As the Tennessee Titans are just past the midway point of the season, it’s a good time to reflect on where the franchise currently stands.
The Titans’ 6-3 record before the Green Bay game has them firmly in the driver’s seat in the AFC South, having already dispatched the Colts twice, squeaking by the Texans in Houston, and while both Jaguars games are still upcoming, the Jags are being the Jags.
Elsewhere in the AFC, storylines written before the season are both coming true (Chiefs continue their dominance) and not-as-much (the Bills sit third in a surprisingly competitive East, with the 7-2 Dolphins in the top spot), but no single team is racing away from the pack to claim the much-heralded but sometimes-a-trap No. 1 seed and first-round playoff bye week.
With seven regular-season games remaining after the Titans return from Lambeau Field, let’s take a look at the factors in play for the rest of the 2022 season.
Q: What have been the early ramifications of the A.J. Brown trade?
Despite Nick Westbrook-Ikhine’s 119-yard, two-touchdown effort in Sunday’s win over Denver, the Titans’ offense lacks the overall explosiveness that Brown brought to the field.
While Brown is soaring as an Eagle in Philadelphia, the Titans recently went an entire game without a completion to a wide receiver. Granted, it was rookie backup quarterback Malik Willis under center, replacing an injured/ailing Ryan Tannehill, but this group of receivers is sorely lacking in terms of having a game-changer at the position.
Rookie Treylon Burks, fresh off injured reserve, could have that type of potential in time, but right now he’s a long way from the type of production that Brown routinely put up.
But the reality is Brown was unhappy with his contract situation and did not want to be in Tennessee under the terms of his rookie deal. And as much as the Titans could use his production to open up the offense right now, would his discontent have brought negativity into a locker room that values a positive culture and a “team-first” mentality?
It’s a hypothetical to be sure, but honestly, there’s no guarantee he could have put his unhappiness aside and played football the same way that, say, Jeffery Simmons, who is owed a big contract extension, is doing. Simmons is still playing just as hard, not knowing whether or not the big payday that he will receive in a year or two will come from the Titans or from somebody else.
Q: Speaking of Simmons, what about his contract situation? Can the Titans keep him long-term?
The short answer is they definitely want to and need to. But doing so could be another matter.
The Titans are still reeling a bit salary cap-wise because of the downturn the cap took due to COVID-19. That said, new TV money kicks in next season, which should give the Titans a little better situation at the bargaining table.
The Titans have some contracts they can wriggle out of next year – Taylor Lewan and perhaps Zach Cunningham – and some they could restructure if they want, including Ryan Tannehill, Kevin Byard or Derrick Henry.
The reality is, Simmons is going to wind up with a huge contract. Aaron Donald of the Rams, who is generally considered the top defensive lineman in the league with Simmons probably second, got $22.5 million per season in 2018.
Given inflation and the NFL cap, it will take at least that much or more to keep Simmons in two-tone blue.
And Simmons isn’t the only player the Titans will have to think about extending. There is guard Nate Davis and linebacker David Long, who they will also have to consider re-signing.
And though their deals won’t break the bank, every dollar that goes to them is a cap dollar that won’t go to Simmons.
The smart money says the Titans find a way to get it done because the money they’re not paying Brown should be used for keeping Simmons.
Q: What is Ryan Tannehill’s future?
In the wake of Tannehill’s playoff performance against Cincinnati last season (see the above-mentioned No. 1 seed trap), there was much grumbling among the Titans’ fan base about moving on from the veteran quarterback.
Halfway through this season, it’s clear that route would have been both premature and potentially disastrous. Plus, salary cap-wise, it was never going to happen.
Tannehill has a big cap impact this year with a “dead money” number of more than $57 million. That number drops to $18.8 million if he is cut next year, meaning the Titans probably will keep him around again.
And while it’s a small sample size – two starts – rookie Malik Willis does not appear to be close to being ready to take over as the full-time starter in 2023.
What the Titans need in order to keep the Tannehill/Henry window of winning open longer is more weapons on the outside and a better offensive line that run block and pass protect.
Injury aside, Tannehill is playing better in 2022 than he did in 2021 when interceptions plagued him in an offense that employed more three receiver sets.
As for Willis, another year in the system as Tannehill’s backup won’t hurt. The jump from Liberty and its gimmicky offense is a bigger jump than Willis is ready to handle right now.
On the other hand, Willis has flashed some playmaking ability and has a strong arm. He has shown that he is worth developing as a long-term option.
The Titans might have been better off looking for a Colt McCoy/Jacoby Brissett/Nick Foles-style backup quarterback to slide into that second role this year to keep Willis from being thrown into the mix before he was ready. That said, the on-the-job training, which didn’t seem to shellshock the rookie, might be beneficial in the long run.
Q: Is Derrick Henry the glue that is holding everything together offensively?
Yes, and even more so than last year when he went down. The Titans were able to withstand losing Henry halfway through last season for two primary reasons.
One, they still had Brown (and to a lesser extent, Julio Jones) to turn to on offense. And D’Onta Foreman turned out to be a nice find. He left for a bigger role in Carolina knowing Henry would be back this year.
With no Brown, the passing game is sluggish, making Henry all the more valuable to this team. Against Denver, the Titans were able to win despite Henry not having his best game.
But Henry being on the field against an eight-man box is what created opportunities for the Titans receivers to win in the first place. This team, with its lack of weapons on the outside, wouldn’t have the same ability to withstand losing Henry for any extended period of time.
Q: How much have special teams improved?
Initially, it seemed foolish to think that anyone could unseat longtime punter Brett Kern. But rookie Ryan Stonehouse won the job in camp and has taken things to a new level, averaging 50 yards per punt.
Stonehouse is working on his directional punting and is getting better with hang time and dropping punts inside the 20 – all things that were Kern specialties.
With Kern looking retired, here’s a suggestion: Hire Kern to come in this offseason to work with Stonehouse on the nuances of punting. That would really be a special teams game-changer, something the Titans could use given their razor-thin margin for error on offense.
As for the placekicking, Randy Bullock has ended the merry-go-round that employed everyone from Greg Joseph to Cairo Santos to a whole host of forgettable kickers in between Ryan Succop and Bullock.
The veteran kicker is usually reliable as long as he is not asked to make too many long field goals. He’s a bit shaky on anything beyond 45 to 50 yards but it is certainly the best the Titans have had there since Succop.
On returns, Hassan Haskins has been decent on kickoffs, but the Titans need a solution on punt returns. Kyle Philips might solve it at some point, but he’s injured now and lost the job due to the yips in fielding the ball.
Q: How much have draft failures hurt the Titans?
Record-wise, you probably couldn’t tell that the Titans have had lots of draft picks that needed to contribute fizzle out. They have been fortunate in finding several street free agents and midseason replacements who have been able to plug holes created in part because high-round picks have not been able to claim starting roles – or in some cases even claim roster spots.
After a home run draft in 2019 – Simmons, Brown, Davis, Long, Amani Hooker – Jon Robinson’s drafts the following two years were filled with strikeouts.
It started with the Isaiah Wilson debacle in 2020, and the Titans have been chasing a right tackle in drafts ever since. But Wilson wasn’t the only flop from the COVID-year draft. Only Kristian Fulton from that class remains on the 53-man roster.
The next best player from that class is undrafted nose tackle Teair Tart, who has turned into a solid find. Westbrook-Ikhine and guard Aaron Brewer are other undrafteds from 2020 who outlived the draft class.
With 2020 being mostly lost, Robinson needed a successful follow-up. But that hasn’t happened thus far. First-round pick Caleb Farley was injured as a rookie and is nowhere to be found on the defense, no matter how thin the secondary gets with injuries. Second-round pick Dillon Radunz, another attempt to solve the right tackle dilemma, is now toiling as a backup guard.
Pass rusher Rashad Weaver, pressed into action when Harold Landry was injured, has been the best of the class thus far, with Elijah Molden and Monty Rice contributing a bit between injuries.
In fairness, this year’s rookie class looks more promising than the previous two. First-rounder Treylon Burks has potential to help in the passing game, as does tight end Chig Okonkwo and maybe Philips. Nicholas Petit-Frere might have finally solved the right tackle situation, and Willis might become the quarterback of the future.
Defensively, cornerback Roger McCreary is a keeper.
Q: What is Mike Vrabel’s impact on the franchise?
Of all the moves Robinson has made, this might be the most important one.
The hiring of Vrabel in 2018 was a bit controversial, considering Mike Mularkey, who did a lot to remove the stench of losing that permeated the organization, was let go after winning a playoff game following the 2017 season.
But Vrabel has galvanized this team and has made the whole of this team much greater than the parts.
It was Vrabel who gave the go-ahead to bench Marcus Mariota in favor of Ryan Tannehill, and it has been his team-first mantra that has seen the Titans win several unexpected games despite depleted rosters and long odds.
He is the reigning NFL Coach of the Year, and a Super Bowl win would establish him as one of the NFL’s best. While there are still issues that crop up – complaints about the offensive play calls and execution seems to top the list – it is hard to argue with the job Vrabel has done in four-plus seasons as head coach.
It isn’t often pretty when it comes to the Titans, something the fan base in Middle Tennessee has come to expect over the past quarter-century. The past two games in Kansas City and at home with Denver are prime examples.
But more often than not, the Titans find ways to win. There are still holes to be patched, and they could always use more playmakers at the offensive skill positions.
Overall, the window remains open with the current setup.