NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There’s one word that perfectly describes the current outlook of the Tennessee Titans’ 2021 season: “could.”
Virtually every question that will decide the fate of the 2021 Titans has an answer that features that word.
Will the defense be any better in 2021 than it was in 2020? It could be.
Will the offense keep up its pace after losing Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith? It could.
Will head coach Mike Vrabel’s decision to promote Shane Bowen to defensive coordinator prove to be a not-so-terrible one? It could.
While it is true that every NFL team in every season is surrounded by a wave of uncertainty, the Titans’ wave is, currently, an unusually large one.
And, typically, a lot of the questions like the ones above can be accurately answered with “likely” or “not likely.”
For the 2021 Titans, though, “could” is often the most appropriate choice of word.
Two situations the team will face in 2021 are especially emblematic of this notion, one on offense and one on defense. Vrabel addressed both in his press conference on Monday, which was his first media availability since mid-January.
EXPECTATIONS FOR TACKLES
Vrabel on the #Titans releasing Dennis Kelly: “I have a lot of respect for Dennis…Decisions like that are always tough.”
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) April 5, 2021
Out of nowhere, the Titans released right tackle Dennis Kelly on March 16, presumably to create salary-cap space. Kelly was a respected voice in the Titans’ locker room and played well for the Titans in 2020, starting all 17 games.
“I have a lot of respect for Dennis and what he’s meant to this football team since I’ve been here,” Vrabel said.
While the Titans’ exact plan to replace Kelly is currently unclear, it seems likely that offensive tackles Ty Sambrailo, who the Titans re-signed in March, and Kendall Lamm, a free-agency signee, will get the chance to compete for the right tackle spot.
“We like to have guys earn positions and try to make the competition there. Excited to bring Ty back, excited to add Kendall,” Vrabel said.
While it’s possible that Lamm or Sambrailo will prove to be a capable replacement for Kelly, it’s also entirely possible that neither player will be able to get the job done.
Sambrailo did play well for the Titans in 2020 at left tackle in relief of Taylor Lewan, who had his season cut short by an injury. His sample size, however, is very small, as Sambrailo also suffered a season-ending injury and started just five games for Tennessee.
Lamm is clearly a smart player who may have more potential than any of his former teams ever tapped into, but he’s only been a full-time starter once in his career, starting 13 games on the lackluster Texans offensive line in 2018.
Sambrailo’s and Lamm’s weaknesses and limitations lead to some real doubt about whether either will be able to adequately fill the void created by Kelly’s departure.
If the Titans don’t add another offensive tackle through the draft, they’ll be banking on a lot. Though Kelly or Sambrailo could replace Kelly well, it’s not more likely than not.
And, if they don’t, an offensive line that was dominant in 2020 could wind up looking lackluster in 2021.
A LEAP FROM FULTON
Vrabel, asked what led him to promote Shane Bowen: “Very confident about our staff…I make decisions to try to help the football team.” #Titans
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) April 5, 2021
Another major “could” surrounding the 2021 Titans centers on cornerback Kristian Fulton, the Titans’ second-round draft pick in 2020.
With both of the Titans’ primary starting cornerbacks from 2020—Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler—now on other teams, the Titans need Fulton to make a big leap in his second season.
“This will be an important offseason for him both physically and mentally,” Vrabel said of Fulton. “By all accounts, I think that he’s ready to do that.”
So, will Fulton make the leap the Titans need him to make? He could.
Fulton is a talented player—it’s why he was a second-rounder in the 2020 draft, and many analysts expected him to go much earlier than he did.
He also showed some flashes as a rookie, most notably with his interception of Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew in Week Two.
However, Fulton’s sample size is extremely limited. He played in just six games in 2020, starting only two, due to injury. He’s no closer to being a sure thing now than he was when the Titans drafted him a year ago.
If Fulton can’t be both healthy and productive throughout the 2021 season, then the Titans’ secondary will be in for a world of hurt.
Aside from Fulton, the Titans’ only cornerback with legitimate NFL starting experience is former Pro Bowler Janoris Jenkins. While Jenkins has historically been a good player and looks to have plenty of gas left in the tank at age 32, he can only cover one receiver at a time.
He’ll need Fulton to help him out.
What separates the Titans’ uncertainties from those that other teams face is more than their volume—it’s also their gravity.
The Titans’ biggest “coulds” heading into 2021 involve, mostly, major position groups and coaches. If too many of the uncertainties trend in the wrong direction, it could spell disaster for the team.
Some of those “could” answers have a chance to change to “likely” with a good draft by general manager Jon Robinson.
For now, though, the Titans are surrounded by far more questions than answers.
Cover image: Brad Rempel / USA Today