The Titans were a good team in 2020, winning 11 games and the division. But, make no mistake, the offense did all the heavy lifting. This defense was bottom 5 in giving up yards and first downs. They were 30th in sacks. They were below average with points allowed at 24th. Across the board, the defense regressed from the 2019 season. Still, from an IDP standpoint, they had a borderline DL1, DB1, and LB1 (Landry, Byard, and Brown). Their season ended with a disappointing loss to the Ravens in the first week of the playoffs.
Jurrell Casey and Logan Ryan departed the team, as did Kenny Vaccaro. The Titans let Jadaveon Clowney walk and replaced him with Bud Dupree on a mega-contract. They managed to bring back Jayon Brown, a key member of this defense. In an attempt to revamp their secondary, the Titans signed Janoris Jenkins and drafted Caleb Farley. 2020 also brought a shift in safety alignment by playing more two-high than previous years.
The Titans attempt more exotic looks along the defensive line, associated with Vrabel’s roots in New England. This results in some platforms lumping in EDGE rushers with other LBs, though this writeup will focus on the “true position” approach to keeping them with other defensive linemen. Being a defensive-minded head coach, Vrabel will start to feel the heat if he can’t reverse the decline of this defense under his watch.
LLandry is the incumbent EDGE rusher for the Titans. Unless, of course, he’s playing linebacker. Landry is an anomaly when it comes to his pressure-seeking peers. He plays out of position the most of any pass rusher, with 10% of his snaps devoted to defending at the second level. This keeps him on the field resulting in a heavy snap count, but his pass rush efficiency doesn’t align as well to others.
Because of this unique usage, most overlook Landry as an option. This may be because he is viewed as an LB in many places. Still, his primary responsibility is to get pressure on the QB, and he lines up along the line a majority of his snaps. As a linebacker, he gets lost amidst the tackle-heavy options, but he stands out as a defensive lineman. Landry brings a solid weekly tackle floor and can have big weeks when the sacks come. Over the past two years, he’s been a solid DL2 that you can find later in drafts.
Dupree is a former first-rounder that the Steelers selected, groomed, and later couldn’t afford to pay once his rookie contract ran out. Dupree emerged as a force in 2019 opposite burgeoning star TJ Watt. That year, he finished as the fifth overall DL player in IDP123, with 68 tackles and 11.5 sacks. He was pacing for similar stats in 2020 until an ACL tear in December ended his season. He was a stable option until that point, with less than 14 points in only 3 of his 11 games.
Tennessee desperately needed help on the defensive line and signed Dupree to a five-year deal worth $82.5 Million. Despite handing him the largest deal in free agency to switch teams, the Titans have an out in 2022. Dupree will have some help but was brought in to be the star of the defensive line. This will be a big shift from his breakout when he had the good fortune of playing opposite TJ Watt. The elite support around him resulted in 60% of his production coming from cleanup plays. Dupree will need to create more on his own, and I expect some regression to hit, especially as he works back from a serious injury.
Jeffrey Simmons was a disruptive force at Mississippi State. He had 60 tackles in each of his sophomore and junior years. During that same period, he had 30 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. Draft analysts considered him as a top interior disruptor alongside Ed Oliver and Quinnen Williams until he tore his ACL training for the combine. Tennessee took a chance on his top-end talent at an injury discount with pick 19.
This devastating injury in the leadup to the draft led most to believe he would take a redshirt rookie year. But just eight months post-injury, he was activated from the NFI list and played his first game for the Titans. He made an immediate splash, finishing with 4 tackles and a sack. Amidst last year’s chaotic COVID season, he could not parlay that efficient rookie production into a true breakout. His play still showed a dominant inside force, as recognized by his 83.6 PFF grade.
He is only a consideration for DT-specific leagues. It is difficult to find good weekly contributors at DT, and getting a star at the position can give you an advantage akin to elite TEs on the offensive side of the ball. Elite DTs are similarly expensive, so it is a good strategy to target potential breakouts before they hit. Simmons is one of my favorite targets.
The Titans defense functioned much better when Jayon Brown was on the field. He is great in coverage, grading out as the 10th best linebacker since 2018, according to PFF. This strength is rare to find at the position; typically, these players are well paid. It was a poor offseason to become a free agent, and after testing the waters, Jayon decided to take a one-year, $5.3 million deal to return in hopes of boosting his value for a stronger market next year.
Brown might be one of the best deals at LB for 2021, both for fantasy and for the Titans. He will be an every-down player due to his prowess defending the passing game. No one else on the depth chart has the talent to challenge for Jayon’s spot in single LB sets. The only concern for his ability to dominate snaps is more missed time to injury. Last year a fractured elbow sidelined him for the final six games of 2020, and he missed two the year prior.
Even as injuries have kept him from reaching his full potential as an LB1, Jayon has improved every year. In 2018, he averaged 6 tackles per game. That increased to 7.4 in 2019 and 7.6 in 2020, a pace of 122 over a 16 game season. That pace would’ve been 12th in the league alongside names like Tremaine Edmunds, Fred Warner, and Demario Davis. If he puts together a full season, you could see LB1 production without paying the premium required of those other big names.
Before Brown established himself in 2018, Tennessee drafted Rashaan Evans to be the star of this unit. Coming out of Alabama, Tennessee used their first-round pick on him. Evans wasn’t ready to carry that mantle as a rookie and has stayed under the shadow of Brown ever since. Although he’s been a solid run defender, he carries the perception of a disappointment by failing to meet the exceedingly high expectations that come with lofty draft capital. The Titans declined his fifth-year option, making 2021 a contract year for Evans. They’ve spoken about their desire to reach an extension, which would be the best case for Evans. Otherwise, he may get lost in the offseason shuffle of other run-stuffing linebackers and find himself competing for a starting job.
Monty Rice flew under the radar leading up to the draft. Even after the Titans selected him on day 2, he still seems to be a huge value. IDP managers are still selecting guys like Ernest Jones and Baron Browning first, despite Rice’s better draft capital. Rice is a solid yet unspectacular player. His strong suit is navigating through traffic to stop the run. He is under the prototypical size and still has progress to make in defending against the pass.
With Brown and Evans going into free agency in 2022, Rice might find himself with significant opportunity as soon as next year. We’ve seen players like Dre Greenlaw develop into solid starters with a similar profile. Rice is a prospect that could follow a similar trajectory. It’s a projection, but the path to starting Mike LB is there, and he can be picked up with your last pick and stashed on your taxi squad while you wait.
The Titans moved to a two-high safety look in 2020, a departure from previous seasons. Kevin Byard’s career-high 111 tackles reflect this shift away from playing as the deep safety. This is a significant bump from his average of 84 during the preceding three years. Perhaps also due to his closer alignment, Byard only managed 1 interception in 2020 after having 17 during the three prior years. As a result of this new defensive philosophy, Byard trades his ceiling from splash plays for a more stable tackle floor. Either way, he gets it done, as he’s finished as DB 16, 26, 14, and 2 in the last four years. He’s a reliable asset offering solid DB2 value and hasn’t missed a game due to injury.
With the release of Kenny Vaccaro, the Titans open up room for Amani Hooker. He’s played in limited snaps as the third safety in dime looks and now has a larger opportunity to capitalize on. He’s a name to monitor as we see how Tennessee deploys their defense this year.
The Titans have a lot of interesting names to consider. Jayon Brown is a good football player and solid IDP LB but had a soft free-agent market, leading to questions about his future. Unless he comes back on a cheap deal, Rashaan Evans is an expiring IDP asset. This leaves a path to playing time in 2022 for Monty Rice, a value in your rookie drafts. Simmons, Landry, and Dupree are an improved unit and could succeed together. All have some questions surrounding them, though, and if anyone disappoints, the whole unit could struggle similar to last year. Kevin Byard has been as steady as it gets at a volatile position and gives more weekly reliability with a higher tackle floor from the change to split safety looks.
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