Following a 2,000-yard rushing effort from Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry, second-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was hired by the Atlanta Falcons as their new head coach, leaving a void in Nashville, Tenn.
The vacancy led Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel to go back to the well once more. When Smith was promoted to the job in 2019, he replaced then-OC Matt LaFleur by promoting the tight ends coach, Smith, to the role. It worked out nicely for the Titans, so why not rinse and repeat?
Smith’s replacement is another internal choice, and one with the same title as his predecessor. This time, veteran NFL coach Todd Downing was named the offensive coordinator.
On the opposite side of the ball, Vrabel formally announced the 2020 unofficial defensive coordinator Shane Bowen will be given the title for the upcoming season — something that hasn’t sat well with plenty of Titans fans.
We won’t invest much time here, mostly because fantasy defenses are a dime a dozen, and this one isn’t worth a nickel. The Titans generated the third-fewest sacks last year (19) but mustered 23 takeaways. Only one of those plays went the other direction, taking this defense from what would have been the sixth-worst unit to the ninth-weakest fantasy commodity in 2020. Bowen called the plays and scripted the plans for a defense that saw its two best players regress from the prior season.
One can argue there wasn’t enough talent, and that’s not an unfounded claim, though it is difficult to see a path for a major turnaround for fantasy purposes. What’s the argument then for why the best players regressed in their respective prime? Generally, it is schematic in nature.
Even if the Titans doubled their 2020 sack total to 38, we’re looking at what would be the 15th-best group in that department. Even Arizona’s 48 sacks didn’t help the defense finish higher than 16th in fantasy points.
When an offense has fantasy weapons in the caliber of Henry, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receiver A.J. Brown, a new playcaller is bound to get some attention in fantasy circles.
As mentioned, Downing was the tight ends coach for the past two years, but his NFL experience goes back to 2005 as an offensive quality control coach for the Minnesota Vikings under head man Mike Tice. The firing of Tice sent Downing to the St. Louis Rams as a defensive quality control coach and special teams assistant from 2006-07. He dropped the latter title for the 2008 season. Downing moved to Detroit in 2009 after Scott Linehan was fired by St. Louis early in the ’08 season.
From 2009-13, Downing would move back to the offensive side and coach quarterbacks as well as returning to the quality control position. He briefly stopped in Buffalo (2014) before a successful two-year stint with the Oakland Raiders as the QBs coach that he parlayed into a dismal one-and-done 2017 showing as the team’s offensive coordinator — the first time in his career he was a playcaller. A return to where it all began for him in Minnesota for the 2018 campaign led to Downing coaching tight ends for the first time.
For the sake of using tangible data, we’ll look a little deeper into his lone year calling plays for the Raiders. The offense had been No. 6 overall in the 2016 season when Downing was the QBs coach and Bill Musgrave was the coordinator. Derek Carr enjoyed two of his finest seasons with Downing as his positional coach as the Raiders were built to maul on the ground and take deep shots, which sounds familiar. The line was hefty and was at its best using a power-blocking style as the primary scheme.
In Downing’s 2017 stint as OC, the offense took a visible step backward. He presided over the 17th-best offense in the league, and the big-armed Carr was relegated to a life of dinking and dunking. The overall playcalling volume shrank by nearly 10 percent. The average yards per attempted went from 7.0 to 6.5, while the average number of completions per touchdown pass rose from 13.1 to 15.1.
Carr’s interception percentage went from 1.1 to 2.5. The running game regressed as well, but not quite as steeply. The percentage of drives that ended in a score tumbled from 38.7 to 29.2 as Carr’s quarterback rating fell 10 points year over year.
Downing’s playcalling (with a similarly ranked defense, mind you) saw the 2016 Raiders go from rushing for the sixth-most yards on the 11th-most attempts as a team to 2017 ranks of 30th and 25th, respectively.
It wasn’t all bad, but we’re admittedly grabbing at straws here. The red-zone efficiency and third-down conversion rate both slightly improved under Downing. He also cannot be blamed for Amari Cooper dropping everything in sight that season. Nor can he be at fault for the Raiders starting a 31-year-old running back in Marshawn Lynch for 15 games — the hometown replacement for Latavius Murray wasn’t quite Beast Mode at that point in his career.
Also going for Downing is the emergence of tight end Jonnu Smith in this Tennessee offense. Just a few years ago, Smith was looking like a long shot in fantasy.
In Oakland, though, Downing’s offense was predictable and lacked any sense of exoticism. Say what you will about that fitting into what Tennessee likes to do, but at least Smith’s system took shots down the field. Tannehill averaged nearly 1.5 yards per attempt greater than Carr did under Downing, and Smith’s offense ranked ninth in explosive plays last year, whereas Downing’s 2017 Raiders ranked ninth from the bottom.
Finally, Tennessee ranked third in the NFL last year in offensive balance, only one of three teams to rush more than pass. Downing’s system in Oakland was fifth worst in balance and threw 21 percent more than it passed. While one may say, “So, today’s NFL is pass-happy?”, it doesn’t fit the Vrabel style of smash-mouth football that takes smart chances.
Now that we’re caught up on his vast experience spread over multiple cities and under several different styles of coaching, what should fantasy gamers expect from this offense in 2021?
Much of that comes down to the team’s moves in free agency….
Fresh off of a breakout year, former first-round pick Corey Davis hits the receiving market ahead of his age-26 season. He certainly could opt to return, but after the Titans declined his fifth-year option for 2021, Davis may have no interest in coming back to the team, especially at what is bound to be a reduced offer given the Titans’ limited wiggle room with the salary cap.
A bevy of free-agent receivers set to hit the open market make Davis expendable. Wideouts Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, Nelson Agholor, T.Y. Hilton, Marvin Jones, Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, A.J Green, Curtis Samuel, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Breshad Perriman all have a chance to sign with the Titans.
With a possible 2021 savings of $4.47 million, it won’t come as a surprise to see slot receiver Adam Humphries get the boot. It would save a few bucks over the next two seasons following a pair of injury-shortened years with the Titans.
As mentioned, Jonnu Smith blossomed under Downing’s guidance, and he’s set to test the market looking for his first big contract. The list of available tight ends isn’t quite as impressive, although the likes of Hunter Henry, Jared Cook, Dan Arnold, Gerald Everett and Jordan Reed could be on the short list if Tennessee is unable to retain Smith.
Otherwise, the core of the offense, including a fairly high-priced front five, should return in 2021, despite some chatter about left tackle Taylor Lewan (knee) possibly being a cap casualty after his replacement acquitted himself nicely. (Who knows what will happen with 2020 first-round pick OT Isaiah Wilson’s off-the-field issues.)
On Bowen’s defensive side, DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney, DT DaQuan Jones, CB Desmond King and LB Jayon Brown all are impending free agents. The latter three will be missed a great deal should they defect.
Fantasy football takeaway
This one really could go either way. There was a ton of skepticism by yours truly over Smith taking over in 2019, but there’s a similar path to Downing being crowned OC, and Vrabel’s desire to pound the ball will be the X-factor here. Does he mandate Downing rushes it to the extreme volume we saw from Smith? Does Downing have the in-game selection and flow kinks worked out that plagued him in 2017? Does having “been there, done that” warrant the benefit of the doubt? One would like to think Downing has grown from the disaster in Oakland.
All great questions that will make or break Downing in 2021 … As long as he mostly adheres a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality and relies on his workhorse while incorporating extensive play-action passing, all should be fine in Nashville. After all, no one racked up more yards from play-action last year than Tannehill, and no running back accumulated more rushing gains than King Henry. The sooner Downing realizes and adapts to these realities, the more seamless the transition will become.
Tannehill could be a fringe QB1 but a far safer backup with matchup value. The potential holes to fill at wide receiver and tight end will largely dictate his overall fantasy worth.
Barring an injury, Henry is a lock in the first round for fantasy backs. He has workload concerns, sure, but if anyone is built to withstand that kind of beating, one has to believe he’s the dude.
At receiver, Brown has enjoyed two strong years and is on the verge of greatness. He will bounce between WR1 and No. 2 stock as the draft season plays out, but the third-year pro’s worth will fluctuate based on how the team addresses the Davis situation.
Tennessee’s fantasy defense under Bowen should not be considered as more than a fringe matchup play against the weakest of offenses.
We will revisit any of the key moves as they happen over the coming months.