ESPN polling series reveals Titans to be among the most elite rosters in the NFL

Top-10 lists and power rankings are offseason content fodder for the neverending loop that is NFL media coverage. Often times, they’re just fluff to keep the conversation going during the few news gaps in the calendar that the league has yet to find ways to fill.

However, when the lists — like ESPN’s series of positional top-10 rankings — come from data provided by NFL executives, coaches, scouts, and players, I tend to pay more attention. After all, understanding how the league views certain players is informative, even if their opinions, like all opinions for that matter, can be skewed and biased.

Before we jump into what the results were and what we can learn from them, let’s take a brief moment to break down the process. From Jeremy Fowler, ESPN’s reporter who collected and compiled the data used to create the top-10 lists:

We surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rusher to interior offensive linemen and all the way through tight ends. This is the second edition of these rankings, and there are several players who moved up and dropped from last year’s lists.

Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave their best 10 to 15 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. We had several ties, so we broke them by isolating the two-man matchup with additional voting and follow-up calls. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2021. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who’s the best today? Pretty simple.

So that provides a good backdrop for understanding exactly what we are looking at with the data below. Let’s start with the seven Titans players who made the top-10 at their respective positions, along with the two who fell into the “others receiving votes” category to see where they ranked and was said about each player. I’ll also provide a little bit of analysis after the quotes from the ESPN articles.

Derrick Henry | Running Back No. 1

Highest Ranking: 1st
Lowest Ranking: 6th

It’s tough to vote against a member of the 2,000-yard club. Henry became the eighth NFL player to crack that threshold thanks to a massive workload (378 carries) and 34 broken tackles, tops in the league.

Some coaches and scouts prefer versatility in the passing game, which isn’t Henry’s strength. He has never caught more than 20 passes in a season. But Henry is so overwhelming as a pure runner — with an offense built around his every move — that he didn’t slip past sixth on any ballot.

His 1,073 yards after contact topped all tailbacks by more than 300 yards.

“If you’re comfortable staying patient with 2- and 3-yard gains in the first half, knowing those same runs will turn into 8-yard runs in the second half, then he’s by far the best player at this position,” an NFC offensive coach said.

An NFC scout added: “He wears your ass out. He’s a train.”

And a stat to hop aboard: Henry averages 10.87 mph when crossing the line of scrimmage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. No other running back with 150-plus carries surpassed that (though quarterback Lamar Jackson did, at 13.45). Henry’s 80% third-down conversion rate is also absurd.

One thing to watch with Henry this season is his workload. Since 2018 and including the playoffs, Henry has put up 997 carries, 102 more than the next-highest back (Ezekiel Elliott). Will that workload catch up to him?

I’m both surprised and not surprised that Henry got the nod for the top spot among running backs. I wondered if certain evaluators would hold his lack of receiving ability against him, but at the end of the day it’s impossible to argue against the production on the ground. Henry has rushed for 4,626 yards since 2018, 856 more than his next closest colleague (Ezekiel Elliott). He’s in a class by himself as a runner at this point.

The workload question is certainly something to keep an eye on, but Henry has established himself as an outlier who breaks with “normal” running back trends. You’ll hear many in the fantasy football community point to his 378 regular season carries in 2020 as a reason to be concerned about his 2021 production, but Henry had 386 carries in 2019 when you add his heavy playoff workload and saw his production go up the following year in virtually every category. I’m officially in the “believe it when I see it” camp when it comes to the Derrick Henry wear and tear narrative.

I’d be more likely to buy the idea of a slightly decreased regular season workload stemming from the presence of Julio Jones and A.J. Brown as well as a healthy Darrynton Evans to spell Henry and keep him fresh for January.

Julio Jones | Wide Receiver No. 5

Highest Ranking: 1st
Lowest Ranking: 13th

Jones dipped four spots, but teams say turn on the tape and you still see a unicorn.

“This is not an A.J. Green situation where the play clearly declined,” an AFC exec said. “He’s still that dude.”

We heard this similar assessment from several teams who looked into trading for Jones, whom Atlanta shipped to Tennessee for draft picks and a $15 million salary dump.

Despite missing seven games with hamstring issues last season , Jones still posted good numbers. His 11.2 yards per target was the best in the league, and he paced for nearly 1,400 yards over a 16-game slate. Nearly 32% of his receptions went for 20 or more yards.

“Still the best — injuries aren’t an issue,” an AFC scout said. “If they were contending last year, I think he would have played.”

Speaking of Julio, the Titans newest marquee acquisition checks in at No. 5 among wide receivers. Clearly the NFL does not buy into the idea that Jones fell off a cliff from a performance standpoint in 2020. In fact, at least one voter still rated him as the best receiver in the game currently.

If Julio performs up to this ranking in 2021, the Titans offensive is going to be awfully difficult to stop.

Jeffery Simmons | Interior Defensive Lineman No. 6

Highest Ranking: 3rd
Lowest Ranking: 15th

Simmons might be the least accomplished on this list, but he is also one of the scariest.

“No one is Aaron Donald, but he might be the closest,” said an NFL general manager.

Added an NFC exec: “He’s the one everyone knows is coming. Talent-wise, he’s probably top-three. He’s respected as such, at least how we block him.”

Opponents double-teamed Simmons on 190 pass-rush snaps, higher than every interior rusher aside from Donald and Grady Jarrett. Simmons led all players in the top 10 in interior line run-stop win rate, at 39.8%.

The pass-rush production isn’t there yet — he had just three sacks in 2020, along with a 6.7% pass-rush win rate — but it will be as he stacks healthy seasons. A torn ACL limited his rookie campaign in 2019.

“Highest upside — he just does different stuff, and was basically playing on one leg and was pretty good early on,” an AFC scout said.

This is probably the biggest surprise among the Titans who made top-10 lists. I thought there was a chance that Simmons would sneak into the bottom of the top-10, but No. 6 is higher than I expected.

Huge stat production hasn’t shown up for Simmons just yet — and neither has game-to-game consistency — but the flashes are immense and offenses spent much of 2020 focusing a lot of attention on the one player in the Titans front seven who could hurt them. With Denico Autry and Bud Dupree joining Simmons in Tennessee this year, I think the breakout for the 2019 first round pick is imminent, and so does the NFL apparently.

Taylor Lewan | Offensive Tackle No. 7

Highest Ranking: 3rd
Lowest Ranking: 10th

Lewan is another top-10 tackle who missed significant time due to a knee injury. Tennessee missed him after he tore his ACL five games into the season. The Titans’ offensive sack rate jumped from 2.8% to 5.4% in his absence, with the team’s pass block win rate dipping from 54.7 to 52.3%.

“He’s hurt but still so good that he’s gotta be on there,” an NFC exec said. “There’s not really anyone like him.”

As in, he brings his own edge to the field.

“He’s a nasty player,” an NFL offensive line coach said. “Will do all the extra s— to piss people off. I think he gets in people’s heads more than anything. Long individual who plays with a motor.”

According to voters, Lewan doesn’t have the natural bend of other top tackles but makes up for it in other ways. “If he puts hands on you, he can lock you out,” the coach said.

Tennessee is 9-13 in games Lewan missed since he entered the league in 2014.

One note about this list: it includes both right tackles and left tackles. Lewan checked in at 7th, behind six other left tackles, but one spot ahead of the top-ranked right tackle — Tristan Wirfs.

Lewan’s inclusion among the top-10 tackles may have been a relative surprise to some as well, but I think it’s earned. The last two years haven’t gone the way Tennessee’s second-longest tenured player would have hoped with a PED suspension and a torn ACL limiting Lewan to just 17 regular season starts in the Titans last 32 outings. However, by all reports, Lewan has attacked his rehab aggressively this offseason and has committed to a strict diet to help both recovery and preparation for the 2021 season.

Building on the record with and without Lewan that ESPN provided above… the Titans are 14-6 when Lewan starts in 2019 and 2020 including playoff games. They’re just 8-8 without him. The importance of getting their star left tackle back is a story that has been woefully undersold this offseason when talking about the Titans.

Kevin Byard | Safety No. 7

Highest Ranking: 4th
Lowest Ranking: 12th

Byard garners respect in league circles despite a down 2020 for his standards. One NFC exec was impressed Byard managed seven pass deflections last year considering the Titans’ pass-rush woes. Tennessee had one of the worst edge rushes in the NFL thanks to a combined zero sacks from Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley.

“He’s shown over time that the on-ball production will be there,” the exec said. “Sometimes when your pass rush isn’t good, you tend to overcompensate or have to adjust, and the same plays aren’t available.”

Byard’s 18 interceptions through five seasons is more than Smith (16) and Mathieu (15) during the same span.

Byard had a down year in 2020 by virtually any standard, but he still made the cut for the top-10 among safeties pretty comfortably. The point about the pass rush failures impacting Byard’s ability to create turnovers is valid in my opinion. Forcing quarterbacks into poor decisions is a key step to feeding a ballhawk like Byard and the addition of Dupree and Autry along with some development from Simmons and Harold Landry could go along way towards returning Byard to the interception numbers he had become used to in prior seasons.

However, it’s also fair to point out that Byard’s play appeared to be lacking at times last year even among things that he could control, like taking proper angles and tackling. My personal belief is that Byard was the player hurt most by the departure of defensive coordinator Dean Pees. While the former MTSU star is a good athlete, his true superpower has always been his ability to process and anticipate on the back end of the defense. Without Pees’ famous tip sheets providing Byard answers to some of the giveaways that certain offenses provided pre-snap, he often looked a step slow in arriving during the 2020 season.

Pees opted to go to Atlanta with Arthur Smith for the 2021 season, but a re-shuffling of the Titans defensive staff, including the addition of veteran defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz as a senior defensive assistant and adding the official defensive coordinator title to Shane Bowen could provide some hope for a rebound year for Byard.

Rodger Saffold | Interior Offensive Lineman No. 8

Highest Ranking: 3rd
Lowest Ranking: 14th

Safford was a fringe top-10 guy last year but worked his way up due to his body of work.

His numbers weren’t spectacular — a 66.9% run-block and 86.4% pass-block win rate are considered slightly below average — but evaluators say he is central to Tennessee’s offensive success, which revolves around pounding the rock with Derrick Henry.

“He plays hard and aggressive; he can run, pull, hit,” an NFC scout said. “A lot of what they do goes through him.”

Saffold seems like a player that is constantly undervalued, but it seems the past couple weeks have started to see him get some much-deserved love. He not only checks in at No. 8 among all interior offensive linemen — including both guard spots and centers leaguewide — but also got a ringing (and unsolicited) endorsement from both Sean McVay and Arthur Smith during a recent episode of The Ringer NFL Show featuring McVay and NFL reporter Peter Schrager.

Here is some additional context to what Saffold has brought to the Titans run game over the past two years as well as what the Rams have been missing without him.

Titans Rush Offense (2017-2018) without SaffoldTitans Rush Offense (2019-2020) with Saffold
Rushing Yards4,127 (11th in NFL)5,467 (2nd in NFL)
Yards Per Carry4.36 (9th in NFL)5.02 (2nd in NFL)
Rams Rush Offense (2017-2018) with SaffoldRams Rush Offense (2019-2020) without Saffold
Rushing Yards4,711 (1st in NFL)3,777 (17th in NFL)
Yards Per Carry4.61 (4th in NFL)4.04 (24th in NFL)

Obviously, there is some additional context that belongs with some of those numbers. For example, the addition of Ryan Tannehill into the Tennessee offense as well as Derrick Henry’s own emergence as a star clearly played roles in the ascent of the Titans running game. However, it would be a mistake to overlook what Saffold has brought to this team since signing in the 2019 offseason.

Some of the run game concepts that the Titans have thrived on over the past couple years simply don’t work without a dominant guard like Saffold working in the trenches.

A.J. Brown | Wide Receiver No. 10

Highest Ranking: 3rd
Lowest Ranking: Unranked

Brown and Calvin Ridley required tiebreakers for the 10th spot, and execs tasked with breaking the tie preferred Brown’s explosion over Ridley’s smooth route running — barely.

Brown made the most of his routes, averaging 10.1 yards per target on his way to a second 1,000-yard season.

“After the catch, he’s as good as anybody,” said an NFC exec. “Looking for contact.”

Brown’s 159 yards after contact last year is more in line with what tight ends and running backs are producing. He averages 6.11 yards after catch per reception, tops among wide receivers with at least 80 targets.

“Similar to DK, but he’s more fluid,” an NFC scout said. “Not as polished a route runner as Calvin [Ridley] but could handle more than [the Tennessee] offense gives him. I could see them expanding the passing game this year with Julio and A.J.”

Brown and his close friend D.K. Metcalf were the only receivers under the age of 27 to make the top-10. Everything that Brown has put on the field over the past two years suggests that he’s going to be a top-5 guy within the next few years.

The last quote provided by ESPN above is of particular interest to me though. Todd Downing stated earlier this offseason that one of their goals for the 2021 season was to expand Brown’s route tree, suggesting that there are, in fact, plans to expand the passing offense beyond what we’ve seen under Arthur Smith over the last couple years.

Obviously, I don’t believe that we’re going to see a sudden shift to the Titans becoming a team that throws the ball 50-plus times per game, but I do think we will see the Tennessee offense nudge slightly away from the extreme run-heavy tendencies that they’re known for and that should benefit Brown.

Ryan Tannehill | “Others Receiving Votes” at Quarterback

“He’s solid — not elite, but incredibly efficient. You can win big with that, with the right supporting cast.” — NFL coordinator

I’d say that Tannehill is the biggest snub from these lists by far. If we’re not projecting or providing achievement awards — as the description of the poll suggests — then there is no way there are ten quarterbacks playing at a higher level than Tannehill right now.

While stats clearly aren’t everything, here are some key numbers that can be used to compare passers and where Tannehill ranks among quarterbacks since the start of the 2019 season:

Yards Per Attempt: 8.55 (1st)
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt: 8.14 (2nd)
Completion %: 67.28 (8th)
Passing Touchdowns: 55 (9th)
Rushing Touchdowns: 11 (4th)
Interceptions: 13 (8th fewest)
Touchdown Rate: 7.20% (2nd)
Passer Rating: 110.6 (2nd)
Wins: 18 (7th)
Fourth Quarter Comebacks: 7 (T-1st)
Game Winning Drives: 9 (1st)

He’s also ranked in the top-10 in Total QBR each of the past two seasons (9th in 2019, 4th in 2020) as well as ranking in the top-10 for PFF grades both years (1st in 2019, 6th in 2020) and DVOA (5th in 2019, 6th in 2020). If he’s not a top-10 quarterback — especially on a list that does not include Drew Brees or Deshaun Watson — then he sure is doing a pretty damn convincing impersonation of one.

And spare me the excuses about his supporting cast being great. You know when that supporting cast suddenly started putting up 30 points per game and winning 70% of their contests? It just so happened to be the exact same week that Ryan Tannehill was inserted into the starting lineup. Funny, huh?

I’m not here to argue that Tannehill should be considered on the level with Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson, but he’s been more effective than guys like Matthew Stafford (No. 6 on ESPN’s list) and Kyler Murray (No. 10) over the past two years. All things considered, I think Tannehill belongs in the back half of the top-10 among quarterbacks right now.

Bud Dupree | “Others Receiving Votes” at Edge Rusher

“As far as explosion, burst off the edge and pass-rush traits, he was one of the most talented guys in Pittsburgh, and was finally putting it together before the injury.” — AFC scout

It would be interesting to see if Dupree would have cracked the top-10 if he hadn’t been injured at the end of last season. He was just two sacks away from notching his second consecutive double digit sack season with five games left when he tore his ACL.

I ultimately think that he is probably where he deserves to be in the “others receiving votes” bucket. However, having a player at the edge rush position that is even on the fringe of the top-10 is a pretty massive upgrade over what the Titans had to use across from Harold Landry in 2020.

Which teams had the most elite players?

Arguing the individual merits of which guys should be higher or lower on these lists can make for fun debate — and it’s the reason they really exist — but I think this kind of exercise is much more valuable when you zoom out a bit and look at how it informs the bigger picture. At the end of the day, football is a team sport and even the brightest stars can only do so much when they’re not surrounded by the right teammates and coaching staff.

So let’s look at how the Titans roster stacks up against the rest of the league from an elite talent standpoint. After all, I think we can all agree that players who rank within the top-10 at their position qualify as something close to elite.

Jon Robinson’s roster includes seven top-10 players and two honorable mentions (we’ll use honorable mention in place of “others receiving votes” from here out for clarity’s sake). Here is how those numbers stack up relative to the rest of the NFL:

RankTeam# of Top 10 Players# of Honorable Mention Players
1Saints82
2Titans72
3Buccaneers67
4Packers64
5Chiefs64
6Browns56
7Cardinals51
8Eagles44
9Vikings43
10Patriots42
11Steelers42
12Ravens42
13Seahawks41
1449ers41
15Bills41
16Chargers41
17Cowboys40
18Colts33
19Giants32
20Lions30
21Football Team24
22Bears23
23Broncos23
24Rams21
25Bengals21
26Raiders21
27Falcons13
28Jets13
29Jaguars12
30Dolphins12
31Panthers11
32Texans11

Obviously, there are other factors that go into the strength of a roster — most notably depth at key spots, which the Titans are lacking in my opinion — but when it comes to top end talent, Jon Robinson’s roster is among the best of the best in the NFL.

That’s particularly true on offense, where five of Tennessee’s seven top-10 ranked players line up. No team had more elite players on offense in ESPN’s ranking system, with just the Saints (Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Erik McCoy) and Packers (Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, and Davante Adams) matching the Titans total at five each. When you throw in plus starters at center and right guard in Ben Jones and Nate Davis, you can start to make a case for the Titans offense being the most talented group in the league from top to bottom.

Which divisions have the most elite players?

I decided that it might also be interesting to see how the elite players broke down by division, so here are those numbers:

RankDivision# of Top 10 Players# of Honorable Mention Players
1NFC South1613
2AFC North1511
3NFC North1510
4NFC West154
5AFC West1411
6NFC East1310
7AFC South128
8AFC East108

The biggest surprise to me here was the stark lack of top end talent in the AFC East. They lag considerably behind the rest of the league’s divisions despite having a team that most consider to be a top contender in the Bills along with two fringe playoff teams in the Dolphins and Patriots.

I am not surprised, however, to see the NFC South sticking out as the top division. The defending champion Bucs famously are returning all 22 starters and the Saints remain stocked with top end talent despite a questionable quarterback situation. Those two carry the rebuilding Falcons and Panthers, who both tied for the league low with just one top-10 player each.

In the AFC South, the Titans stand out as the clear top team when it comes to top end talent. Tennessee’s seven top-10 players are two more than the rest of the division combined. The players who made it from other teams within the division:

Quenton Nelson – IOL1
Darius Leonard – LB4
DeForest Buckner – IDL3
Laremy Tunsil – OT3
Myles Jack – LB10

No individual team makes up a larger portion of the total top-10 players in their division than the Titans 58.3% market share for elite players in the AFC South.

Again, that doesn’t mean you should go chisel the Titans into stone as 2021 AFC South champions, but I do think that it’s pretty clear that they have the most talented roster in the division. If they stay healthy — which, of course, is a big “if” with all 32 NFL teams — they should be the favorites to repeat over the Colts, Jaguars, and Texans.

Which Titans could make the leap and appear on next year’s top-10 list?

I’m ruling out the nine players that either made the top-10 this year or were listed as honorable mentions since they’re all already there or very very close. Here are the top five players on the current roster that I think could push to make an appearance on next year’s version of this list:

1. Caleb Farley
We’ve all seen the scouting reports on Farley at this point. He’s an elite talent who fell to pick 22 primarily because of injury concerns. We have yet to see Farley on the practice field, but he’s expected to be out there at some point during training camp. Of all the players on the roster that didn’t make a top-10 list this year, he has the biggest upside. It would take a tremendous rookie season for him to jump into the top-10, but the potential is certainly there with Farley given his physical skill set.

2. Nate Davis
Davis is still just 24 years old, but already has 28 NFL starts under his belt. The trajectory of his development since being selected in the third round of the 2019 draft has been incredible. Davis went from a small school project who struggled mightily during his first few starts as a rookie to a well above average starter who earned two First-Team All-Pro votes at right guard in 2020. If he continues to make progress like that, he’ll be a top-10 interior offensive lineman in short order. You could make a strong argument that he should be at the top spot here.

3. Ben Jones
I’m pretty surprised that Jones didn’t make it into the honorable mention group for interior offensive line. At 32 years old, he’s coming off the best season of his nine year NFL career and is a top-five center in the league for me. Nothing he does jumps off the screen from a physical standpoint, but Jones is among the smartest, toughest, and most dependable offensive linemen I’ve watched. Players aren’t supposed to continue getting better into their early-30s, but Jones is. He could make the list next year.

4. Amani Hooker
Hooker tied for the team-lead with four interceptions in 2020 despite playing just part-time in subpackages and occasionally stepping in for an injured Kenny Vaccaro. As one of the youngest players in his draft class, Hooker only turned 23 a month ago despite being set to head into his third year as a pro in 2021. A true break out year in his first season as a full-time starter would turn some heads in the NFL, especially on the heels of a strong 2020.

5. Kristian Fulton
Fulton’s rookie season was severely hampered by injuries, but heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, he was widely considered a possible first round pick. When the Titans selected him at the bottom of the second round, it was almost unanimously viewed as one of the steals of the draft. Heading into year two with a clean bill of health and a lot of opportunity in front of him, Fulton has a chance to break out. It would be a little surprising if he was to leap all the way into the top-10 among corners, but it’s certainly not out of the question.

Who is on your list for future top-10 Titans? Which players do you think were ranked too high or too low from the current list? Drop your answers in the comments below!

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