Over the past couple seasons the Titans have seen a pair massive breakout seasons from young players on the roster.
In 2017, it was Kevin Byard leaping from promising rookie to First-Team All-Pro and leading the NFL with 8 interceptions.
In 2018, it was Jayon Brown jumping from a rookie coverage linebacker to a player that rarely came off the field and stuffed the box score game in and game out. Brown finished second on team in tackles (97), sacks (6), tackles for loss (8) in addition to being top five in passes defensed (6), forced fumbles (2), and quarterback hits (10).
We also saw Corey Davis and Derrick Henry breakout during the 2018 season, but not quite to the degree that their defensive counterparts did.
NFL aging curves tell us that we are most likely to see players breakout before they turn 25 years old. There are some exceptions to that rule. Quarterbacks, defensive tackles, and offensive linemen typically peak in their late 20s which makes sense considering those are the positions that rely the least on quick twitch athleticism and straight line speed.
For the purposes of this article, I’m excluding Davis and Henry from this group simply because I feel like they’ve already had their breakout moments and this season is more about building on that than emerging.
So who are the five young Titans are most likely to follow in the footsteps of Byard and Brown and breakout in 2019?
5. Sharif Finch, EDGE, 23 years old
I first grew interested in Finch when I watched a cut up of his college pass rushing tape from his time at Temple, but it was the first preseason game of the 2018 season that really sold me on him as a potential difference maker in the NFL. The undrafted rookie busted out six unique pass rushing moves within the same drive, including a highly effective rendition of Reggie White’s patented “hump move” shown below.
Finch would make the 53-man roster a few weeks later and stuck there for the duration of the 2018 season. By the end of the year, he was getting regular snaps at outside linebacker and he continued to be productive with the opportunities he was given. Take a look at some of the clips in this article from last December and tell me that doesn’t look like an NFL starter.
Finch will head into 2019 with a chance to really stake a claim to a significant role on this Titans team. With Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan retiring, there are plenty of snaps up for grabs. We know that Cameron Wake and Harold Landry will get theirs, but the Titans third edge rusher has been on the field for more than 50% of the time for the last two seasons.
Finch has to be viewed as the favorite for that third spot in the rotation heading into the year. He had passed Kamalei Correa on the depth chart by the end of last season and fifth round pick D’Andre Walker is unlikely to be ready for such a big role this early in his career. If Finch can maintain his production rate from last season over a bigger sample size, he’s a guy that could be viewed as a breakout performer for the Titans.
4. Jonnu Smith, TE, 23 years old
Jonnu Smith had a very forgettable start to the 2018 season. Delanie Walker’s season ending injury in Week 1 thrust Smith into a TE1 role that he just wasn’t ready for yet. Prior to the Titans Week 8 bye, he’d been targeted just 12 times, caught just 5 passes, and accumulated just 44 yards. Smith was still trailing Walker in receiving yards despite playing seven times the number of games.
However, after the bye something seemed to click for Smith. He caught 15 of 18 targets over the next five games, racking up 214 yards and 3 touchdowns before going down with a season ending knee injury against Jacksonville. If he could produce at that rate over a full 16 game season, he would end up with 685 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those are easily top five tight end numbers in the NFL.
Despite a little bit of a herky jerky development curve to this point in his career, there is still a lot to like about Jonnu Smith. For one, he’s consistently regarded as one of the hardest working players on the team. Smith is one of the guys that Mike Vrabel seems to go out of his way to talk about. He’s also an absolutely tremendous athlete.
That athleticism, combined with his very good run after catch ability, make him a dangerous player every time he has the ball in his hands as this play against the Texans demonstrates.
There has been a lot of talk about the benefit of offensive continuity for Marcus Mariota this offseason, but what might be getting lost is the benefit of that continuity for guys like Smith who had to learn two new offenses in their first two years in the league.
I don’t know that I would expect a massive breakout statistically due to the presence of Delanie Walker at the tight end spot, but I think there is a chance that we see Jonnu Smith’s performance really start to take off in the 2019 season.
3. Adoree’ Jackson, CB, 23 years old
I covered my thoughts on Jackson in depth here so I’ll keep this brief. I expected him to be a breakout star last season after watching him in training camp, but we didn’t quite get the big leap that I was looking for. We saw glimpses of it throughout the season, most memorably in the blowout win over the Patriots, but it was never sustained over a long enough period of time.
Like Smith, there is no doubting Jackson’s athletic ability. He just needs to put the ability to anticipate and recognize routes with that undeniable athleticism and ball skills. That’s something he’s reportedly been working on this offseason.
This is a big season for Jackson with the team facing the decision of whether or not to pick up his fifth year option coming up next offseason. That option would pay him roughly $10M for the 2021 season (Jackson is still under contract for $3.6M for the 2020 season either way). If he has the breakout season I think he can, it would make that a really easy decision for Jon Robinson.
2. Rashaan Evans, ILB, 23 years old
Evans’ rookie campaign got off to a rough start as a hamstring injury from training camp delayed his debut one week and cost him some valuable practice reps. That missed time showed early in the year as Evans struggled to make reads quickly and generally looked lost for big chunks of games.
However, things clicked for Evans right around the Titans Week 12 trip to Houston on Monday Night Football. Over the last six games of the season it was hard not to notice #54 flying all over the field and making huge hits. His stop of Leonard Fournette on 4th and Goal at the 1-yard line was one of the best defensive plays of the year and set up Derrick Henry’s famous 99-yard run the very next snap.
By the end of the season it was becoming clear that the Titans had to find ways to get him on the field more often. The team began using him as a pass down edge rusher in addition to his work as an off-ball linebacker. While the sacks didn’t show up, Evans showed some flashes of ability off the edge.
Evans is among the most versatile ‘backers in the NFL with his combination of run-thumping, edge rushing, and coverage ability. I would imagine that we will see him rushing the passer quite often on obvious passing downs with Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard — and maybe even guys like Amani Hooker or Kenny Vaccaro — handling more of the linebacker coverage responsibilities.
I went back and forth on putting Evans in the top spot here and wouldn’t put up a huge argument against him being there if you wanted to make one. His arrow was very clearly pointing up at the end of last season and he seems like a guy primed to take off in 2019.
1. Harold Landry, EDGE, 23 years old
My top breakout candidate — in case the cover photo didn’t give it away — is edge rusher Harold Landry. Landry led all Titans edge rushers in both sacks (4.5) and quarterback hits (14) last season and while those numbers aren’t eye-popping by any means, they aren’t bad for a rookie edge rusher who was fighting off an ankle injury early in the year.
Landry was inconsistent in 2018, but when he flashed he really flashed.
Landry’s ability to bend the edge with speed is his calling card and it’s a good one. His athletic testing paints the picture of a very rare combination of explosiveness and agility for a man of his size. In fact, his measurables fall right in line with the two best edge rushers in the NFL, Von Miller and Khalil Mack.
Landry vs Miller & Mack
|Weight||252 lbs||246 lbs||251 lbs|
|Arm Length||32 7/8"||33 1/2"||33 1/4"|
|Hand Size||9 3/8"||9 1/4"||10 1/4"|
|40 Yard Dash||4.64s||4.53s||4.65s|
|10 Yard Split||1.59s||1.57s||1.56s|
|20 Yard Shuttle||4.19s||4.06s||4.18s|
|Bench Press||24 reps||21 reps||23 reps|
Like Evans, Landry finished last season on the upswing, registering half of his 14 quarterback hits in the final four games of the year — including back-to-back games with a critical sack in the final two games. Over the offseason, he’s added some weight and expects to play at 255 pounds after playing under 250 pounds for most of 2018.
Mike Vrabel and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen have sung the praises of Landry’s offseason work for months now.
“I think first and foremost with him is it’s Year 2,” Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen said in June, “so there’s a big difference in his body, in his mind-set and everything. He has gotten stronger in the offseason. He’s working to get better to add to his repertoire in terms of pass rush, trying new things, and he’s been actively doing it each day.”
I honestly find it hard to believe that Landry won’t take a massive step this year. He’s got elite athleticism for his position, an elite history of production in college, and is showing a strong work ethic that will serve him well. Landry is also set to receive a boost in opportunities as he’s going to be the Titans top option at outside linebacker with Cameron Wake set to serve in more of a pass rush specialist role and guys like Finch and Correa clearly behind him in the pecking order.
Mark it down... Harold Landry is going to end up with at least 10 sacks in 2019.