Titans’ winners and losers from 2022 season: Defense

As the Tennessee Titans’ offense struggled mightily over the course of the 2022 season, the defense did its best to keep the team in games more often than not.

It certainly wasn’t a great season for Tennessee’s defense, which was riddled with injuries throughout, but there’s no question the Titans probably don’t win even seven games, let alone compete for a division title without it.

While the secondary and pass-rush struggled to overcome those injuries, the run defense thrived, ranking as the No. 1 unit in the NFL following a season in which it ranked No. 2 in 2021.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at the biggest winners and losers (and those in between) on defense from the Titans’ 2022 campaign.

Winner: Titans' starting defensive line

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a lackluster season defending the pass, the Titans still managed to sport the league’s No. 1 run defense thanks to an impressive front that features Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons and Teair Tart.

However, each of those players came out as winners individually.

For Autry, the four games he missed was a stark reminder of how important he is to this defense, as Tennessee’s pass-rush simply wasn’t the same without him.

Thankfully, the 32-year-old is under contract for one more year or else the Titans would be faced with giving him a raise he has no doubt earned.

Like with Autry, Simmons got off to a hot start and was on track to being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before suffering an ankle injury in Week 8 that impacted his play the rest of the way.

But, also like with Autry, Simmons not being able to play at his best (or at all) only further showed just how vital he is to the unit.

He’s up for a contract extension in 2023 and his injury issue from 2022 should have zero impact on that. When it’s all said and done, Simmons should be one of the highest-paid players at his position in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Tart had his best season as a pro as he continues to make an impact between Autry and Simmons. Tart is a restricted free agent this offseason and should net a nice raise from the $895,000 he made in 2022.

As a whole, this starting trio is one the Titans should definitely work on keeping together for at least another season.

Loser: Caleb Farley

Syndication: The Tennessean

Farley was expected to assume a starting role in his second season, but he lost out in training camp to a rookie, Roger McCreary.

The Virginia Tech product somehow found a way to fall farther than that, though, as his poor play when he was on the field led to his becoming an afterthought in the defense.

Farley has now seen each of his first two seasons end early due to injury after he came out of college with injury concerns, and he hasn’t shown a single flash of the top-notch corner many thought he could be.

It’s nice to see the 24-year-old still believes in himself after everything he’s been through, but the Titans should expect nothing from him in 2023.

In between: David Long

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

Long was a great leader and had a good season when he was healthy, with his biggest impact coming against the run — but the key words there are “when he was healthy.”

The West Virginia product missed the final five games of the season, and he has now missed 12 games the past two years. He has never played every game in any of the four seasons he’s been in the NFL.

As a result, the Titans and any other interested party must factor the injury concerns into any negotiations they have with Long this offseason. It’s unfortunate, as Long would be a lock for a sizeable payday otherwise.

Winner: DeMarcus Walker

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably the biggest surprise on Tennessee’s defense in 2022 was a veteran free agent signing in Walker, who posted a career-high seven sacks and led the team in tackles for loss with 10.

There’s no question the Titans should be looking to bring Walker back for a backup role in 2023, but his price has certainly gone up since Tennessee inked him to a one-year, $1.18 million deal last offseason.

However, don’t expect a crazy increase for the 28-year-old. His season was no doubt impressive, but it’s highly unlikely any team out there — Titans included — view him as anything more than a good backup.

Spotrac estimates his market value at a one-year deal worth $3.2 million. That sounds fair and I’d be on board at that price.

Winner: Titans' defensive coaching staff

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After a dreadful 2020 season on defense, it took a village for the Titans to get their unit back on track, which started in 2021 when the team brought in former senior defensive assistant, Jim Schwartz.

Tennessee saw its defense become one of the better units in the NFL that season, especially against the run and in the pass-rush, which was wreaking havoc on opposing offenses.

In 2022, the Titans actually improved their run defense to No. 1, but the rest of the unit struggled, mostly thanks to a slew of injuries at several positions.

Tennessee lost Harold Landry before the season even started, and starters like Simmons, Autry, Tart, Bud Dupree, Amani Hooker, Kristian Fulton, Elijah Molden, David Long and Zach Cunningham all missed time.

Hell, even the starters’ backups needed backups.

Yet, despite all of that, Tennessee still finished with a respectable defense that ranked 15th in points allowed (21.1) and was more often than not responsible for keeping this team in games while the offense sputtered.

If not for the defense, the Titans don’t win even seven games, let alone have a chance at the division.

Once-embattled defensive coordinator Shane Bowen has really turned the ship around the past two years, and there’s a good chance Schwartz played a role in that.

Now, Bowen is viewed positively among the fan base and might be up for a head-coaching gig soon, and Schwartz made out pretty good, also, as he’s now the defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns.

Tennessee’s staff as a whole deserves a ton of credit for keeping this unit more than afloat considering the overwhelming injury issues throughout.

Loser: Bud Dupree

Syndication: The Tennessean

Dupree was already on the hot seat going into the 2022 campaign after an injury-plagued first season following his signing a massive five-year, $82.5 million deal the previous offseason.

And Dupree did not deliver.

He started off the 2022 calendar year on a bad foot, as he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge stemming from an incident at a Walgreens in Nashville.

Dupree then went on to miss six games during the season, bringing his total over two years with the team up to 12 – and that number doesn’t take into account the games he’s left early in that span.

Over two seasons, Dupree has just seven sacks in 22 games, also.

Now, this is not to say that Dupree hasn’t shown he can be a difference-maker when healthy, even when he isn’t piling up sacks, but he hasn’t done enough, especially in the availability department, to show he’s worth his salary.

It would be very surprising if Dupree is still here in 2023, and even more surprising if he lands any semblance of the deal he got from Tennessee.

Winner: Tre Avery

Syndication: The Tennessean

Few players in the NFL had as bad a start to the season as Avery, who got torched by the Buffalo Bills in Week 2. After that, the Rutgers product was a ghost, only seeing time on special teams until he was called back into action later in the season because of injuries.

While Avery certainly wasn’t great, he showed a vast improvement from where he was earlier in the year, and that resulted in him becoming a go-to player off the bench when the Titans needed help, which was often.

Avery’s coverage stats are impressive. He allowed completions on just 21 of the 44 targets thrown his way (47.7%) and surrendered a QB rating of 90.0. We recently listed the 2022 UDFA among Tennessee’s best.

He should be considered the top backup at cornerback going into 2023, but there’s potential for him to have a bigger role, as Kristian Fulton has had issues staying on the field over three seasons.

Loser: Zach Cunningham

Syndication: The Tennessean

After an injury-plagued year that saw Cunningham struggle even when he was on the field, he’ll almost certainly be on the chopping block, with Tennessee able to save almost $9 million by cutting him.

Cunningham will no doubt land on his feet, but it’s doubtful it’ll be at the $13.4 million he was set to cost on Tennessee’s 2023 salary cap if kept.

In between: Roger McCreary

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The best experience a rookie can get is actually getting on the field. Knowing that, McCreary got a whole boatload of experience in his first season. To get there, he had to first upset Farley for the starting job, which he did.

McCreary was one of just three Titans on either side of the ball to start every game this season. Even more amazingly, he played every single snap of the season.

The in-between part comes from his overall play.

We definitely saw flashes of what the Titans were hoping to get from the Auburn product (his awareness on an assist on a Joshua Kalu interception might’ve been the most impressive), but there’s still a ways to go for the rookie before we can consider him a locked-in starter for the long haul.

Perhaps his issues had a lot to do with coaching, as the Titans parted ways with defensive backs coach Anthony Midget and brought in a rising star cornerbacks coach in Chris Harris.

Hopefully Harris can get the most out of McCreary, because there’s definitely something there with the 22-year-old, who will have a lot more knowledge under his belt in 2023 after getting significant on-the-job training in 2022.

Winner: Kevin Byard

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Like Autry and Simmons, we were reminded once again of just how great it is that Byard is a Tennessee Titan.

His leadership throughout what was a difficult campaign was invaluable, not only in terms of what he did on the field and in the locker room, but with his brutally honest but respectful sessions with the media, no matter how bad things got.

A shining example of Byard’s leadership on the field came in Week 17, when the Titans sat a slew of starters in what was a meaningless game against the Dallas Cowboys in terms of their divisional hopes.

But that game wasn’t meaningless to Byard, who suited up anyway despite the Titans running a preseason-like roster out there that nobody gave a chance to win.

Tennessee would go on to lose that game, but the Titans gave the Cowboys more of a run for their money than anyone expected. Byard was right in the middle of that with a pair of picks, both of which led to points.

Byard was one of few Titans players to start in every game, and he played 98 percent of the snaps. In a season that saw everything constantly changing, Byard was one of few stabilizing forces, and in more ways than one.

In between: Kristian Fulton

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith

When you look at Fulton’s coverage numbers, they were actually good. His completion rate allowed was just one percent higher than the year before (52.4%), and while his passer rating allowed also went up (from 71.3 to 82.8), it wasn’t bad, either.

The problem was Fulton’s ability to stay on the field, something that has been an issue over three seasons of his career. Fulton’s got plenty of ability, but the best ability is availability, and the LSU product has struggled there.

Fulton missed six games in total last season, and has now missed 10 games the past two seasons. And those campaigns are on top of his rookie one that saw him appear in just six contests.

As is the case with guys like Autry and Simmons but to a lesser extent, we’re harshly reminded of just how crucial Fulton is to this defense when he’s not on the field.

Looking ahead to 2023, Fulton is entering a contract year and the only thing that will stop him from getting at least a nice payday in 2024 is his health.

Story originally appeared on Titans Wire