Edge, edge, edge.
It’s the refrain among Titans fans that continues through this offseason. In fairness, it sounds like a reasonable one. The offense was great last year (playoff game against Baltimore excepted). In fact, the Titans were top 5 in offensive DVOA for the first time in 18 years. You don’t need to be a Titans historian to know how dark the times were over that 18 year period.
And, so here we are, in 2021, with an offense that’s been humming for 1.5 years. As quickly as it’s turned around, so too has the sentiment among fans that we now need to disproportionally pour resources into the defense this offseason. So, let’s just make one thing clear from the start here:
Balance doesn’t matter. Defense is dead. Offense is king.
Look at the final four teams in the playoffs in each of the past 5 years:
For those keeping score at home – 17/20 had top 10 offenses. 13/20 had top 5 offenses. Meanwhile, only 6/20 had top 10 defenses.
Of course, defense matters at a point. This tends to show up once you get to the final stages of the playoffs. We saw it this year with Tampa Bay’s pressure of Patrick Mahomes. I’m certainly not denying that. But, I’d classify defense as the tweaks needed to win a Super Bowl. While that may seem like a ticky tacky distinction, it matters. The defense may elevate a team to a Super Bowl contender, but there’s nothing to elevate if you can’t get to the final four in the first place.
I’d compare this to a race car team. You can improve pit times, aerodynamics, gear ratios, tires, etc, but if your opponent has more horsepower under the hood, most of those things aren’t going to matter. In today’s NFL, the offense is the engine of the team. At all costs, that must be guarded because, without it, it is impossible to sustain wins. Maybe you get lucky for a year, but defenses are notoriously volatile and hard to keep together. The offense is the lifeblood of long-term success.
This leads us to – in my mind – an important crossroads this offseason. I know as well as anyone how awful the defense was last year. I wrote All-22 articles about them every week in 2020. This performance has lead many to believe that we should ad mostly defensive pieces this offseason, even if it’s at the expense of the offense. For the reasons outlined above, I hope it’s clear that this idea is measurably wrong. Beyond that, I think there are a few important points to consider as the front office considers how they will allocate resources that make this offseason a little different.
- The unknown of Todd Downing
Among coordinators, I have fewer concerns about Downing than I do Bowen. However, Downing is not exactly a slam dunk. His history in Oakland isn’t especially compelling. And, he’s not a west coast disciple.
Now, it’s worth noting that Art had similar issues coming in as OC in Tennessee. While he didn’t have past OC experience, he was a total unknown. And, he also wasn’t a true WCO disciple. Yet, he ran a very similar offense to LaFleur, which was built around outside zone. For this reason, I think Vrabel may be involved in the offense more than we all realize. We could obviously be surprised, but my expectation is that the offense remains very similar in 2021 in terms of the way it’s organized.
However, organizing an offense and calling plays for an offense are two different things entirely. We even saw Art struggle right out of the gate (though, some might attribute that more to the QB position). The point here being – this is a new hurdle for the offense. There will be bumps along the way as Downing settles in. The more talent available to overcome those bumps the better.
2. The team needs a top WR2
Hopefully, this is Corey Davis. Maybe it’s Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, or Marvin Jones. However, going dumpster diving for a WR2 is just begging for an offensive regression.
As for the idea of just drafting a WR2, well, prior to landing Corey Davis and AJ Brown, this team spent the better part of two decades without drafting a successful receiver. It’s not worth risking our current talent window to skip free agency and rely on a rookie to come in and produce day 1.
That said, I believe this team needs to continue to chase WRs in the draft. Follow the Steelers model of essentially drafting a WR in the top 3 rounds of every draft. This should be in addition to an acquisition in free agency.
3. The wear on Derrick Henry
As you can see in the charts above, Henry has already outpaced the normal RB cycle. And, I’m of the opinion that if anyone can break this cycle, it’s a freak athlete with good work ethic like Henry. But, he’s going to slow down at some point. Maybe it’s 2021. Maybe it’s 2022 or beyond. It’s coming and you have to prepare for it.
Darrynton Evans is a step in the right direction. Another RB isn’t the worst idea for depth, but I think the larger point here is that if this regression begins you have to be prepared to win with different skill positions.
4. The team needs a multidimensional TE
I hope that’s Jonnu Smith. He still has upside, and he’s a threat in both the run and the passing game.
However, if I have to lose Smith or a legit WR2, I think this team could find a way to win by platooning TEs. Still, if Smith leaves, the team would be wise to find a semi-balanced tight end to bring in as well.
Let me be crystal clear here: I don’t think the Titans – or any team – would be wise to pour all their resources into one side of the football. This team still needs to add pieces on defense. And, I think they should add an edge defender through free agency.
My issue is that I don’t believe the team can afford to add to the defense without adding weapons on offense. Given the OC and Henry regression risk, the team needs to just assume that production will be more difficult to come by in 2021. Hopefully it won’t, but expect the best and plan for the worst. What that means is that the baseline is a solid WR2 and a good TE. In order to progress the offense, or safeguard against regression, there needs to be another weapon added to the offense through the draft or free agency after those needs are addressed. Anything less threatens the sustainability of this offense, and, thus, the success of the team moving forward. The Titans need to protect the offense above everything else.