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VOL. 46 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 24, 2022

Questions answered, unanswered as Titans wrap offseason

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The offseason work is in the books for the Tennessee Titans.

Installations have been made for both the offensive and defensive systems. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been working to develop chemistry with his new receivers, and rookies and other newcomers are working to get more comfortable, so they can be ready to go once training camp opens July 26.

Other than that, the naked eye doesn’t really glean a lot from voluntary organized team activities or mandatory minicamps.

A truer read as to whether a wide receiver making standout plays in a helmet and shorts will carry that over into camp won’t be known until camp practices start.

And accurate evaluations of offensive and defensive linemen can’t be determined until the team has spent a few days in pads.

Perhaps the biggest thing learned from this Titans offseason is that there are still a lot of question marks for a team that held the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs last year, then squandered it in a playoff loss to upstart Cincinnati.

So as there is now about a month before training camp opens, let’s examine the top three positives coming out of offseason work and into the 2022 preseason and the three biggest concerns that face the

First, let’s examine the glass half full.

1. Derrick Henry looks bigger, is motivated

When Henry was last seen, he had just made his way back from missing half the season with a broken foot, and looked rusty in a 20-carry, 62-yard rushing effort against the Bengals.

During minicamp – Henry was not in camp during OTAs – the Titans star spoke of the disappointment of the way last year ended, and vowed that he would return to his old self.

“I had time away (this offseason),” he says. “I’ve been training like crazy and doing everything I can to keep my body right. I’ve just been working, and through that time (while injured) I was off for like nine or 10 weeks, and then coming back.

“I felt good, but I didn’t play well enough. There’s no excuse. I’ve got to be better, and I should have been better. But I feel good now.”

Who knows if Henry can run for 2,000 yards again – no one has ever accomplished the feat twice – but there’s no doubt the Titans offense will again run through No. 22.

2. Defense could be even better

In today’s pass-happy NFL, it isn’t sexy anymore to win games on defense.

But that’s exactly what the Titans are likely to rely on, at least early in the season, as they return 10 of 11 starters from a year ago, including a unit that had 43 sacks during the regular season and nine more in the playoffs.

The Titans seems to believe Jeffery Simmons is just now entering his prime, and with Bud Dupree now more than a year removed from his ACL surgery. This unit could be even better this season.

A big area of emphasis, however, is forcing turnovers. Last year, for all their improvement, the Titans had just four fumble recoveries on defense and special teams to go with 16 interceptions.

“We’ve been talking about that all season,” defensive line coach Terrell Williams says. “It’s not as easy as it seems to get the ball out. Sometimes we get them out and the offense gets them back. and it’s just by chance. We’re going to keep swinging and doing what we need to do to get more takeaways.”

If that happens, and a few more balls bounce the Titans way, the defense could put up some special numbers this year.

3. Tannehill exerting leadership

It seems you can’t talk to an offensive coach on the Titans staff without someone mentioning Tannehill’s leadership skills.

Tannehill admitted how much he was undone by his three-interception playoff performance that ended last season, to the point of seeing a therapist to get back on track.

With the drafting of quarterback Malik Willis, and Tannehill’s struggles last year, there is reason to believe the clock is ticking on the 34-year-old quarterback.

With nearly a whole new receiving corps, Tannehill’s leadership and work leading up to the regular season may be more important than ever if the Titans are going to remain a contender in the AFC beyond just winning a weak division.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he says. “There’s a lot of new faces around here, and it’s good to see those guys come out and learn the playbook and learn the way we do things.

“We’re learning each other as players. … I’m learning how they move, how they run outs and how they fit into our system.”

And now for the glass half empty – the questions the Titans must answer going into 2022.

1. The receiver room is completely different

Tannehill and A.J. Brown developed a special chemistry from the moment they arrived together in 2019. Both were second-teamers trying to work their way up, and that bond resulted in many big plays for the Titans.

With Brown traded to the Eagles after being disgruntled with his contract in Tennessee, the Titans’ receiver room looks to be in shambles.

Julio Jones, who had his moments but not enough to counter injuries and a high salary, was also let go.

Now, the Titans are looking around seeing who is going to step up this season. Will it be:

• Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, the only holdover with any measurable rapport with Tannehill?

Key dates for Titans

July 26: Report to training camp
Aug. 11: Preseason opener at Baltimore
Aug. 16: Rosters cut from 90 players to 85
Aug. 20: Preseason home opener versus Bucs. Two joint practices with the Buccaneers have been scheduled in the lead-up to the game, most likely taking place Wednesday and Thursday.
Aug. 23: Rosters cut from 85 players to 80
Aug. 27: Preseason finale at home versus Cardinals. Similar to the sessions with the Bucs, the Titans and Cardinals will hold joint practices during the week ahead of the Saturday game.
Aug. 30: Rosters cut from 80 players to 53.
Aug. 31: Teams can begin signing players to their 16-man practice squads.

• Robert Woods, a pickup from the Rams who’s coming off an ACL injury suffered in November?

• 2022 first-round pick Treylon Burks, who has been slowed by asthma and conditioning issues?

• Second-year guys Dez Fitzpatrick or Racey McMath, or even rookie Kyle Philips? And what of journeyman Josh Malone, who has impressed in the offseason?

With so many questions, these questions might linger past the preseason and stretch into the regular season.

The silver lining in this is that it could force the Titans to play more two-tight end sets, as new arrivals Austin Hooper and rookie Chig Okonkwo look to be picking things up quickly. And Tannehill seemed to thrive in that more than he did in the three-wide base the Titans ran a year ago.

2. Make sure pass protection is fixed

Last year, the Titans were strong in run blocking, which is good for a team that bases its offense off the running game. The line blocked well enough that even when Henry went down, street free agents like Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman were able to pick up the slack and perform rather well.

Pass protection? Well, that was a completely different animal. The line allowed 47 sacks a year ago, and you can bet that led to at least a few of Tannehill’s 14 interceptions.

The Titans let right tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold go, leaving even more questions.

Dillon Radunz, a second-round pick in 2021, would appear to have the inside track at right tackle, provided he can fend off rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere.

Free agent pickup Jamarco Jones and interior swingman Aaron Brewer will compete at left guard – unless the Titans somehow decide Radunz is better suited there, opening right tackle for Petit-Frere.

The situation needs to be sorted out quickly for the sake of both the passing and tunning games. Line coach Keith Carter says he is optimistic the questions can be answered positively.

“We’ve had a real good offseason, and we’re going to go into fall camp healthy and be able to build on where we’re at now,” he says.

3. Will the Jeffery Simmons contract be a distraction?

Distractions don’t play well in Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson’s world. The A.J. Brown situation is a good example.

The next big contract they will have to deal with is for defensive tackle Simmons.

Simmons’ situation probably won’t be dealt with in the same manner as Brown’s. In a somewhat clumsy press conference, with Simmons not being on the field for minicamp work was interpreted by some as a contract leverage statement, the defensive tackle tried his best to deflect that thought.

“I’m here to play football. I’ve got a team around me that handles my contract situations and my future and all that,” Simmons says. “I’m focused on training and getting ready for the season.

“I’m on a plan. I’ve been talking to Coach Vrabs (Mike Vrabel) and (trainer) Todd (Toriscelli) and everyone. I’m unavailable to practice, if anyone asks that, but I’ve been on a plan with them to focus on how much can I improve, not just doing drills right now, but in the film room, in the weight room, anything like that.

“My focus is not on my contract. That’s why I’ve got a team around me. They can focus on all the contract talk and whatever may be, if there is contract talks.”

Technically, the Titans don’t have to address Simmons’ situation until next year, but the question is going to linger until Simmons is back on the field the first day of camp.

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