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State of the 2022 Tennessee Titans: A.J. Brown's gone, but don't overlook this Derrick Henry-led bunch

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Titans organization, Titans fans around the world and those who wouldn't mind the team breaking out those old-school Eddie George Oilers jerseys every once in a while:

I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you. Last year was a disappointment. But we are not here to talk about the old stuff. It's a new day! And while everyone wants to pretend Tennessee is going to take a step back this season, I'm not that guy. The Titans are once again going to be one of the better teams in the AFC. And that's what I'm here to explain. But before we fully shift forward, let's take a quick glance back ...

2021 rewind

One high note from last season: Capturing the top seed in the AFC. Tennessee finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak with victories over the 49ers, Dolphins and Texans to earn the coveted bye in the AFC playoffs. Derrick Henry was on his way back into the lineup. Things were really looking up for the Titans.

One low note from last season: Losing to the Bengals in the Divisional Round. I mean, you sacked Joe Burrow like 30 times. (OK, it was nine.) Henry wasn't quite himself, though. It's hard to overcome the sting of losing that game at home, especially after seeing Cincinnati take its playoff run all the way to the season's final Sunday. It should have been you in that Super Bowl!

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Vrabel. I was bemused last year at this time because Vrabel barely made the top 20 in Fantasy Pros' ranking of the best NFL head coaches. And he didn't make Pro Football Focus' more-concentrated list at all. Maybe offended is a better word for my feeling at that time. (Though, I don't know why I would take that personally. But I digress.) The good news is he moved up both rankings this year after leading the Titans to the top seed in the AFC. Doing this after losing Derrick Henry. And in PFF's rankings, he's behind Kliff Kingsbury(!) but ahead of Sean McVay. And now I'm left wondering why I'm even paying attention to these lists.

I'll just remain with the same point that I made last year in this space, where I still believe Vrabel is one of the best coaches in the NFL. He has that quality where, at times, he feels like he would be perfectly cast as the coach on Riverdale or something. But he's done a great job of keeping this team together -- especially last year, through injuries to a lot of crucial players.

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill. I still believe in Tanny, despite the fact that he's coming off his roughest year in Tennessee. In fact, he threw more interceptions in 2021 (14) than in 2020 and 2019 combined (13). But he still led the Titans to a 12-5 record, finishing the regular season on a nice three-game winning streak. He completed close to 75 percent of his passes over that final stretch with seven passing touchdowns and zero picks, producing a passer rating of 125.3. He was pretty good.

Well, until the playoff game. I know we talk a lot about how ferociously the Titans' defensive front got after Joe Burrow in that playoff loss. But the Bengals' defense was pretty good against Tannehill, picking him off three times. There is going to be some heat on Tanny this year, especially with a rookie quarterback in the mix -- more on him in a bit. Ultimately, I would say that Tannehill is a winner.

Projected 2022 MVP: Derrick Henry, running back. Dude missed nine games in 2021 and still finished ninth in rushing with 937 yards. That had never happened before in NFL history -- a guy missing that many games and still posting a top-10 rushing total. I mean, King Henry is an absolute machine. And let's talk about what he means to Tannehill, who threw 11 of his 14 interceptions when Henry was off the field. I know running backs -- or bell-cow running backs, at least -- are an increasingly rare breed in the NFL, but Henry is still a force of nature in this role.

My favorite Derrick Henry stat: He has averaged 100-plus rushing yards per game in each of the last three seasons. The only person to log four straight? Jim Brown.

New face to know: Hassan Haskins, running back. The Titans wisely drafted Haskins in the fourth round of this year's draft. Yes, we ALL love Derrick Henry, but the Titans need to be smart about this. Haskins set a Michigan record with 20 rushing touchdowns in 2021. He's also a chain-mover, having rushed for 103 first downs in 2021, which led FBS, according to Pro Football Focus.

2022 breakout star: David Long Jr., linebacker. The Titans had some critical losses on defense, including linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans. That leaves Long, who needs to step up and show the promise he flashed last season, when injuries limited him to just 10 games. Long is one of those guys who has always risen to the occasion. After initially redshirting at West Virginia, he eventually emerged to become Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. And despite being the 188th overall player -- and second David Long -- selected in the 2019 draft, the 'backer has been a factor, making some key plays in his young career. If he stays healthy -- I know, always the caveat -- Long could be a big-time leader for the Titans this season.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 at Buffalo Bills (Monday night). The Titans have the eighth-easiest strength of schedule in 2022, based on their opponents' .471 win percentage in 2021. But Tennessee is going to be tested early with this trip to Buffalo.
  • Week 9 at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday night). Always fun when these two get together. This is what many Titans fans thought was going to be last season's AFC title game, only this time in K.C.
  • Week 12 vs. Cincinnati Bengals. We all know this was the one you were looking for, Titans faithful, when the NFL schedule was released a few months back.

Will the Titans be able to ...

... overcome the loss of A.J. Brown? There was a lot of surprising movement at the wide receiver position this offseason, with Brown's draft-day relocation to Philly possibly the most shocking of all. While the Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill deals certainly stopped the presses, both of those guys are closing in on age 30. Brown is still a young dude -- and one who led the Titans in most major receiving categories during each of his three years with the franchise. Tennessee really did a nice job of trying to overcome this loss. I say trying because it's not going to be easy. But the team drafted Treylon Burks, who was an excellent all-around playmaker at Arkansas, scoring 12 touchdowns this past season alone. The Titans also made a sneaky-good move by getting Robert Woods from the Rams, even though he is coming back from a torn ACL. Also, don't overlook TE Austin Hooper coming to town. I mean, we love A.J. Brown, but the Titans could still be pretty good in regard to pass catchers.

... continue climbing defensively? Tennessee ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense, sacks and passing touchdowns allowed in 2021, after ranking in the bottom 10 in all those categories in 2020. The Titans were the only team to boast three players with at least eight sacks in 2021: Harold Landry (12), Denico Autry (9) and Jeffery Simmons (8.5). And they still have a lot of talent on defense. Bud Dupree missed six games due to injury last year. And I already talked about David Long Jr. One of the keys will be at the corner position opposite Kristian Fulton. Caleb Farley is at the top of the depth chart at the moment, despite having missed 14 games last year with a torn ACL. If he returns in top form, that Titans secondary will be pretty formidable.

One storyline ...

... people are overthinking: Ryan Tannehill saying it's not his job to mentor Malik Willis. Too much was made out of that situation after Tannehill gave a very candid answer. And honestly, it was more like, "Hey, I've got a job to do!", as opposed to the veteran starter freezing out his third-round understudy. Let's be honest, too: Willis is a third-round pick. Though he is Tennessee's highest-drafted quarterback since Marcus Mariota went second overall in 2015, Willis might not be ready to play just yet. Sure, he's promising. After all, dude piled up 74 total touchdowns in the past two seasons. But that was at Liberty -- he might need a little time to adjust to the NFL. I'm sure many longtime fans of the franchise are already comparing Willis to former NFL MVP Steve McNair. Hey, it's July!

... people are overlooking: There is help coming on the offensive line. The Titans had to make some tough decisions on the offensive line. And while many thought they would have added some high-round draft picks to that position group, their top selection in this department came in the third round when they nabbed Nicholas Petit-Frere. Seeing how he entered his last season at Ohio State with some first-round buzz, Petit-Frere could end up being a value pick. And he won't have to produce immediately, as the Titans are expected to start 2021 second-round pick Dillon Radunz at right tackle this season.

For 2022 to be a success, the Titans MUST:

  • Make a serious playoff run. Tennessee has been knocking on the door in recent years. To some, it might seem like the window of opportunity has closed, considering all of the earth-shattering moves across the AFC this offseason. But I feel like it would be a huge mistake to overlook the Titans. King Henry is back. They've made moves to get a bit younger in some key spots. And overall, I think this is still a good, competitive roster with a stellar head coach driving the ship. I still consider Tennessee the team to beat in the AFC South.

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