Here are three overlooked reasons to smile about Tennessee Titans' 2022 chances | Estes

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The Tennessee Titans won 23 games the past two regular seasons. That's third-best in the AFC, fifth-best in the entire NFL.

As a Titans fan, you remember.

Not sure who else does, though. League-wide, it seems not much is expected of the 2022 Titans. Doubts and negativity deepened with the A.J. Brown trade amid the strengthening of other AFC contenders.

Fanduel has the Matt Ryan-quarterbacked Indianapolis Colts as a slight favorite in the AFC South over the two-time champion Titans. Surprised by that? Nah, me neither. It's kind of an NFL tradition to overlook the Titans. Part of their charm.

I'm often accused by readers of being overly pessimistic about the Titans, too.

So it should really grab your attention what I'm about to say next:

I'm more bullish on the Titans than most this season.

And I've got a few reasons that aren't getting enough discussion:

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) races up the field during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) races up the field during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

1. Derrick Henry is the favorite for NFL Comeback Player of Year

It's easy to forget just how dominant Derrick Henry was before his midseason foot injury. But there's zero exaggeration in the following statement: Henry could have had the best season ever for an NFL running back.

Through his first six games, he was on pace for more than 2,200 rushing yards over 17 games. That would have not only given him consecutive 2,000-yard seasons. It would have set a new NFL record, besting Eric Dickerson's 2,105 in 1984.

Considering how Henry has historically gotten stronger at the end of a season, not weaker, it's a shame we'll never know what he could have done with a full 2021.

But Henry is healthy now. And he's only 28. It's true that running backs often have shorter career windows, but since when has Henry been comparable to other running backs? Up until last season, he had been exceptionally durable, and the foot injury shouldn't be a concern moving forward.

The Titans' offense will continue to go through Henry. There is no reason to think he won't be a force again in 2022.

Accordingly, Fanduel has Henry listed as the favorite to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award this season and as the second betting choice to win NFL Offensive Player of the Year behind Jonathan Taylor.

Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Harold Landry (58) warms up during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Harold Landry (58) warms up during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

2. The Titans' biggest weakness has become a strength

Remember when the Titans couldn't stop anyone or pressure an opposing quarterback?

They do, too.

It was telling to watch the Titans retain Harold Landry with a pricey new contract in recent months – after giving Bud Dupree a pricey free-agent deal the previous offseason (and with Jeffery Simmons also due a huge extension soon).

Bringing Landry back confirmed that the Titans are committed to spending big money to have a big-time pass rush. Last season, that was finally reflected on the field.

The Titans' defense – forever on its heels in 2020 – regained the ability to control games up front by stuffing the run and harassing opposing quarterbacks. That's why they won the AFC South in spite of Henry's injury. It's why they nearly won their playoff game, too. Sacking Joe Burrow nine times should have been enough to beat the Cincinnati Bengals.

Of the Titans' 11 defensive starters from that game, only one – cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins – is no longer on the roster. (And he's likely to be replaced by a first-round draft pick in Caleb Farley)

Getting 10 of 11 starters back is rare, and it'll be especially advantageous for the Titans at this moment. This defense is still discovering how dangerous it could be in 2022.

In an AFC that's full of good quarterbacks, the Titans have positioned themselves among the best at going after them each week – as opposed to being one of the worst. That's a massive improvement in a short timeframe.

Tennessee Titans tight end Austin Hooper (81) runs through drills past passing game coordinator Tim Kelly during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Titans tight end Austin Hooper (81) runs through drills past passing game coordinator Tim Kelly during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

3. Even without A.J. Brown, the passing game should be more productive

OK, I'm not going to sugarcoat trading Brown. That one stings, and it'll keep hurting as he continues to excel with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Titans' roster is worse without him, no question.

Their overall passing production in 2021, however, left a lot of room for improvement that should still happen in 2022 without him.

Truth is, the Titans have already grown more accustomed to being without Brown than they would have liked. Last season was the worst statistically of Brown's three NFL seasons, as he and Julio Jones both had trouble staying healthy. When they weren't on the field, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine became Ryan Tannehill's best option. That happened way too often for a playoff team.

And that had a lot to do with losing Jonnu Smith.

The Titans were woefully negligent of the tight end position after Smith signed with the New England Patriots. It was the biggest mistake of that offseason. Geoff Swaim's 31 catches were a career year for him, but it was always too much to ask him to replace Smith, who was often Tannehill's favorite target.

The Titans finally addressed the need with Austin Hooper, a low-key signing that could pay off enormously this season. Hooper looks like a good fit in Tennessee. He scratches an itch, giving Tannehill and the offense what they sorely missed in the passing game last season. The tandem looked good together in OTAs – which Hooper attended regularly, even traveling in short windows to do it.

Rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo, too, is showing positive early signs.

Even more encouraging during those summer workouts: Receiver Robert Woods was on the field. It ended up being overshadowed by draft night, but Woods was a tremendous addition. He is reputed to be a hard worker and a great team guy. He is recovering from an ACL, and yet I've already seen him do more on the Titans' practice field than I did Jones – or this year's first-rounder, Treylon Burks, for that matter.

Though it's early, I'll admit I'm concerned about Burks and his lack of conditioning.

But the Titans don't need Burks to instantly be Brown. They just need him to be on the field, practicing and contributing and worrying defenses enough to help Tannehill return to his pre-2021 form. That's not too much to ask.

For any quarterback, it's essential to have reliability and trust with your best skill players. Tannehill should have more of that in 2022, even if Brown isn't one of them.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Here are three reasons for optimism about 2022 Tennessee Titans