2020 NFL Preview: Titans' season revolves around whether you believe Ryan Tannehill is for real

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

One thing needs to be clear before we start talking about the Tennessee Titans: Ryan Tannehill had a great 2019 season. Not good. Great.

Yes, it’s weird to say it aloud considering Tannehill’s career. But it’s true.

For people who apparently didn’t watch the regular season and just tuned in for the playoffs, and don’t really understand game scripts, they fixated on Tannehill completing 15 passes for 160 yards in two playoff wins. The Titans didn’t need Tannehill to do more. So he handed off. Dismissing Tannehill based on those games was odd and ignored that the Titans wouldn’t have been in the postseason without him.

In the regular season, Tannehill was lights out. He had a 22-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He completed 70.3 percent of his passes. Tannehill led the NFL with 9.6 yards per attempt. His 117.5 passer rating was the fourth-best for a single season in NFL history. That’s better than any mark Tom Brady ever posted. Because Tannehill was cast off as a bust with the Miami Dolphins, it was easy to downplay his breakout. If you put your preconceived notions aside, Tannehill was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL last season. Again, yes, it’s weird. But it happened.

Yet, Tannehill might still be a one-year wonder. That’s where the Titans had a dilemma.

The Titans made the AFC championship game and led early before the Kansas City Chiefs pulled their comeback magic. Tennessee beat the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens before that, all on the road. The natural inclination is to run it back.

It was expensive. Tannehill, who did not have one great season through his 20s, was set to be a free agent going into his age-32 season and got a four-year, $118 million deal. It’s fine to say Tannehill isn’t worth it. But the other option was to let him go, after he had a fantastic season and helped the Titans get to the AFC title game. It’s clear to see why the Titans wouldn’t want to start over at quarterback after getting so close to the Super Bowl. They can also hope they unearthed a late-blooming star. Maybe Tannehill, freed from Adam Gase’s coaching and hopefully with more injury luck than he had in Miami, is Rich Gannon 2.0. The Titans are paying to find out.

Football isn’t a one-on-one game like tennis — quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged on individual records since football is a team sport — and that’s why the Titans should feel pretty good. They have a lot of interesting pieces around Tannehill. The Titans took a ridiculously long time to figure out Derrick Henry was a featured back, but once they did he became one of the NFL’s best. Receiver A.J. Brown looked like a potential star as a rookie. The defense has a core of quality players in their early- or mid-20s. Mike Vrabel looks like a good coach. The Titans have had four straight 9-7 seasons, and a playoff run has them dreaming about a step forward.

That’s why the Titans felt the need to pay Tannehill. They feel like contenders, even if Tannehill is just good and not great. The unknown at quarterback is a scary place to be in the NFL. It would have been hard for Tennessee to get that close and then turn back, so they kept the band mostly together. Even if it cost a fortune on a quarterback who might have just had a career year that he’ll never repeat.

Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry stand next to each other on the field.
Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry look to lead the Titans on another playoff run. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
2020 season: Offseason grade
2020 season: Offseason grade

The Titans had two clear objectives: Re-sign Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. Tannehill got a huge extension before free agency, which allowed the Titans to use the franchise tag on Henry and buy time to finalize a four-year, $50 million deal. The Titans spent a lot on those two, which meant the rest of free agency was pretty quiet. Tennessee didn’t have the money to retain right tackle Jack Conklin. They traded defensive end Jurrell Casey, a Pro Bowler in 2019, for just a seventh-round pick. Pass rusher Vic Beasley, who got a one-year, $9.5 million deal, was the only outside free agent the Titans signed for more than $2 million. The draft was a mixed bag, reaching on Georgia OT Isaiah Wilson in the first round but getting good value on LSU CB Kristian Fulton in the second.


2020 season: Quarterback report
2020 season: Quarterback report

Ryan Tannehill was Pro Football Focus’ lowest graded starter in 2018. He had the No. 1 passing grade in 2019, just ahead of Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. Where do you even start with the regression conversation? Clearly, regression is coming. But Tannehill was so good in 2019 — yep, still weird — that he could regress in a fairly significant way and still be a quality starting quarterback. Tannehill clearly benefitted from play-action passing with stacked boxes to stop Derrick Henry, but that’s still in place. Tannehill’s accuracy had a big spike, and he was PFF’s most accurate passer on throws 10-19 yards downfield. Tannehill was such a disappointment in Miami that the Dolphins carried an $18.4 million dead cap hit last season just to trade him, and then in Tennessee he was one of the NFL’s best passers last season. Good luck guessing what comes next.

2020 season: Most important non-QB
2020 season: Most important non-QB

Derrick Henry was a Heisman Trophy winner and second-round pick. He was a known commodity coming out of Alabama. Yet, in Henry’s first 43 career games, he averaged fewer than 10 carries a game. He got more than 18 carries twice in that time and got single-digit carries 24 times. I will never get over the Titans’ coaching malpractice as they looked at the 247-pound Henry for almost three full seasons and couldn’t figure out that he was good. But what’s done is done, and now Henry is a reigning NFL rushing champion. The Titans signed him to a four-year, $50 million deal. Henry became the first player ever to have at least 180 rushing yards in three straight games, a streak that spanned from the regular-season finale through the Titans’ first two playoff games. Henry is an old-school back, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he led the NFL in rushing yards again. He’s a monster with the ball in his hands.

2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown
2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown

The Titans’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 8.5. They have reached nine wins four straight seasons. They were 9-4 in Ryan Tannehill’s starts, including playoffs. There’s risk that Tannehill turns into a pumpkin or Derrick Henry feels the effect of so many carries last season and the Titans slip, but I’ll still take the over on what looks like a quality team.

2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take
2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “People will look at A.J. Brown's rookie year efficiency and start shaking their heads. It's unrealistic to expect any player to duplicate that rate (think Tyler Lockett 2018-2019), and obviously Ryan Tannehill is likely to regress as well. But whatever fantasy score Brown gives up through efficiency, he's likely to make up with an expected opportunity spike (Lockett did this in 2019). Remember, it took a couple of months before the Titans realized just how good Brown actually was; he was scarcely used for several weeks.

“Although it might seem overly proactive for Brown to be a common third-round pick in fantasy leagues this summer, and the Titans play an offensive style that's dissimilar to most of the NFL, you can still make a profit at that price.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today]

2020 season: Stat to remember
2020 season: Stat to remember

Even though A.J. Brown showed signs of being an impact rookie early last season, with a 100-yard game in the opener and two touchdowns against Atlanta, the Titans repeated a mistake they made with Derrick Henry and limited his playing time. Brown didn’t become a full-time player until Week 10. In the final seven games, Brown put up a hefty 26-622-5 line. He is physically impressive and having posted 1,000 yards as a rookie, he could develop into a star this season now that the Titans have figured out he needs to play all the time.

2020 season: Burning question
2020 season: Burning question

Could Jadeveon Clowney push the Titans defense over the top?

Clowney was still a free agent when this preview was published, and the Titans were one of the few teams that had publicly acknowledged its interest in the talented edge defender. Tennessee does have some interesting players on defense, like safety Kevin Byard, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, pass rusher Harold Landry, nose tackle DaQuan Jones, linebacker Jayon Brown and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. It’s already a solid defense, although not elite. If the Titans can find a way to land Clowney, he could push the defense to another level.

2020 season: Best case scenario
2020 season: Best case scenario

I’m not sure the Titans have a Super Bowl upside, though they did beat the Chiefs in the regular season last year and held two 10-point leads in the AFC championship game. So maybe they do have that ceiling. It’s hard for anyone to wrap their heads around Ryan Tannehill’s 2019 being his new level, but what if the Titans are the perfect fit to unlock the skills that made him the eighth overall pick of the draft? It’s not like that has never happened before. We’re talking about a best-case scenario here, and Tannehill again playing like one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and leading the Titans to a Super Bowl isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

2020 season: The nightmare scenario
2020 season: The nightmare scenario

The Titans gave Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry $168 million over the next four years. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which Tannehill looks like he did in Miami and Henry’s deal turns out as bad as most big running back extensions. You can’t blame the Titans for wanting to try again with the same team that finished last season so well, but there’s no guarantee they will pick up where it left off. If Tannehill and Henry end up being bad deals, the Titans are going to be set back in a significant way.

2020 season: The crystal ball says ...
2020 season: The crystal ball says ...

I have the Titans as my top-ranked AFC South team. I also picked the Indianapolis Colts to win the AFC South in the video above. There’s a disconnect there, but I wanted to give the Titans the benefit of the doubt in these rankings after how well they finished last season. I like the Colts to be much better than last season, but also want to see it first. I do believe Ryan Tannehill is going to continue to play reasonably well for Tennessee, now that Adam Gase isn’t holding him back, but it could be hard for the Titans to fully recapture their late-season magic.

2020 season: Previous previews
2020 season: Previous previews

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