The Tennessee Titans begin their 2021 season by hosting the Arizona Cardinals in a potentially high-scoring shootout. This is the first full-capacity game inside Nissan Stadium since Tennessee made their run to the AFC Championship game back in 2019 and the team has much higher aspirations this time around.
This article is going to elaborate on the 10 players on offense and defense that you should be paying extra close attention to as the Titans aim to start 1-0 for the second straight season.
Let’s not waste any more time and dive right into which five players on offense and defense are worth keeping your eyes on.
Wide Receiver Julio Jones
I was going to save Julio Jones for later, but why lie to ourselves, this is arguably the most hyped-up debut by an offseason acquisition in Tennessee Titans history.
One of the most annoying things you can hear from some of the most pessimistic fans is “well, be careful before you get too excited now… We did have Randy Moss flame out, remember?”.
Yes, you mean the guy who was claimed off waivers by a team he never even wanted to be with? The same guy who was on his third team within a six-week span and clearly didn’t care about football that season? Not every acquisition needs to be compared to the absolute worst possible situation that you can remember from the past that seems even semi comparable.
I promise you, it’s okay to put your battered fan syndrome aside for this one in order to be excited about acquiring arguably the greatest wide receiver of this era while he is still at the top of his game. Let’s not forget from the ages of 32 and 33 years old, Jerry Rice had the best two-year span of his career. Rice averaged 1,673 yards between the ages of 32 and 33 and Jones is undoubtedly considered one of the most talented receivers to play in the NFL since Rice.
If you feel the Rice comparison is a bit of a reach, living legend Larry Fitzgerald had a 1200-yard, nine touchdowns season at the age of 32 and he considers Jones to be the “best” he’s ever seen.
The point is, some of these guys are different. Just because the above-average receiver might start regressing around this age, doesn’t mean the truly generational talents will. Especially when there’s visible evidence that they are still one of the best in the game any time they are on the field.
Last season, Jones was still averaging over 15-yards per catch and was on pace for another 1300-yard season before he pulled his hamstring and called it a season rather than being Superman for a 4-8 football team.
Over Jones’ last three season-opening games (2018-2020), the future Hall of Famer has averaged 14 targets, eight catches, and 152 yards. It will be interesting to see if Jones hits the ground running once again to start another season, or if Tennessee decides to ease their new superstar into the lineup given the lack of practice time.
One thing is for certain, that first “JULIOOOOOOOO” chant inside Nissan Stadium is going to be deafening.
Wide Receiver A.J. Brown
A.J. Brown is coming off two knee surgeries this off-season that he is seemingly fully recovered from. The team continues to hint that his occasional off days are more precautionary than anything, but it will be something to monitor throughout the game and season.
Be on the lookout for how he looks anytime he takes a hit to the lower body. Last season, Brown looked like he was in excruciating pain almost anytime he was hit low in 2020. It will be a refreshing site if Brown makes it through the entire game without wincing in agony off routine hits.
As far as on the field, if Brown is in fact healthy, this has all the capabilities of being the true breakout season that gives him the type of recognition that some of the game’s elite consistently receive.
With both Jones and Brown out wide this year, it will be interesting to see who dominates as the alpha on a game-by-game basis. Sunday will be Brown’s first chance to out perform/produce his childhood idol on Sunday in their first regular season game as teammates.
Running back Derrick Henry
All throughout training camp, the Titans have eased Henry into practices. The team admitted to using more of a preservative approach rather than forcing unnecessary hits on his body in July and August given the fact that they plan to put a lot of miles on that horse this year.
The Titans chose to prioritize health over rust and maybe it proves not to be the right move in terms of getting the king off to a fast start, but it’s the right approach when thinking about the longevity of a now 17-game season.
We will see if this approach leads to a slow start or if Henry’s fresh legs allow him to put on a show from the get-go.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehilll
Tennessee’s QB1 looks to shut up a lot of these non-believers for the third straight season. For some reason, Tannehill still has a group of naysayers who believe that this is now the year that he hits the regression wall that people have been trying to attach to him since 2019.
Public service announcement: Ryan Tannehill is a great quarterback. Will he ever be in the Top-10 of the NFL’s Top-100 list? Probably not. But he’s a damn great quarterback who can make incredible things happen if you put the pieces around him. So much so that everyone tends to believe that he’s just along for the ride and he doesn’t do much work in this offense. Something that isn’t accurate regardless of which metric you want to use.
Tannehill has to be the most criticized quarterback in the league for having a great general manager. This is undoubtedly the most talent that the Titans have ever surrounded around their franchise quarterback and hopefully that translates to the scoreboard on Sunday.
Left Tackle Taylor Lewan
If you’re an avid listener of the ‘Bussin with the Boys’ podcast, then you know just how much this season means to Taylor Lewan. Saying that the Titans’ star left tackle is motivated to remind the league exactly why he was a Pro Bowler for three straight years, would be putting it mildly.
After missing most of last season with a knee injury and being forced to watch from the sidelines as the team won their first division title in over a decade, Lewan is back and ready to establish his ‘Run Left’ dominance as one of the premier tackles in the NFL.
Lewan returns to anchor an offensive line that only allowed 25 sacks on the year despite his absence while also blocking for a 2000-yard rusher. The Michigan product has his hands full with his first test as Chandler Jones, JJ Watt and company come to town. Keep your eyes peeled to see how Lewan does in his first extended action since the knee injury.
EDGE Bud Dupree
Similar to Lewan, Bud Dupree is coming off a significant knee injury that prematurely ended his fantastic 2020 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite the injury, Dupree’s fantastic tape on the field over the last couple of seasons helped secure him an $82.5 million deal from Tennessee on the first day of free agency. The Titans desperately need a pillar on the edge of their defense and Dupree is more than capable of being that when he’s healthy.
According to Next Gen Stats, over the last two seasons, Dupree has been among the most impactful pass rushers, forcing 9 turnovers from pressure (T-2nd in NFL).
Fortunately for the Titans, their hefty financial investment looks ready to pay off as Dupree is seemingly more than ready to make his debut on Sunday.
Dupree is more than capable of being a tone setter for this defense against both the run and the pass. Tennessee will need him to try and be that in his two-tone blue debut as he tries to contain a dual threat quarterback like Kyler Murray.
Defensive Tackle Jeffery Simmons
As excited as this entire fanbase is for Dupree, Jeffery Simmons is truly the one who has the potential to take a monstrous leap towards being known nationally as one of the game’s elite interior defensive playmakers.
Last season you saw glimpses of what Simmons could be when he has someone who can at least take some of the attention off of himself. Say what you want about Jadeveon Clowney, but it’s not a coincidence that Simmons looked like a borderline All-Pro player prior to Clowney’s knee injury.
Not that Clowney’s fantastic play (sarcasm) truly made a difference, but he still has the reputation as a game wrecker and offensive coordinators were not going to let him make an impact (which they successfully did). However, Simmons saw much fewer double teams than he did when Clowney was present, which the Mississippi State product usually took advantage of.
Now that Clowney is gone and Simmons has real help along the front line in the form of Dupree, Denico Autry, Teair Tart, and Harold Landry, Simmons has the potential to truly dominate this season.
Simmons will have a tough test to start the year as he faces one of the best centers in all of football in Rodney Hudson. Fortunately for the Mississippi State product, he also gets to play against the quarterback who had 16 batted balls down last year — something that Simmons has grown to be a nuisance with to opposing quarterbacks.
With Simmons playing on a much more tenacious front seven than last year, look for him to make a monster impact not only in this game but throughout the season.
Linebacker Jayon Brown
The Titans get a fan favorite back into the lineup as Jayon Brown plays in his first game since his elbow injury that ended his 2020 season. Brown is once again playing on a one-year deal, so he has the potential to earn himself a lot of money after this season if he makes the type of impact that he’s capable of.
The Titans missed the instinctive plays that Jayon is known for making, along with his incredible coverage skills that often helps lock down the middle of the field. Now that the Titans have their top inside linebacker back in the heart of the defense, hopefully the unit looks a lot more organized than they did last season.
Cornerback Kristian Fulton
The Titans’ second-round pick from a year ago had a slow start to his career as his rookie year was often hampered by nagging injuries. Kristian Fulton flashed in the limited action that he played in last season but it’s been this off-season that has shown the coaching staff enough to declare him a starter as they get ready to go up against DeAndre Hopkins, A.J Green, and the rest of that talented wide receiver room.
Tennessee’s young cornerback has a tall task ahead, but he seems more than confident in himself and those around him to help slow down that potent Cardinals offense.
With Fulton being the second-year cornerback, expect the veteran Jackrabbit Jenkins to be on Hopkins the most, but be on the lookout for how the LSU product does anytime he’s on Arizona’s top playmaker.
Safety Kevin Byard
Last year was a bit of a down year for the mayor of Murfreesboro in terms of being the usual ball hawk that he’s often been throughout his collegiate and professional career.
Kevin Byard was forced to lead the team last year with 111 tackles due to all of the plays that were often made underneath him due to the incompetent play all around him.
The former Middle Tennessee State standout had many mental errors of his own, but much of that can likely be attributed to the fact that he was frequently trying to overcompensate for the deficiencies of the rest of the defense. Especially for his lackluster front-seven that usually struggled to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Byard has the chance to return to the elite ball-hawking safety that once had him in the conversation as the game’s best at his position. However, the Titans’ safety has loftier goals than filling up the stat line. Byard told Broadway Sports’ own Justin Melo that his only goal this year is to help bring a Super Bowl to the city of Nashville.
The All-Pro safety only tallied one interception last season after reeling in 17 over the previous three years. If the mayor of Murfreesboro wants to make a statement to the rest of the league that the best safety in football is back, Sunday would be the perfect time to do so.