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Front Page - Friday, August 4, 2023

One more shot for Titans stars before rebuild?

Newcomer wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins makes a catch during Titans training camp. - Photo by George Walker IV | AP

The seven-game losing streak that capped off the Tennessee Titans’ 2022 season and subsequent offseason activity also generated frequent use of a word NFL teams don’t like to hear: rebuild.

The talk of the “R word” started with the firing of general manager Jon Robinson in December in the midst of that seven-game slide. Former 49ers director of player personnel Ran Carthon was hired after the season and immediately went to work making moves with the releases of popular veterans Ben Jones, Taylor Lewan, Bud Dupree and others.

Facing salary cap problems, questions swirled as to what the Titans would do with other key veterans like quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, whose contracts expire after this season, and safety Kevin Byard, whose deal has two years remaining.

Add in a curious draft that featured potential Tannehill and Henry replacements in Will Levis and Tyjae Spears, and it appeared that the reconstruction of the Titans was well underway.

Las Vegas was on board, putting the Titans over/under at 7.5 wins this season, and most of the ESPN and NFL Network offseason power rankings had Tennessee hovering down in the lower-third of the league in terms of its roster.

But while Carthon was busy trying to lay a foundation for the future, he and Coach Mike Vrabel also made a few moves to try and stay afloat, rather than bottoming out like division rivals Houston and Indianapolis are doing by starting rookie quarterbacks this season.

New eyes on veteran faces

Lots of eyes were on Carthon around the league to see how he would handle the Titans’ situation after inheriting an injury-decimated roster that went 7-10 a year ago.

“When you get a new general manager, there’s always going to be those question marks of where do they go from here, because the team Ran Carthon inherits and walks into is a team that Jon Robinson built,” says former Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who now works for NFL Network. “Right then, you’re like ‘How does he see this team? Does he see this as a team that can compete?’

“Veterans like Byard, Henry and Tannehill, guys that have been paid by the previous regime, how does he see them? There were a lot of rumors, but what played out was that Byard is still here, Henry is still here and Tannehill is still here,” McCourty continues. “So this is a team that still has veteran leadership throughout, and you’ve got a guy like Jeffery Simmons who you’re building the organization around to lead the way, so I think this is a team that is going to be competing this year.”

Carthon elected to keep Tannehill, Henry and Byard and supplemented them with a rebuilt offensive line, a new star receiver in DeAndre Hopkins and a potential Dupree upgrade in Arden Key.

He also picked up a starting cornerback in Sean Murphy-Bunting, and at least to those inside Saint Thomas Sports Park, the rebuild – if there really is one – doesn’t feel so much like one.

“If you looked at what the media was saying, being on Twitter and Instagram, that’s the only thing that was going around. I knew for myself just being in this building and being around this team, certain moves had to be made,” says Byard, who reversed course and gave back $3 million this year to help sign Hopkins. “You kind of understand that the longer you’re in this business. Some guys that have been here for a while are going to move on. Some guys are going to retire. Those things are going to happen.

“But I was always in on the guys we had already. Sometimes we kind of get caught up in name recognition and ‘Oh, we want to bring this guy in and that guy in.’ But we have a culture here, and that’s the most important thing to try and keep intact.

“Last year, we didn’t end well at all. We kind of got on a losing streak,” Byard continues. “But when you look back at it, we were still a drive or maybe a bad play here from making it to the playoffs. I know how it ended, but at the end of the day, I still believe in the people we have.”

McCourty said that the transition the Titans are making made for a lot of offseason questions and assumptions. However, now that he has seen the roster moves in totality, he says this team can compete while still replenishing and building for the future, especially in an AFC South that projects to be a mediocre division overall.

“They were a game away from being in the playoffs last year in Jacksonville with Joshua Dobbs (at quarterback), who had been here maybe 12 or 13 days,” McCourty says. “You get a healthy Tannehill this year and now with all the question marks (because) you drafted Levis and drafted (Malik) Willis last year. Tannehill is going to be pissed off this year to go out there and prove stuff. Next thing you know, if they can beat Jacksonville, they can go out and win this division and earn a playoff spot.”

Shaping the new culture

The key now is getting the pieces that remain to jell with the newer parts on both sides of the football.

Henry, who helped to recruit Hopkins to Tennessee, says he stays out of the front office dealings as much as possible, has a role to help acclimate his new teammates into the team’s culture, even though he said it was tough seeing the Titans move on from close friends like Jones and Lewan.

“I wish we could have kept those guys. Those guys were my brothers. But things happen the way they’re supposed to. That’s the business side,” Henry says. “I don’t try to get too caught up in the business side. I just try to focus on what I need to do and let them do their job and see what we need to improve our team and plug those guys in and execute and improve while we’re out here.”

Byard agreed with that assessment and believes the Titans will work to stay competitive in this transition time.

“Some guys that I’m used to being with – Ben Jones, Taylor Lewan – those guys aren’t here. I’m still learning new teammates and building the culture we’ve always had with some new guys added in. So, it’s an exciting opportunity,” he says.

McCourty, who saw tough times in his career in Tennessee and Cleveland before winning a Super Bowl with his brother Devin in New England, says keeping some veteran leaders in the fold can be the difference between a team that competes through a rebuild and one that bottoms out.

“When you talk about the transition to different guys, you still need veterans to show the ropes. And that to me is the difference in teams that stay in that spot where you’re always struggling to win five or six games,” McCourty says. “But that team that maybe goes through a little bit of a transition, but still wins eight or nine games and then that next year, you take back off and go back into double digits.”

Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons made another interesting point, saying that despite the perception from the outside looking in, Vrabel is not the type to sign off on a full rebuild.

“I never thought about a rebuild. I like to win. I never approach the game as if we may lose because we ain’t got such and such. I approach it to win. I told the media that in OTAs. I want to win. I know Vrabes wants to win. I’m sure (a rebuild) never crossed their minds,” he says.

And Simmons is another who is fully on board with how the retooled Titans are shaping up for 2023.

“I’m sure from the outside, the look on our team was they’re trying to rebuild, or it’s a rebuild for the Titans. But our goal in this building is to take it day by day, game by game when that gets here,” Simmons says. “You look at our team, and we had a lot of transition, but we’ve picked up a lot of great guys with the D-Hop pickup, the Arden pickup, those guys are going to help us win games, and I’m excited about it.”