An already good team becomes fearsome.
The Tennessee Titans emerged out of nowhere Sunday to complete a trade for Julio Jones, sending a 2022 second and fourth round pick to Atlanta for one of the league’s most talented receivers. A genius deal in its simplicity, Jones goes to a playoff team ready to take the next step and make a serious push for the Super Bowl, while Atlanta gets future assets and sends Jones to a team they won’t play this upcoming season.
Trading Jones was still the wrong move for Atlanta, but the team found themselves between a rock and a hard place, especially after Jones went viral when Shannon Sharpe cold-called him on Undisputed and had Jones, on live TV, confirm that he wanted out so he could play for a contender. It accelerated the timeline for a deal, and could have potentially hurt what the Falcons could have received in a trade — but what’s done is done.
Julio to the Titans could be the game-changing move of the off-season.
An 11-5 team in 2020, the Titans have every bit the potential to make a Super Bowl. Benefitting from playing in one of football’s weakest divisions gives them a head start, but recent moves by the front office have been nothing short of brilliant.
This all centers on Ryan Tannehill, who freed himself from Adam Gase’s osmotic stench in Miami and turned a backup role into becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Pairing Tannehill’s accuracy with the league’s best running back in Derrick Henry resulted in immediate success, and having a Pro Bowl receiver in AJ Brown was the icing on the cake.
However, as we’ve now seen for two successive seasons, lacking a second top-tier receiving threat has been the Titans undoing. In 2019 the Chiefs were able to contain Henry in the AFC Championship game, holding him to 69 rushing yard and bracketing Brown to the point where a then-second option Corey Davis had to be the star — an impossible task against Kansas City’s juggernaut offense.
Then, in the 2020 playoffs we saw a similar refrain, this time in the Wild Card round. The Ravens knew their path to victory was stopping Henry and bracketing Brown. Once again, it worked. The Titans lost 20-13, ending their season in similar fashion for the second straight year.
This really put Tennessee at a turning point, heightened by No. 2 receiver Corey Davis leaving in free agency for the Jets. Believed to be in on a first round receiver in the NFL Draft, the Titans went in a different direction, solidifying their secondary — and taking depth receivers later in the draft.
As constructed, this team was not going to win a championship. Julio Jones changes all that. You now have the accurate Tannehill, with two 1,000 yard, Pro Bowl receivers — and the best running back in football to boot. The dual deep threats of Brown and Jones will force teams to give defensive backs help in coverage, but how do you manage that, and still expect to have safeties work in the box to stop Henry running all over you?
You can’t, at least on paper, and defenses will need to try and come up with creative options to contain all those weapons. Any time you ask defenses to get “creative,” you take them out of the comfort zone, and ability to control the pace of the game — meaning, the Titans will step on the field with an advantage, before the first snap ever occurs.
Make no mistake, the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC is still absolutely brutal with the likes of Baltimore, Kansas City, and Buffalo lurking, but this is still the best chance the Titans have had during the Mike Vrabel era.
Despite all this excitement, there are some concerns
To look at the roster upgrades, dust your hands off and say “job done” really ignores a couple of large elephants in the room. The first, and biggest, is the absence of offensive genius Arthur Smith.
Smith took over as offensive coordinator in 2019, and made the bigger impact on the team than any coach in the NFL. The 2018 Titans finished 27th in the NFL in points scored, and 25th in total yards. Woeful numbers, propped up by the strength of the Titans defense.
In two short seasons Smith improved those numbers to an average of 7th in the NFL in scoring and yards. The biggest improvement in the league, and unquestionably the reason the Falcons decided to hire Smith as their head coach earlier this year.
The hallmark of Smith’s offense was his genius red zone play calling. An unreal ability to call up the perfect play when it counted, and seemingly have success. We always, rightfully, talk about the brilliance of the Chiefs’ offense — but when it comes to the red zone nobody compared to the Titans over the last two years. Ranking 1st in 2019, and 2nd in 2020, then only team in the same zip code as Tennessee was Green Bay.
It remains to be seen how the Titans will operate without Smith. There’s high hopes for incoming coordinator Todd Downing, who serves as tight ends coach. However, there’s reason to be a little nervous too. The last time Downing served as coordinator was in 2017 with the Oakland Raiders, a team that was in the bottom-half of the league in both scoring, and total yards.
In Downing’s defense, the Raiders were grappling with a lot of issues that season, including Derek Carr struggling with injury for much of the year, but there’s still a significant leap of faith required in hoping Downing can be as good as Smith.
There’s also some worry on the offensive line. The Titans are adept at run blocking, but have struggled in pass protection. Now, with more of a focus being put on the passing game with Jones arriving, there’s going to be a need for some guys to step up on the line and make more of an impact. That requires a leap of faith as well.
That said, trading for Jones was still a stoke of genius
Yes, there are concerns for the Titans moving forward. However, they pale in comparison to landing a player of Jones’ talent. Without him this was a team poised for a major step back, regressing further from the AFC elite and becoming one of many good, not great teams in the NFL.
Now they’re one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL on paper, with a potential the supporting structures could hold them back. That’s a risk worth taking. Assuming Downing can manage the offense well, and the line can hold up, we really could be looking at a team ready to make the Super Bowl. I don’t know if it’s possible to say that prior to Julio Jones’ arrival.