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2020 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 6,343 yards (3rd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 62 (2nd)
Offensive Plays: 1,031 (17th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 485 (30th)
Rush Attempts: 521 (2nd)
Unaccounted for Targets: 224 (3rd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 27 (24th)
Mike Vrabel enters his fourth year as Tennessee’s head coach, coming off an 11-5 campaign after two middling 9-7 seasons. Vrabel’s tough-guy approach to coaching could be a useful model for someone like Lions head coach and kneecap biting expert Dan Campbell. Vrabel over the past couple years has talked the talk of a hyper-conservative, old-school ball coach while handing the offensive reins to Arthur Smith, who created the league’s most efficient offense (see the numbers above). Vrabel deserves full credit for understanding the direction of the NFL -- more scoring from more aggressive offenses -- while maintaining his player-as-coach approach.
Smith, of course, left Tennessee for Atlanta this offseason, leaving Todd Downing as the Titans’ offensive coordinator. Downing, the team’s former tight ends coach, is expected to maintain continuity for Tennessee’s offense, though changes in personnel could force Downing to embrace a couple new concepts (more on that later). There’s also been some chatter about Downing -- a former quarterback and QB coach -- running the ball a little less often on early downs, putting the Titans in more favorable third down situations. This, presumably, would be a positive development for Ryan Tannehill.
But expect Downing to largely double down on what has worked beautifully for the Titans since Matt LaFleur came to Tennessee and installed a Shanahanian offense three years ago.
Tannehill in 2020 was ninth in QB fantasy points per game while the Titans had the third highest neutral rush rate in the league and the third fewest passing attempts. He’s been an ideal fit for the Titans’ Shanahan-style passing offense, predicated on quick, accurate throws and the occasional downfield shot.
Tannehill and the Titans massacred opponents in the red zone once again in 2020, managing a touchdown on 74.3 percent of their possessions inside the 20. Only the Packers were better. Tannehill completed an unreal 22 of his 32 attempts inside the 10 yard line for 19 touchdowns. That’s what happens when defenders are quaking in their cleats over the prospect of Derrick Henry tossing them aside like a rag doll on his way to the end zone. Titans wideouts and tight ends saw favorable coverage near the paint and Tannehill took full advantage, as he did in 2019.
Though Tannehill doesn’t add much in the way of rushing upside -- he’s run the ball 43 times in each of the past two seasons -- he’s made the most of his limited opportunity, scoring 11 rushing touchdowns since the start of 2019. I’m not projecting the exceptionally athletic Tannehill to once again score seven rushing TDs, as he did in 2020, but his willingness to run near the end zone should at least give him the chance to notch a handful of running scores. Last year, he was ninth among quarterbacks with eight rushing attempts inside the 10 yard line.
Broadway Sports’ John Glennon, a longtime Titans beat writer, recently told me the team could deploy more three-receiver sets in 2021 after letting Jonnu Smith walk in free agency. This shift, Glennon said, could lead to an uptick in pass attempts -- a decidedly good thing for Tannehill, who’s being drafted as the QB12, well below his fantasy ceiling. He could be the most overlooked quarterback in fantasy football this year.
The departure of Jonnu and the Titans’ acquisition of Julio Jones will lead to far fewer two tight end sets and more of the aforementioned three-wideout formations. In 2020, only Minnesota used three wideouts at a lower rate than the Titans, who had a trio of receivers on the field for 38 percent of their plays, miles below the league average of 60 percent. Arthur Smith last season had three wideouts in the formation on just 29 percent of the team’s running plays; only the 49ers and Vikings had a lower rate. Julio, Brown, and Reynolds are going to be on the field quite a bit alongside each other in 2021.
Julio, from a purely value-based standpoint, is less appealing today than he was before the Titans traded for him. His ADP is up to WR18; fantasy managers now have much less cushion should Julio miss significant time this season following an injury-marred 2020. While his pre-trade ADP was more palatable, his upside is undeniable. Opposing secondaries won’t be able to tilt coverage Julio’s way with Brown on the field, and Tannehill’s willingness to force some tough throws should serve Julio well. Even so, fantasy managers who go heavy on running backs in the first couple rounds and take Julio as their No. 1 wideout are putting themselves in a precarious spot, to put it as kindly as possible.
Julio’s entry into the Titans offense effectively dashed any hopes of A.J. Brown leading the league in targets this year. What a dream that was. Here’s the thing about Brown: He doesn’t need a glut of targets to prove productive. Brown was third in fantasy points over expectation in 2020 -- with two injured knees -- after leading all wide receivers in fantasy points over expectation in 2019. He’s shown he can do a lot with a little, bullying defenders after the catch and making 50-50 balls something closer to 70-30 balls. Brown, being drafted as the eighth receiver off the board, certainly has the overall WR1 in his 2021 range of outcomes. His ADP sliding a bit following the Titans’ acquisition of Julio is curious bordering on inexplicable.
Reynolds, as said above, will be on the field a lot in 2021. From where will his targets come if Julio and Brown stay healthy and upright? I don’t know. Tennessee doesn’t run the sort of offense that can produce three fantasy-viable wideouts -- we saw that last year when Brown and Corey Davis combined for 73.4 percent of the team’s wide receiver targets. At best, Reynolds is a stash in 14-team formats.
Firkser, who Glennon labeled “underrated” in our exchange, is set to take on the primary pass-catching role for Tennessee with Jonnu gone to New England. It’s not an entirely new role for the Firk Daddy -- a name unfortunately bestowed on him by Pat Daugherty. He saw at least five targets in five games last season, often running more pass routes than Jonnu, a superb blocker who was utilized as an in-line tight end in the Titans offense. You might be shocked to know Jonnu had just a dozen more targets and two more receptions than Firkser last year. Jonnu ran a mere 68 more pass routes than Firkser all season. The mainstream media won’t report this; NBC Sports Edge will.
Little competition for tight end routes or targets makes Firkser -- not known for his blocking prowess -- a fine late-round tight end who could easily become an every-week starter in 12-team leagues. Swaim, meanwhile, could become a reasonable streaming option should Firkser miss time in 2021.
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I’m going to break news here and tell you that Tennessee’s rushing attack begins and ends with Derrick Henry. No one else will be fantasy viable in the Titans backfield for as long as Henry can (somehow) withstand the historic beating he’s taken as the centerpiece of the team’s offense.
My deep dive into whether Henry, heading into his age-27 season, can continue thriving with the league’s biggest backfield workload left little reason to believe Henry will break down in 2021. The Titans are highly aware of the toll on Henry’s body and his size (he’s big) means he’s not absorbing massive blows like most running backs. He could be the first back since Walter Payton to lead the NFL in carries three years in a row. With that comes as much touchdown upside as any running back in the league.
Don’t expect Henry to suddenly become a part of the team’s passing game though. Glennon said Darrynton Evans -- the second year back who missed much of the 2020 season -- to fill that role, however small. That Evans won’t have weekly fantasy usefulness for as long as Henry is healthy shouldn’t stop fantasy players from drafting him late in drafts as the Titans’ presumed lead back should Henry succumb to human frailty in 2021.
Henry’s (almost) total lack of pass game involvement makes him markedly less valuable than the elite pass catching backs, an easy-to-forget reality in a game where receptions are far more valuable than carries. Henry last year went on a rushing tear unlike anything we’ve seen in recent football history and finished a distant fourth in running back PPR points per game. Let’s not lose our minds and consider Henry as a first overall pick in PPR formats -- the only legitimate format.
The Titans’ win total over-under of 9.5 is the most glaringly low total of 2021. Nine teams head into the season with a higher win total over-under, a year after Tennessee won 11 games. The league, you may have heard, has since tacked on another regular season game.
The offense’s projected continuity, the continued domination of Derrick Henry, the development of A.J. Brown, the addition of Julio Jones, and the experience of Ryan Tannehill are good for ten wins this season, even if the Titans’ defense once again resembles a large piece of Swiss cheese. I’m hammering the over.