Two years ago the Titans stumbled onto a gold mine when they pulled Marcus Mariota and inserted Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. A 2-4 start that saw Tennessee average just 16.3 points per game gave way to a 7-3 finish with an offense averaging over 30 points per game and a run to the AFC Championship game.
After sustaining that offensive success in 2020, the Titans are going all-in with this core built around Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and an excellent offensive line by adding a future Hall of Famer in Julio Jones who has averaged at least 85 yards per game for eight straight seasons. It’s both an acknowledgment that Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel believe their team is close to being a true Super Bowl contender and that they understand that this window won’t last forever with five projected offensive starters at 30 or older to start the 2021 season and Derrick Henry coming off back to back rushing titles.
The trade compensation ended up being the Titans 2022 second round pick and 2023 fourth round pick in exchange for Jones and the Falcons 2023 sixth round pick. Major credit to Jon Robinson for staying patient and ignoring the clear attempts to bait them into parting with a first rounder that the Falcons floated over the last couple weeks. He got his man and did so at a reasonable value.
Reports indicate that the Falcons are not eating any of Jones’ salary to facilitate the deal, so the Titans will be on the hook for his base salaries of $15.3-million in 2021, $11.5-million in 2022, and $11.5-million in 2023 unless they agree to a new contract — which it sounds like they may be working towards. Obviously, that means that Tennessee will have to free up some cap space to fit Jones’ deal, but they have plenty of options to make that happen. A simple restructure of Ryan Tannehill’s contract would free up over $15-million by itself and the team could also opt to extend center Ben Jones, who is heading into the final year of his deal and could have his 2021 cap hit lowered if he gets a new deal.
The Titans still have plenty of financial flexibility moving forward — a result of Jon Robinson’s shrewd work in the free agent markets — and that should allow them to finesse this contract into their plans without significantly handicapping their ability to retain their own stars like A.J. Brown and Jeffery Simmons in 2023 and beyond.
All of that will sort itself out, but let’s get back to the 2021 season that kicks off in just 98 days. The trade for Jones lays the Titans ambitions bare — they’re a Super Bowl contender. Sure, Mike Vrabel will talk about winning the AFC South first and foremost, but this is a move that says they want more.
Even at 32 years old, Jones is still an elite talent. He averaged over 85 yards per game — good for 7th in the NFL last year — and a ridiculous 11.3 yards per target in 2020 despite playing through a hamstring that was never truly allowed to heal and ended up causing him to be shut down after just nine games. His 4.39 speed still shows up on the field even after 10 years in the league and Jones reportedly was specifically interested in going to a team that would feature him on vertical routes.
The Titans have lacked a true vertical threat in their offense for several years now. A.J. Brown can win deep, but he’s at his best when he’s working in-breakers to the intermediate areas of the field where his elite run after catch ability is allowed to shine. Corey Davis never developed that part of his game during his four years in Tennessee. Kalif Raymond was occasionally useful as a field stretcher, but he wasn’t good enough to play every down and certainly was nowhere near the overall talent that Jones is. Jones and Brown represent an ideal combination for Ryan Tannehill — who has ranked as one of the best deep ball throwers in the NFL over the last couple years — and that’s especially true in this specific offense.
One of the Titans most successful and frequently used passing concepts is Yankee. It’s a play action pass that features a deep post route from one side paired with an intermediate crossing route from the opposite receiver. The idea is to isolate the post safety and make him choose — stay deep over top of the post or break on the crosser? If he stays deep, the crosser is an easy completion. Linebackers have been sucked up to the line of scrimmage and there is a lot of space for the receiver to run into. If the safety cuts the crosser, one of his corners is left one on one against a deep post for a potential explosive play. When that deep post was Kalif Raymond or Corey Davis it was still pretty effective. Now imagine that combo with Jones over the top and Brown crossing underneath… it’s nightmare fuel for defensive coordinators.
If that wasn’t enough, further complicating matters for opponents of the 2021 Titans will be Derrick Henry. The 2019 and 2020 rushing champ is coming off one of the five best seasons for a running back in NFL history, rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns at a clip of 5.4 yards per carry. His presence has forced defensive coordinators to stack the box against the Titans for years in hopes of slowing him down.
Now what do you do? Bringing a safety into the box leaves at least one of Jones and Brown one on one against a corner. Dropping your safeties deep provides a numbers advantage for the best running back in the NFL. It’s an unsolvable riddle.
This trade takes the Titans biggest question mark and turns it into a definitive strength heading into the 2021 season. If the overhaul of the defense produces even modest improvements on that side of the ball, Tennessee should be a true contender not just in the AFC, but in the entire NFL.