The Tennessee Titans upgraded in a big way on Sunday with their trade for receiver Julio Jones. We look at how it alters the AFC picture.
Julio Jones is heading four hours north. The Tennessee Titans are heading up the standings.
On Sunday, the Titans traded a 2022 second-round choice and ’23 fourth-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for Jones and a ’23 sixth-round selection. By any metric, Tennessee general manager John Robinson walks away a huge winner, giving quarterback Ryan Tannehill a trio of high-end weapons in Jones, fellow receiver A.J. Brown and star running back Derrick Henry.
Ultimately, though, the big question is simple: how good are the Titans?
At first glance, few teams have undergone such a facelift this offseason. Tennessee lost receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith to free agency while releasing cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson. Additionally, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left for the head-coaching gig in Atlanta, being replaced by Todd Downing.
Conversely, the team signed edge rusher Bud Dupree and defensive lineman Denico Autry to bolster a pass-rushing unit that ranked 30th in sacks and 31st in pressure rate last season. Tennessee also signed veteran corner Janoris Jenkins and used its first-round pick on Virginia Tech corner Caleb Farley to round out a new-look secondary.
In the macro, Jones adds a dimension that makes it impossible to load up in an effort to stop Henry, while also ensuring single coverage on Brown. In the micro, Tannehill now becomes a much more important part of the offense, something which either elevates the Titans or potentially sinks them.
While some bang on Tannehill, he’s been solid in Tennessee. Through two seasons, the former first-round choice of the Miami Dolphins has helped the Titans to an AFC Championship Game and an AFC South title. Last year, Tannehill threw for 3,819 yards with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions in a run-dominated scheme.
In FanSided’s season-ending quarterback rankings, I placed Tannehill eighth, directly behind Justin Herbert and ahead of Derek Carr and Lamar Jackson. My rationale is Tannehill plays well when Henry is rolling and the defense can’t focus on the passing game. In both of Tennessee’s playoff losses, Tannehill struggled when the Titans were forced into obvious passing downs.
With Jones and Brown representing a top duo, defenses are going to deploy more resources to stop the downfield game, allowing Henry to run against light boxes. This is a good development for Tannehill, who likely won’t be forced into as many second and third-and-longs.
Finally, the trade might shift the balance of power in the AFC South. In our season predictions, I had Tennessee at 9-8, finishing one game behind the Indianapolis Colts and missing the postseason on a tiebreaker. Now, it’s hard to see Indianapolis as the better team, especially with Carson Wentz still needing to prove last year was a fluke and not an indicator.
While the AFC still runs through the Kansas City Chiefs, the Titans have vaulted themselves to another level. The Buffalo Bills still hold the rightful mantle as top challenger to Kansas City with a terrific offense and solid defense, but the Titans are in the mix with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens on the next tier. If Tennessee’s defense can come together, the Titans could prove a real threat.
We’ll likely find out plenty about Tennessee’s ceiling in October when the Titans host the Bills on Monday Night Football in Week 6 before welcoming in the Chiefs six days later. After that, road games with the Colts and Los Angeles Rams.
All told, the Titans remain a wild card for the 2021 season. But after landing one of the league’s premier talents in Julio Jones, they’re a much more intriguing one with substantial upside.
Best all-time receivers not in the Hall of Fame (eligible only)
1. Sterling Sharpe, Green Bay Packers (5x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 3x rec. leader, 2x TD leader)
2. Torry Holt, St. Louis Rams (7x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 1x SB champ, HOF 2000s Team)
3. Cliff Branch, Oakland Raiders (4x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 3x SB champ, two 1,000-yard seasons)
4. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts (6x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 1x SB champ, 14,385 yards)
5. Henry Ellard, Los Angeles Rams (3x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 13,777 yards, 65 TDs)
6. Harold Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles (5x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, three 1,000-yard seasons, 76 TDs)
7. Otis Taylor, Kansas City Chiefs (3x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, SB champ, ’71 yards leader, 17.8 YPR)
8. Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers (6x Pro Bowl, 2x SB champ, six 1,000-yard seasons, 85 TDs)
9. Jimmy Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars (5x Pro Bowl, nine 1,000-yard seasons)
10. Mark Clayton, Miami Dolphins (5x Pro Bowl, five 1,000-yard seasons, 2x TD leader)
"“I mean, as a typical receiver I feel like if the ball is in the air 50/50, the receiver is feeling like it’s 100/0 always. I’m looking to be more aggressive. Any time I see the ball in the air, I believe it is mine.”"
– Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb on his mentality entering Year 2
It’s hard for a star on the Cowboys to go unheralded, but Lamb managed the trick as a rookie. Stuck on a bad team with Andy Dalton largely at the helm, the former Oklahoma star was phenomenal after dropping in the draft, going for 935 yards on 74 catches with five touchdowns in 2020.
With Dak Prescott healthy and Amari Cooper opposite him, Lamb is poised to have a massive season in Dallas.
Steve DeBerg played with the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, Chiefs, Dolphins across 18 seasons. He was replaced by Joe Montana, John Elway and Steve Young over his first three stops. Nobody had worse luck.
Also, a fun note: DeBerg managed to always wear No. 17, even after a five-year retirement before returning in 1998 for a year with the Falcons.
Info learned this week
1. Ravens wanting new look from Lamar Jackson is important gamble
Love watching Lamar Jackson torture defenses in the pistol and shotgun? Bad news is coming.
Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman says Jackson will be climbing under center more often in 2021, perhaps signaling a larger commitment to the passing game. Last year, the Ravens were only in such a formation four percent of their snaps.
It’s an intriguing development for a team that has dominated in the regular season (Jackson is 30-7) only to struggle in the postseason, going 1-3 over the past three years. Roman might believe the Ravens have to evolve as a multi-faceted attack, with the run-heavy approach stagnating in January against better defenses.
Over the last two seasons, Jackson has won MVP and led the league once in touchdown passes, but is yet to throw for 3,200 yards in a campaign. His legs have churned out more than 1,000 rushing yards in each season, but it hasn’t translated to postseason success.
Also, Jackson is now eligible for an extension as a veteran with three years experience. Are the Ravens trying to create a situation where he throws more to understand whether that portion of his skill set can carry the club when the run game either struggles or gets shut off?
Wouldn’t be the worst idea when the organization is trying to make a $200 million (or so) decision.
2. Robert Saleh is wisely setting tone early in Jets tenure
The New York Jets have been a bumbling, rudderless mess for a decade. Robert Saleh is looking for a culture change. Now.
On Friday, the first-time head coach spoke to local media and relayed left tackle Mekhi Becton will miss time with a foot injury. Without being blunt, Saleh then say the second-year tackle needs to get in better shape, with weight potentially being a contributing factor to his plantar fasciitis.
Although Becton is only a second-year player, he’s one of New York’s best players and a future cornerstone. Saleh challenging him publicly sends a message to the rest of the team, letting them know there’s a new way of approaching business.
While the Jets will ultimately rise and fall with the play of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and the ability of Saleh to guide the team, it’s a smart move by a young coach to create a standard immediately.
3. Falcons’ bad cap management puts them on long road back to relevancy
There’s a popular refrain that says the NFL salary cap is fake. Which is true, to a point.
The Falcons reached that point and then some, resulting in the trade of the best player in franchise history. Atlanta got a pair of draft picks back — while sending one of its own to Tennessee as well — while losing an iconic star.
The Falcons didn’t trade Jones because he’s declining or because he’s a locker room issue (he’s neither). They traded him because they literally couldn’t afford to sign their draft picks, and with so much immovable, big money in other stars, dealing away Jones was the only reasonable way out.
General manager Terry Fontenot had little choice in trading Jones, which is why he got back such a meager return. In reality, this trade is nothing about Fontenot and more a referendum on the final years of Thomas Dimitroff’s tenure.
Bad money begat bad money for years in Atlanta, and now the bill came due.
4. Packers feeling pressure amid Rodgers’ situation
With little to do in Green Bay but ride out the midwestern heat wave this week, people are getting antsy.
In a column on the team website, president and CEO Mark Murphy wrote the Aaron Rodgers situation is “dividing our fan base.” This comes as little shock, as some will back Rodgers for not being given enough help by way of first-round offensive weapons, and others will say the team has been competitive around him for a decade.
However, it’s more important to keep reading Murphy’s piece, where he states the team remains committed to keeping Rodgers in Green Bay for 2021 and beyond.
So what does it all mean? The Packers have little incentive to trade Rodgers right now. While being post-June 1 makes it financially feasible, Green Bay won’t get to use assets from the deal — 2022 draft picks — until April. So whether Rodgers is dealt tomorrow or in March, Green Bay isn’t seeing any tangible benefit until next spring. However, trading him before the completion of the ’21 campaign means being far less competitive.
Could Rodgers be dealt? Yes, absolutely. If the situation becomes toxic enough, or if Rodgers holds out long enough, perhaps Green Bay decides to move on and get a haul.
However, it seems the smart move is to wait and force Rodgers’ hand, either by him coming into training camp to play, or by eventually looking like the bad guy for PR reasons.
5. Texans are in NFL’s worst spot for myriad reasons
The Houston Texans arguably have the league’s worst roster. They also have its oldest. Not good.
With quarterback Deshaun Watson wanting out and still being embroiled in an ugly legal situation, it’s unclear who will start Week 1 under center in Houston. For now, Tyrod Taylor is taking starting snaps with the top weaponry being receivers Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, alongside running backs Phillip Lindsay and David Johnson.
Defensively, it’s a unit which despite some solid players — linebackers Whitney Mercilus and Zach Cunningham, and safety Justin Reid among them — might finish last in many rankings.
Somehow, the Texans also rank 27th in projected cap space for next offseason, with only $2.9 million. The good news? Houston has its first-round pick for the first time in years.
All this has been placed upon the shoulders of first-time head coach David Culley, a 65-year-old who is well-respected as a terrific football man but has never been a coordinator before. If ever there was an incredible challenge, this is it.
It’s one thing to be awful and rebuilding with a young, cheap group. It’s another to be capped out with an awful, old squad. This is the plight the Texans face.
Is any player under more pressure than Daniel Jones this year? Maybe, but he’s on the shortlist.
Jones, 24, is entering his third season after a rough 2020 set back expectations. As a rookie in ’19, the Duke product threw for 3,027 yards and 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions on 13 games. Last year, his numbers dove to 2,943 yards and 11 scores against 10 picks in 14 contests. Ugly.
This offseason, general manager Dave Gettleman surrounded Jones with elite talent. The Giants signed receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Kyle Rudolph and drafted wideout Kadarius Toney with the No. 20 overall pick. They also get running back Saquon Barkley back from a torn ACL. In short, few quarterbacks have more weapons to work with.
However, Jones might be facing his crossroads. If he has another poor performance, the Giants can move on. New York is well-positioned with a pair of 2022 first-round picks, allowing it to either trade for a disgruntled veteran or move up in the draft — if necessary — to land a new signal-caller.
Ultimately, Jones has fate in his hands. A good year and the Giants can build around him with the aforementioned picks, perhaps making Big Blue a favorite in the NFC East.
If he struggles, though, hopefully, he’s renting.
Inside the league
Don’t look now, but the Chiefs might be even better in 2021.
After a widely-lauded draft by general manager Brett Veach, Kansas City entered OTAs as the Super Bowl favorite largely because of its supersonic offense. Through the early portion of offseason activities, sources close to the team are thrilled with the early returns on tight end Noah Gray and guard Trey Smith.
Smith, a sixth-round pick, fell to Kansas City due to a blood clot condition that developed during his time at Tennessee. However, the former No. 1 overall recruit coming into college has immense talent, and it’s been showcased so far this spring. While being a Day 1 starter could be difficult with veterans Kyle Long and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif in the mix at right guard, it’s a matter of time before Smith becomes a mainstay on the Chiefs’ front.
As for Gray, the fifth-rounder is acclimating himself well to Kansas City’s exotic attack. The former Duke star checks in at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, and alongside star Travis Kelce, could finally be a quality second option in a two-tight end set. The Chiefs have been searching for Kelce’s running mate for years, and the buzz early is Gray could be the answer.
No season was stranger than 1982.
The NFL dealt with its first major work stoppage, causing seven weeks to be canceled. Incredibly, Wes Chandler of the San Diego Chargers still managed 1,032 receiving yards and didn’t win a single award.
Why not? Because Washington kicker Mark Moseley took home MVP honors. Moseley connected on 21 straight field goals, helping Washington to the top seed in the NFC playoffs and eventually, the Super Bowl title.
Lastly, speaking of the playoffs, they didn’t exist in 1982. Instead, it was the Super Bowl Tournament with 16 teams — eight per conference — invited to participate. Both the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions got in with sub-.500 records (4-5), while Washington and Dallas were the NFC’s top two seeds despite both residing in the NFC East.
We’ve had some quirky campaigns in the NFL. None more so than 1982.
The COVID vaccine has been a nationwide topic for months. Now, the NFL is taking its turn.
Last week, much was made about certain Buffalo Bills players refusing to talk about their stance on the topic, specifically quarterback Josh Allen and safety Jordan Poyer. While nobody should ever feel pressured into talking about their medicals, it’s also becoming a major point of conversation.
Strictly from a football standpoint, teams with the most unvaccinated players are dealing with additional risk beyond the obvious health concerns. While we aren’t sure where teams rank in terms of vaccination percentage, the ones toward the bottom could have outbreaks during the season. With a way to manage COVID that didn’t exist in 2020, the NFL could take a harsh stance towards those clubs and not delay or suspend any contest.
While we expect full crowds and a lot fewer missed games due to COVID, the virus isn’t a non-factor for the upcoming season. And for teams with a high percentage of their players vaccinated, they begin with an advantage over ones that are not.