Previewing the Titans’ 2021 offense

Around this time of year, credentialed journalists and aspiring writers that participate in their respective line of work are doing one of two things.

The fortunate and lucky ones are taking a bit of a vacation. Whisking away to beautiful beachfront environments, scenic mountain landscapes, various locations overseas that are of interest, or to simple locations across the country that fall under the idea of visiting family or friends.

For the other ones, like me — preparing for another round of college that’ll drain my finances to the point I want to scream — we’re stuck in our hometowns waiting for something eventful to happen that’ll make our lives a little less heartbreaking. But until that faithful event occurs — or doesn’t — we can comfort ourselves in the world of writing and the beautiful sport that has brought us so many memories and pleasant experiences.

With those two things in mind, I decided to work myself through unhealthy hours of the night and dive into a little preview action for the Tennessee Titans. In part one of two of my Titans unit preview series, I’ll discuss what all went down for the team offensively in 2020, predict some starters at each position for the 2021 season, give a few names to watch for this unit this season, and more.

I hope you all enjoy… let’s jump into it.

A Look Back at 2020

The question for this unit entering the 2020 season was simple. Could they keep up the offensive pace the team found and sustained once Ryan Tannehill was named the new starting quarterback midway through the 2019 season? It was a valid question, especially considering how historical the offense’s pace actually was.

Feats of those nature aren’t supposed to be sustainable. They come and then they go, making way for more normal levels of offensive production.

But this Titans offense didn’t lose a step like many anticipated. In fact, this unit took their ways of play to a level many didn’t think was entirely possible. To be quite honest, I was one of the many doubters this unit had going into 2020. But as the season went, and the offense became the literal saving grace of this football team, I was quickly met with a sense of astonishment.

Not because of the impressive efficiency at which this offense was running — though that was impressive in its own right — but the sheer consistency of the already incredible efficiency. It was almost mind-blowing. You just don’t see many offenses hum like the engine of a powerful sports car, especially in today’s NFL. Yes, the new rules have given a mighty advantage to offenses across the league, but it’s another thing to keep it going over a long 16 game stretch and do it while leaning on what some might call “outdated principles”, or in other words, a dominant ground game.

What we saw from this unit last season was nothing short of special. But as the calendar quickly moves towards the start of a new season, this unit will be tasked with keeping up the pace amid a multitude of coaching and roster changes.

Players Currently on The Roster at Each Position

QuarterbackRunning Back & FullbackWide ReceiverTight EndCenterOffensive GuardOffensive Tackle
Deshone KizerKhari Blasingame (FB)Cameron BatsonAnthony FirkserAaron BrewerCole Banwart (R)Paul Adams
Ryan TannehillTory Carter (FB) (R)A.J. BrownMiller Forristall (R)Ben JonesAdam Coon (R)Christian DiLaruo
Logan WoodsideDarrynton EvansFred BrownTommy HudsonDaniel MunyerNate DavisChandon Herring (R)
Derrick HenryDez Fitzpatrick (R)Briley Moore-McKinney (R)Rodger SaffoldBrandon Kemp
Brian HillCody HollisterJared PinkeyKendall Lamm
Jeremy McNicholsMarcus JohnsonGeoff SwaimTaylor Lewan
Julio JonesElijah Nkansah
Mason KinseyDavid Quessenberry
Kalija LipscombDillon Radunz (R)
Racey McMath (R)Ty Sambrailo
Josh Reynolds
Chester Rogers
Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
*In alphabetical order by last name* *(R)=rookie*

Starters in 2020

QuarterbackRunning BackFull BackWide ReceiverTight EndCenterOffensive GuardOffensive Tackle
Ryan TannehillDerrick HenryKhari BlasingameA.J. BrownJonnu SmithBen JonesRodger SaffoldTaylor Lewan
Corey DavisNate DavisDennis Kelly
Adam HumphriesTy Sambrailo*
Cameron Batson*David Quessenberry*
*=injury replacement

Predicted Starters for 2021

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill

No surprise here. Tannehill is one of the more notable leaders on this football team. He’s earned the right to maintain his status as one too, due to his exceptional play and his willingness to discuss the hard, real life issues off the field. The team will be leaning on him a lot this season, especially with Todd Downing stepping in to replace Arthur Smith as play-caller.

Running Back: Derrick Henry

Henry is coming off one of the more impressive stretches of play we’ve seen in recent memory. Since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback during week seven of the 2019 season, including playoff games, Henry has rushed for just over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns. Those are stats every NFL running back dreams of having just for their entire career, let alone through just under two full seasons of play.

This offense will again feature a heavy dose of the former Alabama star in 2021, but the team will have to be mindful of his workload throughout the year with Henry coming off back to back 300 carry seasons.

X Receiver: A.J. Brown

There isn’t much more to say about A.J. Brown. Well, other than the fact that he’s developed into a young superstar, and has become a bit of a deity in the city of Nashville. That deity status will be given a good chance to improve with the departures of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith. Both of those guys commanded a lot of attention and a lot of targets because of the talent they both possessed. With both Davis and Smith gone, Brown could see a vast uptick in targets and opportunity. In other words, 2021 could be a very big year for the former Ole Miss star.

Z Receiver: Julio Jones

There are so many things you can say about Julio Jones. One of the best receivers of the 2010s, a route running extraordinaire, a nightmare for defenses across the league, a relentless competitor, I mean the list goes on and on. When you add all of that and more to an offense that already possesses Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown, you might as well be cooking with kerosene. If health permits, Julio’s contributions to this offense could be immense.

Slot Receiver: Josh Reynolds

Lost in all the Julio shuffle was the fact that Reynolds was set to be this team’s Y receiver before Jon Robinson pulled off the blockbuster trade. Now Reynolds should likely slide in as this team’s slot receiver, a role that probably suits him better considering his own personal skillset and his past at that specific position. The Titans haven’t used a lot of three wide receiver sets during this recent stretch of success dating back to 2016. But new offensive coordinator Todd Downing was a big fan of those particular sets during his time as offensive coordinator of the then Oakland Raiders back in 2017.

If Downing elects to stick with his love of three wide receiver sets, and steers this offense towards more of a pass-friendly approach, then Reynolds could be in line to put up some nice numbers.

Tight End: Anthony Firkser

It’ll be interesting to see how the Titans use Firkser this upcoming season. He’s primed to secure a larger role in the offense due to the departure of Jonnu Smith. But due to inexperience and lack of true skill as a blocker, it remains to be seen how many new responsibilities fall into his lap. It’s entirely possible the team just decides to expand upon Firkser’s calling as a pass catcher and leave most of the in-line tight end blocking duties to Geoff Swaim, but nothing is set in stone.

Left Tackle: Taylor Lewan

After an ACL injury ended Lewan’s 2020 season rather early, he returns to once again become this team’s rock at left tackle for the 2021 season. Mike Vrabel’s squad missed his athleticism, skill, and smarts a great deal once the knee injury occurred so I’m sure they’re ecstatic about getting him back.

Left Guard: Rodger Saffold

I don’t think you could’ve asked more out of Rodger Saffold last season. He had his best season to date as a Titan, and he did it all while his buddy on the left side — Taylor Lewan — laid on the shelf nursing a serious knee injury. If Lewan and Saffold can both stay healthy, they’ll combine to make up one of the best tackle-guard combinations in all of football in 2021.

Center: Ben Jones

From questionable contract extension, to an impressive 2020 season, last year included a bit of everything for Ben Jones. He’s become a steady hand along this Titans offensive line, while also bringing a sense of reliability that this team hasn’t had at the center position in a long while. He’s an invaluable commodity to this team right now and I fully expect him to continue his excellent run of play this season.

Right Guard: Nate Davis

If there was a most improved player award in the NFL, I think Nate Davis would’ve been a strong candidate to win the honor. Davis was a raw, yet talented guard prospect when the Titans selected him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Fast forward to now and the upside the team banked on him unlocking has bare its fruit. He’s improved so much in every aspect of his game, becoming a very key piece for the functionality of this Titans offense as a whole. 2021 will be another year to build on for the former Charlotte 49er product, but also another chance to boost his reputation as one of the best young offensive linemen football has today.

Right Tackle: Dillon Radunz

At this point, it’s hard to not see Radunz eventually locking down the starting right tackle spot. Kendall Lamm and Ty Sambrailo both don’t inspire a lot of confidence as starters, mostly due to their shortcomings as pass protectors. They’re cut from the same cloth as former starter Dennis Kelly, with run blocking being their strength, and pass blocking being a bit of a weakness.

Radunz is an exceptional athlete for the tackle position and has shown he can hold his own in both facets of offensive line play. The jump from the FCS to the NFL has and will always remain a tough transition, but from what has been said about Radunz so far, I wouldn’t be too concerned with his comfort level after such a big transition just yet.

Dark Horse Starter Candidate

Dillon Radunz

Not so much of a dark horse if he’s a predicted starter, right? Here’s the deal. Radunz has all the talent in the world to eventually become a rock at right tackle for the Titans, but the obstacles rookies face during their welcoming phase into the league can’t be ignored either. Sambrailo and Lamm are two veteran options this team can rely on if they opt to bring Radunz along slowly. With the way this team has developed rookies so far, it wouldn’t be surprising if Radunz ends up starting out on the bench.

But the opposite of that could occur since his talent alone can’t be looked over. That’s why Radunz can be considered a dark horse even if the situation looks favorable for him on paper.

Three Names to Keep an Eye on

Darrynton Evans

Injuries and normal rookie pains limited Evans’ opportunity to make an impact in 2020. But with those injuries seemingly behind him, and a more focused mindset set in stone, Evans looks primed to show his stuff as the Titans’ RB2 this fall.

Anthony Firkser

We discussed earlier how Firkser is set to secure a much larger role within the offense in 2021. With an upgrade in role comes a potential upgrade in production, but in this specific case, a potential change in scheme frequency as well. I’ll be really interested to see how Firkser’s role impacts this team’s scheme moving forward. Will Downing opt to run more 11 personnel with Firkser being the lone tight end on the field, therefore maximizing this unit’s potential in pass productivity? Or will he stick to the norm and roll with an extra tight end alongside Firkser to help with blocking duties in the run game?

Fascinating discussion, right?

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine

Before the Titans passed on an early round receiver, before they traded for Julio Jones, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was the hot name on the wide receiver streets. Well, in Nashville that is. Joe Rexrode of The Athletic released an article detailing what he had been hearing about the Titans’ plan at wide receiver. What was encased in that article was the team’s reported love for Westbrook-Ikhine, a now second-year wide receiver out of Indiana.

That report sent the fanbase into a bit of a panic, while also giving us some insight as to what the team’s plans were for the wide receiver spot at that point in time. We’re now in July and the situation surrounding Ikhine’s role in this offense has become a bit clearer. Nothing is set in stone, but it really feels like Ikhine could come out of training camp as this offense’s WR4, which is a massive spot of importance depending on how Todd Downing chooses to deploy his personnel.

Breakout Candidate

Josh Reynolds

Reynolds slid down to WR3 after the addition of Julio Jones was made official, but that doesn’t mean he’ll risk losing his status as a breakout candidate. In past years, the Titans have opted for more two tight end sets rather than three wide receiver sets. But with Todd Downing and his love for three wide receiver sets now running the show, we could see a bit of a shift in personnel frequency as I wrote previously.

Those three wide receiver sets will pave way for an uptick in snaps for Reynolds, which should be enticing to him personally considering the 1v1’s he’ll receive due to A.J. Brown and Julio Jones as the other two likely receivers commanding the most attention from opposing secondaries. If Reynolds wins a fair share of those extra 1v1’s, he could put up some pretty decent numbers as the season goes along.

Maybe not the WR2 numbers he was envisioning before the Julio Jones trade, but impressive WR3 numbers that should set him up for a better deal next off-season.

What’ll Make or Break This Unit in 2021

Continuity

This unit returns seven out of eleven starters from the 2020 team, and when you consider the circumstances at offensive coordinator, that holds a bit of significance. It might not seem like much, but the concept of continuity goes a long way towards keeping a sense of normality within a unit after a bit of change on the roster and in the coaching staff.

Todd Downing

Downing is ready to start his second stint as an offensive coordinator, but with a massive amount of pressure and responsibility on his shoulders. This team is in a win-now window with no room for egregious mistakes. Downing should keep that in mind, not just for this team’s success, but his potential future as a head coaching candidate as well.

Right Tackle

After the release of Dennis Kelly this off-season and last season’s Isaiah Wilson debacle, this team has no room to screw up the right tackle situation again. Important starting spots, like right tackle, need to be free of distraction, ineffectiveness, and confusion. So slotting the right player into the right tackle spot is essential for morale and overall success moving forward.

Derrick Henry’s Effectiveness

The effectiveness of this unit’s most important player will always make or break the season to some degree, but it needs to be monitored extra carefully this season. With Henry coming off back-to-back 300+ carry seasons, the question of wear and tear comes into the picture. Mike Vrabel will have to be cautious when it comes to monitoring Henry’s workload to avoid any sort of decrease in the quality of Henry’s play because this unit will go as far as Henry takes it from a scheme standpoint.

Injury Bug

Another obvious factor that’ll make or break this unit, but still needs to be brought up because of the importance it holds to this team. Staying away from the injury bug requires more luck than skill. But if you can manage to do so, you’ll be sitting pretty from a continuity and comfort point of view. Two things this unit absolutely needs at a high level after the amount of change it went through this off-season.

Outlook for 2021

I think it’s wise to temper your expectations for this unit for the time being. Not because of any roster limitations, because plenty of talent exists within this offense at this point in time. But because of the not-so-great past Todd Downing has as an offensive coordinator, along with the uncertainty he himself possesses as the play caller for this specific offense.

Of course, you can do that at any time for any offense because every unit will face its fair share of questions before the season starts, but it rings especially true for this Titans offense, at least in my opinion.

Let’s not forget, Arthur Smith was a major reason for this offense’s smooth functionality and level of danger. When you lose a piece of a puzzle as valuable as him, there are going to be some questions regarding the future functionality of the unit at hand. That’s why I believe there’s a chance for some growing pains as Todd Downing puts his own personal flavor, his own personal tune, into this offense.

But even if those pains do occur, they won’t be catastrophic, there’s just way too much talent within this unit for that to occur.

Downing is tasked with taking over the offense Arthur Smith left behind and using it to the best of his ability to guide this unit to success. But will he be able to do so while keeping up the pace that was prevalent last season? That’s the main concern, rather the main question this offense has.

Other than that, I don’t have a lot of other pondering thoughts.

The talent is there for this offense to once again be a substantial threat for defenses across the league. All that’s left to achieve is a clean execution of the plan and positive results.

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