With training camp right around the corner (technically rookies, quarterbacks, and players with injury designations already reported for the first of their two mandatory COVID tests), let’s take a quick look at a few position groups on the roster that appear poised to serve as a backbone for the 2020 Titans.
As recently as Week 6 last season, this unit was viewed as a glaring weakness, but a strong close to 2019 and a great deal of continuity bodes well for the Titans offensive line picking up where they left off when this season kicks off.
Yes, Jack Conklin left for Cleveland, but it’s not as if some scrub is going to be taking his starting right tackle spot. Dennis Kelly has been with the Titans for four years as a backup tackle, starting 16 games during that stretch when Conklin and Taylor Lewan would miss games. Kelly played well in spot duty, especially when given the opportunity to play on the right side during Conklin’s prolonged absence in 2018. His knowledge of the offense and performance level in recent years provides an acceptable floor for that position.
Of course, the Titans also have another option for the right tackle spot in massive rookie Isaiah Wilson. Tennessee’s first round pick has a ton of upside thanks to his elite length and power combined with surprising athleticism for a man his size. If Wilson beats out Kelly for the starting gig, that’s a great sign for Tennessee both in the short and long term.
The other four spots on the line are spoken for as three time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan holds down the left tackle spot with Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis manning the interior from left to right. Saffold came on strong last season after a slow start and was playing at a Pro Bowl level over the back half of 2019 (he ended up being selected as a Pro Bowl alternate) and Jones had the best season of his 8-year NFL career. That left side is among the best in the league and Davis really game on late in his rookie season, lending some optimism to his future development.
With continuity at a premium with a shortened offseason, the Titans having the option to start five offensive linemen who have experience in this offense is a real luxury.
Kevin Byard enters his 5th season as one of — if not the — best safeties in the league and the undisputed leader of the Titans secondary after Logan Ryan’s departure. His 18 interceptions (including playoffs) since 2017 lead the NFL by a country mile with Marcus Peters’ 14 checking in as a distant second. Byard isn’t just a ballhawk though, he’s a complete safety adding plus run support, tackling, blitzing, and man coverage to his football pilfering skill set.
Joining Byard in the starting lineup is the talented Kenny Vaccaro. While he’s nowhere near his counterpart when it comes to turnover creation, Vaccaro does serve as the enforcer on the back end of Tennessee’s defense, bringing punishing hits and lots of energy from his safety spot. Like Byard, Vaccaro can also do it all, dropping into single high coverage, manning up on tight ends, and even serving as a de facto linebacker in some subpackages.
The Titans boast excellent depth behind their starters as well. Amani Hooker got a lot of playing time as a part of three-safety sets during his rookie season and Dane Cruikshank has flashed in brief stints on defense while supplying the team with outstanding special teams work over the past two years.
The Titans safeties are critical to what they do defensively. These guys are asked to do a little bit of everything on a snap-to-snap basis so it’s a good thing they’ve got some talented guys back there.
There are a few directions I considered going with this spot, but I ultimately settled on inside linebacker. Punter deserves to be here, obviously, but it’s a one player position and everyone knows Brett Kern is awesome. You could also make a case for tight end with Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, and MyCole Pruitt returning for another year and Smith — in my opinion — being poised for a big year after a healthy offseason. You could even make a case for inside linebacker with Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown as above average starters and David Long looking like a rock solid backup heading into year two.
However, I ultimately settled on cornerback. Adoree’ Jackson began to emerge last year as a borderline top-10 corner in the NFL and still just at age 24, he’s got a chance to make that jump into elite territory in 2020.
Starting opposite Jackson will be Malcolm Butler, who is entering his third year with Tennessee. While Butler hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty contract during his time here, his value was made clear last season when he missed time with a broken arm. The drop off from Butler to the myriad of corners that replaced him was obvious. A healthy Butler gives the Titans a physical press man corner who can — at times — erase an opposing receiver.
Things get a little shakier after the top two, but if you read my draft coverage, you know how high I was on second round pick Kristian Fulton before the Titans made him the 61st overall pick. He’ll compete with veteran corner Johnathan Joseph, who comes to Tennessee after spending the previous nine years in Houston. His knowledge of Mike Vrabel’s defense will give him a leg up on Fulton initially in the competition for that 3rd CB spot.
This group should be solid at worst and has a chance to be really good if Jackson makes that leap and Fulton hits the ground running.