Titans 2021 draft class provides hope on defense, holes on offense

Coming off a 2020 season that saw the Tennessee Titans finish with a top-5 offense only to get dragged down by a bottom-5 defense, we knew there needed to be some investment on defense. I’m not sure anyone quite anticipated the complete tear down and rebuild that we’ve seen over the last couple months, but the results last season certainly justify the approach.

This weekend’s NFL Draft continued the theme of rebuilding the Titans defense as GM Jon Robinson spent five of his eight draft picks on that side of the ball — including three of his first four — after investing over $126-million in total contracts to defenders in free agency. The result is a defense that is going to be almost unrecognizable in certain spots, particularly the positions that are most responsible for stopping opposing quarterbacks.

The biggest change is happening at cornerback, where Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson were both cut while Desmond King was allowed to leave via free agency. Only 2020 second round pick Kristian Fulton remains among the corners that ranked in the top-4 on the depth chart a year ago.

Joining him are veteran free agent signing Janoris Jenkins, first round pick Caleb Farley, and third round pick Elijah Molden. Breon Borders and 2020 seventh rounder Chris Jackson will likely be competing for roster spots, not playing time this summer.

The Titans made a similar overhaul in the pass rush. Jadeveon Clowney and DaQuan Jones are out. Bud Dupree, Denico Autry, and fourth round pick Rashad Weaver are in.

Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel will certainly be hoping that those changes result in very different outcomes for opposing quarterbacks than what we’ve seen the last few seasons in Tennessee. It has to be for this team to take the next step and truly contend for a Super Bowl. Sure, you can win championships in the NFL with an elite offense dragging around a sub-par defense, but most Lombardi winners are more like the 2020 Bucs — a top-5 offense balanced against a top-10 defense.

However, the Titans investment in a completely remodeled defense has left the offense in need of a little maintenance. That top-5 unit from a year ago saw Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith depart for big contracts in the AFC East as well as the releases of Dennis Kelly and Adam Humphries.

Kelly’s release, while surprising, has largely been addressed. The Titans signed Kendall Lamm from the Browns in free agency and brought back swing tackle Ty Sambrailo, who played well in relief of Taylor Lewan last year before suffering an injury himself. Then they went and selected North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz with their second round pick. Radunz was widely viewed as one of the better prospects in a highly touted class of offensive tackles and I’d expect that he’ll come in and compete immediately with Lamm for the starting right tackle job.

However, the Titans have been less aggressive in addressing their holes at wide receiver and tight end. They signed Josh Reynolds from the Rams and drafted Dez Fitzpatrick out of Louisville in the fourth round and Racey McMath from LSU in the sixth.

Reynolds figures to at least be a reliable starter after producing 618 yards as L.A.’s third receiver a year ago behind Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. He’s not as talented as Corey Davis, but he’s got enough skills and experience to feel good about him as a top-3 option in the receiver room.

Fitzpatrick will be interesting to watch. His pick was mostly considered a reach at the top of the fourth round, but there are elements to like about his game. He’s got good size (6-2, 208), long arms (over an 80-inch wingspan), and good speed (4.49 40 time), but the production at Louisville was just okay. Part of that is related to poor quarterback play during his time there and sharing the spotlight with Tutu Atwell, but it’s part of the reason that he wasn’t as highly ranked by scouts and analysts. We do know that the Titans like him quite a bit though after they traded two picks to move up in the fourth to get him.

McMath is intriguing with his size/speed combination as well. He’s 6-2, 211 and ran sub-4.4 at his pro day. However, he had almost zero production at LSU as a wide receiver and should probably be viewed as a special teams ace — he was a stud in the kicking game for the Tigers — early in his career while he develops as a receiver.

The Titans didn’t add a tight end in the draft, but they did nab a couple interesting undrafted free agents at the position after the draft in Alabama’s Miller Forristall and Kansas State’s Briley Moore. Moore, in particular, could have a chance to make the roster. He was a draftable prospect on many boards and some analysts even had him over guys like Hunter Long who went in the third round.

That being said… wide receiver and tight end still feel very shaky from a proven talent standpoint. Obviously, A.J. Brown is a stud, but where are the proven pass catchers after him? Josh Reynolds and Anthony Firkser are the only players on the roster besides Brown who had more than 300 yards receiving last season. Relying on a bunch of day three picks and UDFAs to fill the shoes of Davis and Smith would be asking for trouble on offense it seems.

My hunch is that the Titans aren’t done adding pieces though. Jon Robinson spoke yesterday about talking to other GMs about potential trades for tight ends and there are a few that seem to be available, including O.J. Howard, Zach Ertz, David Njoku, and Evan Engram. Your mileage may vary on your interest in those guys individually, but there is little doubt that they’d upgrade the talent in the tight end room.

If not a trade, I think the Titans should give Delanie Walker a call and see if he wants to come back. After sitting out last season, Walker says he wants to play again but is yet to sign anywhere. Coming up on 37 years old, there no way we should expect anything close to what he was in his prime, but could he help this team as part of a platoon approach at tight end with Firkser and Geoff Swaim? I’d think so.

Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another move at wide receiver. Obviously, the Julio Jones speculation will persist, but the Titans haven’t been tied to Jones in any meaningful way to this point and there is still a lot of doubt that the Falcons will move him at all.

I could see the Titans grabbing another veteran to give them some insurance in case Dez Fitzpatrick isn’t cut out for a big role right away. Guys like Danny Amendola, Dede Westbrook, Alex Erickson, Damiere Byrd, and Golden Tate could potentially help them in the slot and are available in free agency. None those guys are particularly exciting, but they would at least give the Titans some options at the receiver spot.

So was Jon Robinson’s approach to this offseason — at least to this point — a much needed balancing of his roster or a massive overcorrection?

Comments

  1. I know it’s early and we haven’t seen the new draft picks on the practice field or in pre-season games yet….but where do you think Fitzpatrick and McMath fit on the depth chart along with Westbrook-Ikhine, Batson, Davis, Rogers, Hollister, Kinsey, and Johnson? As they were passing up receivers in the 3rd round I couldn’t help but wonder if they felt the players available weren’t much of an upgrade over players currently on our roster. Especially Westbrook who got some snaps later in the year.

    1. Hey, sorry for the slow reply, but I would suspect that Fitzpatrick will immediately be competing with Batson and NWI for playing time. Doubtful that he is able to knock Reynolds out of the WR2 spot right away, but I think Fitz probably ends up as part of the rotation on offense this year.

      McMath is tougher. Wouldn’t surprise me if he made the roster due to special teams ability, but I’d be pretty shocked if he was getting snaps on offense.

      I do buy the theory that they like Batson and NWI more than people might realize. However, I’m also pretty convinced that they’re still going to add a significant receiver or tight end before camp starts.

  2. I’ll keep this simple. Regarding the offense:

    I disagree with using the 2nd round pick on an OT. That pick should have been used on a stud wide receiver, many of whom were still available.

    Earlier, the Titans should have used the franchise tag on Jonnu Smith. The fact that they didn’t is a critical mistake in my opinion. What were they thinking … trying to be a nice guy to Jonnu? We’re gonna let you go make your millions. BS!

    Now they have glaring holes at WR and TE.

    Makes no sense.

    1. On the Jonnu Smith point, I thought they should have considered franchise tagging him as well, but I don’t think they passed on that idea out of kindness. I think they simply didn’t value him at the $10M level that it would have cost them. I also believe they were a little concerned about his knees from a long term perspective (though that wouldn’t have factored into the franchise tag thought process obviously).

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