upgrade on last year’s standard at the outside corner spot, though it would help if Farley is ready from Day One, as Jenkins has been better suited to a role as a number 2 rather than a number 1 in recent years. Kevin Byard remains in place at safety, but it will be interesting to see if his role in the base package changes with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro no longer in the fold, although Vaccaro remains unsigned, so perhaps he will return. Byard has typically manned the free safety spot in base, then rolled down while Amani Hooker plays the free spot in Tennessee’s three safety packages, but if Hooker is a full-time starter, Byard may be down in the box more frequently. Byard will be productive no matter where he lines up, but unless they bring back Vaccaro, Tennessee will have less flexibility at that position group than they have had in past years.

Up-front, the Titans re-signed inside backer Jayon Brown while declining the fifth-year option of his running mate, Rashaan Evans. I’ll admit to being somewhat stunned by the decision on Evans, who I consider to be an impact player against the run who offsets any deficiencies in pass coverage with his ability to join the blitz package in the sub defenses. In any case, the duo returns for 2021, and with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons up-front and Byard in the back end, this defense will once again have its strength up the middle.

A critical variable for this group is whether free-agent signee Bud Dupree can come back healthy from last year’s season-ending knee injury and upgrade this team’s edge rush. Harold Landry has been a solid player throughout his rookie contract, but he isn’t quite on the level of an “impact” player, and while Simmons is a house of a man at defensive tackle, his pass rush skills aren’t his calling card. Dupree is a heavy-handed presence on the edge and is certainly their most talented rusher.

He may see more attention in terms of running back/tight end chips without his former teammates Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt in the fold, but Dupree has the ability to make an impact regardless, assuming he’s healthy. The defense ultimately doomed Tennessee in 2020, and it’s hard to say their offseason moves definitively moved the needle. The AFC South is not the league’s most imposing division, and the Titans could certainly make a run at the division title if enough of their bets pay off, but it’s also possible that we’ll look back at their 2019 campaign as a peak in this team’s season-to-season results.

QB Passing Projections

Ryan Tannehill1217335.44800.78.914277.827.311.118.31

QB Rushing Projections

Ryan Tannehill121762.74.63290412.419.518.31

Skill Projections, Rushing

Derrick HenryRB317344.34.911690.612.167.857.916.73
A.J. BrownWR381710.26.9971.
Brian HillRB1901749.35.00246.43.19.714.83.87
Jeremy McNicholsRB2951741.34.49185.

Skill Projections, Receiving

Derrick HenryRB31777.225.48.77223.
A.J. BrownWR381763.069.216.491140.38.222.830.012.20
Julio JonesWR521769.075.414.861120.75.822.821.310.87
Josh ReynoldsWR1401771.946.513.63633.
Anthony FirkserTE1741767.435.311.47404.52.410.99.04.28
Brian HillRB1901777.111.58.0892.
Dez FitzpatrickWR2281763.620.112.05242.
Cameron BatsonWR2471785.524.78.20202.
Geoff SwaimTE2751776.314.88.31122.
Khari BlasingameRB3141776.912.57.5995.
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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.