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State of the 2021 Tennessee Titans: Will Julio Jones put this team over the top in the AFC?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Titans organization, Titans fans around the world and those who would love to watch a Stanley Cup playoff game with Tennessee's offensive line ...

The Titans have become a unique force to be reckoned with in the AFC, making the playoffs in each of the last two years, with one trip to the conference title game. They have their quarterback. They have perhaps the best running back in the NFL. And this offseason, they added a generational talent at wide receiver. But do they have enough to get past the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs and into the Super Bowl? Let's take a look.

How the Titans got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Streaking. Opened the season with five consecutive wins, including a blowout of the Bills and an overtime victory over the Texans.
  • Closing strong. Won five of the final seven regular-season games, including back-to-back defeats of the Ravens and Colts, both of whom would make the playoffs at 11-5.
  • Division champs. Captured the AFC South title for the first time since 2008.

The lows:

  • But the Bengals loss? The Titans lost their first game of the season to Pittsburgh in Week 7, which wasn't a huge deal. The Steelers, after all, didn't lose their first game until Week 13. But Tennessee followed that up with a surprising setback in Cincinnati. It wasn't just some fluky loss, either, as the Bengals led the entire game and ultimately prevailed 31-20. In fact, the Titans lost a game to every AFC North team last season.
  • One and done. The Titans did log one W against the AFC North, with the aforementioned 30-24 triumph over Baltimore in Week 11, but then the Ravens got revenge on Super Wild Card Weekend. Avenging a playoff loss from the 2019 campaign, Baltimore stifled Tennessee with a 20-13 win in Nashville.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Vrabel. It's funny. I was looking over this Pro Football Focus list of top coaches in the NFL, and Vrabel didn't make the cut. Here's another coach rankings, courtesy of Fantasy Pros, where the Titans' head man barely cracks the top 20. Huh? The Titans have won at least nine games in all three of Vrabel's years on the job, and they won two road playoff games to reach the 2019 AFC title bout. How is Vrabel, in that Fantasy Pros list, just one spot ahead of first-year head coach Robert Saleh and one spot behind his departing offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith? It's wild. I like to needle Titans fans because they always seem to feel like they are being disrespected. But I kind of have to agree with them here.

And I know this isn't what these rankings are based on, but how many coaches would you rather play for? Who is ahead of Vrabel on that list? Andy Reid? Bruce Arians? Maybe Sean McVay? Kyle Shanahan? Pete Carroll? John Harbaugh? That's about it, right? Vrabel can come off as a movie-character coach with some of the stuff he says, but I love it. He's not afraid to take chances. Always seems like he has his players' backs. And three years into his head-coaching career, he's 10 games over .500 (29-19). I'm telling you: The Titans have a good coach.

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill. The moment Julio Jones was traded to the Titans, a lot of the jokers on Twitter and IG started making quips about him going to a team without a quarterback. Apparently, a lot of people completely missed the last two seasons, when Tannehill became a legitimately good starter. Is he the best quarterback in the league? No. Is he a main-eventer? Maybe. I mean, he's like the third guy in a match with two superstars who don't want to take a pin. Like, if you were booking Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson, and as a promoter, you didn't want either to lose, you'd make it a triple-threat match with Tanny eventually taking the fall.

Since becoming Tennessee's starter in Week 7 of the 2019 campaign, Tannehill ranks first in the NFL in passing yards per attempt (8.5), third in passing touchdowns (55) and third in offensive touchdowns (66). His 111.3 passer rating over that stretch comes in at No. 3. So make your jokes, but they are not founded in reality. Tannehill is a good quarterback. The kind of guy who can lead a team through a playoff charge.

Projected 2021 MVP: Derrick Henry, running back. Credit former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who unlocked the cheat code with Henry by ... giving him the freakin' ball! Henry has led the league in carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. And in 2020, he became the eighth member of the 2,000-yard club. The AP Offensive Player of the Year had just one game with fewer than 60 rushing yards (57 against the Bills in Week 5). He had 10 games with at least 100 rushing yards and three games with 200-plus. The 6-foot-3, 247-pounder carried the team. And if you're worried about a drop-off after the 2K campaign, I wouldn't be all that concerned. If you've never seen Henry in person, the dude is just built different. You're fine, Titans fans.

2021 breakout star: Jeffery Simmons, defensive lineman. Tennessee gave Bud Dupree a megadeal in free agency. And Harold Landry led the team with 5.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits last year. But Simmons is the player I truly believe will have the biggest breakout in 2021. He had three sacks and 14 quarterback hits, but Pro Football Focus gave him an 83.9 grade, which ranked sixth among interior defensive linemen who played a minimum of 500 snaps.

New face to know: Julio Jones, wide receiver. I'm not entirely sure A.J. Brown spoke a Julio trade into existence, but it was fun watching the courtship. And it's been delightful watching A.J. speak in such glowing terms about Julio, going all fanboy like he's some local club musician and Slash just walked on stage to jam. I know a lot of people wonder what Jones might have left in the tank, considering he missed seven games to injury last season. But in the nine games he did play, the guy racked up 771 receiving yards, earning a top-15 WR grade from PFF in the process. And I think he'll have a huge impact filling in for some of the Titans' key losses this offseason. Take tight end Jonnu Smith, for example: He scored eight touchdowns last year before signing with the Patriots in March. I think Julio will pick up the slack here, because I believe Tennessee will make a concerted effort to target him in the red zone, something Atlanta failed to do over the past decade. That was a major point of contention for Falcons fans. And fantasy enthusiasts.

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Titans have hit the postseason in each of the last two seasons -- and three of the last four. The juicy addition of Julio Jones only ratchets up expectations. Tennessee's a contender.

Three key dates:

Will the Titans be able to ...

Field the best pass-catching duo in the league? A.J. Brown and Julio Jones? They are the most imposing. And if you factor in Derrick Henry, suddenly you have a wrestling stable that'll terrorize all comers. Now, we already touched on Julio, a guy who has the most receiving yards in the league since he arrived as a first-round pick in 2011. But did you know that A.J. has posted similar production to Julio over the last two seasons? Brown just led the Titans with 70 receptions for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns, one of seven players with more than 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last year. And according to NFL Research, he led the NFL with an average of 6.2 yards after the catch per reception, showing that most defensive backs weren't that interested in tackling him after he got the ball. I'm starting to get some Cris Carter/Randy Moss vibes with this duo's potential. Am I wrong for that? Am I hyperbolic? You tell me. Oh, wait -- I've already muted most of Titans Twitter. Somehow, find a way to tell me.

Be the biggest threat to the Chiefs this season? The Titans and Bills tied for second in total offense last season, trailing only the Chiefs. And Tennessee is 4-1 in its last five games against Kansas City, including a regular-season win over Mahomes and Co. in 2019. Of course, the Chiefs' lone victory in this span came in the 2019 AFC Championship Game. And what a disappointing loss that was for the Titans. Tennessee led 10-0 and 17-7 in the first half. But Mahomes ended up with 294 passing yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 53 rushing yards and a score. And if the Titans are going to match the Chiefs this year, we're not worried about the offense. But rather ...

Stop anybody on defense? If there is one thing that could trip up Tennessee this season, it's the defense. The Titans ranked outside the top 20 in scoring defense and total defense in 2020. They were the worst defensive team in last season's playoffs. Tennessee allowed 30-plus points in eight games in 2020, tied for fifth-most in the league. And the unit allowed more than 400 total yards in eight games, tied for third-worst (and it was nine games, if you count the playoff loss to Baltimore). One of the biggest problems was allowing teams to convert on third down. The Titans gave up a first down on 51.9 percent of these money downs last season, ranking dead last. This helps explain why Jon Robinson signed Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Over the past two seasons, Dupree ranks in the top 10 in sacks (19.5), tackles for loss (24) and forced fumbles (6). Per Next Gen Stats, he's tied for second since 2019 with nine turnovers caused by pressure. Dupree also missed the final five games of the 2020 season with a torn ACL. And he's not going to be rushing the passer alongside T.J. Watt this season, either. But if Jeffery Simmons can take the next step, Tennessee should boast a pretty formidable tandem up front.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The offensive line is great. The Titans allowed 25 sacks in 2020, the sixth-fewest in the league. And they did so mostly without Taylor Lewan, who missed 11 games after tearing his ACL. The stud left tackle will be back in 2021. As will three other OL starters. And the team spent a second-round pick on Dillon Radunz, an intriguing tackle prospect who didn't allow a single sack in his final 366 pass-blocking snaps at North Dakota State, per PFF. The line is pretty damn good, which is critical to Tennessee's offensive approach.

... people are overthinking: Arthur Smith being replaced by Todd Downing. I know -- I gave Smith credit above for fostering Derrick Henry's breakout. But I don't expect this offense to completely fall apart without him. Downing was promoted from tight ends coach, just like Smith was back in 2019. Downing is the seventh offensive coordinator in Ryan Tannehill's nine NFL seasons. Now, it's important not to underestimate what Smith has done, but I look at Tannehill like a Bar Rescue performed by Jon Taffer. You know what works now, and it's going in the right direction. You just have to find a way to not mess it up.

For the 2021 season to be a success, the Titans MUST:

  • Make a deep postseason run. The Titans made the playoffs last season, but were eliminated in the first round -- on their home turf, no less. That had to be seen as a big letdown, especially given how far they made it one season prior. Anything less than a trip back to the AFC Championship Game will feel like a wasted year.

In closing

Bringing in Julio Jones was a win-now move. And of all of the teams in the AFC, it does feel like Tennessee could be the biggest threat to Kansas City's pursuit of a third straight conference title. Sure, the Titans need to shore up the defense, but this team looks poised to make a run.

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