The 2021 Season is over for the AFC South & the Offseason has begun. As the Colts prepare for the next season, so do the rest of their rivals. As the ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu once wrote: “Know thy enemy and know yourself, and in 100 battles you will never be defeated”. While most Colts fans know their own team very well, it is also important to be familiar with their enemies. Most importantly: the division rivals. So let’s examine each one. Starting with…
The Tennessee Titans
The Titans had more rushing attempts than any team in the NFL, allowing for them to be a top 5 unit on the ground in yards and TDs (but were only 14th per carry). Led initially by Derrick Henry, his high volume demanded a lot of defensive attention, daring teams to challenge them physically. Once he went down, D’onta Foreman eventually picked up the mantle and turned in a solid season despite facing eight men in the box a whopping 47% of his carries.
Foreman could be a potential successor to Henry, and the journeyman RB’s physical style of play mirrors well with Henry. Should he be the real deal and not a flash in the pan, it would be wise for the team to bring Foreman back. At worst, he would be quality depth for Henry.
Jeffrey Simmons and Harold Landry, the Titans’ two young in-house pass rushers on the front 7, took the next step in 2021, combining for 20 sacks and being the most consistent rushers for the Titans. At age 26 & 25 in 2022, they look to be threats to opposing QBs for years to come.
The Titans double dipped in Free agency for pass rushers in 2021, signing both former Colts DL Denico Autry to a three-year deal and Edge Bud Dupree to a five-year deal. While Dupree coming off of injury did not return his value (only 3 sacks in 11 games), Autry was well worth his deal so far, with 9 sacks coming from inside and outside. In total, the Titans were 9th in sacks but only 20th in pressure rate. The potential is there, and the Titans were efficient on their rushes, but consistency is needed going forward. But as we saw in the Divisional Round, the sacks can come in bunches, with the Titans sacking Burrow an astounding nine times.
Both players renegotiated their deals to allow the Titans to get Julio Jones, but because of that, their combined cap hit goes from a bargain of $8.6m to $27.85m in 2022 & $29.4m in 2023. Of the two, Autry remains a solid value, but at age 32 next season, there is a question of how much longer he can maintain this play. Dupree’s $19.2m is a lot of $ to owe to a three-sack pass rusher with an injury history & at age 29 next year, he isn’t exactly a spring chicken. However, cutting him incurs a $28.8m dead cap hit, meaning they are essentially stuck with him and just hope he bounces back in 2022.
The passing weapons for the Titans did not improve compared to 2020, as new additions Julio Jones and Josh Reynolds failed to impress. Unfortunately, Jones suffered hamstring injuries throughout the year, and with how lingering they are and his age, the fears are he might not return to form. He finished the regular season with 0 receiving TDs, failing to be the big X factor to push the Titans over the top like many in the fanbase hoped. Reynolds was brought in as a 3rd option but got passed on the depth chart by Chester Rodgers after failing to impress in a bigger role, eventually leading to him being cut midseason. The loss of Jonnu Smith and the disappointing season from the two free Agent WRs (and lack of consistency from AJ Brown) certainly didn’t help matters in the Titans pass attack.
The Titans had a frighteningly high amount of injuries this season. Whether it was due to training staff, porous field conditions, over usage, bad luck, or a roster littered with players with injury histories heading into the year, the team could not get even close to 100% health. The closest they got to it by the end of the season was in the divisional round, but even then, it wasn’t enough to overcome some roster deficiencies.
While some of these players are young and should bounce back given time and modern medicine, as well as that level of bad injury luck rarely repeating to that extent, the Titans as a whole should be healthier in 2022. However, several of these players now have lengthy injury histories, are getting up in age, and have a lot of money committed to them. Some tough decisions loom on the horizon for some of the biggest Titans, and their future is unclear.
Unfortunately, due to his renegotiating to add Free Agents in 2021, Tannehill is due to be the 5th highest paid QB in the NFL next season and the 7th highest paid QB of 2023. Over the next two seasons, he is due a combined $75.2m, $57.4m of which is guaranteed. After the tumultuous season he had, it is safe to say he is not a value at his current price to the team.
Because of that giant cap hit and its staggeringly high guarantees, it will be a challenge for the Titans to upgrade from Tannehill this offseason. Either they will need to hope the right QB falls to the 20s, trade up for said QB, or somehow find a trade partner for Tannehill and eat a $28.8m dead cap hit. Cutting Tannehill isn’t an option, as that would cause all of his guaranteed $ to become a dead cap hit, pushing the Titan tenuous cap situation deep into the red. Should they try to upgrade via trade for a new QB, they will need to find a new home for the 2021 leader in giveaways, likely not returning much draft capital compared to what they give up for an upgrade.
The Titans will likely hope for a bounce back from Tannehill and stick with him for one more year at least, but 2021 showed that unless the roster improves a lot around him, he won’t be the QB to bring an SB to Nashville. I wouldn’t rule out them addressing QB in the draft, possibly to get a developmental QB with upside or depth behind Tannehill. The QB class of 2022 is subpar to years past, but there are a fair amount of QBs with enough high-value athletic traits that the Titans could consider taking.
Look for the Titans to address this position early in the draft. The 2022 draft class is littered with talented WRs. Quality weapons outside and in the slot can be found throughout the first four rounds but could be addressed in round 1. The Titans do not have a 2022 2nd round pick (and a 2023 4th round pick and a lot less cap space) due to the Julio Jones trade. The best chance they have to upgrade at WR is at pick 26 or wait until picks 90 or 127 in the 3rd and 4th rounds, respectively.
Wide Receivers like Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, Purdue’s David Bell, or Ohio State’s Chris Olave could be Day 1 picks, or the Titans could take another shot on a talented but injured player like USC’s Drake London or Alabama’s Jameson Williams should they fall to 26th overall. With Julio’s age and injury history and the subpar lack of depth behind him, don’t rule out the Titans picking 2 WRs in that round 1-4 stretch to really try to address the position.
While the rushing attack has long been the offensive identity for the Titans, a changing of the guard could be coming. Derrick Henry is due to cost:
- $15m in 2022 (2nd highest paid RB in the NFL)
- $15.5m in 2023 (4th highest paid RB in the NFL)
With the RB position being the most replaceable position in the NFL, plenty of talented rushers becoming instant impact rookies every year, and a dire need for salary cap relief to retain multiple key starters (most notably Edge rusher Harold Landry, who won’t be cheap), trading away Henry may be a tough pill to swallow for fans, but the best decision for the Titans.
The Titans currently sit at -$6.6m in cap space for 2022 per OverTheCap. Trading Henry would incur a $6m dead cap but free up $9m of the 15m he is due for in 2022, as well as all 15.5m for 2023. While other moves could be made to create cap space (cutting backup LT Kendall Lamm, starting CB Jackrabbit Jenkins, starting LB Zach Cunningham frees up up 20.5m and gets the cap to a more manageable 13.9m in cap space), this is the only one that could net solid draft capital in return. Should the Titans get any offers involving round 1-2 picks from a contending team, it would be tempting to take it.
Longtime Titans Center Ben Jones is an unrestricted free agent in 2022, and with the Titans’ lack of cap space and the priority re-signing being Harold Landry, it is likely he finds a new team. The depth behind him is an unheralded 6th round pick and an undrafted free agent. While it isn’t the most flashy position, Center is vital for communication along the line. Getting a new young center for cheap is important to the Titans’ strong run-blocking unit and preventing the pass pro from regressing as well.
Similar to RB, this could be addressed in rounds 3-4, though if they fall in love with a prospect in round 1, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them grab a Tyler Linderbaum in round 1 and address the WR & RB position in the mid-rounds due to better depth in the draft classes for those positions.
Unlike the other positions listed, the Titans have invested in this position heavily in years past. GM Jon Robinson has invested in 3 CBs in the top 3 rounds of the last two drafts: Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley, and Elijah Molden. While Fulton did emerge in 2021 in his 2nd season as a good starting boundary CB, his rookie counterparts didn’t fare as well. Farley, in particular, struggled before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. His health is a major question going forward with his previous injury history. Jackrabbit Jenkins also had a tumultuous season as the veteran leader of the CBs and is a possible cut candidate for cap reasons.
Should old man Jenkins not return, the Titans’ CB depth will be further questionable. Expect the Titans to address it in the mid-rounds in the draft or pick up some free agents of value if possible to boost the depth.
Expect the Titans to explore their options on the trade market and try to renegotiate some deals to open up cap space. Some big changes are needed to their offense if they want to contend; otherwise, they will be unable to truly open up such a window. Whether up front, outside, or in the backfield, major personnel decisions need to be made.
The reigning AFC South champs certainly shouldn’t be satisfied with how their season ended, and running it back with the same offensive core is not a recipe for success based on 2021 and could lead to mediocrity in the interim. They are still at this time expected to be the favorites in the AFC South again, but should the Colts pull off a big gambit of their own, and it succeeds, the Titans’ grip on the division will loosen.