2022 NFL Preview: Titans had a grand opportunity last season and couldn't finish
The Tennessee Titans were two home wins from a Super Bowl. They were well-rested after a bye. They even got Derrick Henry back from injury for the playoffs.
The NFL changes fast and most teams don't get many chances to win a title. The Titans had one such opportunity after a fortunate run to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Then they lost 19-16 to the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round.
That's the type of loss a franchise doesn't move on from right away.
"It's a scar. It's a deep scar. It was a lot of sleepless nights," Tannehill told reporters in early May, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Every time I close my eyes, I was rewatching the game in my head. Didn't get a whole lot of sleep for weeks and weeks after the game. I was in a dark place. And it took me a while and a lot of work to get out of it. You know, it wasn't something that went away easily. And it's still a scar that I'll carry with me throughout the rest of my life."
That's the burden the Titans carry into this season. And the offseason wasn't great.
Maybe you believe the Titans were right to trade A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles once his contract demands got too high and replace him with first-round draft pick Treylon Burks. It still stung to move on from a receiver who has top-10 talent and hadn't yet turned 25 years old. They shipped Brown to Philadelphia because they were unwilling to pay him in a changing financial landscape.
Brown signed a four-year, $100 million deal with the Eagles after the trade, which is in line with the new market rate for top receivers.
"I know what the gap we had to bridge was," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "This wasn’t easy."
"This wasn't my fault," Brown told ESPN. "I wanted to stay, but the deal they offered was a low offer. The deal they offered wasn't even $20 million a year."
With that trade, the Titans go into this season with one of their best players off to Philly, a star running back who is reaching an age when a remarkable workload might catch up to him, and still stinging from a blown opportunity in the playoffs. All while trying to outrun the regression that might be coming after the Titans outpaced their advanced stats to go 12-5 last season.
Most fans hate when you suggest football records can be determined by lucky breaks, but the Titans never profiled as a typical No. 1 seed. They outscored opponents by 65 points, which puts their pythagorean win total at 10.3, almost two wins below their actual record. Football Outsiders' DVOA was unkind to the Titans, ranking the team 20th. FO's estimated wins metric had the Titans as an eight-win team. The Titans had a lower DVOA than any No. 1 or 2 seed in the history of FO's database.
Injuries played into the low rating, and head coach Mike Vrabel and his staff did a remarkable job overcoming them and finding key wins. It's still hard to deny that Tennessee wasn't a typically strong No. 1 seed. A lopsided 6-1 regular-season record in games decided by three points or fewer was a big factor.
This season will be a test for Vrabel and Tannehill. Vrabel has been excellent with Tennessee and won NFL Coach of the Year after last season. Having one of the NFL's best coaches is a good place to start. Tannehill has been very good for the Titans and maybe a bit underrated, but he took a step back with a depleted team around him last season. His three-interception game in the postseason loss to the Bengals brought a new round of questions over whether Tennessee can compete in the AFC without a great quarterback. Tannehill is not the Titans' biggest problem, but his reputation as a not-good-enough quarterback will persist.
The Titans are unlikely to get the top seed in the AFC again this season because that's a hard mountain to climb for any team. They could still be very good. But they'll never totally get over the missed opportunity they had last season.
The Titans entered last season with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones at receiver, and some high hopes for the offense. Brown was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and the Titans admitted a big mistake in trading for Jones and cut him after one injury-filled season. Tennessee traded for veteran receiver Robert Woods, who was a good player with the Los Angeles Rams but is 30 years old and coming off a torn ACL he suffered last November. The Titans drafted Treylon Burks in the first round with the pick they got for Brown, though Burks might take time to adjust to the NFL. A lot of his production at Arkansas was based on manufactured touches. Questions about Burks' conditioning after offseason practices are probably overblown, but it's worth keeping an eye on. Auburn CB Roger McCreary, Ohio State OT Nicholas Petit-Frere and Liberty QB Malik Willis were the team's other three top-100 picks. It was a very quiet free agency for the Titans. The team signed tight end Austin Hooper and cut guard Rodger Saffold, and there weren't any other notable comings or goings. A lot of money was spent on retaining edge rusher Harold Landry, who got a five-year, $87.5 million deal. The grade drops because the Titans might regret trading Brown as he hits his prime.
The Titans' quarterback situation got more complicated during the NFL draft. The team found value in Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, a fantastically gifted player who fell to the third round. His selection made sense, given that many had Willis pegged as a first-rounder and Ryan Tannehill will be 34 this season. It also makes it uncomfortable. Already, Tannehill has been unfairly criticized for saying it isn't his job to mentor Willis. That's just the start of the controversies. Anytime a team has an exciting young quarterback on the bench, his name will come up if the starter struggles. Tannehill had his fewest yards per game and fewest touchdowns in his three Titans seasons. He had his most interceptions in a season since 2013. His 89.6 passer rating was his lowest as a Titan by 16.9 points. And now he is going forward without his best receiver, with a rookie quarterback waiting behind him. He'll be under a lot of scrutiny.
The Titans' win total at BetMGM is 9.5, which is 2.5 fewer than they won last season. The under is the more popular side, as the odds are -140. Everyone is down on the Titans. Tennessee missing the playoffs is -105 odds and that makes sense if you like the Indianapolis Colts to win the division. I'll take that, assuming the Titans take a step back, the Colts will be better and Tennessee will have a tough time beating a lot of competition for a wild-card spot.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Austin Hooper is outside the Top 200 in NFFC rooms, but Yahoo drafters are taking Hooper around Pick 130. Maybe that’s a hair too ambitious, but I think Yahoo players are on the right track.
"Hooper did little in Cleveland, but so much of that can be explained by all the things that went wrong in the Browns passing game. Now Hooper heads to a Tennessee offense that has a plus quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and a ghost town wide receiver room. There are available targets here, and Hooper will soak up a bunch of them.
"Not all of your fantasy football picks will be home runs. Sometimes a late-round double, or even a single, is just fine. Hooper has a fair chance to go back to the quiet, efficient contributor he was during his Atlanta days. He's a target tight end for the later rounds."
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Derrick Henry was ninth in the NFL last season with 937 rushing yards, and his 10 rushing touchdowns tied for sixth-most in the league. That's amazing considering Henry played just eight of 17 games. Henry had a Jones fracture in his right foot, though he returned for the postseason. Henry's workload hasn't been a problem, but this is the first time he ever missed significant time due to injury. Henry led the NFL with 303 carries in 2019 and again with 378 carries in 2020. He has 1,401 career carries and 156 more in the postseason. He also had a 395-carry college season at Alabama, when he won the Heisman Trophy. Henry seems larger than life and indestructible, but he'll turn 29 near the end of the regular season and has been carrying the Titans' offense on his shoulders for years. It's fair to wonder if last season's injury was the start of him hitting the downside of his career.
Can the Titans' defense carry them?
The Titans sacked Cincinnati's Joe Burrow nine times in a divisional playoff loss last season, tying a playoff record. That's not only because the Bengals' line was bad. The Titans have some big-time defensive players. Jeffery Simmons is a disruptive tackle, Harold Landry is coming off a 12-sack season, Kevin Byard might be the best safety in the NFL and fellow safety Amani Hooker is very good too. If Bud Dupree, a big free-agent addition from the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, has a better second season in Tennessee, then the Titans will be even more loaded in the front seven. They were solid on defense last season and it seems like there could be another level for them to reach.
The Titans went 12-5 last season despite Derrick Henry missing more than half the season. They're very well-coached, Ryan Tannehill is a capable quarterback and the defense has plenty of talent. With some better injury luck, the Titans could win double-digit games for a second straight season and win the AFC South. They're 30-13 in Tannehill's starts, and maybe the loss of A.J. Brown is being overblown. The Titans are probably on firmer ground than this ranking is crediting them for. While getting another No. 1 seed is going to be tough, there's no reason the Titans couldn't get another elite season out of Henry and make a playoff run.
Even if the Titans have regression coming, it's hard to believe they'll fall apart. The nucleus, including the coaching staff, is too good for that. But a middling season without a playoff berth would be tough. Derrick Henry seems like a superhero, but he's a running back and his dominant run won't last forever. Ryan Tannehill is aging too. A season around .500 would drive home the reality that last season was this group's best chance to do something special.
I don't like fading Mike Vrabel and his team, but I expect the Titans to take a step back. Derrick Henry is one of the most entertaining players of this era, yet we can't act like he'll be great forever at that position. Losing A.J. Brown leaves too many questions in the passing game, and a potential quarterback controversy doesn't help. The Titans will miss the playoffs. Then they'll have to take a look at a roster that is aging and wonder what their best path is moving forward.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals