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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
Arizona | Baltimore | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Minnesota | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tennessee
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The Titans’ defense had an outstanding 2021. In some aspects, they were even better in 2022. Tennessee boasts the number one run defense, allowing the fewest yards and tying for the lowest yards per carry, while only the Patriots and Steelers surrendered fewer touchdowns on the ground. Not everything was positive, though.
Unlike the 2021 season, the pass defense plummeted all the way to the bottom of the league in yards allowed. That statistic is a little skewed, however, considering the Titans faced 54 more passing attempts than anyone else, but they can’t hide behind that completely. At seven yards per attempt, only three teams were worse. Their big play numbers slipped a little as well, though not drastically. Tennessee fell from 43 sacks in 2021 to 39 and from 22 turnovers to 20 last year, with only the Jets and Steelers recovering fewer opponent's fumbles.
Despite their issues versus the pass, it seems the organization was fairly content with their personnel situation heading into the off-season. The Titans have now used one draft pick on defense in the last two drafts; that was last year when they picked up corner Roger McCreary in round two. They did make a handful of moves in free agency, picking up some players that will contribute.
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 or so sacks from their defensive line. Tennessee got 26.5 from their interior line last year, while Rashad Weaver and Bud Dupree led the edge defenders with five and four, respectively. Some of this is related to the aggressive, penetrating style of 3-4 the Titans run. Much of it is because they have guys like Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, and, last year, DeMarcus Walker, who all had at least seven sacks from the five-technique alignment.
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 that he might not play at all as a rookie. That was a great decision.
Simmons was not 100% until the start of 2020, but he has been a force over the last three seasons with 18 sacks, 18 batted passes, and 5 takeaways to go with an average of 51 combined stops per year. He was the number six defensive tackle in the IDP game in 2021, and his 8.7 points per game ranked twelfth last year. He may never make it to the elite tier, but Simmons is a dependable DT1 with top-five potential.
Since coming over from the Colts in 2021, Denico Autry has been a great addition to the Titans. He has 17 sacks, 9 batted passes, and a pair of forced fumbles over the last two years but has always been light in the tackle columns. Autry has never reached double-digit sacks, though he has put up nine twice and has averaged better than eight and a half over the last three seasons. From an IDP perspective, he has never been more than a tease. The closest he has come to fantasy value was with the Colts in 2018 when Autry was 28-9-9 with three takeaways in twelve games. At 17-10-8, he might have eclipsed those numbers last season had he not missed five games. At age 34 and in the final year of his contract, this might be Autry’s last hurrah.
Nose tackle Teair Tart rounds out the starting interior lineup. At six foot two and 304 pounds, he is not the biggest to play the position, but his low center of gravity makes him hard for blockers to root out. His numbers were modest last season at 20-14-1.5, but he did knock down six passes and log a pair of takeaways. What makes Tart particularly interesting is that his production has more than doubled in each of the last two seasons. If he gets another significant increase, he will be able to help managers in leagues starting two interior guys.
The Titans pass rush gets a huge boost with the return of Harold Landry. He missed all of last year after tearing his ACL before the season started. In early June, head coach Mike Vrabel said that Landry is getting close, but he could not make any promises regarding Landry being ready for training camp. Players returning from such injuries rarely participate in the early portions of camp anyway, so read nothing into it if Landry is limited. With a full year to recover, he should be a go when the season starts.
A healthy Landry is highly productive. He started slowly, like most edge defenders, with modest production as a rookie in 2018. Over his three seasons since, Landry has averaged 46-24-9, adding seven turnovers along the way. Coincidentally, 2021 was his best year at 49-25-12. He might not be 100% to start the season but should be at some point during the campaign.
The other key contributors on the edge will be Rashad Weaver and Arden Key. Weaver was the team’s fourth-round pick in 2021 but missed nearly all of his rookie season after suffering a broken leg in week three. Considering that 2022 was essentially his rookie season, Weaver’s play and production provide a lot of optimism. He played a significant role, seeing action on 640 snaps, with totals of 19-8-5, 2 forced fumbles, a recovery, and 6 batted passes. The team expects Weaver to take the next step in 2023 as he is set to start opposite Landry.
Arden Key struggled early in his career but has become a steady contributor since leaving the Raiders. Between his 2021 season with the 49ers and last year with Jacksonville, he has 10.5 sacks and has become one of the league’s better rent-a-player edge defenders. He may never be a regular starter but provides the Titans with a dependable, veteran third man at the position.
- Edge Harold Landry III – Strong DE2 with top-ten upside if healthy
- Edge Rashad Weaver – Up-and-coming young player with breakout potential
- Edge Arden Key – Marginal IDP value at best
- Edge Sam Okuayinonu – No impact expected
- DT Jeffery Simmons – Quality DT1 with top-five upside
- DT Denico Autry – Marginal value at best
- DT Jaleel Johnson – No impact
- DT Tyler Shelvin – No impact
- NT Teair Tart – Worth keeping an eye on in tackle-required formats
- NT Naquan Jones – No impact
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