The Tennessee Titans desperately needed to acquire Julio Jones. Prior to trading for Jones, Tennessee watched Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith depart in free agency, a duo that represented 1,432 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns from the 2020 squad. The only notable move Tennessee made to replace that production was to sign Josh Reynolds, who never could claim a consistent role in the Los Angeles Rams’ offense, while hoping Anthony Firsker could emerge at tight end to replace Smith.
Since the Titans reached the AFC Championship Game just two seasons ago, turnover has become the norm. From that team, Tennessee has lost 11 of those 22 starters while both the offensive and defensive coordinator are elsewhere.
The Titans had high hopes at another deep postseason run in 2020 but were ultimately one and done in the playoffs due to some unfortunate injury luck, not having the right plan to replace defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and general manager Jon Robinson failing to find the right answers at right tackle or in the pass rush to support budding star Harold Landry.
While the team did manage to claim an 11-5 record and win the AFC South for the first time since 2008, the defense was dreadful. The unit finished 28th in total defense, 24th in scoring, 30th in sacks, 30th in first downs yielded, and 32nd in third-down stop percentage.
Outside linebacker coach Shane Bowen has officially been promoted to defensive coordinator after serving as the defensive play-caller throughout most of the 2020 season. Bowen’s familiarity with Vrabel dates back to 2012 when he was a defensive graduate assistant at Ohio State where he worked directly with Vrabel who was the Buckeyes’ defensive line coach at the time.
In hopes of righting the ship on defense, Robinson made sweeping changes to the defensive personnel. While there are fair questions to ask offensively when it comes to the right tackle position and depth at the skill positions, bringing in Jones helps shore up the unit overall. But what about the defense? Did the Titans improve enough on defense to make another deep postseason run?
Along the defensive line, Tennessee has to feel good about what Jeffery Simmons has shown so far through two seasons. He is developing into an elite defender and tone-setter for the unit. The most notable departures for the defensive line are Daquon Jones and Jack Crawford. Denico Autry was a terrific signing to provide versatility but unless an unproven player emerges, Tennessee hasn’t done anything of note to replace Jones, who has been a fixture up front since 2015.
At edge rusher, Tennessee brought in former Pittsburgh Steeler Bud Dupree on a five-year $82.5 million deal to pair with Landry. A first-round selection in 2015, Dupree finally broke out in 2019 for the Steelers and he brings elite speed and a hot motor off the edge for Tennessee. How he returns from a season-ending knee injury that occurred in Week 12 of the 2020 season will be critical for the Titans.
At linebacker, the unit remains mostly intact where incumbent starters Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans are back and both in contract years. The team declined to exercise the fifth-year option in Evans’ contract, making him a free agent after the 2021 season. Brown is back after suffering a dislocated and fractured elbow in late November that ended his season prematurely. The hope is that they are healthy and primed for big years as both players need to produce to maximize their next contract.
Cornerback is where the most drastic changes were made. The Titans cut 2017 first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Brown while letting slot corner Desmond King walk in free agency. The hope is that free agent signing Janoris Jenkins, 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley, 2020 second-round pick Kristian Fulton, and Breon Borders, who had positive flashes in 2020, can be upgrades. It cannot be overlooked that Tennessee drafted Elijah Molden in the third round of the draft, a player I believe has a bright future as an NFL slot corner/safety hybrid.
At safety, the Titans’ have an elite defender in Kevin Byard at one spot but the team said goodbye to his running mate Kenny Vaccaro after the 2020 season. Tennessee is counting on Amani Hooker and Dane Cruikshank filling bigger roles or free agent signing Matthias Farley becoming an answer.
One thing is clear: the Titans were intentional about making changes on the defensive side of the football this offseason and they needed to. But are they actually better? The answer to that question comes with more questions. How does Bowen fare as a first-year defensive coordinator maximizing all of the new pieces? Is Dupree healthy and back to form? Will someone step up in the Daquon Jones role? Can Evans and Brown elevate their play in contract years? Will Farely’s injury history subside and reach his physical potential? Will Jenkins continue his decline at age 32? Are Hooker, Fulton, and Borders ready for bigger roles?
Will the answer be “yes” to enough of the aforementioned questions for Tennessee to be good enough on defense to ultimately be a contender in the AFC? Time will tell, but the Titans’ season will ultimately be defined by how those questions are answered.