Continuity was a key component to the Tennessee Titans’ 2020 season.
Led by contract extensions for quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, franchise officials largely kept intact the lineup that played in the AFC Championship game months earlier. Most notably, the offense returned 10 of 11 starters, and the one “newcomer” was right tackle Dennis Kelly, who had been a Titans’ backup for the three previous seasons.
The familiarity between teammates and with the schemes undoubtedly played a role in the fact that Tennessee won its first five games and was one of the last two unbeaten teams in the AFC. It was particularly helpful throughout a virtual offseason and a training camp that included no preseason contests, all due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Things will be different this year because the roster will be drastically altered this time.
According to an analysis by The33rdTeam.com, a “football industry think tank” that features commentary and analysis by former coaches, executives and scouts, the Titans lost a far greater percentage of their 2020 team – based on playing time – than any of the other teams in the AFC South.
In fact, Tennessee is the only team in the division that does not rank among the NFL’s top 20 in returning snaps on offense or defense. The offense will bring back players who accounted for 72.3 percent of the total snaps, which ranks 21st among the league’s 32 teams, and the defense will bring back 67.06 percent of its total snaps, which ranks 22nd.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Titans have attacked this offseason on a position-by-position basis. The secondary, home to last year’s 29th-ranked pass defense? DBs Malcolm Butler (96.96% of snaps), Kenny Vaccaro (77.84%) and Adoree’ Jackson (13.76% due to injuries) all shipped out. Edge rushers, a position group that put up a combined 9.5 sacks last season? Overhauled, with Jack Crawford (42.45%), Jadeveon Clowney (38.07%), and IDL DaQuan Jones (63.09%) each evaluating their options. The receiving corps behind A.J. Brown? Dismantled, as TEs Jonnu Smith (69.37%) and MyCole Pruitt (24.39%) as well as WRs Corey Davis (66.95%), Kalif Raymond (23.09%) and Adam Humphries (21.14%), are all going elsewhere. Tennessee needs a strong showing from its new additions to the team, especially in replacing OT Dennis Kelly (97.67%).
By comparison, Indianapolis, which figures to be the biggest challenge to the Titans’ bid to repeat as division champion, returns nearly 85 percent of its snaps on offense, even without quarterback Philip Rivers, who started all 16 contests, which is fourth in the NFL. Houston gets back 72 percent of its offense (15th in the NFL) and Jacksonville gets back a whopping 89.7 percent of its defense (third in NFL) along with 79.1 percent of its offense (13th) and is the only one of the division’s four teams to rank in the top half of the league in returning experience on both sides of the ball.
The only AFC South unit that will be less cohesive than either of Tennessee’s two is Houston’s offense, which brings back 58.8 percent of its total snaps – and that number could drop if quarterback Deshaun Watson is traded.
Many of the changes, of course, are of the Titans’ own doing. Butler, Jackson, Vaccaro, Kelly and Humphries were all released to make room under the salary cap. Yet they also created an unfamiliarity within the locker room that did not exist a year earlier.
“We won 11 games this past year, won the division for the first time in a long time … but we’ve got to continue to add players to the team,” general manager Job Robinson said early in the offseason. “That’s what it’s about. We’ve got to continue to add guys that are going to be about what we’re about as people, as football players, and guys that can have an impact on the game in whatever role it is.”