Taking a swing at a projected Titans depth chart as wave two of free agency gets underway

We knew the Titans roster was going to undergo a bit of a facelift this offseason with 20 players heading to the free agent market and a cap crunch coming courtesy of COVID-19’s impact on NFL revenue, but the change has been more drastic than I think most were expecting. In addition to the players on expiring contracts, the Titans released another five players — Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, Dennis Kelly, Kenny Vaccaro, and Adam Humphries — to clear additional cap space.

That space was used to add some big pieces as well as retaining a few of their own. As of this writing, the Titans have reportedly agreed to terms with the 12 players listed below:

  • OLB Bud Dupree
  • DL Denico Autry
  • CB Janoris Jenkins
  • OT Kendall Lamm
  • LS Morgan Cox
  • TE Geoff Swaim
  • TE Anthony Firkser
  • LB Jayon Brown
  • CB Kevin Johnson
  • OT Ty Sambrailo
  • WR Josh Reynolds
  • OLB Ola Adeniyi

That brings their total number of players under contract to 65 out of a maximum allowable roster size of 90. The Titans have nine picks in next month’s NFL Draft and will likely fill out the remainder of the roster with undrafted rookies, but I would suspect that there are a few more free agent additions coming over the next few weeks.

With that in mind, I wanted to check back in on the state of the Titans roster to see where there are still holes that need to be addressed. Below is my best guess at a depth chart if the team was to take the field today (official depth charts from the team won’t be released until the end of training camp).

Note: I’m listing players by role, not trying to shoehorn this depth chart into a specific personnel package, so there are more than 11 “starters” on both sides of the ball.

RoleFirst TeamSecond TeamThird TeamFourth Team
QBRyan TannehillLogan WoodsideDeShone Kizer
RBDerrick HenryDarrynton EvansJeremy McNichols
FBKhari Blasingame
Y-TEGeoff SwaimParker HesseTommy Hudson
H-TEAnthony FirkserJared Pinkney
X-WRA.J. BrownNick Westbrook-IkhineCody Hollister
Z-WRJosh ReynoldsMarcus Johnson
S-WRCameron BatsonRashard DavisChester RogersMason Kinsey
LTTaylor LewanDavid QuessenberryAnthony McKinneyBrandon Kemp
LGRodger SaffoldAaron Brewer
CBen JonesDaniel Munyer
RGNate Davis
RTKendall LammTy SambrailoPaul Adams
5T-DLDenico AutryJullian Taylor
3T-DLJeffery SimmonsLarrell Murchison
NT-DLTeair TartDaylon Mack
J-OLBHarold LandryDerick RobersonWyatt RayDavin Bellamy
W-ILBJayon BrownDavid Long Jr.
M-ILBRashaan EvansJan Johnson
S-OLBBud DupreeTuzar SkipperOla AdeniyiNate Orchard
LCBJanoris Jenkins
SKevin ByardMaurice Smith
SAmani HookerDane Cruikshank
RCBKristian FultonBreon Borders
SCBKevin JohnsonChris JacksonKareem Orr
KTucker McCann
PBrett Kern
LSMorgan CoxMatt Orzech

Going through the depth chart you can see some clear holes that still remain as well as some spots that could use some extra depth, so let’s go through what I would consider to be the Titans top six needs as of this writing.

Biggest Remaining Needs

1. Cornerback

I’m a Janoris Jenkins believer. Yes, he’s older at 32, but after cutting on his 2020 tape I can tell you without a doubt… the Jackrabbit can still run. He should provide something close to — if not better — than what the Titans got out of Malcolm Butler last year (and yes, that’s a pretty high bar).

However, there are nothing but question marks behind Jenkins. I was a big fan of Kristian Fulton coming out of the draft and remain bullish on his long-term prospects in this defense, but injuries limited him to just 202 snaps during his rookie season. The Titans appear to have great faith in Fulton — which can sometimes speak volumes about a young player — but you could argue that he is one of the biggest keys to this entire offseason.

The Titans also signed Kevin Johnson with the expectation for him to compete in the slot. I would assume that 2020 seventh round pick Chris Jackson will get a look in there as well, but this is a spot that is begging to be upgraded. Johnson has struggled to stay healthy for much of his first six seasons in the league and hasn’t been very effective when he has been on the field.

Breon Borders was a surprising bright spot for a couple games in 2020, but again, he’s not a guy you want to be relying on to be anything more than a CB4/5.

For the Titans to become the defense that they want to be, they need the pass rush and coverage to match. With big investments up front in Denico Autry and Bud Dupree joining Harold Landry and Jeffery Simmons, the Titans may finally have a good pass rush again, but it won’t reach it’s full potential without good coverage on the back end.

I could still see the Titans becoming interested in a trade for one of the Patriots corners — Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson — at the right price. However, it does seem more and more likely that Tennessee will be looking at this position high in the draft. A Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain, Caleb Farley, or Greg Newsome at 22 would make a lot of sense, as would an Asante Samuel Jr. or Eric Stokes in the second round. I’d be hard-pressed to let this position make it to the third round without being addressed.

2. Wide Receiver

The Josh Reynolds signing helps, but he’s probably best suited to serve as a WR3 in a good offense. Cam Batson, Marcus Johnson, and Chester Rogers all have some NFL experience, but none of them have proven that they belong as top-three weapons on a playoff team. Similarly, I like Nick Westbrook-Ikhine as a special teams player quite a bit and that may earn him a roster spot, but wouldn’t want him among my top-four options as a receiver.

There are still some interesting free agent options available that could continue to create competition in this group. A speedy slot receiver like former Patriot Damiere Byrd would make some sense, as would one of Ryan Tannehill’s favorite targets in Miami, Kenny Stills.

However, like corner, this position makes a ton of sense to address further in the draft. With another draft class loaded with wide receiver talent, there is a good chance the Titans can find a starter at pick 22 or 53. Out of the 13 receivers taken in the first two rounds last year, eight of them produced at least 500 yards as a rookie. Rashod Bateman, Terrace Marshall Jr., Kadarius Toney, Rondale Moore, and Elijah Moore are some of the options that Tennessee could find available in their first two picks (and I even think there is an outside chance that either Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith fall to 22).

3. Edge Depth

The Titans probably feel pretty good about Harold Landry and Bud Dupree as their starting outside linebackers, but depth remains a big concern. Derick Roberson has no business being the top edge rusher off the bench at this point in his career.

The free agent market is still rich with options for this role if the Titans decide to double dip as prices come down. A Jadeveon Clowney reunion shouldn’t be totally ruled out — assuming, of course, that the price tag is much lower and he comes with an agreement that he will be participating in offseason workouts and training camp — and there are lots of veteran options like Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan, Melvin Ingram, and Olivier Vernon who probably won’t cost a ton and still have some juice as a rotational pass rusher.

If they don’t go get another veteran here, I’d put outside linebacker at least in the conversation at pick 22. I’m not crazy about the top of this edge rusher class in general though. Lots of guys with traits and a handful of guys with production, but very few with both. Each option feels risky for some reason or another. For that reason, I’m currently leaning towards waiting on this spot and taking a Payton Turner, Patrick Jones, Cameron Sample, or Ronnie Perkins on day three to complement Landry and Dupree.

4. Tight End

I had originally left this position out of my list, but after thinking about it more, it needs to be on here. The Titans lost their starter in Jonnu Smith and a quality role player in MyCole Pruitt (though it’s certainly still possible Pruitt returns before free agency is over).

They did retain Geoff Swaim, who passed Pruitt in the blocking tight end pecking order last year, and pass catching wizard Anthony Firkser. Those two are very good at their specific roles, but neither puts the whole package together like Jonnu Smith did.

Having a tight end who is a plus run blocker and a threat as a pass catcher is a major benefit for an offense like the Titans, who thrive on putting the defense in run-pass conflict on early downs. Of the two guys with NFL experience on the current roster, I think you’re probably more likely to be able to develop Firkser into a passable blocker than you are to get Swaim to be a big time receiving threat. So maybe the Titans are comfortable with making this spot a bit of a tight end by committee for 2021.

The veteran options left in free agency are… not inspiring. Pretty much every tight end of interest is off the board at this point with the exception of one guy that Titans fans are pretty familiar with. No, I don’t think Delanie Walker at 37 years old will be anything close to his peak, but if you’re bringing him back to serve as a part of this committee on a limited snap count, yeah, I think he could bring some value.

While a Walker reunion would be a feel good story for a fan base that has seen a lot of fan favorites leave over the past two offseasons, I think the more likely — and probably more sensible — approach is for the Titans to address this position in the draft. Kyle Pitts is going to be long gone by pick 22, and given the number of positions where this team needs to add quality young depth, I don’t think the Titans are in a position to trade up into the top 10 to get him. The legitimate options, to me, are Pat Freiermuth, Brevin Jordan, and Tommy Tremble, who are all expected to go sometime during day two. Tremble is particularly interesting to me for the Titans. He wasn’t used often as a pass target at Notre Dame, but the skills are there on tape and his blocking is George Kittle-esque. It’s not a deep pool of tight ends in this class — it never is at this position these days — but those three are really strong prospects.

5. Interior Offensive Line Depth

Some may have more concern about right tackle, but I think the Titans can find a reasonable starter out of Kendall Lamm, Ty Sambrailo, and David Quessenberry to replace Dennis Kelly. The bigger concern, to me, is the fact that Tennessee has just two backup interior offensive lineman on the roster right now: undrafted second year player Aaron Brewer and veteran backup Daniel Munyer.

Brewer is intriguing. He’s unbelievably undersized at 6-1, 274 pounds, but he was the only undrafted rookie to make the Titans roster out of training camp last year and he even passed up veteran backup Jamil Douglas as the primary replacement at left guard when Rodger Saffold went down with injuries late in the year. Brewer’s one start against the Ravens was mostly successful, even if it did come with the qualifier that Baltimore was without star defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell. I liked what I saw from Brewer, but we should also note that the sample is really small (152 total snaps) and his physical size is an extreme outlier when it comes to looking at other starting linemen around the league.

Rodger Saffold will turn 33 this summer and Ben Jones will be 32, so now is the time to start restocking talent along the interior of the Titans offensive line. These two guys are still getting the job done at a high level, but with advanced age comes increased risk of injury. It’s hard to justify spending a top pick here, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans shopping in that late day two/early day three range for guys like Quinn Meinerz, Ben Cleveland, or Drake Jackson to serve at top backups in 2021 and future starters in 2022 and beyond.

6. Nose Tackle / Defensive Line Depth

The Titans have two pieces that you can feel really good about on the defensive line in Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry. Those two will be a load to handle for opposing offensive lines, but the depth is currently shaky and the team lacks a clear-cut starting nose tackle for their base defense.

In 2020, the Titans primarily used DaQuan Jones as their nose tackle with Jeffery Simmons as the 3-technique defensive tackle. Jones played 63% of defensive snaps, often staying in on subpackages despite the fact that he remained a non-factor as a pass rusher. The 5-technique role that was primarily filled by Jack Crawford played 42% of snaps (though he also got some work as an elephant end after Jadeveon Clowney was shut down for the season).

With Autry in the fold, I expect those snap shares to flip flop. Autry will probably play mostly 5-technique defensive end in base defense, but I’d expect him to stay on the field in subpackages while the nose tackle goes off. That probably means that your nose tackle is getting roughly 20 to 25 snaps per game in 2021.

Given that this is really a role player type spot, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if the Titans rolled with Teair Tart as the nose tackle heading into the draft with an idea that they could take someone to compete with him somewhere in the middle rounds. If they decide to address it elsewhere, Danny Shelton is a guy that would make some sense on a cheap deal.

I think a draft pick here is warranted regardless of how they feel about Tart though. Larrell Murchison didn’t flash a whole lot as a rookie in 2020 and Jullian Taylor and Daylon Mack have very little NFL experience. A guy like Tyler Shelvin would make a lot of sense for the Titans, as would Alim McNeill and Marvin Wilson.

Comments

  1. Great assessment as usual. Where would you rank pass catching TE on the needs list? I like Firkser but it’s a lot to ask for him to fill the void left behind from Jonnu.

    1. I’m kind of torn on TE. It’s a spot that I kept putting on and taking off this list. I think there is value in adding someone only if there is a guy who can be a positive as both a blocker and a receiver. I think Firkser really brings a lot as a pass catcher and Swaim is a good blocker. The problem is neither of them can do both.

      I’d be in favor of them drafting a guy to go with those two (or maybe even a Delanie Walker reunion). I don’t think that spot will be in play at 22 though.

  2. To me nose tackle, CB 2/4 and EDGE depth are the biggest needs and will be the most difficult to fill. We NEED to actually UPGRADE the defense because it was so bad last year. Rolling with Tart is really not ideal. Getting a real NT up front will have a ripple effect through the entire front seven allowing Simmons and Autry to shoot gaps and play behind the LOS.

    Also Dupree being fully ready for the start of the season is a really long shot. We need another really good player there like Houston or Kerrigan.

    There are some good CB in the draft so we can prob fill that spot in the top 3 picks.

    As far as offense, there are a ton of good WR to fill the WR2 and WR4 spots.

    Then if a TE or RT that JRob really likes falls to then in the draft then those two positions get addressed also. But I don’t think they are crucial.

    1. I agree with this take. I get the argument that nose is a role that commands fewer reps. But there is a multiplier effect on that position when a truly special player is playing in it. You build a 3-4 base defense that has zero holes or weaknesses in its front, and your defense will see a lore more third and Kong’s and then (typically) a much better third down percentage.

      With deep CB & WR classes in this year’s draft, I think it would absolutely be worth it to draft an elite nose tackle in the first round if the board falls right.

      That being said, I hope we will just go BPA between NT, OT, CB, WR in round 1. An elite player available at any of those 4 positions has potential to bring high impact immediately. At whatever point such players don’t exist, J-Rob can start bringing the value like he typically does in rounds 2-5. Guys like AJB, Jayon & Jonnu.

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