One of the hallmarks of the first couple seasons of the Mike Vrabel era has been player development — a pretty great calling card for a young head coach. Examples of guys who have enjoyed career seasons or shown vast improvement during their time under the current coaching staff are not hard to come by.
Veterans like Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Ben Jones, DaQuan Jones, and Kamalei Correa have enjoyed the best seasons of their careers under Vrabel’s watch. Young talents like Jonnu Smith, Adoree’ Jackson, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, and Jayon Brown have all made clear jumps in level of play over the past two years. And the 2019 rookie class was able to produce five significant contributors during their first season as pros with most showing obvious development as the season went along (including A.J. Brown leading the entire NFL in receiving over the final six weeks of the regular season).
Players improving year over year is no guarantee in this league. Experience helps, no doubt, but a combination of hard work from the individual athletes and good direction from the coaching staff are critical to helping a player maximize their performance.
So how do you define a “breakout”? For the purposes of this piece, we’ll put these parameters on it:
- A player’s performance going from average or slightly above average to Pro Bowl or near Pro Bowl level. Ryan Tannehill is a good example. Sure, he was good at times in Miami, but he went to a totally different level in 2019. That’s a breakout.
- Guys like Adoree’ Jackson and Jayon Brown are going to be left off this list. To me, those guys have already broken out, even if not everyone has recognized it. Sure, both those guys could still improve this year and/or finally get the recognition they deserve, but we’re looking for exponential improvement, not incremental.
- This is about actual performance on the field, not perception of performance or attention from the national media.
- No rookies. We don’t have a baseline of play at the NFL level to project from for guys like Isaiah Wilson, Kristian Fulton, and Darrynton Evans so it’s hard to call them a breakout candidate. Same goes for 2019 5th round pick D’Andre Walker, who didn’t play last year due to an injury suffered early in training camp.
The Titans roster offers lots of potential breakout candidates, but here are the five that I believe to be the most likely to make a significant leap.
5. RG Nate Davis
You’re starting with a breakout... guard?
I know, I know, not exactly the sexiest position to read about, but leaving Davis off this list would be a mistake in my opinion. The 23 year old had an up and down rookie season after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2019 draft.
However, the “ups” were exactly where you’d want them to be... at the end of the year. Davis’ six highest graded games as a starter on PFF were the final six games of the year (Week 15 through the AFC Championship). Those grades certainly matched up to the eye test as well. Davis went from a glaring weak spot and liability early in the season to a difference maker — in a good way — in the playoffs, helping pave the way for Henry’s historic performances down the stretch.
Something clearly clicked at some point for the 6’-3”, 316-pounder, a credit to both his own hard work and the work of offensive line coach Keith Carter. When you consider that Davis came to the Titans as a raw rookie from a smaller program who needed significant work just to modify his stance, who then proceeded to miss almost all of training camp due to injury, his end of season performances become even more impressive.
According to his counterpart Rodger Saffold, Davis has been putting in a lot of work this offseason.
I've very excited to see what they can do, especially Nate, because I know how hard he's been working... #Titans Rodger Saffold on Nate Davis and Isiah Wilson.— ESPN 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) May 28, 2020
If he’s able to pick up where he left off last season and continue to build on that improvement, Davis could make a leap towards the top levels of his position in the league.
4. EDGE Harold Landry
You could argue that Landry made the leap last year, but I think it’s fair to say he fell short of reaching elite levels in 2019. At one point, he appeared to be a lock to become the Titans first double digit sack man since Brian Orakpo in 2016 (10.5), but a four game slump at the end of the season left him on 9 for the year.
Don’t get me wrong... 9 sacks is a solid season. That total tied for 22nd in the league alongside some pretty high level talents like Nick Bosa and Chris Jones. However, Landry still fell short of the consistent gamewrecker level that is required to reach the pinnacle of his position.
Part of Landry’s end of year slump can be explained by the Titans lack of other options on the edge. After Cameron Wake’s season ending injury in Week 12, Tennessee’s OLB rotation was left significantly short on pass rushing talent. Kamalei Correa is a good effort player who played his best football late last year, but he’s not a dynamic edge rusher.
The lack of viable alternatives led to the Titans leaning far too heavily on Landry, something outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen admitted just a couple weeks ago.
#Titans' Shane Bowen on Landry decline in production as season went on: Landry played too many plays last year. Up to Bowen to get more rotation, make Landry more effective.— John Glennon (@glennonsports) June 2, 2020
Landry just turned 24 this month so his development is far from over, and considering his steady improvement through his first two years, it’s certainly possible that we could see him finally break through as an elite sack producer in year three. The addition of Vic Beasley on the opposite edge and the potential for improved depth with Correa re-signed and Derick Roberson, and D’Andre Walker heading into year two should reduce both his snap count and attention he receives from opposing offenses.
3. ILB Rashaan Evans
Rashaan Evans had a solid season in his second year with the Titans. He finished second on the team with 111 tackles and tacked on 2.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 8 QB hits.
There were some spectacular moments too. The scoop and score touchdown against Kansas City and major contributions to the critical goal line stands against the Chargers and Patriots jump to mind. However, there were still some holes in his overall performance, most notably as a pass defender.
Evans graded out as one of the worst coverage linebackers in the NFL according to PFF, and by more traditional metrics, he was the only inside linebacker in the league to start all 16 games with recording a single pass breakup. There is little doubt that Evans’ primary responsibility is to serve as the downhill thumper in Tennessee’s linebacker partnership with Jayon Brown serving as the primary coverage backer, but you’d like to see 54 start to find his way into more passing lanes when he is called on to cover.
That being said, the 24 year old linebacker felt like he was on the verge of taking a big step towards the end of last season. Evans was electric in playoff wins against the Patriots and Ravens, and while his season ended with a poor performance fighting through an injury in Kansas City, he certainly feels like a guy who could be poised for a breakout year in 2020.
2. TE Jonnu Smith
These next two guys are players that the Titans are putting a lot of faith in right now based on the rest of their offseason personnel moves. Jonnu Smith is now the undisputed TE1 after the team released long time star tight end Delanie Walker this offseason. The move was primarily cap motivated, but you can be sure that Smith’s emergence in 2019 made that decision far easier for Jon Robinson than it could have been.
Still just 24 years old, the FIU Panther has steadily improved each year he’s been in the league, posting 18 catches for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2017, 20 catches for 258 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2018, and then 35 catches for 439 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. During that time he’s also grown as a blocker, though that area of his game is still a work in progress.
The ingredients for a break out are all there. The increased opportunity with Walker being out of the picture is part of it. After Walker’s season ended in Week 7, Smith more than doubled his yards per game output, flashing elite run after catch ability — Jonnu finished second behind only teammate A.J. Brown in Next Gen Stats’ yards after catch above expectation and led all tight ends in broken tackles per reception — along with some much improved contested catch skills. The jump ball in the end zone in Oakland and the famous “one cheek equals two feet” catch against the Ravens are strong evidence of the latter.
However, this projection isn’t just about opportunity and development. Smith is also coming off a healthy offseason for the first time in his pro career. An MCL sprain at the end of 2017 and a torn ACL in 2018 left him doing more rehab than building during the last two offseasons. In fact, while we often talk about Jeffery Simmons’ remarkable recovery from ACL surgery that saw him taking NFL snaps just eight months after surgery, not enough is made of Smith’s nine month return to play that included him getting in a good bit of work during training camp last summer. However, as remarkable as the recovery was, there is little doubt that he was playing at less than 100%, especially early in the season. Having that injury fully behind him and an offseason dedicated to enhancing his game should pay big dividends this fall.
Speaking of offseason work, Smith has spent most of his summer in south Florida working out with Ryan Tannehill. His move up to TE1 coincided with Tannehill’s installation as the starter last season so these two have gotten quite a bit of work together between last year and this offseason.
Between the increased opportunity, the health factor, and the work with Tannehill, it’s not hard to see a scenario where 2020 is Smith’s coming out party as an elite tight end.
(And it also can’t hurt that Smith is — by Vrabel’s own admission — one of his head coach’s favorite players.)
1. DL Jeffery Simmons
The obvious answer is sometimes the right answer and that’s the approach I’m taking here. Of course the biggest breakout candidate should be the 22 year old who was a 1st round pick a year ago and impressed in flashes despite playing at far less than 100%.
Similar to Smith, Simmons made a speedy recovery from an ACL injury to make an impact in 2019. His debut against the Chargers — a game that he dominated on limited snaps — was just eight months removed from reconstructive knee surgery and came after participating just three NFL practices. While his play was more up and down from there, the flashes were certainly impressive and I’ve heard estimates that the team thought he was somewhere around 70% from a strength standpoint.
Simmons has spent his summer in Nashville working with the Titans strength staff due to him being one of several players on the treatment list to end the 2019 season. That training has included the former Mississippi State star shedding the cumbersome knee brace he sported last year, a sign of increased confidence in his knee.
Also like Smith, Simmons had a path to a bigger role paved for him by the ouster of a respected veteran when the Titans traded Jurrell Casey to Denver. While the reasoning behind that move is certainly up for debate, one thing is crystal clear... Tennessee has big expectations for Simmons and expect him to shine with more snaps in the 3-technique role that Casey had occupied for years.
Considered by some to be a potential top five pick in the 2019 draft prior to his injury, Simmons has the potential to become an elite force on the inside of the Titans defense this fall. An expanded role, a clean bill of health, and another year of development under the Titans coaching staff make him a no brainer break out candidate.