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Tennessee Titans 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) talks in the huddle during the second half against the Detroit Lions at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The Tennessee Titans are in a good spot to compete for another AFC South title, with the Houston Texans barreling headfirst into a rebuild and the Indianapolis Colts hoping that Carson Wentz can recapture his 2017 form. However, the Titans do have some roster decisions to make this offseason, and they don’t have much cap space to work with. 2020 contributors Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, DaQuan Jones, Jadeveon Clowney, Jayon Brown and Desmond King II are all set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason. 

That will leave Tennessee with some tough decisions over the next few months as the team attempts to keep its core intact while staying under the 2021 salary cap. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): -$2,192,236 (21st in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 22, 53, 86, 117, 150, 161, 191 

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Ryan Tannehill 5 / 32 $29.5 million
RB Derrick Henry 1 / 70 $13.5 million
WR A.J. Brown 2 / 127 $1.5 million
WR ?
WR ?
TE ?
LT Taylor Lewan N/A $13.7 million
LG Rodger Saffold 7 / 39 $12.3 million
C Ben Jones 5 / 37 $7.3 million
RG Nate Davis 9 / 40 $1.1 million
RT Dennis Kelly 22 / 38 $6.6 million

Tennessee appears to be all set at the starting offensive positions with the exception of the secondary options in the passing game. 

Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim are all unrestricted free agents, while Anthony Firkser joins his fellow tight ends as a restricted free agent this offseason. Additionally, Adam Humphries stands out as a potential source for cap relief. Injuries have limited the slot receiver to under 400 snaps in each of his first two seasons with the team, and his release could free up some much-needed cap room this offseason.

The shakiest spot on the offensive line, as things stand, is at the right tackle position. Dennis Kelly provided solid play there last season as the starter after Tennessee lost Jack Conklin in free agency, but the Titans could look to upgrade. And it doesn’t appear 2020 first-round selection Isaiah Wilson will be the answer there following a tumultuous rookie season.

Can Todd Downing continue Arthur Smith’s success as offensive coordinator?

The decision to stay in-house and elevate tight ends coach Todd Downing to offensive coordinator indicates that Mike Vrabel and the Titans wanted to maintain a level of continuity on offense after the Atlanta Falcons hired former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith as their next head coach. It’s no surprise why.

Tennessee’s offense over the past two seasons under Smith has been one of the best in the NFL. The Titans went from 23rd in expected points added per play across the 2017 and 2018 seasons to fourth in the league in the same metric over the past two years, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers. It’s fair to point out that the time period also aligns with Ryan Tannehill taking over at quarterback midway through the 2019 season, but Smith’s offense is also a big part of what elevated Tannehill’s play. 

A diverse running game mixing in duo with a heavy dose of outside zone and the play-action passing off that run game has worked for Tennessee. The Titans will be hoping Downing can carry over the momentum the offense has already built into next season. 

Who will Tennessee bring in to complement A.J. Brown in the passing game?

As things stand right now, the only pass-catching options behind Brown both at wide receiver and tight end who are under contract for 2021 are Adam Humphries (potential cap casualty candidate), Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (five career catches) and Cameron Batson (21 career catches). All four of the Titans' tight ends who saw significant playing time are free agents, along with Corey Davis and Kalif Raymond at wide receiver.

That puts Tennessee in a tough spot this offseason. Already projected to be over the salary cap, it will be tough for them to retain both Davis and Jonnu Smith at tight end. Franchise-tagging Smith seems like the most likely outcome, but even then, the Titans could find themselves light on proven options at receiver. That is especially true if Humphries isn’t back with the team in 2021. 

In all likelihood, the Titans will need to target a wide receiver in the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft to give Ryan Tannehill a little bit more to work with in the passing game. The numbers point to the idea that reliable second and third options in the passing game matter just as much, if not more, than having a top receiver like Brown.  

Can Derrick Henry bring home another rushing title?

There has been no better pure runner in the NFL than Henry over the past two seasons. Since 2019, his 91.6 rushing grade is tied for first in the NFL with Nick Chubb, and he has been the most devastating back in the league on contact. His 2,758 rushing yards after contact are more than any other NFL running back has in total, and his 133 missed tackles forced also pace the position. 

That dominance was paired with one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL in 2020. Tennessee’s 77.8 run-blocking grade as a team ranked fifth. Any time a team gets that kind of effort from its offensive line in conjunction with the highest-graded runner in the league, good things are going to happen. That set the stage for Henry’s 2,000-yard season. The offensive line play should only improve with a healthy Taylor Lewan at left tackle. 

The volume that the Titans seem intent on giving Henry on the ground, along with his efficiency, gives him a good chance to lead the NFL in rushing yards once again next season.  

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Corey Davis, Marvin Jones, Elijah Moore

The Titans would love to have Davis back, but his success this past season will likely price him out of Tennessee due to the team's 2021 cap situation.

Jones may come a little cheaper as he heads into the 2021 season at 31 years old. He is coming off a 978-yard, nine-touchdown season for the Detroit Lions in 2020 and has been an extremely reliable secondary option at wide receiver for much of his nine-year career. Jones has recorded PFF grades of 70.0 or higher in each of the past six seasons. 

Moore would be a nice target early in the 2021 NFL Draft to pair with his former teammate at Ole Miss. It’s easier to project him into the slot in the NFL, where his toughness, speed and quicks give him an ideal skill set to win inside, but there’s a chance Moore could have success outside, as well. He’s coming off a monstrous season this past year at Ole Miss, where he put up nearly 1,200 receiving yards in just eight games en route to a 91.2 overall grade on the year. 

Tight end: Jonnu Smith, Gerald Everett, Brevin Jordan

Smith seems to be one of the more likely franchise-tag candidates given the Titans' need for complementary receivers and the relatively low cap hit associated with the tight end position on the franchise tag. He has never featured at the position with Tennessee, but the juice he provides would be missed if the Titans aren’t able to bring him back. 

Everett and Jordan are two potentially cheaper options in a similar mold. Everett has split time with Tyler Higbee since being taken in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams, and he has flashed at times with receiving grades north of 74.0 in both 2018 and 2019. Jordan’s after-the-catch ability and athleticism are some of the best of any tight end in this class. That skill set matches up with how the Titans have used Smith over the past few seasons — getting him in space and letting him go to work after the catch.

Projected 2021 defense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Jeffery Simmons 11 / 126 $3.5 million
DI ?
DI ?
EDGE Harold Landry III 57 / 109 $3.2 million
EDGE ?
LB Rashaan Evans 38 / 83 $3.7 million
LB David Long 42 / 83 $892,593
CB Malcolm Butler 15 / 121 $14.2 million
CB Adoree’ Jackson N/A $10.2 million
CB Kristian Fulton N/A $1.2 million
S Kenny Vaccaro 68 / 94 $6.9 million
S Kevin Byard 40 / 94 $15.0 million

Tennessee's big priority on defense this offseason will be beefing up its front, both along the defensive line and at the outside linebacker position opposite Landry. DaQuan Jones, Jack Crawford and Jadeveon Clowney will all be free agents this offseason from that group. Outside of Landry and Simmons, there are no clear-cut starters on the roster.

At linebacker, Jayon Brown is Tennessee’s most prominent free agent on defense. The Titans could start Evans and Long together inside, but Brown has been a valuable part of the team's defense over the past several seasons. 

In the secondary, Butler's release could realistically free up the most cap space for the Titans, but he is still playing well as he nears 31 years old. Does Tennessee feel comfortable with Jackson and Fulton in combination with a cheaper veteran signing should they release Butler? The Titans will have to ask themselves that question in the coming weeks. A similar conversation can be had with Vaccaro and whether Amani Hooker is ready to step into a starting role.  

Can the Titans fix their pass-rushing woes in the next few months?

It is no secret that pass rush is one of the biggest areas of need for the Titans heading into next season. Their only player with a pressure rate of at least 10% during the 2020 season was Jadeveon Clowney, and he is now set to be a free agent again this offseason after injuries cut his 2020 campaign short. Tennessee’s 25.5% pressure rate as a team ranked 29th in the league, ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings. Simply put, they need to get after the quarterback at a higher clip in 2021. 

The issue is that they don’t currently have a ton of cap space to go out and target a high-end outside linebacker, and there aren’t many options to free up salary with releases that don’t hurt the team elsewhere (see: Malcolm Butler). That means their efforts to beef up the pass rush will most likely have to come in the draft. It is a decent edge defender class, and Tennessee should be in a prime spot to land a talented pass rusher at 21st overall. 

It’s difficult to see any outside additions really making a massive impact as early as next season, though. Any major improvement to the Titans' pass rush will have to start with individual improvement for players already on the roster — such as Simmons and Landry. The latter, in particular, needs to offer more consistency as a pass rusher. His 61.1 pass-rushing grade last season was a career-high.    

What is Tennessee’s plan at linebacker if they don’t re-sign Jayon Brown?

Brown has been one of the more valuable linebackers in the NFL over the past three seasons. His 0.46 wins above replacement over that stretch rank 16th at the position, and that value comes largely from his play in coverage. Brown’s 85.4 coverage grade over those three seasons ranks sixth at the position, behind only Lavonte David, Eric Kendricks, Fred Warner, Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. That isn’t bad company to keep.

The roadblock to re-signing Brown, as is the case with many of the Titans' free agents this offseason, is making the money work. PFF projects Brown to receive a four-year, $47.5 million deal with $22.5 million guaranteed this offseason — a steep price to pay for a team looking to bring back players at other positions.

Rashaan Evans and David Long could be the solution, but that duo projects as a downgrade to what the Titans have had at the position. Long earned a 54.4 PFF grade last season on 441 defensive snaps in his second year out of West Virginia, and Evans hasn’t cleared a 55.1 overall grade in either of his past two seasons as a starter. It could be the tandem that Tennessee turns to in 2021 with other positions taking priority, though.      

Does it make sense to offload Malcolm Butler’s contract for salary-cap relief?

It’s not hard to see why Butler’s name has come up as a potential cap casualty for Tennessee this offseason. His release could net the Titans over $10 million in savings, and there simply aren’t many players on this roster where that is the case. I would be reluctant to quickly get rid of a quality cornerback like Butler, though.

The Titans saw last season the kind of impact that shaky cornerback play can have on a defense as the team dealt with injuries to both Adoree’ Jackson and rookie Kristian Fulton. Butler was the only cornerback on the team to play even 500 defensive snaps as Tennessee cycled through players, and Butler played well. His 74.5 PFF grade on the season was a top-15 mark at the position. You don’t want to make a habit of getting rid of quality contributors like that in the secondary, regardless of how much money it could free up.

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: DaQuan Jones, Sheldon Rankins, Alim McNeill

Jones has been a key part of the Titans' defense since they selected him in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Penn State. He has played at least 400 defensive snaps in every season since his rookie year — crossing 750 snaps in each of the past two years for the first time in his career. He’s also graded above 68.0 in five of his past six seasons. The Titans should look to bring him back at the right price point given their lack of depth along the defensive line. 

In free agency, Rankins could be a potential value given the injuries he has dealt with in recent years. On SiriusXM Radio, Rankins recently said, “I have that bounce in my step that I know I used to have. Going into free agency, that’s why it’s exciting for me. No matter where I end up, you can cut that 2018 tape on and see that’s the guy they are getting.” Rankins earned a career-high 78.8 PFF grade that season with solid play both against the run and as a pass rusher. 

McNeill is a potential draft target who can play anywhere from nose to 3-technique. He has rare pass-rushing ability at his size, evidenced by pass-rushing grades of 80.8 and 77.5 the past two seasons from primarily nose alignments. His quickness and foot speed, which stem from a running back and linebacker background, are something the Titans could use inside.   

Edge defender: Azeez Ojulari, Bud Dupree 

Ojulari projects as a player who could offer a nice boost to the Titans' pass rush off the edge. He’s one of the best pass rushers in the class at using his speed to turn the corner on offensive tackles — a skill set that Tennessee needs opposite Landry. Ojulari is coming off a 91.7 pass-rushing grade this past season with Georgia. 

Dupree comes with some risk after an ACL tear, but that injury could hold down his value or even lead to him taking a one-year, “prove-it” deal — similar to what Jadeveon Clowney got last year from the Titans. His pressure (94) and sack (19.5) production these past two seasons despite missed time with injury in Pittsburgh have been impressive. 

Any team considering Dupree this season will have to weigh how much of his production stemmed from surrounding talent in Pittsburgh. 2019 was only season in which Dupree earned a 65.0-plus pass-rushing grade (76.3). 

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