Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2021 season.
The weakest area of the team was reinforced with upgrades in talent — and millions of dollars in salary. The AFC South was available for the taking once again, with the Carson Wentz led Indianapolis Colts standing as the only respective competition. And the Titans’ reputation as a pseudo title contender, was seemingly in the beginning stages of being extinguished due to a variety of impressive off-season moves.
But as we saw this past season, injuries and ineffectiveness from key components — Julio Jones, Todd Downing, and Ryan Tannehill to name a few — limited the ceiling of an otherwise talented football team.
Not just in terms of week to week reliability, but on the spectrum of overall team success as well.
With the book on the 2021 season now being closed — and the prologue for the next one being a mere weeks away from starting — the time is now to reflect on 2021 for the last time.
One way we can do that is by taking a look back on the Titans’ 2021 off-season. One that included a flurry of moves, both in terms of personnel and on the coaching staff.
Bud Dupree, Denico Autry, Jackrabbit Jenkins, Julio Jones, and major rookie contributors. All of these names were the faces of major power moves made by Robinson and Vrabel throughout the course of the 2021 off-season.
Some of the notable roster developments bore sweet fruit for the Titans in 2021. While others, well, they couldn’t find the key to open the doors of glory and satisfaction.
With the one year anniversary of those moves coming up, we’re here to grade them. From Bud Dupree’s blockbuster $82.5M migration from Pittsburgh to the valleys of middle Tennessee, to the addition of star studded receiver Julio Jones.
Let’s give it a go.
WR Julio Jones
When the Titans traded for Julio Jones, the traditional media off-season hype bug immediately made its way around the country, and sunk its teeth into the arms of every on air personality that had a voice worth listening to.
Talks of a three headed offensive monster of Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Jones himself were prevalent. Plenty of people shouted that the Titans’ offense could ascend to become the best in the league. Others went a bit further, and said Julio’s addition could be the one to finally turn the Titans into legit Super Bowl contenders.
The hype was everywhere, and it didn’t begin to die down until certain events transpired.
And by certain events, I mean Julio’s disastrous season that eventually went down as the worst year of his Hall of Fame career.
Most of Julio’s major receiving statistics fell to career lows. Including yards, receptions, touchdowns, and targets.
This development was due to a lack of rapport with Ryan Tannehill and a clear misaligned role within the offense. But these events mostly came to light because Julio simply couldn’t stay on the field.
Officially, Julio missed seven games in 2021. But in reality, he missed a lot more game time than that when you add the amount of times he had to leave games due to injury.
And it wasn’t a plethora of injuries that made Julio miss the amount of time he did. A simple, yet complicated nagging hamstring injury crippled him for the better part of the year, an injury that never seemed to magically poof away until the true stretch run started for the Titans.
Once the stretch run began though, Julio found a bit more success than he had before. But it amounted to nothing, as the offense as a whole was stonewalled before Julio could come back and make a difference.
The Titans traded a 2022 second round pick and a fourth round selection in 2023, so the compensation made didn’t match the production they were hoping to receive. Situations like these usually qualify as bad trades, ones that general managers generally hope to avoid while they’re on the job.
And it’ll continue to be classified as a bad trade until an obvious change in Julio’s play — and health — is made.
The Titans do have the option of moving on from Julio this off-season, as a release after June 1st would save the team $9.5M in cap savings
However, the Titans won’t do so unless they find a clear cut replacement at a reasonable cost. For a team that’s trying to win now, finding a replacement that can be relied on is easier said than done.
So until further notice, expect Julio to return to the Titans and be ready to contribute in 2022.
EDGE Bud Dupree
Dupree’s $82.5M deal last off-season solidified his status as the Titans’ most prized free agency possession in 2021, and symbolized just how much the team was banking on him to solidify himself as one of their noteworthy difference makers on the team.
But as we sit here in late February, it’s tough to tell if the Titans reaped the rewards of their noteworthy investment so far.
Dupree had a few injury issues in 2021 — complications after rushing back from his torn ACL, an abdomen injury that led to a stay on injured reserve — but the injury situation wasn’t the only negative factor that impacted his contract’s reputation.
At times, when Dupree was healthy on the field, he didn’t really feel like the overwhelmingly dominating presence that the Titans paid for.
Granted it’s his first year in a new city, he fought through some circumstances that he couldn’t control, and did indeed play well once his health finally became controllable.
But for how much he’s getting paid — $16M per year in 2022, $17M in 2023, $16M in 2024, and $15.5M in 2025 — three sacks and two tackles for loss isn’t going to cut it.
Now obviously it is way too early to declare this deal a failure, considering we’re only one year into it and Dupree’s raw 2021 numbers don’t really reflect the impact he had once he got healthy. Plus, the Titans can ditch Dupree’s contract next off-season and $10.6M if he’s cut or traded before June 1st, or they can cut or trade him after June 1st and save $17M.
But as of now, a high grade can’t be given for this deal.
CB Jackrabbit Jenkins
Jenkins didn’t have the best start to his career as a Titan. He struggled through the first few games of the season, providing no real reliability as a veteran corner opposite Kristian Fulton.
But after his rough start, Jenkins increased the quality of his play, and was a big reason why the secondary found its bearings as the season went on. Unfortunately for Jenkins, it looks like he could be one of the Titans’ prime cut candidates due to his cap number, and the fact that Caleb Farley is waiting in the wings.
However, for grading purposes, we’ll focus on his contributions on the field.
WR Josh Reynolds
Reynolds was signed to play as the team’s WR2 before they eventually traded for Julio Jones.
But even after the trade that saw Jones arrive in Tennessee, one that demoted Reynolds to depth receiver duty, Reynolds never settled in. Like a lot of other players, Reynolds battled through his fair share of injuries last season.
Most notably, a lower leg issue that caused him to miss valuable practice time in training camp.
Because he missed precious time to build relationships with the rest of the offense in camp, Reynolds never found his footing in a Titans uniform. Maybe it was due to him not playing a large amount of snaps, his targets not being in high supply, or maybe he just didn’t click well with the rest of the first team offense.
Whatever the case may be, Reynolds failed to make an impact in Tennessee.
He didn’t sign an expensive deal — a fully guaranteed one year, $1.75M contract — so the grade for this signing won’t be too low. But because of the expectations he had coming into the season, and how his stay in Tennessee came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the year — he was released after the Titans’ win over the Los Angeles Rams — the grade is going to take a bit of a hit.
DL Denico Autry
The ex-Indianapolis Colt spurned his old team for the AFC South rival Titans, and boy did his decision turn out to be a good one.
Autry posted a career high in pressures (32), finished with the highest amount of sacks he’s had in a season since 2018, and fell just three TFL’s short of tying his single season career high.
He was so successful, that his deal looked more like a steal with each passing week.
His signing was probably one of the more underrated ones throughout the entire free agency cycle last off-season, and at $6M annually, it’s safe to say his production has lived up to the money so far.
Excellent piece of business by Robinson, who was rewarded with a stellar season on the field from Autry.
OT Kendall Lamm
Lamm was supposed to be this team’s swing tackle, and potentially the team’s starting right tackle if everything panned out well.
But injuries during camp and the regular season hurt Lamm’s chances at making an impact. Now with young tackle Dillon Radunz ready to at least compete for more playing time, it seems like Lamm’s time with the Titans could be hitting its expiration date.
If the Titans cut Lamm at any time before June 1st, they’ll save just over $3M in cap space, extra money that could be spent towards securing the services of a roster upgrade in free agency.
As for a grade, this one will receive one that’s relative of the situation.
LB Jayon Brown
The former fifth round pick could’ve chosen a different destination last off-season. But he decided to stick around Nashville for at least one more year, and play his way into a better deal come this off-season.
Unfortunately for Brown, his big bet on himself didn’t work out too well.
Brown was eventually phased out of the starting lineup in favor of other personnel, becoming mostly a third down linebacker in sub packages to help shore up coverage.
With Zach Cunningham (if he doesn’t get cut), David Long Jr., and even Monty Rice in the picture for 2022, it appears Brown will be set to leave Nashville — unless Brown and the team have mutual interest in a short term deal — to find a new football home for the first time in his career.
EDGE Ola Adeniyi
Expectations weren’t high for Adeniyi, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.
He was mainly brought in to help aid the special teams unit, which he did a good job of doing in 2021.
But when he was called upon to make some plays defensively — particularly during the early portion of the season when the Titans were dealing with some serious injury issues at EDGE rusher — Adeniyi delivered for the most part.
This was an under the radar move that proved to be useful, so I’ll give it a reasonable grade.
CB Caleb Farley
When Malcom Butler and Adoree’ Jackson were released prior to the 2021 off-season, the Titans signaled to the rest of the league that they were interested in upgrading at corner.
They did so by first signing Jackrabbit Jenkings, then eventually drafting Caleb Farley in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Farley was advertised a talented, but often injured athletic specimen that had the upside to develop into an elite, shutdown corner.
But Farley wasn’t able to tap into that potential for the most part, with injuries and inexperience being the main reasons why.
Before Farley could even step on the practice field, he had to finish his recovery from off-season back surgery, which plummeted his draft stock from a potential top ten pick to a late first round selection.
Once he got on the practice field though, Farley had some trouble adjusting to the new age speed the NFL presents. Since most rookie corners have a hard time adjusting to the NFL in year one, Farley’s transition wasn’t seen with much concern.
But then a shoulder injury knocked the rookie corner out for three games, starting a familiar injury riddled trend that Farley had become so used to experiencing. The final straw was a torn ACL against the Buffalo Bills, a season ending injury that once again, questioned Farley’s ability to stay healthy at the next level.
I’ll go on record and say Farley’s selection was and still is, a great one. He still has desirable traits, a good attitude, and a ceiling that’s way too high to ignore.
But the injury history is still a big red flag.
If Farley can stay healthy and accelerate his comfortability on the field, then the Titans will have a very talented young talent on their hands. However, if he continues to struggle with injuries, the entire subject of comfortability will become a moot point.
Time will tell. For now though, Farley still has plenty of time to become an important piece for the Titans’ future
CB Elijah Molden
When he was selected in the third round of last year’s draft, Molden was envisioned as a nickel corner/safety option that could provide a lot of versatility for an NFL secondary.
He did just that with the Titans in 2021, playing primarily as a nickel corner, but at times rotating as a third safety in specific defensive packages. And he played well at those two spots for the most part, but like any other rookie, Molden ran into some struggles.
The vast majority of those struggles came when Molden had to play man coverage against receivers with speed. Since Molden isn’t the quickest of corners, those same receivers with respectable speed had a tendency to leave Molden in the dust.
But once the Titans began to shift him around on the field, and gave him matchups that allowed him to play free football — using his physicality as a tackler, using his intelligence to make plays in specific areas of space, involving him in non-traditional blitz packages — we saw plenty glimpses of what Molden could become in the future.
Molden’s role moving forward will likely remain the same as his role in 2021. It fits him and it certainly fits within the rest of the defense, both scheme and personnel wise. Which is something you can only hope for from a young player in the secondary.
OL Dillon Radunz
When Radunz was selected in the second round, many — including me — pegged him as the starter at right tackle for the then upcoming season.
His athletic profile checked out, he was an experienced starter at a prestigious football school — one that can be put on a pedestal because they’ve had so much success at the FCS level — and his traits as a player matched well with what the Titans want from their offensive linemen.
But of course as we know now, that didn’t occur. In fact, Radunz couldn’t even sniff significant snaps until he was forced to do so in week 16 against the San Francisco 49ers.
And that only became a thing because the Titans had a very difficult situation brewing at tackle due to factors they couldn’t control.
Radunz could indeed get some first team snaps depending on whatever moves are made along the offensive line this off-season, and if they feel comfortable with Radunz’s progress. But all in all, his selection looks rather confusing at this point in time, based on where he was drafted and how little he played after the expectations that were placed upon him.
LB Monty Rice
There wasn’t a lot to like from Rice in the early portion of the 2021 season.
He wasn’t receiving a ton of snaps, and when he did get a small amount of playing time, he didn’t stand out in comparison to his peers.
But during the Titans’ week eight win against the Indianapolis Colts, due Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown dealing with injuries, Rice played 51 snaps and played pretty well as the thumping inside linebacker the team envisioned him being.
However, I think his best performance came just two weeks later against the New Orleans Saints in week ten, when he finished with 11 tackles and showcased some impressive feats as a run defender and even as a coverage linebacker.
Unfortunately for him, an ankle injury in week 12 ended his season. But his play leading up to the injury gave the Titans some optimism regarding Rice and his future in the middle of the defense; whether that comes as a starter or a highly valuable depth linebacker.
EDGE Rashad Weaver
It’s difficult to accurately evaluate the trajectory of a rookie’s career after one single season.
You can have exceptional rookies who set the league on fire in year one, foundational ones that won’t exactly garner league wide attention, but will play in a set role that’s important to the team.
You can also have rookies that take time to adjust to the league, and will spend more time on the sidelines than getting their jersey dirty.
Weaver falls in between the second and third option, somewhat of a depth piece that possesses a role that isn’t insanely important, but still provides upside that can show itself during the year.
Heading into year two, I feel that same way about Weaver.
If his circumstances remain in good shape, Weaver will retain a depth EDGE rusher spot behind Bud Dupree and Harold Landry (if he returns).
What needs to be monitored is his development as a pass rusher, and even as a run defender at the point of attack. If he can improve upon those two things, he’s going to be an important piece for this defense.
You obviously can’t ignore Weaver’s season ending injury and his lack of impact in the three games he did play (although that was probably to be expected). But Weaver’s upside alone gives this selection some positivity.
WR Dez Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick had a rough rookie season. He made too many mistakes in camp, most of which relegated him to deep reserve duties in the pre-season.
He then got cut, proceeded to be placed on the practice squad, and had to grind his way towards a chance to simply suit on Sundays. He did have some bright moments — like his touchdown catch in week 11 — but he also had his fair share of setbacks on the field.
It’s unclear what Fitzpatrick’s role will be in 2022, considering both Marcus Johnson and Chester Rogers — two receivers who were trusted a lot more by the Titans’ staff in 2021 — are scheduled to hit the open market once the new league year begins on March 16th.
But if Fitzpatrick does indeed secure clearance for an increase in responsibilities, then his ascension — one that didn’t look all that likely due to his underwhelming first few months as a Titan — will certainly be a story to watch.
Grade: D+ (Editor’s Grade: F-, Unsatisfactory)
WR Racey McMath
Because he was so raw coming into the draft last April, there was no way McMath was going to command significant offensive snaps in the fall, barring some unforeseen freak scenario.
That’s why McMath’s best opportunity for playing time came via special teams. He ended up collecting a healthy amount of those snaps later in the season, even receiving some offensive snaps as well.
However, McMath’s still not a finished product. He’s still raw within the technical aspect of his game, and he won’t receive more snaps offensively until those tweaks are made.
But he’s a nice young developmental piece that could contribute more later down the line. That’s about as much as you can ask for from a late round pick.
Grade: C- (Editor’s Grade: D-, TreJean is too nice)
S Brady Breeze
The former Oregon product was viewed as a potential special teams piece, with some upside as a depth safety when he was selected in the sixth round in the 2021 NFL Draft.
After a stay on injured reserve, Breeze was activated off the list in late September, but he still never made much of an impact on the field, aside from the special teams appearances he managed to acquire as the season trucked on.
Breeze was waived in early December, and was later claimed by the Detroit Lions, where he played 14 snaps in week 15 against the Arizona Cardinals. But never played another defensive snap for the rest of the year.
Vrabel and Robinson did manage to receive some contributions from Breeze, something that isn’t guaranteed for late round picks on a team with high aspirations and few roster questions.
So it’s hard to fault Robinson due to this pick not panning out.