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State of the 2023 Tennessee Titans: Can Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill spark return to playoffs?

Where does your squad stand in 2023? 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 are convinced that the only Titans I truly love come from Cal State Fullerton ...

Nashville's Titans appear to be at a crossroads. From 2019 to 2021, they made the playoffs three straight times and won the AFC South twice. They entered Week 12 of last season with a comfortable lead in the division -- and then they blew that lead, missing the postseason for just the second time in the Mike Vrabel era. Can Tennessee recapture the South? Good question. But before we look forward, we must take a quick glance back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Improving to 7-3 in Week 11. Ryan Tannehill threw for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Lambeau Field on Thursday Night Football, and the Titans defeated the Packers, 27-17. They'd recovered from an 0-2 start to the season by winning seven of eight, and that third consecutive AFC South title was within view.

One low from last season: Failing to win another game after that. Following the post-TNF mini-bye, Tennessee lost a spirited contest with the Bengals by four points (20-16), then dropped the remaining six games, including two against the division-capturing Jaguars.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill. For the second straight year, the Titans used a Day 2 draft choice on a QB who could potentially replace Tannehill. It's no surprise that Tannehill was seen by his head coach as the starter after the draft, or that Tannehill was reportedly well ahead of the other QBs on the roster at minicamp. 2022 third-round pick Malik Willis wasn't great in the three games he started last season. And while I haven't seen 2023 second-round pick Will Levis play in an NFL game yet, I'll go ahead and guess that he faces an uphill climb when it comes to pushing Tannehill aside as a rookie, even if he was the 33rd overall player drafted.

Tannehill might not be a superstar, but he's been efficient when healthy and given a chance. It's no coincidence that the decisive final failures of the 2022 season came while Tannehill was on the shelf with an ankle injury. He was done no favors by the decision made last year (during former general manager Jon Robinson's tenure) to trade away receiver A.J. Brown. I can see the logic in preparing for life after the 34-year-old veteran, who is entering the final season of his contract, or in trying to upgrade the backup QB spot. But the Titans can't win if Tannehill doesn't play well. I'm aware every other pick this year was spent on non-QB-playing offensive prospects. But why not focus all resources (including the draft capital required to trade up for Levis) on finding talent to support Tannehill now?

Projected 2023 MVP: Derrick Henry, running back. Don't blame Henry for the Titans' falloff last year. You might be tempted to when you see that the Bengals held him to 38 rushing yards in Week 12 and the Eagles held him to 30 in Week 13. That wasn't great. But then you see he also dashed off a 69-yard gain on a catch made behind the line of scrimmage in that Cincinnati game, and that he had 100-plus rushing yards in all four games he played down the stretch (he sat out the Cowboys game in Week 17), logging touchdowns in three of those four.

You might also be tempted to think Henry is old for a running back. And he is -- at 29, he's practically ancient. But he's not a normal running back, and I think we'll see him defy the normal bounds of the position. Kind of like the way Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus are way too old for the jokes they tell on stage, but it still works for them. This could be Henry's last hurrah in Tennessee, with his contract set to run out after 2023. Maybe he can put this team on his back one last time.

New face to know: Sean Murphy-Bunting, cornerback. The Titans ranked 32nd in passing yards allowed last season. Murphy-Bunting missed eight games with a dislocated elbow in 2021 and started just five of 12 appearances for the Buccaneers in 2022, but he's a veteran who brings depth and experience to the secondary, where he can compete with Kristian Fulton and Roger McCreary. Though he played on just 38 percent of Tampa's defensive snaps last season, per Next Gen Stats, he logged two picks and seven passes defensed, nearly matching his career highs in both categories (three and eight, set in 16 games during his rookie season). He was signed to a low-risk, one-year prove-it deal, reportedly worth $5 million. If Murphy-Bunting stays healthy and balls out, he can be brought back on a longer contract. And if not, Tennessee can move on.

2023 breakout star: Monty Rice, linebacker. This offseason, the Titans parted ways with Zach Cunningham, David Long and Dylan Cole, which opens up an opportunity for Rice. Last season, the 2021 third-rounder managed to rank fourth on the team in tackles (63) despite starting just six of his 13 appearances and participating in 31 percent of Tennessee's defensive snaps. He's shown flashes, including encouraging speed. The next step for Rice will be achieving a higher level of consistency -- at least, that's how Mike Vrabel put it after Rice missed a portion of OTAs.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Mike Vrabel
General manager Ran Carthon
Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly
Defensive coordinator Shane Bowen
Special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman
  • Mike Vrabel is one of the best coaches in the NFL. I know the Titans crashed last season. And they might crash this year, too. But the Titans are always going to be one of those teams that has a puncher's chance, because Vrabel is that dude who is going to get the most out of them.
  • Really loved Tennessee hiring Ran Carthon to replace Jon Robinson. Ironic that a guy named Ran wants to, you know, run the ball. (Yes, I have plenty of dad jokes. Don't make me use them.) When Carthon expressed some disdain for relying on "Golden State Warriors football" in the warmer months of the season earlier this offseason, it caused quite a tizzy with all of the Gen Z fans who love when teams go for it on fourth-and-19. But hey, I like Carthon's appreciation for defense and the ground game. When teams zig in this pass-happy era, you need to find a way to zag. Plus, it shows he's on the same page with Vrabel, which is huge.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Titans' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern (1-11) Chris Moore, WR Joshua Dobbs, QB
Will Levis, QB, Kentucky (2-33) Andre Dillard, OT Dontrell Hilliard, RB
Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane (3-81) Daniel Brunskill, OG Chris Conley, WR
Josh Whyle, TE, Cincinnati (5-147) Arden Key, DL Robert Woods, WR
Jaelyn Duncan, OT, Maryland (6-186) Azeez Al-Shaair, LB Austin Hooper, TE
Colton Dowell, WR, Tennessee-Martin (7-228) Ben Niemann, LB Geoff Swaim, TE
Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB Taylor Lewan, OT
Dennis Daley, OG
Nate Davis, OG
Ben Jones, C
Bud Dupree, Edge
DeMarcus Walker, Edge
Mario Edwards, DL
Dylan Cole, LB
Zach Cunningham, LB
David Long, LB
Terrance Mitchell, CB
Andrew Adams, S
Joshua Kalu, S
Randy Bullock, K

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 vs. Los Angeles Chargers. For their home opener, the Titans host a West Coast team in the early window. If they can beat the Chargers, who are good, I think that would set a tone for the season, kind of announcing Tennessee as serious contenders for the AFC South.
  • Week 8 vs. Atlanta Falcons. The Titans will come into this game off a Week 7 bye, having already faced the Bengals (Week 4) and Ravens (Week 6). I like the Falcons a lot this year, but Tennessee will likely have to win this one to keep the season on track.
  • Week 17 at Houston Texans. The Titans close out the regular season on the road in Houston and then at home against the Jaguars. Figuring out how to beat the Jaguars is its own challenge, but Tennessee must avoid repeating last year's struggle to finish out strong. Winning the penultimate matchup of the year against a team that totaled three victories in 2022 would help in that effort.

Will the Titans be able to ...

... develop a pass catcher? There were times last season when I'd watch the Titans' passing offense and think to myself, They could really use an A.J. Brown type of receiver. But you just don't find guys like that every day. And if you were to find a guy like that, you would never get rid of him. Seriously, though, despite the unsightly numbers (outgoing veteran Robert Woods led the Titans with 527 receiving yards last season), there is talent here, including three players acquired in last year's draft.

Fifth-round pick Kyle Philips was great in Week 1 (66 yards on six catches) before his season was sidetracked by injuries. He could break out from the slot receiver position this year. My guy Chig Okonkwo, a fourth-round tight end, posted just 32 receptions but finished second on the team in receiving yards (450) and was tied for second in receiving touchdowns (three). And, of course, there is Treylon Burks, taken 18th overall with the first-round choice acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for Brown. Burks' rookie totals were unremarkable, but he also dealt with a foot/toe injury that landed him on injured reserve in October and ended up in the concussion protocol in December. In between, he and Ryan Tannehill were on the field together for three full games (Weeks 10-12), and Burks put up 14.6 yards per catch, notching the best outing of his debut season (seven catches for 111 yards) in the win over the Packers in Week 11.

... re-establish the offensive line? The Titans took some heavy losses on the offensive line, especially on the left side. Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones were released. Nate Davis and Dennis Daley signed with the Bears and Cardinals, respectively. Plus, they'll be without 2022 third-rounder Nicholas Petit-Frere for the first six games of the season while he serves a suspension for violating the NFL's gambling policy. Tennessee brought in former Eagles first-rounder Andre Dillard to start at left tackle and signed veteran guard Daniel Brunskill. But the franchise piece is Northwestern product Peter Skoronski, selected 11th overall in April. Many people -- I mean, Daniel Jeremiah -- felt Skoronski was the best offensive lineman in the draft.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: The defense could be really good. The Titans dealt with a plethora of injuries during the 2022 season, including a serious one to pass rusher Harold Landry, who missed the entire season with a torn ACL. But even so, the team was pretty great at stopping the run, ranking first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. Jeffery Simmons is back, having inked an extension after some speculation he could be on the move. (Much of said speculation came from Bears fans who wanted him to be traded to Chicago.) Along with Sean Murphy-Bunting, Tennessee signed defensive lineman Arden Key and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, ranked 47th and 74th among Gregg Rosenthal's top 101 free agents, respectively. If the Titans can just find a way to be somewhat decent against the pass (Landry's return should help), they could really be on to something.

For 2023 to be a success, the Titans MUST:

  • Make the playoffs. For any team that got as close to making the postseason in the previous season as the Titans did in 2022, following up with a playoff berth has to be the goal. Tennessee is apparently sticking with the veteran combo of Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill for at least one more season, and it would behoove the franchise to make the most of what could be their last ride together.

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