Are the additions of Julio Jones and a wave of new defenders enough to cover the losses of OC Arthur Smith?
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Despite little national acclaim, the Tennessee Titans are legitimate contenders to win the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly two decades. The team has not had a losing season since the 2015-16 campaign, which also happens to be the year before the hire of current General Manager Jon Robinson. Going into year six of the Jon Robinson era, the Titans are fresh off their first divisional title in over a decade, a bittersweet anecdote on a successful season with a disappointing ending. Where do the Titans stand in the AFC after a busy off-season?
Key Additions: WR Julio Jones, EDGE Bud Dupree, CB Caleb Farley, Coach Jim Schwartz
Key Losses: OC Arthur Smith, WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, CB Malcolm Butler
Major changes are coming to both sides of the ball in Tennessee. The loss of Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith will hurt, as it is relatively unknown what new OC Todd Downing can do with the Titans’ offensive weaponry. Smith is largely credited, and rightly so, for the renaissance of Ryan Tannehill’s career. However, it’s worth noting that Smith had no previous coordinating or play calling experience prior to his stint with Tennessee. Safe to say that at least some credit to the Titans’ offense goes to playmakers like Tannehill, 2000-yard rusher Derrick Henry and budding superstar WR AJ Brown.
Defensively, last season was abysmal from the play on the field to the accountability in the locker room. Head Coach Mike Vrabel formally held the title of defensive coordinator, but frequently mentioned the role Shane Bowen had in play-calling. Much to the chagrin of Titans fans, Bowen was officially named the full-time DC this off-season. An underrated move to the coaching staff is bringing in former Titans’ DC Jim Schwartz to serve as a defensive assistant. Tennessee has mainly run a 3-4 style of defense under Vrabel’s tenure, despite his early insistence that the Titans would provide multiplicity in their defensive formations. Schwartz has had immense success as a defensive coordinator in this league, and his 4-3 defensive style should help improve the Titans’ defensive woes.
The Titans will lose three starters on offense from a year ago: WR Corey Davis (NYJ), TE Jonnu Smith (NE) and Dennis Kelly (FA). Despite this, you would have to say that the Titans will be better on offense this year. The team will regain Pro-Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan coming off an ACL injury. However, bringing in a first-ballot HOF talent like Julio Jones was the splash of the off-season. This addition goes farther than name recognition though. Where Julio Jones, and other newcomer Josh Reynolds, can boost the Titans already-lethal offense is against man coverage. Davis turned in his best year as a pro last season, but it was clear through free agency Robinson felt comfortable letting him walk with the hopes of acquiring a replacement, presumably one who will fare better against expected man fronts next season.
Defensively, we should expect to see many brand new faces this season. Veterans Butler (ARI), Kenny Vaccaro (FA) and Daquan Jones (CAR) are starters from 2020 that will be replaced. The team spent their first round draft pick on Caleb Farley, a player many dubbed as a Top-10 talent in the draft hindered by injuries. Through free agency, Tennessee signed Dupree and Denico Autry to bolster the defensive line and added veteran CB Jackrabbit Jenkins to start at corner. With so many new faces, the Titans will seek to maximize the homegrown talent in the building this year from new-starting safety Amani Hooker and linebackers Jayon Brown, Harold Landry and Rashaan Evans.
If the Titans can hold off regression in areas such as Red Zone scoring percentage, third down percentage, and one-score wins, there’s no reason to expect a different result in the division in 2021. The Colts have been the darling of the national media thus far, but with Carson Wentz expected to miss five to 12 weeks, their quarterback room is among the most ambiguous in the NFL. The Jaguars will begin taking their first steps out of the shadows under new HC Urban Meyer and highly-touted QB Trevor Lawrence. While they may not contend for the division this year, I predict they will surpass the Colts for second-place in the AFC South. And the Texans are, well, the Texans.
The Chiefs and Bills sit atop the AFC coming off their championship game last January. The Browns, Ravens and Steelers will compete for the AFC North and likely supply at least two teams in the playoffs. Where the Titans stack up with these opponents remains to be seen. But with three regular season matchups against the five best teams, they will have their work cut out for them all season long. I predict the Titans will take yet another step forward and win 11-plus games while contending for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC this season. The additions this offseason vastly outweigh the subtractions. Barring an injury to MVP candidate (yes, MVP) Tannehill, the Titans will be squarely in the mix to reach and ultimately win the Super Bowl.