It might seem premature, but it actually isn’t. Once minicamp ends on Thursday, it will be 94 days until the Cardinals open the regular season on the road against the Tennessee Titans.
Achieving a season-opening victory became infinitely harder for the Cardinals this week when the Titans acquired wide receiver Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons.
Tennessee won the AFC South on a tiebreaker with the Indianapolis Colts last year as both teams finished with 11-5 records. Unlike the previous campaign when the Titans advanced to the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs, they were bounced by the Baltimore Ravens in a first-round playoff game.
Following the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to Atlanta to be the Falcons head coach, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel promoted tight ends coach Todd Downing to offensive coordinator.
In 2020, Titans running back Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards on 378 carries, while averaging 5.4 yards per attempt and scoring 17 touchdowns. He added a meager 19 receptions for 114 yards. The 397 total touches were nearly 25 per game. And this season there will be 17 games, so Tennessee could be hoping to lighten Henry’s load.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,819 yards, 33 touchdowns, only seven interceptions and a 106.5 passer rating that ranked fifth in the NFL. He was sixth in the league in average per attempt at 7.94 yards.
However, two of his three leading targets have departed: Wide receiver Corey Davis (Jets), who had 65 receptions for 984 yards (15.1 average) and five touchdowns; and tight end Jonnu Smith (Patriots), who totaled 41 catches for 448 yards (10.9 average) and eight touchdowns.
The team’s leading receiver was A.J. Brown with 70 receptions for 1,075 yards (15.4 average) and 11 touchdowns. Most notably, especially with the addition of Jones, their receiver corps is big and physical. Brown is listed at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds and Jones at 6-foot-3, 220.
Josh Reynolds, signed as a free agent from the Los Angeles Rams, is 6-foot-3, 196 pounds and caught 52 passes for 618 yards (11.9 average) and two touchdowns last season.
Tight end Anthony Firkser had a line of 39-387-9.9-1.
The acquisition of Jones certainly caught the attention of Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph ahead of Week 1.
Asked his thoughts when he first heard the news of the Jones trade last Sunday, Joseph said, “My first reaction was, ‘Wow, we got a challenge.’ I texted the entire staff and I said, ‘Boy, let's go, we got a challenge Week 1.’ Obviously, that makes them different. With the running game and having two targets who can both win 1-on-1s with the big guy (Henry) sitting seven yards deep.
“And the quarterback has played really, really well. I was with him in Miami for one year (2016). He was a young guy, growing. Man, he's come a long way. He's very accurate. He's athletic. He's tough. That's going to be a tough out.”
While teams are working hard in training camp, they do begin early planning for the first game and Joseph acknowledged that. It’s not that much different than Week 1 last season when the Cardinals opened on the road against the San Francisco 49ers, the defending NFC champions.
“We've got a long summer to figure out what's best versus those guys,” Joseph said. “That's going to be a nice challenge for us Week 1. We're looking forward to it because, obviously, to make the playoffs and do things special, you got to play everybody. So we're looking forward to that Week 1 challenge, which is going to be tough.”