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The Titans did little to improve on defense over the offseason. After their 2021 performance, there was no need to. This defense allowed the second-fewest yards on the ground, the fourth-fewest per carry and was in the top twelve in rushing touchdowns. Tennessee recorded 43 sacks, ranking among the top ten, had the seventh-best pass defense in terms of completion percentage and scoring, and was among the top half of the league with 22 takeaways.
Following such a strong defensive performance, the Titans were able to use six of their first seven draft picks on offense, adding corner Roger McCrary in the second round, while the only significant free-agent addition on the defensive side was backup defensive end, DeMarcus Walker. Without much change, it is relatively easy to get a picture of what IDP managers can expect from this group.
In general, 3-4 teams rely on the outside linebackers to provide most of the pass rush and are happy if they get a dozen sacks from their defensive line. Tennessee got 22 from their front three last year, including eight and a half from defensive end Jeffery Simmons and nine from his counterpart Denico Autry. That was an unexpected yet welcome leap after the group accounted for seven and a half in 2020. There were two major factors in the jump, both of which suggest last year was not a fluke.
Simmons was a mid-first-round pick in 2019 but might have been among the first five selections had it not been for an ACL injury suffered while training in February of that year. The Titans were so high on him that they still took him at number 19, knowing he might not play as a rookie. That is looking like a great decision.
Simmons opened 2019 on the Physically Unable to Perform list, so he missed the first six games. As soon as he was eligible to return he was on the field. In 10 games that season he recorded 18 tackles, 14 assists, and a pair of sacks. Rather impressive numbers for a player eight months removed from ACL surgery. Year 2 produced a significant jump on the stat sheet for Simmons as he was highly disruptive on the field and began showing signs of dominance. At 27-22-3 with 4 turnovers and 5 batted passes, he was also becoming an IDP factor.
This is where we have to take time to look at the scheme and positional designation. Simmons’ situation is very much like that of Aaron Donald. He is one of the outside men in the three-man front but the Titans line up in an off-set 3-4. That means they technically have one defensive end who aligns outside the offensive tackle, a nose guard who plays over the center or in the center/guard gap, and Simmons who lines up over or on the inside shoulder of the other offensive tackle. The bottom line here is that the Titans call him a tackle as do many league host sites, while others consider him a defensive end. Simmons was the fantasy game’s number seven tackle in 2020, ranking 29th in leagues that do not break out the DL positions.
Being two-plus years removed from the injury and getting significantly more help from his supporting cast thanks to the addition of Autry, Simmons exploded in 2021. The numbers were shuffled a bit in that he had no takeaways, but his 42 solo tackles were the fourth most among defensive linemen and second among tackles. At 43-12-8.5 with 6 swatted passes, Simmons was the number four tackle, ranking 13th overall among linemen. Simmons turns 25 in late July and is just entering his prime as a player, so his best football may be yet to come.
The addition of Denico Autry was a major plus for both Simmons and the Titans' defense as a whole last year. Over his first seven seasons, Autry was fairly productive as an end/tackle tweener in 4-3 schemes with the Colts and Raiders. He would line up outside on early downs and then reduce inside in a lot of passing situations. Autry looked particularly good in his first year with Indianapolis (2018) when he stayed outside as more of a three-down end. That season he was 28-9-9 with 3 turnovers in twelve games. That, however, did not stop the Colts from putting him back in the tweener role in 2019.
Last year was Autry’s first in a 3-4 and he seems to have found a home that fits his skill set perfectly. At 25-6-9 with 6 batted passes, he was not a huge fantasy factor in 2021, ranking just outside the top 40. Autry has never exceeded 37 combined tackles or 9 sacks in a season. That said, he has reached nine sacks in three of the last four years. Considering that Autry finished last year with a sack in four of his last five games and 11 solo tackles over that span, I believe he will break both of his personal marks in 2022. I like him as a solid DL3.
Tennessee’s nose tackle position has not been relevant to IDP managers in recent years but there is a newcomer we need to keep an eye on here. Naquan Jones made the team as an undrafted rookie last year. He got on the field for the first time in week six and by week 14, had earned a starting job, passing training camp standout, Teair Tart, on the depth chart. Starting five games and working in a part-time role in eight others, Jones finished with 29 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a pair of batted passes. Those are better numbers than many at the position that started every game. He is flying below the radar at this point and could emerge as at least a solid DT2 in a game that is starved for production at the position.
The Titans were a little thin along the defensive line in 2021 but fortunately, remained healthy. The addition of former Denver second-round pick, DeMarcus Walker, goes a long way toward solving that issue. Walker was a starter for Houston last year, going 20-10-2 on the season, and should have a fairly sizeable role as the third man behind Simmons and Autry. Tart will backup/rotate with Jones at nose tackle. Tennessee doesn’t use a lot of players in the trenches, so the rest of the guys on their depth chart are not going to see much action unless there are injuries.
- DE/DT Jeffery Simmons – Strong DT1 or solid DL2
- DE Denico Autry – Quality depth with low DL2 potential
- DE DeMarcus Walker – Injury sleeper with marginal upside
- DE Larrell Murchison – No impact
- DE DaShawn Hand – No impact
- DE Kevin Strong Jr. – No impact
- NT Naquan Jones – Sleeper with DT2 potential
- NT Teair Tart – No impact
We saw a changing of the guard at the Titans’ inside linebacker positions last year. They opened the season with Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown as the starters and ended it with David Long Jr and Zach Cunningham at those positions. Interestingly, it was not due to injuries.
The organization appears to see this duo as their long-term answer on the inside. After being claimed off waivers from Houston (what were they thinking?) in early December, Cunningham was immediately plugged into the starting lineup and shortly thereafter, signed a new deal to stay with the team through at least 2024. Long is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Because he was a late-round pick in 2019, there is no fifth-year option for the team to pick up but expectations are that he will get a new deal before hitting free agency.
Cunningham is arguably the best run-stuffing linebacker in the game. He recorded at least 118 combined tackles in three consecutive seasons between 2018 and 2020, exceeding 100 solos in two of those years. Next Gen Stats tells us that Cunningham has been first among linebackers in run-stop win rate every season since 2017. Runners simply don’t get past him very often.
All those numbers and accolades are nice and Cunningham is certainly going to be a big factor for the Titans, but be careful not to draft the wrong Tennessee inside linebacker for your fantasy team. Strong as he is against the run, Cunningham has limitations in coverage that could keep him off the field on passing downs. He played no more than 43 snaps in any of his five games with the Titans last year. Granted, being new to the team could have been part of that, but the Titans have rarely played two inside backers in nickel looks over the last couple of seasons. He will bring some IDP value to the table even as a two-down guy but unless he lands a full-time role, Cunningham could show a little inconsistency and will likely be limited to a solid LB3.
Cunningham will be the strong inside linebacker and Long will line up at weak. Long is smaller and not as strong or physical but is faster, excels in coverage, and has a motor that redlines on every snap. Long was on the field for virtually every play in nine of the ten games he started last year, totaling 46-29-0 with 6 passes defended, a pair of picks, and an average of 11.2 points per game. The best part about Long might be that no one is paying any attention to him so he can be a draft-day steal a round or two after someone else in your league picks Cunningham.
As with all 3-4 outside linebackers not named T.J. Watt, the Titans’ edge defenders' lack of tackle production limits their value in most formats. Harold Landry, however, is one of the more productive guys in that area, with at least 68 combined stops in each of the last three seasons. Last year was the most productive to date for the fifth-year player, with 74 combined tackles and 12 sacks. As a pass rusher, Landry gets to the quarterback enough but needs to be better at dislodging the ball. His sack numbers are good enough to make him a factor in big play formats, but he has just three forced fumbles and two recoveries in four seasons.
When the Titans signed Bud Dupree to a long-term deal last spring, they thought the other OLB spot was good to go for years to come. So fart that has not worked out very well. He missed seven games due to injuries last season and was not all that effective when on the field. It’s not fair to judge Dupree based on last year’s number though. He suffered a torn ACL late in 2020 and was not 100% at the start, then Dupree saw a stint on short-term IR with an abdominal injury that bothered him the rest of the way. The organization is counting a different Bud Dupree this year. They expect the one that went 47-19-11.5 and forced six turnovers for the Steelers when last he was fully healthy in 2019. We shall have to see.
Depth at inside linebacker will be provided by a combination of last year’s third-round pick, Monty Rice, and sixth-round rookie Chance Campbell. Rice saw some action as a rookie and even started four games. He filled in nicely but was not particularly impressive. Rice projects to be the first guy off the bench to relieve either starter and would be in line for the every-down role if Long we lost for an extended period. Campbell is more of a two-down bruiser and a poor man’s Cunningham.
The Titans are not a team that rotates a lot of players. Landry played 1042 snaps last year and Dupree might have seen a similar count if not for the injuries. When one of those guys does need a breather Ola Adeniyi will be the guy to spell them. The former undrafted free agent showed some potential in his third year, recording 21 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks on just 215 snaps last year. If the team is forced to go any deeper than that, they could be in trouble.
- ILB Zach Cunningham – Decent LB3 with matchup-based upside on a given week
- ILB David Long – Solid LB3 with mid LB2 upside
- ILB Monty Rice – Injury sleeper at best
- ILB Chance Campbell – No impact
- OLB Harold Landry – Good third starter in big play formats
- OLB Bud Dupree – Potential starter in big play formats
- OLB Ola Adeniyi – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- OLB Rashad Weaver – No impact
Over a long string of seasons covering more than a decade, The Tennessee secondary was a great place to find fantasy value at both the safety and corner positions. That came to a screeching halt in 2021 when for the first time since at least 2009, the team failed to land a player among the top 20 corners. We might point at injuries since every corner on the team missed at least two games, but even that fails to explain why none of them even reached six and a half points per game on average. Maybe last year was a mirage and someone will step up again in 2022. There are some interesting prospects with the potential to do so.
From an NFL perspective, Tennessee looks strong and deep on paper, but very young with their top-four options all having two or fewer years of experience. The only significant roster addition at the position is second-round pick Roger McCreary, but in reality, they are adding a first-rounder as well. Caleb Farley got off to a slow start as a rookie when he was on the mend from a back issue. Just when the team was starting to work him into the lineup, Farley tore his ACL in October. He has not yet been fully cleared but has been taking part in some off-season practices on a limited basis. Both he and the team expect full participation when training camp opens.
Farley added some muscle since last year and now checks in at 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds. He fits the Titans' mold of a big physical press corner that can get in the face of receivers at the line and disrupt routs, yet has the speed and athleticism to stay with them when they escape. Farley remains a little short on experience but should be in the mix for a starting job this summer.
McCreary has no NFL experience but three years as a starter in the SEC is about as close as it gets for a rookie. He is not as big but has been successful in the same style of physical, bump-and-run the Titans like to play. The rookie will also be in the mix for a starting job and should, at the least, land significant playing time as the slot corner or dime back.
The other competitors with a shot at starting are last year’s third-round selection Elijah Molden, who started several games and saw the second-most action among Tennessee corners, and 2020 second-round selection Kristian Fulton who started all 14 of the games he was healthy for in 2021 and is all but locked in at one of the spots.
There are no sure fantasy targets among this group but considering the history, if one of them looks good in September, believe what you see and grab him quickly.
As a rule, I try not to depend on safeties whose IDP value is dependent on big-play production. These players tend to be wildly inconsistent and will cost you as many games as they win for you. There are, however, always exceptions to such rules and Kevin Byard is one of them. We still get the occasional down week with Byard, but after five consecutive top-20 finishes including a pair in the top three, I’ve learned to live with it.
In 2020 Byard piled up a career-best of 82 tackles and 33 assists. That also happened to be the first time since his rookie season that he failed to post at least five turnovers. Even with one pick, a single forced fumble, and eight passes defended, he was still the number 16 defensive back. While his week-to-week consistency can be a little shakey, we know what to expect from year to year with Byard. In the other four seasons since 2016, he has between 60 and 68 solo stops, 25 to 33 assists, and 5 and 9 splash plays, with an average of 11 passes defended. At 60-30-1 with 8 turnovers, 12 PDs, and a pair of scores, he was the fantasy game’s third-ranked defensive back last year. I’m not prepared to count on him as a top-five guy but will have Byard on my draft board as a low-end DB1 or priority DB2.
At this time last year, Amani Hooker was looking like a good, late-round sleeper. That never materialized and instead, he turned out to be a colossal bust in IDP terms. He was efficient on the field and will remain the starter opposite Byard, but there is no reason to expect any IDP value after last season.
Former Texans backup A.J. Moore looks to be the third man at safety entering camp. He is the only other safety on the roster with any NFL experience at this point. This is a situation the team could address if they get into camp and are not comfortable with Moore or one of the undrafted rookies that will be competing for a roster spot.
- SS/FS Kevin Byard – Priority DB2 with top-five potential
- FS/SS Amani Hooker – No impact expected
- FS/SS A.J. Moore – Injury sleeper at best
- SS Michael Griffin – Developmental prospect
- SS Rodney Clemons – Developmental prospect
- FS Theo Jackson – Developmental prospect
- CB Caleb Farley – Sleeper for corner required leagues
- CB Khristian Fulton – Marginal impact expected
- CB Roger McCreary – The rookie corner rule could apply
- CB Elijah Molden – No fantasy impact
- CB Chris Jackson – No impact
- CB Buster Skrine – Roster bubble player
That’s a wrap for Part 16. Next, we'll kick off the NFC North
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