The Tennessee Titans defied most expectations when Derrick Henry was lost for the final 10 weeks of the regular season with a foot injury by finishing the season 12-5 to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But even with Henry making his return for the NFL Playoffs in the Divisional Round against the Cincinnati Bengals, all the success of the regular season washed away in three disappointing hours at home.
The Bengals continued their red-hot run through the conference with a walk-off, 19-16 victory to advance to the AFC Championship Game, leaving the Titans to pick up the pieces and begin, what for them, is a premature game-planning for the 2022 offseason.
Biggest offseason questions
Even with Henry’s return, the Titans have considerable questions on offense, all of which were exposed against the Bengals in the Divisional Round. Even with Henry on pace for a 2,000-yard season before his injury, the offensive line was source of concern in its ability to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill. And when Tannehill did have time to throw, he was working with a corps of wide receivers who were often either injured or inconsistent.
At present, Tennessee will have around $7.3 million in cap space going into the offseason. The Titans have several cut candidates that would free up additional cap space, but will they be open to releasing veteran players who have been key contributors?
Top free-agency decisions
Key free agents: Harold Landry (EDGE), Rashaan Evans (LB), Ben Jones (C), Jayon Brown (LB), Randy Bullock (K)
Perhaps the most interesting decision for the Titans before they start plotting their free-agent strategy is what to do about left tackle Taylor Lewan. The veteran lineman is a strong bet to be released because of the cap relief he offers ($1.79 million dead cap value in 2022), even with the Titans looking to shore up its offensive line. Coming off a 2021 marred by injuries, he may have played his last game with the Titans.
The same could be said of Julio Jones, who underwhelmed in his first season in Tennessee and offers $1.11 million in cap relief.
The top unrestricted free agent likely to leave is linebacker Harold Landry, who had 11 sacks in the regular season, but whose rookie contract expires, setting him up for a payday perhaps too rich for the Titans’ plans, especially with the needs on the offensive line and at wide receiver the top priorities.
2022 NFL Draft needs and potential targets
Draft needs: CB, WR, LB, EDGE, TE
The Titans have a first- and third-round pick over the first two days of the 2022 NFL Draft, and with the wide receiver depth in this year’s draft solid, there’s a strong likelihood the Titans use the first-round pick on a wideout to provide a consistent complement to A.J. Brown – something Jones was unable to do in 2021.
Treylon Burks out of Arkansas is popping on a lot of mock draft boards as a receiver targeted for the lower quadrant of the first round, where the Titans will be picking. Other receivers expected to be available with upside include Drake London from USC and Penn State’s Jahan Dotson.
1 player on each side of the ball who must step up in 2022
If the Titans decide not to take the $1.1 million in cap relief that Jones would afford them and keep the former Falcons star, Jones is going to have to start producing on a consistent basis to keep defenses honest with Brown.
More important, he needs to stay in the lineup. Jones missed 6 of the Titans’ first 12 games with a hamstring issue.
On defense, the Titans got a huge boost down the stretch from linebacker Zach Cunningham, whom the Titans picked up off waivers from the Houston Texans. In 2019, Cunningham led the AFC in tackles and last season he led the entire NFL. If he can give the Titans a full season of what he provided in the final weeks of the 2021 campaign, the Titans may have landed themselves a true diamond in the rough.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference