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NFL offseason power rankings: No. 27 Tennessee Titans enter new era after unsatisfying end to old one

Preview focus: First-year head coach Brian Callahan will bring a drastically different style

The new-look Tennessee Titans will go as second-year quarterback Will Levis goes in 2024. (
Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

There won't be any statues built for the Mike Vrabel/Ryan Tannehill/Derrick Henry era Tennessee Titans. There won't be any reunions either. But they had a pretty good run. Until, suddenly, everything turned sour.

Vrabel had four winning seasons in Tennessee to start his head coaching career. The Titans advanced to the AFC championship game at the end of the 2019 season. They had the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021 the Titans went 23-10. But Tennessee couldn't get to a Super Bowl, and then it all crumbled.

After starting 7-3 in the 2022 season, the Titans went 6-18 for Vrabel's last 24 games as Titans head coach. Tannehill suffered injuries and lost his starting job to 2023 rookie Will Levis. Henry's contract ran out and he wasn't brought back. Vrabel's relationship with ownership and the front office reportedly was falling apart throughout 2023, and the Titans fired him despite a fairly successful run in Tennessee.

The drama between Vrabel and team owner Amy Adams Strunk reportedly boiled over last season with a Week 15 home loss in overtime to the Houston Texans, who were without quarterback C.J. Stroud. The Titans made the curious decision to wear old Houston Oilers throwbacks in that game against the team currently from Houston, and after the loss Strunk was "visibly upset" according to The Athletic. Months of disagreements and a lack of communication came to a head and after that loss Strunk decided to move on from Vrabel, the report said.

Even though Vrabel did some good things in Tennessee, the new era won't have much resemblance to the old one.

The Titans hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan to replace Vrabel. Callahan didn't call plays for the Bengals but has a good reputation as a sharp offensive mind. With former NFL linebacker Vrabel in charge the Titans relied on defense, running the ball with Henry and a low volume play-action passing game. Callahan's Titans will be way more pass-heavy, with much of it coming out of the shotgun formation.

"The teams that win the most games are generally the teams that pass the ball the best," Callahan said before the 2023 season, according to longtime Titans beat reporter Paul Kuharsky. "Usually because they have really good quarterbacks and usually because they have guys that can make plays on the football outside. And so you're seeing teams invest in that part of the game, really across the board."

For Titans fans who got used to Henry leading the NFL in carries season after season, Callahan's offense will be a big change.

And the Titans invested in the passing game this offseason. They paid Calvin Ridley $92 million over four years in free agency. They added former Bengals slot receiver Tyler Boyd on a much cheaper $2.4 million deal. They used the seventh pick of the draft on offensive tackle JC Latham, and also signed center Lloyd Cushenberry to a four-year, $50 million deal. That will help a line that had fallen into disrepair.

The Titans still value running backs and paid Tony Pollard $21 million over three years, but Pollard is a much different back than Henry and his between-the-tackles style. The entire Titans offense will be overhauled.

The quarterback position won't be entirely new because Titans fans got a look at Levis late last season. There were high points, such a four-touchdown masterpiece in his debut against the Atlanta Falcons and a startling comeback against the Miami Dolphins. There were also games in which Levis looked like the wild, undisciplined player who got a lot of hype before the NFL Draft but fell to the second round. The ups and downs weren't anything unusual for a rookie, but Levis comes into the season having to prove himself to a new coaching staff.

The Titans got close to the peak of the NFL under Vrabel. He was pretty good at getting everything out of a flawed roster and then some. But the Titans felt it was time for a change. And it will be a complete shift from what Titans fans are used to seeing.

The Titans had a lot of salary-cap space and, unlike some other rebuilding teams in that situation, Tennessee spent early and often. They added receiver Calvin Ridley (four years, $92 million), center Lloyd Cushenberry (four years, $50 million), cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (three years, $36 million), running back Tony Pollard (three years, $21 million) and linebacker Kenneth Murray (two years, $15.5 million) as their expensive additions in free agency. They also traded for cornerback L'Jarius Sneed from the Chiefs and signed him to a four-year, $76.4 million deal. The Titans realized they had a serious talent deficiency and spent to fix it. There were also some losses, like linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, defensive lineman Denico Autry and running back Derrick Henry, a franchise icon.

The Titans' draft wasn't considered great. JC Latham, the No. 7 overall pick, is an interesting offensive line prospect but he is being asked to move to left tackle after playing right tackle at Alabama. New offensive line coach Bill Callahan, one of the most respected line coaches in the NFL and the father of the Titans' new head coach, will be crucial for Latham's development. Second-round pick T'Vondre Sweat was a low-value run-stuffer with red flags and the Titans didn't have a third-round pick. But a lot of quality additions in free agency help the grade.

Grade: B

Will Levis was practically what draft analysts thought he would be, good and bad. His aggressive nature and physical gifts led to some impressive big plays. He also was way too careless at times. Levis had a big-time throw (a Pro Football Focus metric) on 5.9% of his dropbacks, tied for fourth best in the NFL among QBs with at least 125 attempts. He also had a turnover-worthy play on 4.5% of his throws, third worst behind Mac Jones and Desmond Ridder. Basically, anything was possible when Levis dropped back.

Levis was a wild ride in his nine games as a rookie, and how he balances the line between fearless and reckless will determine if he succeeds in the NFL.

According to a story from SI.com, new Titans head coach Brian Callahan told general manager Ran Carthon during his job interview that he wasn't sure he'd rank any quarterback in the 2024 draft class — which had six QBs in the top 12 picks — ahead of Levis.

“I’d told Ran the truth,” Callahan says. “I said he has real talent, real ability and I think he’s got a chance to be a very good starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s got enough tools to where his ceiling is high. If he’s all the things mentally you need to be to play quarterback, his physical talent, it’s a high ceiling. He’s got a chance to be [a] really, really good, top-end starting quarterback."

Callahan has worked with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow and runs an offense that should lead to plenty of opportunities for Levis to put up numbers. The Titans have rarely been a high-volume passing offense since moving from Houston to Nashville, but that could change if Callahan and Levis are good fits. If Levis is going to be an above-average NFL starter, we'll probably find out this season.

The Titans are tied with the Patriots for the longest odds at BetMGM among AFC teams to win the Super Bowl (150-to-1) and to win the conference (80-to-1). Not surprisingly, there's a big gap between the Titans' odds to win the AFC South (+800) and the team above them (Colts, +340). If you think the new-look Titans can be a surprise team this season, the odds are favorable. Their win total is just 6.5.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "The early Yahoo draft market is cool on Calvin Ridley, and I think that's the right approach. Ridley was drafted as the WR16 last year but returned a small loss, coming in at WR24 (half-point PPR scoring) for the relevant Weeks 1-17. And that grade came despite being a target priority in Jacksonville, tied to a quasi-star quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Ridley now has to change teams in his age-30 season, and he's working with an unknown commodity in second-year quarterback Will Levis.

"Ridley might not lead his receiver room in targets, given the presence of DeAndre Hopkins. And maybe the electric version of Ridley is gone for good; he averaged 9.3 yards per target in his first three Atlanta years, but he earned a modest 7.5 YPT in his one Jacksonville season. I grant you Ridley might seem tempting at a mere Yahoo ADP of WR37, but I'd rather be a year early than a year late with a possible player in decline."

For years, Cowboys fans and fantasy football players dreamed of a world in which hyper-efficient Tony Pollard would get a full workload without Ezekiel Elliott in the way. When it happened last season, Pollard went from a 5.1-yard career average to 4 yards per carry as the lead back. Pollard also had a career-worst 5.7 yards per reception. He just wasn't the same back once he got more snaps. The Titans had a productive rookie back in Tyjae Spears, who seemed set to replace Derrick Henry. But the Titans decided that Pollard was worth a $21 million deal over three years, which probably puts Pollard back into a timeshare with Spears. That could be a good thing. Perhaps getting fewer carries will allow Pollard to rediscover his early-career Cowboys form. The Titans showed that even though they'll be passing more, they also value running backs.

There was a lot of excitement for Ridley last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and while he wasn't bad, he wasn't great either. He had 1,016 yards. It looked like perhaps his career had stalled a bit after such a promising beginning and then two mostly lost seasons, the latter for a gambling suspension. But it's possible the Jaguars weren't using him right. As Yahoo Sports' Matt Harmon pointed out, Ridley was poor against press coverage, which he saw a lot of lining up as the X receiver. The Titans have Hopkins to be the X receiver, and perhaps that means less press coverage for Ridley. The Titans signed Ridley to a surprising $92 million deal over four years, so presumably they have diagnosed why Ridley didn't take off with the Jaguars and have a plan to fix it.

When you go 6-11, it's not the worst thing to change everything. While Mike Vrabel was a respected coach, perhaps Brian Callahan is one of those first-year head coaches who surprises the league and leads the Titans to a big season. A new-look offense with Calvin Ridley, DeAndre Hopkins, Tyler Boyd, Tony Pollard, Tyjae Spears and an improved offensive line could be pretty good as long as Will Levis progresses. The defense will also look different, with new personnel like cornerback L'Jarius Sneed and a purportedly more aggressive scheme with new coordinator Dennard Wilson. If Levis hits his ceiling — you just have to imagine him repeating rookie year performances against the Falcons and Dolphins for most of this season — then the Titans are going to feel really good about their future.

For all of the kind words about Brian Callahan, he has never called plays or been a head coach. We have no idea what to expect from him. And for all of Will Levis' raw talent, there's a reason he fell to the second round of the draft and had more turnover-worthy plays last season than any other NFL quarterback who will start this one. The Titans' offseason spending spree was aggressive but we've seen many teams add a bunch of free agents and it doesn't fix much. The Titans were bad last season and have a lot to prove before climbing out of last place in the AFC South.

The Titans are a tough team to figure out. They will look much different on both sides of the ball, in scheme and personnel. Their most important player, Will Levis, shifted between electrifying and alarming as a rookie. The Titans' big money addition, Calvin Ridley, also has a wide range of outcomes. While Mike Vrabel's final season and a half with the Titans wasn't good, he was excellent at maximizing the talent on hand. We don't know what Brian Callahan will be as a coach. It doesn't seem like the Titans are ready to take a big step, though it can't be ruled out because there are so many variables. For now, we'll proceed with caution on Tennessee before seeing what their new additions and Levis can do.