Are the Titans rebuilding or contending? Why the answer is both

Welcome to The Pivot

Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft, Titans fans felt like they had a pretty good handle on what this team would be looking to do. Coming off of a season in which they earned the number one seed in the AFC despite a record-breaking number of injuries, they didn’t need many sweeping changes to personnel to contend once again.

The game-plan for the draft was simple, and it was an offensive one:

  • Grab a receiver to pair with A.J. Brown and Robert Woods
  • Shore up the offensive line with a rookie or two
  • Look for an impact tight end
  • Then draft for depth

We had barely crested the halfway point of the first round when the game-plan burst into flames.

In a draft where Tennessee was expected to make tweaks, they went full Kool-Aid Man through the brick wall of roster building. Instead of making a pick to give their offense the bump it needed to get over the hump immediately, they made the kind of move that takes time to fully mature. They traded away their greatest weapon—one with which their relationship was deteriorating as they faced his massive impending price tag— for the opportunity to draft his younger, cheaper, and healthier type-for-type replacement in Treylon Burks.

Well, that wasn’t what anybody saw coming. But as the dust cleared throughout the day Friday, public sentiment was ready to adapt and forge on. The first round wasn’t at all what we expected. But the game-plan didn’t necessarily need to be scrapped. Day 2 presented the opportunity to get back on track. They had three top-90 picks and two massive needs: offensive line and wide receiver.

So of course, the Titans went with a cornerback.

In a vacuum, taking Roger McCreary 35th overall made total sense. Cornerback is a premium position of which you can arguably never have enough on your roster. McCreary was a developed prospect who was solid value in the early second round.

Situationally, however, it couldn’t be more confusing. Sure, cornerback wasn’t at the bottom of the Titans’ list of needs. But with Kristian Fulton, Elijah Molden, and the expected healthy return of Caleb Farley, they weren’t exactly hurting for the position either. More importantly, at offensive line and wide receiver, they were hurting. This didn’t seem like a pick with 2022 in mind either.

I can’t decide if the collective morale of Titans fans was the lowest right before or right after their third selection. At 69th overall, the first of their two third-round picks, Tennessee took Nicholas Petit-Frere. Finally, the front office addressed a position of need.

Well, sort of.

Petit-Frere was a lineman, but specifically a tackle. Jon Robinson’s roster lacked interior offensive linemen, or at least that was the going theory. With the release of RG Roger Saffold earlier in the spring and the signing of a replacement-level guard in Jamarco Jones from Seattle, many assumed this pointed to second-year lineman Dillon Radunz finally landing at a position: right tackle. He played tackle in college, and although Tennessee had worked him all around the line last season as he developed as a backup, this made the most sense.

Not only does Petit-Frere not project as a guard, but he isn’t the kind of refined prospect you expect to come in and start right away. This is especially true on Mike Vrabel’s squad, where rookies historically take their time to break into the rotation. So was this a developmental pick to potentially take over at tackle when Taylor Lewan leaves in the next year or two? Was it a pick to play right away and struggle, taking the Nate Davis trial-by-fire route of development? Whatever it was, it wasn’t a pick with just 2022 in mind.

In case there was any doubt at this point, Jon Robinson definitively hurled the perceived game-plan out the window with their second third-round pick: Malik Willis. This selection is quietly the primary reason, in my estimation, why Jon Robinson’s draft is seen as a success in the court of public opinion. It was certainly the real-time turning point for Titans fan morale over the draft weekend.

See, fans and media are in near-total agreement that Ryan Tannehill isn’t the long-term solution at quarterback. The sticking point has been how best to address replacing him. Many had been looking to this draft as the easy answer, fully willing to spend a first-round pick on the position. Many others, myself included, were incredibly underwhelmed by this QB class, particularly as first-round prospects.

Willis in the late third was the best of both worlds.

It seemed all but miraculous that he was still on the board that late in the game. Willis was the only QB in the class with a near-consensus first-round grade. He was the QB with the highest ceiling of the bunch, and the Titans were able to grab him in the late third? No wonder this was seen as a smashing success. But it also reinforced the perspective shift of the public: this draft isn’t just for 2022.

Even further reinforcing this notion was their pick at 131, RB Hassan Haskins out of Michigan. For those still clinging to the idea of prioritizing immediate roster needs at this point in the draft, this pick was the fifth-straight head-scratcher. Lest we forget, the positions still flashing red for the Titans this season were IOL and WR, with TE not too far behind. With the available talent rapidly dwindling, Robinson and company went with a backup RB?

Yes they did. Because Haskins isn’t their fifth-straight poor selection; he’s their fifth-straight selection with 2022 and the future in mind.

Tennessee rounded out their draft class with four more day 3 picks. At 143 and 163, they finally got around to addressing two big immediate positions of need. Robinson grabbed speedy TE Chigoziem Okonkwo out of Maryland and pro-ready slot WR Kyle Philips out of UCLA. Both have a striking resemblance to Titans of the recent past; Okonkwo is the slightly skinnier, faster spitting-image of Jonnu Smith, and Philips has all the crisp route-running and YAC playmaking ability of Adam Humphries.

The Titans’ other two day 3 selections were Nashville native DB Theo Jackson out of Tennessee, and finally a dreaded LB (congrats national draft gurus, you got your Titans position of choice at the buzzer), Chance Campbell out of Ole Miss.

These two final picks matched the theme of the first five; drafting with the future in mind. Campbell, should he pan out, can help replace the LB depth lost in Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown. Jackson is another player with a striking resemblance to a former Titan. A late-round safety with slot corner experience… now where have we seen that with the Titans before? Why no other than Dane Cruikshank, the Titans DB who earned a reputation as a TE killer in 2021 before signing with the Bears earlier this offseason.

And with that, the Titans’ 2022 Draft comes to a close. It probably wasn’t what you expected coming in. It may not have made much sense to you after it happened. But whether you know it or not, you’ve just experienced the beginning of a competitive rebuild. Welcome to The Pivot.

Taking off the blinders

Needless to say, Jon Robinson’s roster construction crew did significantly more renovation with this draft than anybody expected them to. And when the dust settled, two things had been made abundantly clear:

  1. The Tennessee Titans are way more comfortable with where their 2022 roster currently is than you are.
  2. They aren’t looking at this season with blinders on. This team isn’t the 2021 L.A. Rams. They aren’t even the 2021 Titans. They’ve got the future in mind.

So what does this tell us about their plans for this season? How do they perceive themselves? Are they contending or rebuilding?

The answer is both.

When Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel sat down to decide how to attack this offseason, they evaluated their situation with impressive objectivity. Here’s how I imagine their thought process went:

Why not go all-in again? Welcome to the AFC in 2022. Take a look around. it’s a nightmare in this conference. We don’t have a top-flight QB, we don’t have the money to dramatically improve this offense without further locking ourselves into players we don’t want to commit to long-term, and we don’t see this draft as the type of class with a ton of immediate big-impact players.

It doesn’t seem like we have the facilities to really sell out this year.

So we rebuild then? Well, that doesn’t make sense for us either. He’s not in that top-tier, but we believe we still have a QB capable of getting the job done IF we surround him with enough help. We’ve also got an elite defense we expect to only get better this year. Oh, and Derrick Henry is still around, and not getting any younger.

Punting on this season doesn’t feel right either.

They were right to presumably realize that the winning formula with their existing roster was increasingly unstable. Tennessee’s 2021 roster was the seventh oldest in the league. And on the offensive side of the ball—the most important side in today’s NFL, and the Titans’ clear weakness—they’ve got the most expensive unit in the league. Coming in at $130.8 million, they’re spending nearly $6 million more on offense than any other team. And that price tag didn’t include paying their star WR yet.

Eventually, every team in any sport reaches a point where chasing greatness with their current formula becomes chasing the ghost of their past. Robinson and Vrabel decided they’d reached that threshold, at least on offense. It’s time to get significantly younger and cheaper. I think they’re right. But unlike teams poised to tear it all down, there is just too much greatness on this roster to start all over. There’s also too much opportunity within the Titan’s current situation to pass up.

And so, they chose to embark down a roster-building path I’m dubbing “The Pivot”. It’s a competitive rebuild (Nashville hockey fans should be familiar with the concept), and it’s a maneuver that the Titans are uniquely positioned to pull off.

Contending while rebuilding: the competitive rebuild playbook

The Titans find themselves in the least-bad seat at the terrible table: the 2022 AFC South.

It’s hard to imagine the NFL having more lopsided conferences than it currently does. The AFC is a nuclear arsenal of QB talent and roster depth that was bolstered to hilarious heights in free agency. On paper, the AFC currently eats the NFC for breakfast.

But within the AFC, not all divisions are made equal. In the North and the West, it’s a four-horse race. In the East, the Bills clearly lead the pack, but the Patriots and Dolphins are nothing to sniff at and the Jets look primed to be a royal pain in the butt.

If you’re wanting to win a division, the AFC South is objectively where it’s at.

The South is the chink in the conference’s armor. The Titans are absolutely aware of this. Houston is taking the patient road back to relevance, Jacksonville should be better but not exactly world-beaters, and the Colts are good… but are they great? There’s no reason for the Titans to think Indianapolis is anything better than their equal.

Herein lies the key ingredient to a competitive rebuild: the ability to actually contend.

What makes a contender? Well in the NFL, all you really need to do to have a puncher’s chance is make the playoffs. And if you can win your division, you’re almost always a real contender. You win your division, and you’ve always got a shot.

One could argue the Titans are in the only division in the conference in which they could very plausibly be real contenders in 2022. This fact is what makes The Pivot such a logical choice. They’re in a position to pull off being a contender during a rebuild that few other teams have found themselves in. But they aren’t pioneering this strategy.

The team over the past decade that immediately comes to mind is the Green Bay Packers. It wasn’t that long ago that the NFC was considered the power conference in the league. Luckily for the Packers, they’ve been conveniently positioned in the NFC North the entire time. With the Bears, Lions, and Vikings six times a year, they’ve not had to tear everything down to the studs and endure a sustained period of struggle in decades. They’ve been able to renovate their roster as they go, and even in their weaker years, they’ve had an NFC North-shaped cushion to prop them up enough to find success.

I think the Titans are in a similar position right now. They’ve got what it takes to pull this off. But what exactly would “pulling it off” be?

What does success look like?

In 2022, the path forward seems pretty simple. The Titans are lucky enough to be in the division most conducive to them making the playoffs despite the draft they just had and the roster changes they’re undergoing. If they can win the weaker South and get into the postseason with some home-field advantage, they’ve got a shot like everybody else. If they’re able to win their division and not gag the second they reach the playoffs (as they have the past two years), with this transitional roster, I’d call that an objective success.

In 2023 and beyond, success gets more complicated. It will entail the smooth transition of power from the old guard to the new, all while being aggressive, competitive, and relevant. Tannehill will almost certainly be gone by 2024, and the Titans will need to have somebody ready to take over by then. Taking Willis sets them up nicely to do just that, as Malik can spend the next year or two in a great situation, developing behind a vet, and taking his time becoming a starting-caliber passer. But he’ll need to work out, or else Tennessee will be left scrambling to find another competent starter in the near future.

It would be surprising if players like Derrick Henry and Taylor Lewan were still around in a couple of years as well. The success of The Pivot will rest on guys like Hassan Haskins and Nicholas Petit-Frere developing between now and then and eventually panning out as starting-caliber players.

The path of The Pivot is a narrow one, and it allows for few errors. All it would take is a couple of developmental replacements not panning out, or even another team in the division putting all the pieces together for the Titans to find themselves in a full-on rebuild in the coming years. But the fact that they were honest with themselves about the need to transition into a new era of Titans football will allow them to attempt that transition slowly, subtly, and without giving up their contender card.

Author: Easton Freezeis a Nashville native who loves covering the NFL. He is the host of The Hot Read Podcast, and when he isn't watching or covering sports, he's spending time with friends and family.

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