The Tennessee Titans wrapped up their offseason program Thursday, which means all sights are now set on training camp.
As the reigning AFC South champions, playoff participants in three of the last four seasons and one of two NFL franchises to finish with a winning record in each of the last five seasons, there is reason for optimism. As coach Mike Vrabel noted this week, though, at this time of year there are no actual victories, just visions of how teams want to play when the season commences in September.
“We could have ideas, and I think that we have ideas about what we want to be,” Vrabel said. “I think efficient. I know that disciplined is something we always want to be. I think we want to be creative. I think we want to be physical. I hope that our style of our effort and our finish is something that’s going to stick out. Those are things that we believe in.”
Looking ahead to the regular season, these are the leading storylines related to the Titans’ and their chances for a successful 2021.
Will Derrick Henry rush for 2,000 yards again?
Henry became the eighth player in NFL history to reach the milestone when he rushed for 2,027 yards last season. No one ever has rushed for 2,000 yards twice, let alone in consecutive seasons. The closest anyone has come to a second was Eric Dickerson, who ran for 1,821 yards in 1986, two years after he set the NFL record with 2,105. Then again, none of the others had a 17th game, modern training techniques or an NFL filled with defenses built to stop passing games that are more prevalent than ever. Henry also will bid to become the first player since Emmitt Smith (1991-93) to win three straight rushing titles.
What will be the impact of having new coordinators on offense and defense?
Todd Downing (offense) and Shane Bowen (defense) could not be in more different situations. Downing has the unenviable task of succeeding Arthur Smith’s record-setting two-year run as the man in charge of the offense. As tight ends coach the last two years, he inherits a playbook that he already knows, which should make for a smooth transition. However, if any aspect of the attack doesn’t measure up to last year, Downing will be the first one blamed. Bowen actually has the title after having called the signals in 2020 as outside linebackers coach. While there is understandable skepticism about the move, there also is the sense that things can’t be worse than last season when the defense was historically bad on third down and ranked 28th in yards allowed.
What will Julio Jones do for the offense?
The trade for the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver added some excitement to the last two weeks of the offseason program and raised the level of excitement for the coming season. Jones will team with A.J. Brown for the most formidable duo of wide receivers since the franchise’s run-and-shoot days as the Houston Oilers. However, Jones has averaged 84.8 receptions per season but is now on a team that has not had anyone catch more than 70 passes since Vrabel became head coach and which attempted fewer passes than all but two other franchises in 2020. Plus, he will be the seventh-oldest receiver in the NFL and is coming off a season in which injuries limited him to nine games played. There is reason to believe he will be healthy and productive again, but it is unlikely he will put up the kind of numbers that he traditionally has.
Will key offseason additions be healthy enough to make a difference?
Outside linebacker Bud Dupree signed one of this year’s biggest free agent deals (five years, $82.5 million) to improve a woeful pass rush, and cornerback Caleb Farley was the Titans’ first-round draft pick (22nd overall) with the idea that he could make a difference in coverage. Dupree, though, is still recovering from knee surgery after a torn ligament ended his 2020 season after 11 games played. Farley had two procedures on his back in less than 12 months before the draft. Both have expressed unfailing confidence that they will be healthy and will make immediate (or almost immediate) impacts. If they are unable to play or to play as well as expected for an extended period, the effects will be obvious given all that franchise officials invested in them.
How will the revamped secondary hold up?
Speaking of the pass defense, Farley is not the only newcomer to the secondary. Far from it, in fact. Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoreé Jackson and safety Kenny Vaccaro all had been starters and would have been again this year but were released for salary-cap savings. Backup cornerbacks Desmond King, Tye Smith and Kareem Orr all signed with other clubs in free agency. That is a lot to lose at one time, but the Titans allowed 4,439 passing yards in 2020. That was 259 yards more than the previous season and 968 more than in 2018, Vrabel’s first season. So, if ever there was an opportunity for wholesale changes, this was it. Other than veteran free agent Jackrabbit Jenkins, who is 32, the Tennessee will rely on recent draft picks Farley, Kristian Fulton (second round, 2020), Elijah Molden (third round, 2021) and Chris Jackson (seventh round, 2020) and 25-year-old Breon Borders, who has played for four teams over four seasons.