2023 Franchise Focus: Tennessee Titans


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2023 Franchise Focus: Tennessee Titans

The Titans’ window is closing — if it isn’t closed already.

Tennessee took advantage of a weak AFC South the last few seasons headed into 2022, winning the division in 2020 and 2021, including earning the AFC’s #1 seed in 2021. It was a run of four playoff appearances in five years for Mike Vrabel’s boys. But Ryan Tannehill got hurt in 2022, which coincidentally opened the window for Trevor Lawrence’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

Now Tennessee is the only team in the AFC South with a starting QB who isn’t both a top-5 draft pick and on his rookie contract. And perhaps because of that, the Titans have the worst roster around their quarterback in the AFC South.

Can Vrabel, Tannehill, and Derrick Henry make one final push for glory, or is this division officially in the hands of the young guns?

Listen to the accompanying Franchise Focus podcast with longtime Titans scribe Paul Kuharsky

The Betting Basics

Odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)7.5 (+104/-128)
AFC South+380
Playoffs (Y/N)+245/320
AFC Championship+5500
Super Bowl+7500

Season Prop Movement

Win Total: 7.5 (+105) in late March to 7.5 (+104)

Super Bowl: +7000 in mid-February to +7500

Projected Fantasy Contributors

All ADP is from Underdog Fantasy as of publication date.

Ryan Tannehill (Proj: QB31 | ADP: 214.7 | Pos ADP: QB33)

Despite the flurry of trade rumors that crescendoed as the Titans drafted Kentucky QB Will Levis, it appears the team is planning for Tannehill to be their Week 1 starter. Tannehill and the offense have felt the loss of former playcaller Arthur Smith, under whom Tannehill won Comeback Player of the Year in 2019 while posting a career-high 9.6 yards per attempt and 7.7% TD rate. After Smith left, Tannehill has turned in two straight seasons with just a 4.0% TD rate – tied for the lowest since his rookie year. Recent scoring struggles are unsurprising, as Tannehill’s weapons have continually walked out the door. First, A.J. Brown was dealt to the Eagles before last season, then 2022 targets and receiving yards leader Robert Woods and Austin Hooper left in free agency the next year. Tannehill was also much less effective running the ball in 2022 – averaging just 2.8 attempts and 8.2 yards per game on the ground, almost half of the 16.0 rushing YPG he’s averaged in the rest of his time in Tennessee. Even more explanatory of Tannehill’s disappointing fantasy output was that he scored just two rushing TDs (versus 18 over his past three seasons), reflecting his red-zone rush attempts decreasing from 14 in 2021 to just seven in 2022. In fairness, Tannehill missed five games due to a high-ankle sprain that he re-injured in Week 14, ending his season. But that could be a further deterrent for him to run as he ages – a problem given Tannehill’s disappointing 13.9 FPG last year. And it’s unclear how else Tannehill might find fantasy production – he’s averaged just 216.2 passing YPG over the past two seasons. There are positives, however – exciting young pass-catchers Treylon Burks and Chigoziem Okonkwo could provide glimmers of hope if they can step up and take on larger roles. And Tennessee’s offensive line should be significantly better after ranking second-worst in pressure rate allowed last year, with 11th overall pick Peter Skoronski and free-agent signing Andre Dillard shoring up the left side. But the Titans will likely continue to emphasize the run game first, as their -6.1% pass rate over expectation in 2022 ranked 4th-lowest in the NFL.

Will Levis (Proj: QB39 | ADP: 215.9 | Pos ADP: QB36)

After an unfortunate and somewhat-unexpected Draft day slide to the beginning of Round 2, Levis finds himself in a spot to develop behind Ryan Tannehill in the near term. Tannehill is only under contract for 2023, so it would not be surprising for Levis to see the field at some point this season if the team does not remain in the playoff hunt late into the year. Levis has all the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, but he wasn’t particularly productive in college, even after transferring to Kentucky as a junior due to being stuck behind Sean Clifford on the depth chart at Penn State. Levis managed just 2,404 passing yards on a 65.4% completion rate his senior season after the loss of former top target Wan’Dale Robinson. Even in the run game, Levis managed just 119 rushing yards on 2.6 yards per carry – fewer yards on the ground than Bryce Young and only one more than C.J. Stroud had that year. Levis did play through toe, finger, and shoulder injuries, but you’d be forgiven if you were skeptical about his ability to produce in the NFL.

Derrick Henry (Proj: RB7 | ADP: 25.0 | Pos ADP: RB8)

Easily the NFL’s most imposing runner over the last four seasons, Henry is back and ready to continue terrorizing any linebacker who dares try to tackle him. Since 2019, Henry has averaged a bananas 109.9 rushing YPG and 1.0 rushing TD per game – translating to about 17 FPG before even adding in receiving work. While the passing game hasn’t been Henry’s forte, he has actually seen improvement on that front of late. His 2.6 targets/game and 24.9 receiving YPG in 2022 were career highs. He also hilariously led all RBs (min. 100 routes) with his 2.6 YPRR, well ahead of Breece Hall (2.2) and Christian McCaffrey (2.1). It turns out that Henry is just as monstrous with the ball in his hands after catching a pass as after receiving a hand-off, his 12.3 YAC/R ranking 2nd at the position. Henry arguably has the highest weekly ceiling of any RB, owning the most top-5 weekly finishes at the position over the last two seasons. So why is Henry not being selected until the first pick of Round 3 in Underdog drafts? Drafters may be wary of the impact of age, with Henry entering the eighth season of his career – a time when even the league’s best RBs often experience a sharp drop in production. Even RBs previously as hyper-productive as Henry have averaged only high-end RB2 output in Year 8. Then again, it’s not as if the Titans seem likely to stop giving Henry the ball – they declined to re-sign Dontrell Hilliard, leaving only 2022 Round 4 pick Hassan Haskins and 2023 Round 3 pick Tyjae Spears to spell him. The offensive line upgrades also theoretically help Henry, though the unit ranking 24th in yards before contact per attempt didn’t seem to bother him much last year.

Tyjae Spears (Proj: RB51 | ADP: 173.1 | Pos ADP: RB53)

Spears does not appear to possess ideal straight-line speed, especially at his smaller 201-pound size, running for just a 33rd-percentile speed score at his Pro Day – though it’s impressive of Spears to exhibit any athletic feats considering he does not have an ACL in one knee. Although Spears was never a particularly high-volume participant in the receiving game – his 23 targets in his senior year ranking just 26th among FBS RBs in his draft class – he owns the best missed tackles forced per reception mark (0.63) of any FBS RB since 2014. Receiving work would be Spears’ most plausible path to touches behind Derrick Henry – but Brett Whitefield has concerns about Spears’ ability in pass protection, which could prevent him from seeing the field on third downs. To his credit, Spears was also an efficient runner at Tulane with a career 4.54 yards after contact per attempt, a mark that ranks 3rd-best of any college RB since 2014. Overall, he profiles as an elusive change-of-pace back who could take some heat off Henry, but he may need an injury to see much standalone fantasy value in redraft.

Hassan Haskins (Proj: RB56 | ADP: 216.0 | Pos ADP: RB104)

After tying Kenneth Walker for the second-most rushing TDs in 2021 among Power-5 RBs in his draft class, Haskins saw just 25 carries and 12 targets on a 17.8% snap share in his rookie season while playing behind both Derrick Henry and Dontrell Hilliard. Hilliard is gone, but Haskins also now has Tyjae Spears sporting superior draft capital with whom to compete for touches. Without much opportunity, Haskins never really popped in Year 1, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. He is a much larger back than Spears, standing at 6 feet 2 inches and 228 pounds, so it’s possible the Titans would view him as more of a direct backup to Henry than they would Spears in the event of an injury. In any case, Haskins remains squarely in handcuff territory entering 2023.

Treylon Burks (Proj: WR36 | ADP: 69.3 | Pos ADP: WR36)

Burks entered the league to great fanfare after a wildly productive junior season at Arkansas in which his 3.57 YPRR led all FBS WRs in his draft class. Despite that insanely efficient college showing, his detractors had two major criticisms. First, he was hardly ever asked to beat CBs in coverage or run a normal route tree, with 56% of his final-season yardage coming on screens and go routes. Relatedly, many evaluators believed he profiled as a slot-only player in the NFL, as he’d ran 77% of his routes from there in college – and college slot production is often fraudulent. Add this to a preseason bout with asthma, and the result was plenty of pessimism building around Burks going into his rookie season. Though he was on the field rather sporadically due to a turf toe injury and a concussion, Burks ultimately dispelled many of his doubters’ concerns. Last year, only 9.7% of Burks’ receiving yards and 13.2% of his targets came on screens – a top-45 mark among rookie WRs since 2007, but fewer than players like Dez Bryant and Jaylen Waddle, so not necessarily in red-flag territory. Even more surprisingly, Burks ran 78.4% of his routes from the outside – so the team was apparently satisfied with his progress, as his 1.85 YPRR and 5.2 YAC/R led all Titans WRs. The counting stats weren’t all that impressive, though – Burks’ 40.4 YPG ranked just 32nd of 50 rookie WRs drafted in Round 1 since 2010. Still, given the context of the offense’s nearly league-worst pass blocking and the multiple games in which Malik Willis and Josh Dobbs saw snaps, Burks’ rookie season was relatively successful. He averaged 2.35 YPRR in games with Ryan Tannehill, which in 2022 would have ranked 12th among all WRs and 3rd among rookies, behind only Christian Watson and Chris Olave (min. 200 routes). With arguably the least target competition of any team in the NFL, it doesn’t take a very active imagination to envision a Burks breakout in Year 2.

Kyle Philips (Proj: WR83 | ADP: 215.9 | Pos ADP: WR117)

Though the Titans drafted Philips 146 picks later than they did Burks, it seemed – for a beautiful moment in time (exactly Week 1 of 2022) – that Philips may be the more NFL-ready of the two. His six receptions on a team-high nine targets for 66 yards in the season opener sent dynasty and redraft managers alike scrambling to check their waiver wires. Philips’ production grinded to an abrupt halt as quickly as it began, however – he sustained a shoulder injury in practice before Week 2, which he played through for three games while never cresting a 50% route share. His season was ultimately ended by a hamstring injury also sustained during practice. This leaves us without much of an NFL sample by which to evaluate Philips, but he should continue to primarily play out of the slot so long as he avoids any more practice mishaps. If we’re having fun with small samples, Philips being targeted on 28.3% of his routes means he earned targets at a top-10 rate among all WRs last season (min. 25 routes). That TPRR ranks 15th among all rookie WRs since 2007, up in the same ballpark as legendary PPR scams like Golden Tate (12th) and Davone Bess (18th). Those players (minus Tate’s after-catch prowess) are good ceiling comps for Philips, but the fact that we’re stretching a 46-route sample this far probably says more about the state of the Titans’ receiving corps than anything else.

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (Proj: WR107 | ADP: 216.0 | Pos ADP: WR148)

Likely to be a constant presence on the outside across from Treylon Burks this season, Westbrook-Ikhine has developed into one of the NFL’s premier wind sprinters over the past three seasons. Only four other WRs were targeted on a lower percentage of their routes than Westbrook-Ikhine (12.2%) last season (for those curious, the others were Justin Watson, David Bell, Kendall Hinton, and Keelan Cole). Among players with a 70%+ route share, Westbrook-Ikhine’s 10.1% target share ranked dead last. His YPRR ranked 12th-worst. Westbrook-Ikhine has never amassed over 500 receiving yards or 40 receptions in a season. Burks’ arrow continues pointing up.

Chris Moore (Proj: WR112 | ADP: 216.0 | Pos ADP: WR160)

Moore is coming off a career-high 74 targets and 548 receiving yards with Houston after rarely cracking the starting lineup for five years in Baltimore. He could become an option for the Titans to rotate with Kyle Philips in the slot. There’s no fantasy football appeal to be found here, especially with the Titans playing 12-personnel at the 7th-lowest rate in the NFL last season.

Chigoziem Okonkwo (Proj: TE9 | ADP: 130.7 | Pos ADP: TE12)

In 2022, the Titans discovered one of the most statistically impressive rookie tight ends of all time. While Okonkwo ran just 159 routes, he led all Titans WRs/TEs in each of the following categories: yards per route run, targets per route run, yards after catch per reception, missed tackles forced per reception, passer rating when targeted, touchdown market share (a tie, and the only one that’s even close) and depth-adjusted yards per target over expected. So forget comparing Okonkwo to his teammates – he was just about the only part of the Titans’ passing game that worked, so that’s nowhere close to fair. Where does he rank historically among rookie tight ends in YPRR and SPORQ athleticism score, two of the most predictive metrics for spotting breakouts at the position?

Okonkwo just had a Jordan Reed or Jimmy Graham level rookie season, with the athleticism of Rob Gronkowski. The previous two target leaders on his team (including snaps and routes bottleneck Austin Hooper) left in free agency. The closest thing to target competition is another Year 2 player whom Okonkwo outproduced (455 receiving yards to Burks’ 444, 3 TDs to 1) despite running 81 fewer routes. It’s entirely possible Okonkwo leads this team in targets in 2023. Oh, and Year 2 TEs are a massive fantasy football cheat code based on historical breakout trends. What’s to stop Okonkwo? Well, he has the smallest route sample of essentially any player to which he’s compared above – so all of these factors may not be as predictive as they normally would be. And if we know anything about what will happen with any NFL team this year, it’s that the Titans will lean run-heavy – their 26.8 pass attempts/game last season were the 9th-fewest of any team since 2010, despite a -61 point differential. That tells us all we need to know about what this team wants to do. But it’s not as if Okonkwo can’t do a lot with a little, and it’s also not as if there are other established target hogs he must fight with for the small passing game pie.

Josh Whyle (Proj: TE54 | ADP: N/A | Pos ADP: N/A)

Nothing particularly stands out about Whyle, the Titans’ Round 5 selection out of Cincinnati. He was an above-average blocker in college, sporting a top-20 PFF pass-blocking grade last year. Whyle profiles as a typical rotational TE2 in the NFL – capable in most areas but excelling in none. This was likely a depth pick after the departures of Austin Hooper and Geoff Swaim – not a player the team hopes for a significant contribution from as a receiver.

Hansen’s Final Titans Points

For fantasy, he’s been reliant on efficiency, which has included a solid number of TDs, some big plays, and steady rushing production, but those elements have dried up lately for Ryan Tannehill. Given his nasty ankle injury last year and his age at 35, his rushing potential is quite suspect now. I think he’ll have a better receiving corps than last year, but that’s not saying much, and they are still seriously lacking quality NFL talent. The OL took a hit in late June with tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere getting suspended for six games, and while it was nice, they used a #1 pick on OT Peter Skoronski, Tennessee’s line is still below average. Tannehill will be the starter as long as he’s healthy and competitive, or at least while the Titans are in the playoff race. But if they’re out of it, they will probably turn the page on Tannehill and insert Will Levis, who is the favorite to be their starter in 2024. We’re projecting 15 games for Tannehill, which may be generous, and we have him at only QB31. He can produce top-20 numbers if he produces with his legs, but there are too many strikes against Tanney to consider him anything better than one of the last 2-3 starting QBs off the board.

Much like Ryan Tannehill, rookie Will Levis is an athletic “see-it-and-throw-it” QB with a strong arm and sneaky rushing potential, but little is guaranteed in terms of his rushing production and his potential as a passer in the pros. He’s a polarizing player whom I’m lower on than most long-term, and we’re a little below the markets with him at QB39 (ADP: QB36) heading into camp. We’re probably expecting Tannehill to hold on to the starting job a little bit longer than the marketplace.

He’s been the biggest RB outlier of my fantasy analyst career, so I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right on Derrick Henry. But now even half of his previous supporters are bailing on him, and I understand as an RB ageist myself. The Titans want to be a little more versatile and dynamic going forward, so I’m expecting rookie Tyjae Spears to have a chance to carve out a solid little role. But even if he does, my Henry analysis remains the same: if he can stay relatively healthy, he will produce with volume, passing game looks included. The question is, since he’s hitting 30 before the end of the ‘23 season, will time and wear and tear catch up to him? I’d say his downside is baked well into his ADP, and we’re actually slightly over it at 21 overall as of publication (ADP: 24.5). I probably won’t take him, but I’m also a guy who often misses out on productive and “boring” players.

He’s one of my favorite players in this year’s draft class, but Tyjae Spears is a tough player to handicap heading into training camp. Of course, he’s probably less difficult after backup Hassan Haskins was arrested on aggravated assault charge on June 30. The Haskins situation could mean the #2 job will be handed to Spears, but he deserves it. He’s not the biggest guy for volume, but there’s nothing Spears can’t do on a football field. We’re over the markets on Spears as our RB45 (ADP: RB51) and at 157 (ADP: 171), but the markets will catch up to us quickly if Spears balls out in camp. For now, there are no short-term concerns about the status of his tricky knee. He’s the Henry handcuff, and I fully expect him to be viewed as a strong RB2 for fantasy if Henry is out.

Given how he was just arrested on aggravated assault charges on June 30, we may not even hear from Hassan Haskins again, so writing him up may be a moot point. His rookie season in Tennessee wasn’t wonderful, and the team subsequently took Spears in the third round of the draft (Haskins was a fourth-rounder). They want to lean into being a little more dynamic in their backfield, and Haskins is an early-down guy all the way, so we’ll see if he makes the team and/or if his legal woes do him in.

One year has made a world a difference for Treylon Burks, who has been healthy and focused this off-season. He’s ramping up for a huge role, and they’ll need a breakout season from him to have a chance offensively. I was not a Burks guy coming out last year, and he’s still a little raw, but his physical attributes are evident, and he can handle a lot of manufactured touches. I’m buying at his reasonable price tag of WR35 and around 70 overall. We had been priced over the markets for over a month in May and early June, but his ADP is now exactly where we rank him as of publication.

I was actually into Kyle Philips as a late, late pick last year, and I was on the right track, since the guy had nine targets and 6/66 in his pro debut in Week 1 last year. Injuries derailed his rookie season, but he showed well in the preseason and demonstrated an ability to get open and play through contact out of the slot. Obviously, he has a lot to prove after an injury-riddled rookie season, but we’re well over the markets with Philips at WR80 (ADP: WR108). For what it’s worth, he’s a threat to catch 50+ balls this year if things go well.

Although we’re giving him only 26/375/2 receiving, we’re well over Nick Westbrook-Ikhine’s ADP of WR129. He’s at WR107 for us, which is a testament to how no one cares about Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. He’s the type of guy who’s a little annoying because he’s good enough to make some plays, yet he’s hard to back on a week-to-week basis, especially in a low-volume passing game. He’s mostly a WW pickup option, since his upside as a late pick is negligible.

I’m not ruling out the possibility that veteran Chris Moore emerges as a thing this year for the Titans. He’s got inside/outside versatility, and he’s actually had a pair of 100-yard games in each of the last two seasons, including a 10/124 performance on 11 targets back in Week 14 last year. We’re also way over the markets on Moore, who is our WR110 with 31/315/1.5 (ADP: WR133). No one is drafting him, though, so he’s merely a guy to keep an eye on as a possible waiver add during the season in deep leagues if the Titans don’t add someone like DeAndre Hopkins.

When I sat down to manually produce our projections, the player who stood out the most as a breakout type was Chigoziem Okonkwo, which is why we’ve been way over the markets with him all year. I do not consider ADP when I’m making a projection, but I thought my projection of 58/715/4 was fairly conservative, given his talent, his strong data points from 2022, and a possibly massive role on the receiver-poor Titans. That projection put him as TE9 on our board, which is over his ADP of TE11, and we’re also at 119 overall, which is about a round higher than his ADP of 130. We’re dealing with a smaller sample size for Okonkwo, who ran just 159 routes last year, but we’ll risk overselling him this year for the potential ROI in a breakout season. As usual, when I recommend a young TE as a starter, I like to give myself a backup plan, so if I took Chiggy I’d be inclined to use a later pick on a steadier TE2, just in case. Options include Dalton Schultz, Cole Kmet, and Tyler Higbee.

One of the many reasons to be high on Chiggy Okonkwo is their lack of quality options behind him. We’re looking at rookie Josh Whyle as the likely backup, and he’s not a threat to Chiggy’s role, nor is anyone expecting him to have standalone value.