Titans try to make one more run with Derrick Henry

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

When the Tennessee Titans went to Lambeau Field and beat the Green Bay Packers last season, they were 7-3. They had won seven of eight, with the only loss coming in overtime at the Kansas City Chiefs with rookie Malik Willis starting at quarterback.

It was a continuation of the previous season, when they went 12-5 and were the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The roster didn’t always look the prettiest, but the Titans won.

Then they couldn’t win. Tennessee didn’t win another game after beating the Packers on Nov. 17. They lost their last seven, including a Week 18 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars for the AFC South division title.

“It’s embarrassing,” safety Kevin Byard said, according to the Tennessean. “It’s embarrassing especially to go out that way. Obviously to still have an opportunity to go to the playoffs was really good, ending took a little bit off of that. But I’m just disappointed the way we ended the year.”

Maybe head coach Mike Vrabel can work his magic again this season and get the most out of the Titans. It’s also possible that streak to end last season was a sign of things to come.

The Titans’ best players on offense are quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will be 35 this season and has had a notable dropoff in play the past two seasons, and Derrick Henry, who turns 30 on Jan. 4 and has led the league in carries three of the past four seasons. Henry is built like a superhero but he can’t be great forever. The rest of the offense is a mess, with a receiving group and offensive line which both rank near the bottom of the NFL. The receivers will be better if the Titans land free agent DeAndre Hopkins, but he wouldn’t fix everything.

The defense showed some signs of slipping last season too. It will never get that bad — Vrabel is one of the best coaches in the NFL and his expertise is on defense — but if the offense is in the bottom half of the league, the defense probably won’t be good enough to lift the team very far. And the Titans had an offseason with more losses than gains. It will get even worse if the Titans move Byard, a two-time All-Pro safety who was asked to take a pay cut in March but declined. Byard was absent at OTAs, though he did participate in the team’s mandatory minicamp.

Perhaps the Titans won’t have a hard fall. Their swoon last season had a lot to do with injuries. They had 23 players on injured reserve at the end of the season. Tennessee has a very good track record with Vrabel. Even with the Titans making a desperation start of Joshua Dobbs at QB in Week 18, they still almost won at Jacksonville to make the playoffs. A fumble that was returned by the Jaguars for a touchdown with about three minutes left kept the Titans from a division title.

It’s just hard to overlook the growing problems on the roster.

Derrick Henry led the NFL in carries again last season. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Derrick Henry led the NFL in carries again last season. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

For many years the Titans have leaned heavily on Henry, who has put himself in the Hall of Fame conversation over the past few seasons. Since the Titans finally figured out late in Henry’s third NFL season how good he was, they have given him the type of workload you don’t see in this era. Henry has averaged 22.7 carries per game over the past four seasons. That’s about 386 carries for a 17-game season, and it doesn’t even count the postseason. Only three backs reached 300 carries last season, and Henry led the way with 349 in 16 games. It’s not like Henry is showing many signs of slowing down, but it could happen fast. Having a line that is projected by many to be among the NFL’s worst this season won’t help.

If Henry looks like an average back as he approaches age 30, what do the Titans become? Tight end Chig Okonkwo and receiver Treylon Burks, a 2022 first-round pick, are intriguing talents but they’re not proven. Nobody else on the roster looks like a future 1,000-yard receiver. There’s no sure thing backing up Henry. And Tannehill is aging. That’s a reason the Titans took Kentucky QB Will Levis in the second round.

There were trade rumors with Tannehill and Henry, and while neither was moved, it says something that the Titans seemed to be considering it. Maybe they should have traded one or both. Both players are set to become free agents next offseason and it seems like the Titans are on the verge of a rebuild anyway.

Perhaps they get one more playoff push out of a Henry-led roster. Vrabel is a fixer, and that will help. But what we saw late last season, injuries or not, could be the first signs of a big drop for Tennessee.

Offseason grade

It’s hard to get excited about the Titans’ offseason. The big addition was offensive tackle Andre Dillard, who failed to impress as a Philadelphia Eagles first-round pick and started nine games over four seasons (he missed 2020 due to injury), including none last year. He got $29 million over three seasons, which is dubious. Guard Nate Davis left the Titans to sign with the Chicago Bears, and he’s been a better player than Dillard. Tennessee also cut longtime offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. The Titans made a nice pickup with defensive lineman Arden Key. The big move to start the offseason was a four-year, $94 million deal to defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, one of the top interior defenders in the NFL. In the first round of the draft the Titans helped their line with Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski, who has been working at guard and tackle in the offseason. Quarterback Will Levis was an interesting second-round pick, but his fall out of the first round is an indication that he was overrated by draft analysts. Running back Tyjae Spears in the third round was an acknowledgement that this could be Henry’s last season in Tennessee, though Spears has a scary medical report that reportedly includes no ACL and arthritis in one of his knees. It’s hard to say the Titans’ roster is better than it was last season. If the Titans land DeAndre Hopkins that might bump up the grade a bit, though it’s fair to wonder what kind of impact Hopkins will have at age 31.

GRADE: C-minus

Quarterback report

Ryan Tannehill was a find for the Titans. He had a 110.6 passer rating in 2019-20. Then the past two years, Tannehill’s passer rating dropped to 91.5. That’s not bad, but it’s hard to see Tannehill rebounding all the way back to his 2019-20 numbers as he enters his age-35 season. Tannehill is good enough with a strong supporting cast, but the Titans don’t have that anymore. They took a shot on Malik Willis in last year’s draft and he looked overwhelmed as a rookie. He was so bad that the Titans signed Joshua Dobbs off the Detroit Lions’ practice squad and a little more than a week later made him their starter over Willis. That’s a reason the Titans traded up eight spots and took Will Levis in the second round of this year’s draft. Levis got a little too much hype going into the draft but he has a physical profile that the Titans can work with and develop. If the Titans struggle, there will be an inevitable quarterback controversy with fans clamoring for Levis.

BetMGM odds breakdown

It should be obvious by the Titans’ low ranking that I like under 7.5 wins for them at BetMGM. Maybe I’m way too pessimistic about the Titans. Mike Vrabel is a fantastic coach. Derrick Henry is a joy to watch. Perhaps I’m underestimating their defense. But I don’t see where the eight wins needed to hit the over come from, even in a soft division.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Chigoziem Okonkwo was the most productive rookie tight end last year, for whatever that means to you. No rookie TE had more than three touchdown catches, and Okonkwo’s 450 yards led the position; the Class of 2022 didn’t exactly break the game. But Okonkwo’s knack for making explosive plays is exciting.

“Among all qualified tight ends (20 or more catches), Okonkwo ranked second in yards per target and first in yards per catch. He was the only tight end to collect three receptions over 40 yards, and Okonkwo did this on a meager 46 targets. A second-year spike is possible, and the Titans need Okonkwo to have a sizable role, given how ordinary their wideout room is. Okonkwo will probably show up on a lot of sleeper lists, but just because he’s trendy doesn’t mean the pick is wrong. His Yahoo ADP of 119 offers plenty of room for profit.”

Stat to remember

The Titans were excellent last season at stopping the run. They allowed 3.4 yards per carry, tied with the San Francisco 49ers for best in the NFL. Every other team aside from Tennessee and San Francisco allowed at least 3.9 yards per carry. So teams just threw on the Titans. They faced 671 attempts, which was 47 more than any other team. Stopping the run is fine but it’s not an overly valuable strength in this era; the Titans’ defense finished 19th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. A lot of that has to do with injuries — the Titans’ defense had by far the league’s most games lost to injury in FO’s adjusted games lost metric for last season — so perhaps the Titans can change the identity of their defense this season.

Burning question

Can Treylon Burks emerge as a legit No. 1 receiver?

The Titans made a mistake with A.J. Brown. They misread the receiver market for contracts and traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles. They used the first-round pick they got back on Treylon Burks, and the Titans are praying Burks can be comparable to Brown at some point in his career. Burks wasn’t bad as a rookie, but he dealt with injuries and had a 33-444-1 line in 11 games. He’s talented enough to be the centerpiece of a passing game, but the Titans need to see much more from him in his second season. The Titans did practically nothing at receiver in the offseason before pursuing DeAndre Hopkins. If Burks doesn’t step up and become a 1,000-yard receiver (or if the team lands Hopkins, which would obviously help), the Titans might have one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL.

Best-case scenario

The Titans aren’t far removed from looking like a lock to win the AFC South midway through last season. Injuries were a huge factor in their miserable finish to the season. Maybe a healthier Titans team looks a lot like it did through mid-November last season. Derrick Henry could still have at least one more elite season left. Mike Vrabel could get the defense back to a top-10 level. The Titans have a formula that works for them. And they do pretty well when they’ve been disrespected.

Nightmare scenario

If you want to know how bad it can get, look at the final seven games last season. It was torturous. There are some glaring holes on the roster now, and the Titans didn’t have a great offseason. It seems likely that Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are moving on after this season. The Titans had a lot of success with this group, though it fell short of making a Super Bowl. The era might end with a whimper.

The crystal ball says …

It’s not like we don’t all see what’s going on with the Titans. Moving up to draft quarterback Will Levis was a worthwhile gamble, but it was a sign that this is likely the last season with this core. It’s hard to believe Ryan Tannehill will be back, and Derrick Henry will have options too. If the Titans start slow, that transition could happen during the season. The Titans could surprise everyone, as they’ve done before. It’s just too hard to overlook the inadequacies on the roster.

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