Five Reasons to Be Encouraged About 2021

Derrick Henry looks far from finished, Malcolm Butler finally looks like the guy the Tennessee Titans paid for and more.

Tennessee Titans fans have had time to wash away some of the bitter taste lingering from the season-ending 20-13 wild card loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

After reaching the AFC Championship game last January, the Titans’ goal was to at least get back there or go further, to the Super Bowl. Thy fell well short, but there are still plenty of reasons to look back at the 2020 season and consider it a successful one and not a significant step backward.

Sure, there are reasons to be discouraged, and there are questions that must be answered as the team makes its way through the offseason. Here, however, All Titans breaks down the top five reasons for Titans fans to be encouraged going forward:

Derrick Henry is the best running back in football: There are a handful of elite backs in the league, but it’d be hard to find one that has played on the level Derrick Henry has going back to last season. Dominant would be the appropriate word. He became the league’s eighth 2,000-yard rusher and 10th running back to win the rushing title in consecutive seasons. Both of those accomplishments usually put a player on the fast track to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. His total of 2,027 yards is the fifth-highest single-season total ever and since 2018, Henry has five 200-yard games. Three of them occurred this season. O.J. Simpson and Adrian Peterson are tied for the all-time lead with six 200-yard performances. At 27 years old and having seen limited playing time through his first two-plus seasons, it is likely he still has productive seasons ahead of him.

An elite quarterback-wide receiver connection: It started to emerge in 2019 when Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota at quarterback. In 2020, the connection evolved into one of the league’s best. Tannehill and A.J. Brown hooked up 70 times for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season, and six times for 83 yards and a touchdown in the playoff loss to Baltimore. The duo’s best came in Week 17 against the Houston Texans. The Titans needed a win to clinch the division title and with 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a 38-38 game, Tannehill heaved a 52-yard bomb to Brown to put the Titans in position to kick the game-winning field goal. Despite missing two games early in the season with a knee injury, the second-year wide receiver topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season and made his first career Pro Bowl. Tannehill has three years remaining on his four-year deal with the Titans, which he signed last offseason, and Brown is only halfway through his rookie contract so there is a lot of time left for the duo to devastate defenses more.

The offensive line survived injuries and will be healthy to start 2021: When three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan sustained a season-ending ACL tear in Week 6, things could have unraveled for the offensive line. But that group sustained its level of play and showed its depth throughout. Ty Sambrailo was Lewan’s initial replacement before a season-ending injury of his own. David Quessenberry then stepped in and finished the season. Veteran right tackle Dennis Kelly, in his fifth season with Tennessee, played and started every game this season for the first time in his career and he did it battling injuries at times. First-round pick Isiah Wilson was expected to compete for playing time with him, but a slew of off-field issues prevented him from getting any significant time. Similarly, veteran right guard Rodger Saffold battled through injuries but did not miss a game.

Overall, the offensive line did a commendable job, which was evident Henry’s success. Tannehill also benefited from a clean pocket for most of the season as he was only sacked 24 times. For comparison, Aaron Rodgers was the least-sacked quarterback this season (20 times). A healthy Lewan and any sort of contribution from Wilson will make things better in 2021.

Malcolm Butler played like a true No. 1 cornerback: Butler’s time with the Titans didn’t get off to an ideal start. First, he looked like one of 2018’s most overpaid free-agent additions. His 2019 campaign lasted just nine games before he sustained a season-ending injury.

This season, though, Butler played to the worth of the lucrative five-year deal he signed two years ago. He played with confidence and had all of the swagger of a No. 1 corner, and some saw him as a Pro Bowl snub. He broke up 15 passes, finished the season tied for the team lead in interceptions with 4 and made 100 total tackles, not far behind safety Kevin Byard’s team-leading 11 tackles. He recorded an interception in the Titans’ postseason game as well.

With three years left on his current contract, Butler will look to build off of his all-around solid season going forward.

The 2019 Draft class continued to impress: While the 2020 draft class underwhelmed, the 2019 draft class continued to look like a cornerstone group.

Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (first round) emerged as a vocal and emotional leader of the defense. He played and started 16 games (15 regular season, one postseason), registering three sacks, 49 tackles, and three tackles for a loss. He made a number of highlight plays, including a goal-line stop that pivoted momentum in the Titans’ Week 1 victory over the Denver Broncos.

Brown (second round) emerged as one of the game’s best receivers and went over 1,000 yards again despite missing two games with an injury.

Nobody really talks much about Nate Davis (third round), the right guard out of UNC-Charlotte. He’s a guy that does his job week in and week out. He started all 16 games this season and the postseason contest and he was one of the few offensive linemen that stayed relatively healthy for the entire season.

Amani Hooker (fourth round) put himself in position to earn more significant time at safety going forward. He started two games on short notice late in the season for Kenny Vaccaro, who suffered a concussion. Despite not being the starting safety for most of the season, he tied Butler for the team lead in interceptions while making 51 tackles.

At the end of the season, it felt like nobody could stop talking about inside linebacker David Long (sixth round). After Jayon Brown suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 11, Long started five regular-season games and the postseason game. He registered 42 tackles in those games, including a single-game high 12 in a Week 15 win over the Lions. Brown will hit free agency this spring and with the way Long played, it’s hard to see the Titans re-signing him. Long looks to be a big part of the defense going forward.

(BONUS) The rest of the AFC South: The Titans aren’t perfect, but they are in a much better position than the other three teams in the division. The Titans won more than nine games and the AFC South for the first time since 2008. They have qualified for the playoffs in two of coach Mike Vrabel’s three seasons.

The Jacksonville Jaguars won one game this season and will have the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. They will once again rebuild under a new coaching staff as the franchise just named Urban Meyer as its next head coach.

The Houston Texans, who qualified for the postseason in four of the last six seasons, fired head coach Bill O’Brien after an 0-4 start to the season. The Texans are still searching for a head coach at the moment and appear to have a lot of dysfunction to shore up as star quarterback Deshaun Watson is currency unhappy with the franchise.

The Indianapolis Colts qualified for the postseason as a wild card team and had one of the top defenses in the league this season. But they too have uncertainty at the most important position. Veteran quarterback Philip Rivers played serviceable on a one-year deal and recently announced his retirement, which means the Colts have to start over at the game’s most important position.