NASHVILLE – Injuries do not scare the Tennessee Titans.
Twice in the last three years, they used their first-round pick in the draft to select players who had serious medical issues, serious enough for some teams to remove them from their draft boards altogether, defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons in 2019 and cornerback Caleb Farley in 2021.
So, it should come as no surprise that the Titans’ two biggest additions to their 2021 lineup were players who dealt with significant health issues in 2020. Tennessee signed outside linebacker Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in free agency despite the fact that he played just 11 games for Pittsburgh last season before a knee injury required him to undergo reconstructive surgery in early December. Then in June, seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones, who played just nine games (the second-fewest of his 10 seasons with Atlanta), was acquired in a trade.
Between those two, Farley’s attempt to leave his injury-riddled college career in the past, Derrick Henry’s quest to buck the history of his recent workload, the hope that an aging offensive line can hold up for 17 games and more, the medical staff might have a disproportionate role in Tennessee’s success or failure in 2021.
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Any discussion of the Titans’ offense starts with Henry, but with Jones and 2020 Pro Bowler A.J. Brown, the running back does not completely dominate the discussion.
The two-time rushing champion remains the centerpiece of the attack, which has a new coordinator (Todd Downing) after Arthur Smith left to become Atlanta Falcons head coach, and the plan is to use Herny as much as possible until he shows he no longer can shoulder the load. History suggests that could happen soon. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he has 782 rushes over the past two seasons (plus an additional 45 receptions). One season like that has sent many noteworthy backs into a sudden, steep decline. Add to that the challenge that comes with following a 2,000-yard season (2,027, to be exact), and it seems impossible for him to live up to even reasonable expectations.
Henry, who is 6-foot-3, 247 pounds and can run away from much smaller players, is no ordinary back, though.
“He has the attitude, the mindset, and he loves playing football,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “You put all that together and it is a good package.”
Tannehill, now two full seasons removed from Miami, is playing the best football of his career. Led by Jones and Brown, he also has – by far – the most talented group of receivers to which to throw at any point in his career. Jones already is among the NFL’s all-time top 20 in career receiving yards, and Brown is one of five players since 1970 with at least 2,000 receiving yards and 19 touchdown catches in his first two years.
As such, defenses must respect the passing game. That should limit the pounding Henry takes. Or, if opponents sell out to stop the run, Tannehill has the targets to make them pay.
Much of the offseason discussion about the offense was about how good it could be. With the defense, the thinking is that it can’t possibly be as bad as it was last season. Can it?
Not only did franchise officials nearly break the bank to sign Dupree, three-quarters of the starting secondary will be different. Not included among that group are Farley and Elijah Molden, two cornerbacks selected in the first three rounds of this year’s draft.
The idea is to avoid a repeat of 2020, when the Titans had fewer sacks than all but two teams and allowed opponents to convert 51.9 percent of their third-down opportunities.
Dupree won’t have to do it alone. Coaches hope that that combination of Simmons and Denico Autry, another notable free-agent addition, will provide a push up the middle that either gets to the quarterback or opens up additional rush lanes for Dupree and Harold Landry, the team leader in sacks each of the last two years.
The goal in remaking the secondary – cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoreé Jackson and safety Kenny Vaccaro were released – was to get younger and faster. Safety Amani Hooker, a fourth-round pick in 2019, and cornerback Kristian Fulton, a second-round selection in 2020, will be starters with Farley and Molden as rotational pieces.
However, the addition of cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins, a 10th-year veteran, also created an attitude change. Jenkins’ unfailing competitiveness throughout offseason workouts led to a steady string of interceptions in training camp practices and three more in the preseason. Now, it just has to carry over to the regular season.
“We have been preaching the foundation, our identity, setting the standard from top to bottom on the roster on the defensive side and I think guys are trying to play up to it right now,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “It has been encouraging.”
11-6. The AFC South looks to be a two-team race between the Titans and Indianapolis Colts. As such, Tennessee needs to sweep the season series with Jacksonville and Houston as it did a year ago. The challenge will be to navigate 12 straight games before the bye, and the season could swing – for better or worse – in Weeks 6 and 7 when the Titans host Buffalo and Kansas City, respectively, with the first of those on Monday night.
Expected depth chart
QB: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside
WR: A.J. Brown, Marcus Johnson
WR: Julio Jones, Josh Reynolds
LT: Taylor Lewan, Ty Sambrailo
LG: Rodger Saffold, Corey Levin
C: Ben Jones, Aaron Brewer
RG: Nate Davis, Dillon Radunz
RT: David Quessenberry, Kendall Lamm
TE: Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim
RB: Derrick Henry, Darrynton Evans
FB: Khari Blasingame, Luke Stocker (TE)
DL: Denico Autry, Larrell Murchison
NT: Teair Tart, Anthony Rush
DL: Jeffery Simmons, Larrell Murchison
OLB: Bud Dupree, Derick Roberson
ILB: Rashaan Evans, Monty Rice
ILB: Jayon Brown, David Long
OLB: Harold Landry, Rashad Weaver
CB: Jackrabbit Jenkins, Caleb Farley
SS: Amani Hooker, Matthias Farley
FS: Kevin Byard, Bradley McDougald
CB: Kristian Fulton, Elijah Molden
K: Sam Ficken
P: Brett Kern
LS: Morgan Cox
KR: Darrynton Evans
PR: Chester Rogers