The proverbial ink is dry on the trade between Atlanta and Tennessee that will see the Titans get Julio Jones in return for a 2nd round draft pick next year (the Falcons also get a 4th round pick and are giving up a 6th round pick).
The Titans are also picking up Julio’s contract, which has $17.3m still guaranteed and is worth $15.3m this year.
As I previously wrote, I didn’t think the Colts would or should trade for Julio Jones. I knew there was a good chance the Titans would get him, but that doesn’t make playing him twice a year any less daunting a prospect.
I thought that the Colts were clear favorites to win the AFC South this year. That task became a lot harder, but I still think the Colts are the best team in the AFC South. Here’s how I think the Colts can topple the Titans and win the division for the first time since 2014.
Julio Jones will now make up a formidable offensive quartet alongside Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and AJ Brown. Few, if any, NFL teams can match that selection of weapons. That being said, they did lose Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith this offseason (as well as losing Adam Humphries and gaining Josh Reynolds). This means that Jones will have to replace and surpass Davis and Smith’s production for the Titans to really see the trade benefits.
It won’t be easy to stop the Titans offense this year, but the trick to stopping them isn’t rocket science. It’s all about having a great pass rush. By getting to Tannehill quickly and consistently, you can marginalize Jones and Brown. Whilst it’s also much harder for Henry to make an impact if defensive ends are in his face as soon as he gets the ball.
Fortunately, the Colts are well aware of how important an effective pass rush is to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Chris Ballard has repeatedly discussed how you can never have enough good pass rushers and has made ‘the trenches’ a cornerstone of his team’s identity.
The Colts went big on pass rushers in the draft, selecting Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo in the first two rounds. Jim Irsay’s message to the two during the draft could scarcely have been clearer.
He told Paye they drafted him with championship Sundays in mind, saying, “it’s 3:30 on a Sunday, it’s a championship game, and we’ve got to get that quarterback down.” Irsay also reminisced with Odeyingbo about Mathis and Freeney, telling him that he and Paye are going to “wreak some havoc.”
There’s clearly great excitement throughout the Colts about what Kwity and Dayo could achieve together. Even if it may be a while until Odeyingbo is healthy and at his best.
If Kemoko Turay can stay healthy and Tyquan Lewis can continue to improve, the Colts will have a talented crew complimenting the elite and destructive Deforest Buckner.
The Colts are fortunate enough to face three offensive lines in the AFC South that are average or worse. The Titans O-line is probably the ‘best of the rest’ in the division, and they’ll hope Taylor Lewan stays a lot healthier this season. Yet their 2020 first round right tackle Isiah Wilson was a bust on a biblical scale, and Deforest Buckner was able to consistently pressure Tannehill in the one matchup he was healthy for last year.
The Colts have the defensive line to overwhelm the Titans O-line and take over the game. If the Colts keep Jones and Brown quiet and win the division, they’ll have to do just that.
Speaking of offensive lines, it will come as no surprise to any Colts fans that the team’s elite O-line will be crucial if they’re to win the division this year. It’s undoubtedly one of the best units in the NFL and has a legitimate claim to be the strongest once Fisher is healthy and back to his best.
That ought to be of concern to a Titans team that had one of the worst pass rushes in the league last season. To give Tennessee credit, they know how badly their defensive line needs to improve next season. Having unsurprisingly let Jadeveon Clowney walk, they recruited Bud Dupree and Denico Autry.
Dupree and Autry will surely improve the Titans pass rush this season, but I don’t expect them to make the impact Tennessee fans are hoping and expecting from them. Last year together, they played with Deforest Buckner, Cameron Heyward, and TJ Watt. That kind of talent unsurprisingly attracts a lot of attention and creates opportunities for other pass rushers. I don’t expect Dupree and Autry to put up the same numbers this year when they’re expected to lead the line.
Nelson, Kelly, and Smith should be capable of asserting their will on the Titans defensive line. This should allow Taylor, Hines, and Mack to out rush Henry. But, more importantly, it should give Carson Wentz plenty of time to throw.
This time certainly helped Phillip Rivers last year. But his accurate, quick release style didn’t punish teams with substandard pass rushes the way Carson Wentz’s cannon of an arm can. The Colts offensive line will be one of the most important factors in getting Carson Wentz playing closer to his best this season. If he can, his mobility and arm strength will open up some new possibilities for Frank Reich’s play calling.
That should be a daunting prospect for most NFL teams but should be particularly worrying for the Titans given how their secondary struggled last year. Butler and Jackson were arguably the best of the group but have both been released. Some Titans fans have framed this as overhauling a bad unit, but there’s clearly the potential for a poor unit to get worse without Butler and Jackson.
Tennessee did draft Caleb Farley in the first round to address this need. But whilst Farley is clearly a talented prospect, he does have a concerning injury history. Even if he can stay healthy, the Titans are putting a lot of pressure on him from day one in a position that’s not easy to learn in the NFL.
The Colts receiving core of Hilton, Pittman, and Campbell may not match Jones and Brown, but give Wentz time to find them, and they’ll do some serious damage against this Titans secondary. Hilton, in particular has the chance to be a very dangerous deep threat once again.
I said back in April that the Colts season will be decided in the trenches. The Titans trade for Julio Jones only makes me more confident I was right.
Tannehill, Henry, Brown, and Jones will not be easy for any NFL defense to deal with, but they can’t win games independently. If the Colts offensive and defensive lines can play to their potential, they can suffocate the Titans skill players and exploit their defensive weaknesses.
Both Titans vs. Colts games this season promise to be exciting events made all the better by the return of fans to stadiums. Julio Jones will certainly make the Titans harder to beat. But I still think if the Colts can stay healthy, they can topple the Titans and win the AFC South.