The Tennessee Titans have experienced a disjointed start to their 2021 season. Tennessee is the overwhelming favorite to win the AFC South, but expectations are much higher than simply winning a bad division. Mike Vrabel’s men defeated the winless Jacksonville Jaguars by three scores on Sunday to move to 3-2 on the year, but the stink of a stunning Week 4 loss to the New York Jets is still lingering in the air.
Tennessee has struggled to stay healthy throughout the early portion of the new campaign. At one point leading up to their Week 5 date with the Jaguars, the Titans listed an astounding 25 players on the injury report. That list didn't include key contributors on injured reserve such as starting safety Amani Hooker and reserve running back Darrynton Evans.
Despite all of the roster shuffling that has been necessary just to field 11 starters on each side of the ball, Tennessee is getting incredibly little from their rookie class.
First-round pick Caleb Farley was always a long-term solution. Tennessee’s front office was well aware of his recurring back issues heading into the draft, but it didn’t stop them from spending the No. 22 overall selection on the Virginia Tech talent. I had an incredibly high grade on Farley, and still have confidence that his career will be a fruitful one. But to date, Farley has played just 32 defensive snaps through five games, per Pro Football Focus—22 of which occurred during Tennessee’s most recent contest.
Farley’s lack of early-season involvement isn’t surprising, nor is it the most damning case of Tennessee’s rookie class. Tennessee decided to use its second-round pick on Dillon Radunz, an exciting offensive tackle prospect out of North Dakota State. It was a necessary selection following the departure of the team’s previous first-round pick. Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson will go down as one of the worst draft picks in NFL history, and the Titans moved quickly to replace him with Radunz just one year after using a first-round pick on him.
Injuries and inconsistent play up front have led to severe issues in pass protection for Tennessee. Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked an astounding 20 times through five games, which ranks first among all quarterbacks. It’s a stat no signal-caller wants to place first in, but alas, here we are. The Titans have shuffled an astonishing nine offensive lineman in and out of their lineup. Radunz has not been one of those players, and has played zero offensive snaps to date. Tennessee simply doesn’t think Radunz is ready to play. They may say otherwise, but their actions speak louder than words.
Despite employing Radunz to learn the guard position throughout training camp (a questionable decision by the coaching staff), they’ve chosen to play two other reserve guards when necessary. The first time starting left guard Rodger Saffold went down with injury, they turned to second-year undrafted free agent Aaron Brewer. It was no surprise, given Brewer’s impressive play as a rookie. But Brewer found himself on injured reserve heading into Week 5. When Saffold went down with another injury, Tennessee turned to Corey Levin—a player that was on their practice squad just days earlier.
Radunz is an incomplete evaluation at this time, but he’s yet to be trusted to contribute anything to a struggling unit. For what it’s worth, Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter seems to believe Radunz is close to factoring into their lineup.
“Dillon is the next man up,” Carter said on Tuesday. Corey Levin did a nice job for us. He came in [instead of Radunz] because he received more practice reps throughout the week. But Dillon is right there. He’s close. He’ll get an opportunity here shortly.”
Radunz was an excellent prospect in the 2021 draft, but Titans fans would like to see him get on the field sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for him, patience within the fan base is running especially thin at the tackle position following the Wilson debacle. That was through no fault of his own, but football (and life) often isn’t fair. I still have plenty of confidence in Radunz, having watched most of his performances at North Dakota State.
Tennessee had two third-round picks. The first, linebacker Monty Rice, was also seen as a pick for the future. Rice entered the season as the clear-cut No. 4 inside linebacker behind the likes of Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, and David Long Jr. Evans and Brown are both in contract years and Brown is currently on injured reserve. The Rice selection could pay dividends in 2022 and beyond, should he be ready to take on a larger role. He’s unlikely to be a factor down the stretch of the current season. We’re starting to see a theme here.
The second of their two third-rounders, defensive back Elijah Molden has been in and out of the lineup following inconsistent showings in Week 1 and 2. It’s worth noting that Molden appears to be slowly getting back in Tennessee's good graces. The rookie swiss-army knife played 22 snaps in Week 5 and even forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown for the opening score of the day.
It gets worse from here on out. The first of Tennessee’s two fourth-round picks, receiver Dez Fitzpatrick, can be classified as a disaster. He was released before the season began and has lived on their practice squad ever since. Rashad Weaver out of Pittsburgh showed a ton of promise throughout training camp and preseason, but unfortunately quickly found himself on injured reserve before making an in-season impact. Sixth-round receiver Racey McMath out of LSU has been active on most game days but has made a larger impact on special teams. He has yet to record his first NFL catch. And finally, Brady Breeze, a safety out of Oregon that represented Tennessee’s final selection in the draft, has to overcome an injury suffered in late August.
Tennessee has a good and deep roster which decreases the chances of rookies making an immediate impact. But despite having issues all over their offensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary, and having drafted four players at these positions in the top-100, Tennessee has yet to receive the immediate contributions it needs from this rookie class.