2021 NFL Preview: If Julio Jones has a great second act, the Titans could take off

·8-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

When Julio Jones went on the trading block, the Tennessee Titans were the only trade partner that made total sense. 

It's rare when deals are as easy as Jones to the Titans. Not long after the Jones trade rumors started the Atlanta Falcons and Titans made a deal. It didn't even cost the Titans too much for a future Hall of Fame receiver who should still have plenty in the tank. The Falcons got a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick, with the Titans getting back a 2023 sixth. 

A.J. Brown had a memorable tweet right after the trade. 

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He might be right.

It's very, very rare for a team to have a 2,000-yard rusher and two receivers the caliber of Jones and Brown. Derrick Henry is the best pure runner in the NFL and one of the best in many years. Henry rushed for 2,027 yards last season. He's a back-to-back rushing champ. In this era of worrying about overusing running backs, Henry is a throwback who seemingly never tires during a game and has not shown signs of slowing down. Most teams with a running back like that are lucky to have one game-changing receiver. 

Jones isn't a sure thing. If he was, he'd have cost more than a second- and fourth-round pick. He's 32 years old. He missed seven games last season. He was good last season but his yards per game has gone from 104.8 yards per game in 2018 to 92.9 in 2019 to 85.7 last season. He's a big-bodied receiver and they often age quickly. Jones is a supreme talent and there's no reason to believe he'll simply hit the wall this season. But it's possible. 

Let's say Jones is a reasonable facsimile of what he was in Atlanta. Brown is a physical specimen and has a monster season coming soon. Henry is perhaps the best pure runner the NFL has seen since Adrian Peterson's prime. Ryan Tannehill's passer ratings the past two years were a league-leading 117.5 and 106.5 last season, which is clearly good enough. There should no longer be questions about him being a capable quarterback. 

The Titans still have a way to go. The defense was not good last season, but perhaps edge rusher Bud Dupree helps at a critical spot. The Titans were a lucky 7-2 in games decided by 7 points or less, and that won't repeat.  

However, there's a lot to like. Even without the Jones trade, the Titans had an interesting team. With Jones, if he's still at or near the top of his game, the rest of the NFL really might feel like they messed up.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones (2) is a big offseason addition. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, Pool)
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones (2) is a big offseason addition. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, Pool)
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The Julio Jones trade was aggressive, but it didn't cost a ton and filled a huge hole in the passing game after Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith left. Bud Dupree got a five-year, $82.5 million deal, which was excessive but it's hard to find a top pass rusher on the open market. Janoris Jenkins was signed to replace Adoree Jackson at cornerback, and that's fine. Defensive end Denico Autry was a good signing and hurts division rival Indianapolis. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley was the first round pick of an unexciting, solid draft. 

Grade: B+

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It was fine to be skeptical of Ryan Tannehill's great 2019 season, because it didn't align with anything he did with the Miami Dolphins. But Tannehill had a fine encore in 2020 and it's time to accept that this is just an unusual story of a quarterback finding an entirely different level after 30 years old. Even if you're not totally sold on Tannehill, at very least you'd have to admit he's good enough for the Titans to win with. Just because the Titans landed Julio Jones doesn't necessarily mean Tannehill is going to an even higher level. The team did lose Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith and the offense will always revolve around Derrick Henry. But plenty of teams would gladly sign up for Tannehill to be their quarterback. 

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The Titans win total at BetMGM is 9, and it would be very hard to take the under. Does this look like an 8-9 team to you? It's fine to be skeptical of the Titans. They don't have a good defense. They won a lot of close games. There's no guarantee Julio Jones isn't in a decline. If Derrick Henry goes down, the Titans might be in trouble. All that said, again, it seems crazy to think the Titans won't be a .500 team. The over is the play. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Although A.J. Brown's efficiency dropped last year, it pretty much had to — he was remarkably efficient in his rookie year, if comically underused (84 targets). Brown otherwise had a welcome opportunity spike, and finished as the WR9 for the second straight year.

"Brown can take that ranking higher in 2021, as defenses now have to contend with Julio Jones. With all due respect to Jones, a walk-in Hall of Famer, I'm more comfortable projecting Brown with a higher target share. And Brown has shown proficiency in the touchdown column, one area Jones has occasionally struggled. Brown's ADP took a mild hit when Jones joined the Titans, but I'm comfortable viewing Brown's 2020 return as his floor, and Top 5 receiver production as his upside. Go get him."

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The Titans had 19 sacks last season. Only the Bengals and Jaguars had fewer, and neither of those teams were close to the playoffs. Of the 13 teams that had the fewest sacks last season, only the Titans made the playoffs. Tennessee's defense was 29th in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, and that's not a surprise because most teams that can't rush the quarterback are bad. That's why the Titans overpaid for Bud Dupree. Dupree hit double digits in sacks just once in his six Steelers seasons, though he was on his way last year. Then Dupree tore his ACL, making him an even riskier signing. But the Titans had to gamble. Good pass rushers are hard to find, and it's very hard to win without a pass rush. 

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Can the Titans replace offensive coordinator Arthur Smith? 

There's a reason Smith is the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. His play-action heavy scheme was a perfect fit for Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. It's always hard to pinpoint how much credit a coach deserves for a team's success and how much is the players he's working with, but let's assume Smith had a big role in the Titans' offensive success the past two seasons. He's replaced by Todd Downing, who hasn't offered much insight to what his offense will look like. Presumably it won't be much different because why mess with success? Downing has called plays once, with the Raiders in 2017, and the team finished 17th in yards and 23rd in points. The Titans have way more talent than that Raiders team —"I don’t think you can compare one to the other,” Downing said, according to the Tennessean — and Downing deserves a chance to prove himself. But it's a huge question for the Titans. 

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How many teams through history have had a 2,000-yard rusher and two legit No. 1 receivers? Ryan Tannehill has now played well for two seasons; we can trust him. Maybe this offense will be Chiefs lite and be among the three best in the NFL. The Chiefs have done just fine with a great offense and an opportunistic defense. If the offense hits its absolute peak, this ranking will look really low by January. They could win the AFC South, and any offense that good can make a playoff run. 

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Let’s say the Titans didn’t add Julio Jones. It would look like a flawed team that was on its way to a small step back without its successful offensive coordinator. What if Jones, at 32 years old, doesn’t have that storybook second chapter to his career or has more injuries? Or what if Derrick Henry finally starts looking like a back whose workload laps the field the past couple seasons? The Titans are good but maybe a little thinner than some other teams in this tier. And the defense could be a problem again. The Titans do need some luck to make it back to the playoffs.

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The Titans-Colts race in the AFC South could be the best in the NFL. I don’t have the Titans winning the division, but not because they’re lacking. This offense has a chance to be special. Tennessee could be very good and still be a wild-card entry to the playoffs. No matter what, Titans games will be fun to watch. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns

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