Previewing the Titans’ 2021 defense

Welcome back to my unit preview series, where I sit down and preview the Tennessee Titans’ offensive and defensive units that are set to hit the field this upcoming season.

Last week, I indulged in the meat and potatoes of Todd Downing’s offense. I predicted who’ll end up locking down the all important 11 starting spots, which player is primed to potentially break out, three names to keep a close eye on throughout the season, and more. So before you take a stab at reading the next installment of the series, I recommend jumping over to the offensive preview first.

With the cautionary message out of the way, it’s time to move on to the next and final step this series possesses.

Let’s preview Shane Bowen’s defense.

Yes, yes I can hear your imaginary collective groans echoing off your screens right about now. For my sake, I ask that you keep an open mind about the preview that is to follow and enjoy reading the things I have to say.

Are you all ready?

Great, let’s jump right into it.

A Look Back at 2020

Boy oh boy, where do I even begin?

It’s hard to briefly summarize just how bad this Titans defense was last season without going a little overboard. There was bad secondary play, unreliable play from the linebacker group, very disappointing coordinating, a historically bad third down defense, and an atrocious pass rush to represent the final cherry on top.

We say some things are forgettable in life. Relationships, events that occurred in school, even various mistakes while doing your own job as an adult qualify as forgettable occurrences in life.

The Titans’ defense this past season?

It definitely makes the cut as a forgettable experience.

Now after an offseason in which Jon Robinson basically reconstructed the foundation of this defense from the ground up roster wise, this unit faces questions detailing one single thing.

Just how much better will they be in 2021 after the all the changes that were made?

Players Currently on The Roster at Each Position

Defensive LineInside LinebackerOutside LinebackerCornerbackSafety
Denico AutryB.J. BelloOla AdeniyiBreon BordersBrady Breeze (R)
Trevon ColeyJayon BrownBud DupreeCaleb Farley (R)Kevin Byard
Bruce HectorRashaan EvansHarold LandryKristian FultonDane Cruikshank
Abry JonesJan JohnsonWyatt RayChris JacksonMatthias Farley
Naquan Jones (R)David Long Jr.Rashad Weaver (R)Janoris JenkinsAmani Hooker
Larrell MurchisonJohnny Ragin (R)Chris JonesMaurice Smith
Jeffery SimmonsMonty Rice (R)Elijah Molden
Teair Tart
*In alphabetical order by last name* *(R)=rookie*

Starters in 2020

Defensive TackleDefensive TackleOutside LinebackerOutside LinebackerInside LinebackerInside LinebackerBoundary CornerBoundary CornerNickel CornerStrong SafetyFree Safety
DaQuan JonesJeffery SimmonsJadeveon ClowneyHarold Landry IIIJayon BrownRashaan EvansMalcolm ButlerAdoree’ JacksonKristian FultonKenny VaccaroKevin Byard
Wyatt Ray*David Long Jr.*Johnathan Joseph*Chris Jackson*
Brooks Reed*Will Compton*Breon Borders**Desmond King**
Tuzar Skipper*
*=injury replacement **=performance related replacement

Predicted Starters for 2021

Outside Linebacker: Bud Dupree

The Titans’ most prized defensive offseason acquisition will be counted on to do a multitude of things to help change this defense for the better. But with how porous the pass rush was last season, improving the situation in that facet of the game could be the top priority on the minds of Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen.

Dupree has finished with at least eight sacks over the last two seasons and would’ve finished with back-to-back double digit sack seasons if it weren’t for a season ending knee injury in 2020. He’ll be counted on to be a big part in the revitalization project for this defense, but before Dupree can hit the ground running, he’ll have to get healthy first.

Outside Linebacker: Harold Landry

What’s been lost in the shuffle of the Titans’ off-season is the fact that this season is shaping up to be a contract year for Harold Landry. The former 2018 second round selection has fought through periods of inconsistency and fatigue en route to disappointing statistical finishes.

With Bud Dupree now in the fold, more opportunities to show off his game should arise for the former Boston College product. All that’s left for him to do is take advantage of them and show the team why he deserves to stay in Tennessee.

Defensive Tackle: Jeffery Simmons

Simmons has already established himself as one of the game’s best rising stars on the defensive side of the ball. Now all that’s left for him for him to do is take that same success that’s given him such a respectable reputation and apply it over a full 17 game season.

Once he does that, we might start discussing Simmons’ name with some of the more notable defensive stars in all of football.

He’s just that good.

Defensive End/Tackle: Denico Autry

After a few productive seasons in Indianapolis, Autry has made his way over to the division rival Titans to pair up with young star defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. Autry fits right into this team’s defensive vision regarding positional flexibility, as he can play multiple positions along the defensive line at a very high level.

He’s going to quickly turn into one of the more important players for this defense and potentially boost his status as a household name alongside Simmons.

Inside Linebacker: Rashaan Evans

Like his 2018 draft counterpart Harold Landry, this year is also a contract year for Rashaan Evans. There have been times when Evans looks the part of a former first round pick. But more likely than not, the positives have been outweighed by the painful negatives that show themselves whenever Evans is on the field.

He’s still going to be a starter this year, no doubt about it. But if his play turns him into a liability again, then he could see his snap count decrease as the season chugs along.

Inside Linebacker: Jayon Brown

There was a point in the off-season where many thought Brown would find himself saying his goodbyes to Nashville and continuing his career with another team. But a surprise one year deal to return to Tennessee has him set to reclaim his old starting role and has given him another chance to set himself up for a larger payday after this upcoming season.

I think we know what Brown brings to the table at this point. He’s a bit of an undersized linebacker, but his grit and ability to match up with shiftier running backs and tight ends make up for the lack of traditional size. He didn’t have the best of seasons last year, but when he’s playing at his best, he’s an important defensive piece this team can depend on.

Boundary Corner: Janoris Jenkins

Jenkins shouldn’t be expected to secure the role as this team’s CB1, but he still has plenty in the tank to contribute heavily as a CB2. He’s a trusted veteran presence, one that has gone through multiple years of high stakes football in New Orleans.

With this secondary being quite young now, a veteran that can show the young guns how to go about their business, while also providing quality play in such an important position is necessary at this point in time.

Boundary Corner: Caleb Farley

Farley has the athleticism and physical build to become one of the freakiest corners in all of football. But the health history surrounding his previous back injuries has the chance to eliminate every last bit of potential his physical tools provide.

If he’s healthy, he’s a starter and an instant impact corner on this football team. If he’s struggling to keep his health in line, then it’s an entirely different story.

It’s as simple as that.

Nickel Corner: Kristian Fulton

Bigger and better things will be expected out of Fulton this year after his disappointing rookie campaign in 2020. He’ll probably be slotted in as the starting nickel corner, but I think he can still play outside if any injuries happen to occur to the two likely starting corners in Jenkins and Farley.

Free Safety: Amani Hooker

This is where things might get a little confusing.

With Hooker now slated to start after the departure of Kenny Vaccaro, basic logic would make you suggest he’d slide into Vaccaro’s old role as safety that plays more closer to the line of scrimmage, while playing some center field every now and then. But with Hooker being more of a traditional ball hawk at the safety position, and the Titans deploying him as one whenever he came onto the field in three safety sets, I think he’s set to remain in his natural role but with starting quality snaps.

That means removing some of the center field safety responsibilities from Kevin Byard and moving him around the defense more like a live chess piece.

At least that’s the conclusion my personal rationale has come to.

Box Safety/Strong Safety: Kevin Byard

Speaking on Byard, he’s looking for a bounce back campaign after a forgettable 2020 season. With Amani Hooker slated to start alongside him this fall, I think the Titans can take advantage of the physicality he brings along with his ballhawking skills, and play him as a box safety/match-up tool a little more.

PFF charted him lining up as a box safety for more than 380 of his 1,321 snaps in 2019, so Byard shouldn’t be unfamiliar with this sort of box safety role.

Dark Horse Starter Candidate

David Long Jr.

Here’s the deal.

I’m not jotting Long’s name down as one to start coming out of camp and preseason necessarily. Vrabel has shown zero signs of declaring open season on Rashaan Evans’ starting spot and I don’t believe he’ll do so early on in the season.

But if Evans continues to possess the status as a liability during the middle to late portions of the season, then Long or even Monty Rice could stand as candidates to steal some of Evans’ snaps. I don’t particularly know how likely this specific situation could come to pass. However if we’re basing evidence off of this team’s willingness to slowly weed out players that don’t fit the vision, either due to performance or roster fit, then the scenario of Evans slowly being pushed out with a metaphorical broom stick isn’t one to be dismissed.

Three Names to Keep an Eye On

Denico Autry

Possessing the ability to play at a high level as a three technique and a five technique, Autry’s versatility and sheer skill could give the Titans a potent one-two defensive interior duo in Autry and Jeffery Simmons. With both being excellent run defenders, along with plus level ability to rush the passer, the thought of their games intertwining and playing off of each other is pretty terrifying.

Rashad Weaver

With Bud Dupree and Harold Landry likely locking down the two starting outside linebacker spots in the Titans’ base defense, attention can turn towards the players behind them in the pecking order and which ones will be fighting for snaps in the Titans’ sub packages.

One of those players that’ll be fighting for sub package snaps is rookie Rashad Weaver. He’s a long, sturdy edge rusher that should make his money early as a a strong run defender but he could still flash as a pass rusher whenever the time comes. It’ll be interesting to see where Weaver positions himself on the depth chart as camp and preseason approach, keep your eye on him.

Monty Rice

Rice is more of a traditional linebacker in terms of size, which makes some people think he could be Rashaan Evans’ eventual replacement potentially starting next season. But for now, he’s a rookie linebacker with a lot left to prove. If events play out in Rice’s favor, then I could see him getting some snaps here and there as a sub package inside linebacker.

Breakout Candidate

Amani Hooker

If you’re looking for a breakout candidate on this Titans defense, then look no further than newly cemented starting safety Amani Hooker. Hooker led the team in interceptions last season despite playing just a part time role.

What’ll Make or Break This Unit in 2021

Pass Rush

This is the area that’ll determine whether this Titans team has truly transformed from one that needs a high scoring offense to survive, to one that’s balanced enough to take on the best teams this league has to offer.

I’m serious.

We saw how valuable a potent pass rush is for a team’s ability to take home the Vince Lombardi trophy. Just take a short trip down memory lane to February, when Tampa Bay’s relentless pass rush made Andy Reid’s offense look helpless. Albeit Kansas City was running on offensive line fumes at that point in time, but the core of the message still stands.

If you can rush the passer, you’re going to run into *some* success as a unit. That’s why the Titans better hope all the resources they spent towards alleviating their pass rushing disaster brings back some desirable results. Because if it doesn’t, then this defense will be a liability once again.

Familiarity

I bring familiarity up due to the fact that this defense will have a handful of new starters this season. So it’s important to make sure everyone involved is ready and available to build the necessary chemistry. Just to make sure everyone on the same page in terms of assignments, checks, and the rest of the cold turkey.

Caleb Farley’s Health

Farley has a real shot at making a quick impact on this defense, but only if his injury situation is in the green. If he can’t fend off the complications from his previous back injuries, then the Titans will be in a bit trouble in terms of possessing the necessary amount of corners that provide actual size.

So all eyes will be on Farley’s health situation moving forward and if he can avoid the injury report as much as possible.

Kevin Byard’s Potential Rebound

When Byard is on his game, his play has served as a bit of a calming presence and motivating factor for this defense. This unit needs both of those right now, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the roster changes and Shane Bowen still having not proved his worth as defensive coordinator.

We still don’t know what caused Byard’s poor 2020 season. It could’ve been the lack of communication from Shane Bowen, it could’ve been Byard’s own personal play, all in all it’s a bit of a mystery. But if Byard can put that career blip behind him and return to the form that gauged such praise from his peers around the league, then the Titans will at least have one less problem to worry about.

Rebuilt Secondary

Aside from the pass rush being poor, the secondary was another thorn in this defense’s side last season. It lacked an abundance of speed, athleticism, and at times reliability. Which led to opposing teams scorching it week after week and likely frustrating defensive meetings throughout the season.

Now a rebuilt unit more geared towards specializing in man coverage, there’s a bit of cautious optimism surrounding the unit this year. Janoris Jenkins is a proven veteran that’s coming off a productive year in New Orleans, Caleb Farley is a corner that has the tools to impact games early on as a rookie as long as he’s healthy, Kristian Fulton is still a talented option at nickel, Amani Hooker has shown some promise, and Kevin Byard has been one of the heartbeats of this group despite a poor 2020 season.

We’re a long way from declaring this group fixed, but the potential on paper looks promising.

Outlook for 2021

This unit will be a much better one this season, that’s a given. The failures that occurred on defense so often last year were so significant, that it’s hard to see them being repeated again. Not just because of the changes the Titans made roster wise, but because history has shown bad defensive units with talent have always been able to shake off the yips that caused headaches in the past.

But even with history and roster changes on the Titans’ side, it’s still difficult to predict how much better the unit will be this year.

We don’t know if Shane Bowen will rebound from his disastrous first year as a defensive coordinator. We don’t know if Bud Dupree and Denico Autry will be enough to reverse the Titans’ horrid pass rush. We don’t know if the additions in the secondary will be able to keep up in terms of health and consistency.

There’s just so much we don’t know, and if you’re a Titans fan, that has to be one of the more frustrating things to ponder when the outlook of this defense comes to mind.

Until we see this unit play some meaningful snaps in September and beyond, I think it’s useless trying to discover this defense’s end game.

So until that occurs, the best thing you can do is wait, speculate, and calculate.

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