The Tennessee Titans just created the perfect problem by trading for Julio Jones. Adding one of the NFL‘s premier wide receivers alongside rising star A.J. Brown and rushing king Derrick Henry has given the Titans an embarrassment of riches on offense. Now the problem becomes how do you keep them all happy?
It’s the kind of champagne problem all coaches dream of having, and Mike Vrabel will likely relish tackling the question. Vrabel knew what he was getting when he used multiple draft picks to convince the Atlanta Falcons to honour Jones’ trade request on Sunday:
The #Titans deal for Julio Jones:
— The #Falcons get a 2022 2nd rounder and a 2023 4th rounder.
— The #Titans get Julio Jones & a 6th rounder in 2023.
— The #Titans take on Jones’ salary of $15.3M in 2021 and the rest of the deal.
— #Falcons have $7.75M in dead money this year.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 6, 2021
What Vrabel has done is create potentially the scariest three-headed monster in the league. Though there are caveats, specifically whether Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing can share the reps between Jones, Brown, and Henry.
Downing, incidentally, has replaced Arthur Smith, Vrabel’s former OC who is now head coach of the Falcons. Smith may have done his old buddies in the Music City a favour, provided they know how to use Jones.
The dilemma for Downing is that the Titans have been a run-first offense in recent years. There’s no better way to play when a force like Henry is lugging the rock. He’s the two-time NFL rushing champion, having retained his crown after topping 2000 yards in 2020.
Dominating the sticks on the ground and punctuating all that running with select, high-percentage passing is a limited formula for success. Stop Henry and you beat the Titans, the way the Baltimore Ravens did in last season’s playoffs.
Every defense facing the Titans knows Henry is the man to stop, but the days of putting eight in the box against No. 22 are over. No team will be able to commit a safety to the line of scrimmage with Jones and Brown on the field.
Facing seven-man fronts more often should make Henry even more productive, but Jones hasn’t joined the Titans simply to play decoy. Instead, he’s added the big-play element this offense needs.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 6, 2021
Jones is a production machine and he will want the ball early and often as a Titan. It means Henry could start seeing fewer carries right when he should be getting more. The flipside is the Titans now have a valid excuse for limiting the wear and tear on a 27-year-old running back already overworked at a position with a short shelf life.
That excuse will be the need to turn loose arguably the best one-two punch at wide receiver in the NFL. Brown is coming off a breakout season during which he established career-highs for receptions (70) and yards (1075), and touchdowns (11).
Brown himself is fired up about the arrival of Jones’, a wideout he’s admired for years.
Please excuse my language when I say this “y’all done F*cked up “ pic.twitter.com/TbI4SrkTVp
— AJ Brown (@1kalwaysopen_) June 6, 2021
You have to wonder, though, if Brown’s enthusiasm will wane if Jones is cutting into his targets in 2021. This hardly looks like a complementary partnership. The common justification for the Titans trading for Jones is to replace the vertical threat missing in this passing game.
Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith finding new homes during free agency compounded that problem. Yet for all the concern about his supporting cast, Brown has had no problems gaining yards in chunks. He averaged 15.4 yards per catch in 2020 and 20.2 in 2019. It’s hard to envisage Brown being the intermediate, possession-style foil to Jones’ familiar, field-stretching brilliance.
Equally, it’s difficult to believe the Titans are ready to become a vertical passing sensation this season. Ryan Tannehill isn’t known for his arm strength, even though he’s more capable than he’s often given credit for. He’s proved that by arriving in Tennessee as a backup, only to win the starting job then throw for 33 touchdowns a year ago.
The numbers are good, but Jones’ arrival means Tannehill can be a game manager no longer. Now he’s got to be dynamic enough not to waste all the weapons at his disposal.
Ryan Tannehill on Deep Passing (20+) in 2020, among QBs with 40+ Deep attempts:
🗡93.4 PFF Grade (7th)
🗡16 Big Time Throws
🗡4 Turnover Worthy Plays
AJ Brown and Julio Jones are ready for the launch codes 🚀 pic.twitter.com/LE9ZUSnv1U
— PFF TEN Titans (@PFF_Titans) June 6, 2021
There’s some historical precedence here. Vrabel was a member of the almost-perfect New England Patriots in 2007. He saw firsthand how Tom Brady and the passing offense bossed the game thanks to having Randy Moss and Wes Welker catching the passes. Those Patriots eventually lost because they were too one-dimensional and left Brady at the mercy of the New York Giants‘ relentless pass rush in Super Bowl XLII.
On the other hand, Brady just won his seventh Super Bowl, and first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His latest success owed a lot to the cadre of pass-catchers at Brady’s disposal, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, etc…
That’s what the Titans will be hoping for after the Jones trade. It can work if everybody accepts a reduced role for the whole of the greater good. A lot will depend on how Henry takes to seeing less of the ball because there’s no way Jones pushed for a trade only to play second fiddle.