On Saturday, a disjointed, turnover-ridden offensive performance ended the Tennessee Titans’ season, and brought a surge of positive momentum to a screeching halt. This loss has unveiled many questions regarding Tennessee’s short-term postseason competitiveness, and confirmed doubts about Ryan Tannehill’s ability to lead a team to a Super Bowl. A devastating loss like this makes it difficult to compose a wholistic evaluation of the season, but let’s take a moment to overcome recency bias, and reflect on the good and bad of the 2021 Tennessee Titans.
The Broadway Sports team has voted on several categories, and the results are in. Vote totals are included in parenthesis, along with honorable mentions.
Most Valuable Player: A.J. Brown (7)
As contract discussions for the 2019 draft class heat up, I don’t expect A.J. Brown’s agent to have any difficulties making his case. We saw nearly every possible combination of skill players this year, and the one stable factor that affected Tennessee’s offensive production was AJ Brown’s presence.
With Brown on the field, Tennessee’s passing offense was still efficient and explosive. In his absence, the Titans’s backup receivers failed to consistently separate, and expectedly, they struggled to throw the ball effectively.
Others Receiving Votes: Jeffery Simmons (3), Derrick Henry (1), Kevin Byard (1)
Rookie of the Year: Elijah Molden (12)
Molden was the only Titans’ player to win an award unanimously; this is partially due to a successful rookie campaign that improved as the year went on, and partially because of the complete lack of production Tennessee received from the 2021 Draft Class.
Bounce Back Player: Kevin Byard (10)
Kevin Byard’s down-year in 2020 is a bit overstated, in my opinion; his play didn’t approach the standard he had set for himself , but he was nowhere close to Tennessee’s biggest problem defensively. Nevertheless, a safety making $14 million per year is expected to be more than just serviceable, and Byard met and exceeded those expectations in 2021.
He recorded 5 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, and was PFF’s highest graded safety, but Byard wasn’t just a ball-hawk. He was consistently in the right position, even when he wasn’t targeted, he was excellent in run support, and he played a pivotal role anchoring the back-end of a defense that took a massive step forward in 2021.
Others Receiving Votes: Kristian Fulton (1), Jayon Brown (1)
Unsung Hero: Denico Autry (5)
To some, Denico Autry was an under-the-radar free agent signing, but he made his presence felt early and often. In his first season with the Titans, Autry totaled 64 pressures and 13 sacks, both of which are career highs, and his length and motor made Tennessee much more effective when utilizing stunts and twists. Autry isn’t a pass rushing technician, and a lot of his sacks came off of cleanup and pursuit, but he was a force multiplier for the rest of Tennessee’s front-four. With a cap hit of only $8.7 million per year, Autry is a massive bargain for a roster that will soon become more expensive.
Others Receiving Votes: Amani Hooker (2), Ben Jones (2), Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (1)
Breakout Player: Kristian Fulton (6)
Cornerback was a huge unknown heading into the season, after Tennessee released Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson. Kristian Fulton was a first round talent, who inexplicably slipped to Day 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft, but injuries limited him to just 209 snaps in his rookie season. If Fulton was the caliber of player he had the potential to be, the Titans were likely in good shape at cornerback, but there wasn’t enough tape to know what to expect.
Kristian Fulton resolved those uncertainties immediately; he was one of the lone bright spots of Tennessee’s Week 1 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and he proceeded to have an excellent season, in which he established himself as a high-caliber starting cornerback. Fulton recorded 11 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, and only allowed more than 100 yards in his coverage once. He’ll need to improve his consistency to warrant “elite-tier” consideration, but his stock is definitely on the rise.
Others Receiving Votes: David Long (3), Denico Autry (1), Buster Skrine (1), Harold Landry (1)
Biggest Disappointment: Nate Davis (4)
Davis picked up his level of play in the second half of the year, but for a player whose development track had been so overwhelmingly positive, the 2021 season was a disappointment. Davis’s run blocking was inconsistent, as he took a noticeable step back performing reach blocks and engaging second-level defenders. What’s most troubling, however, was his lack of development in pass protection; Davis still struggles at times with technique and weight displacement, and it’s a coin-flip whether or not he’ll properly pick up a blitz.
Others Receiving Votes: Julio Jones (3), Anthony Firkser (2), Darrynton Evans (1), Dez Fitzpatrick (1), Caleb Farley (1)
Appointment Viewing: Jeffery Simmons (4)
When Simmons makes plays, he looks as dominant as any defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald. Jon Robinson’s affinity for drafting injured players has become a meme, but let’s not ignore how successful this draft pick has been. His game-to-game consistency is slightly lacking, but the flashes he showed en route to a 66 pressure, 14 sack season, should make you feel encouraged.
Others Receiving Votes: David Long (3), Derrick Henry (3)