NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans' first-round exit from the playoffs, courtesy of a 20-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, ended the season on a sour note. Although the Titans posted their best record in more than a decade, finishing the regular season with an 11-5 record and winning the AFC South, this offseason might be even more challenging than their last.
Here's a look at the three biggest offseason decisions facing the Titans:
Free agency: Who stays, who goes?
The Titans have an abundance of players set to become free agents when the new league year starts. But with limited cap space (projected to be about $1 million, according to ESPN Roster Management), the Titans have to decide which players are essential to their improvement. The biggest names include wide receiver Corey Davis, linebacker Jayon Brown, tight end Jonnu Smith, cornerback Desmond King and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney was signed right before the start of last season to be the game-changer the Titans’ front four needed. But injuries ended his season in November, and he didn’t finish with any sacks. Clowney remains a good fit for the Titans because of his versatility to play along the interior and on the edge. However, his injury history could make the Titans wary of signing him to a big-money deal. It would only make sense to bring Clowney back if it’s an extremely team-friendly deal.
The biggest free-agent decision might be what to do about Davis, the former No. 5 overall pick who posted career-highs in receiving yards (986), average yards per catch (15.1) and receiving touchdowns (5). Davis proved to be the perfect complement to A.J. Brown, making defenses pay for rolling coverage toward the Titans' No. 1 receiver.
Entering his fifth season, Davis will draw plenty of interest from teams looking for a high-upside receiver who might not break the bank. If the Titans don't retain Davis, they'll need to find a replacement via the draft or free agency.
Free-agent wideout Marvin Jones, who turns 31 in March, would make a lot of sense as a replacement for Davis. Jones would likely come at a much cheaper price and could provide similar production.
Who replaces Arthur Smith as offensive coordinator?
The Titans became one of the NFL's top offensive units with Smith dialing up the plays. Tennessee ranked fourth in the league in scoring during the regular season, averaging 30.7 points per game under Smith. They finished the regular season averaging 396.4 yards per game, good for third in the NFL. The Titans' rushing attack posted 168.1 yards per game, second only to Baltimore (191.9 yards).
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill experienced a career resurgence under Smith and is now among the top quarterbacks in the league. Tannehill called Smith one of the most cooperative and open playcallers he's ever been around because of how much Tannehill was able to be involved with installing the game plan.
The next offensive coordinator will need to find the same synergy with Tannehill and devise ways to fully utilize his advanced skill set to keep the offense flowing as it has been over the last two seasons.
Smith's replacement will also have to maintain the balance that Tennessee had on offense. Derrick Henry's 2,027 rushing yards were the fifth-highest total in league history. But the offense wasn't all ground-and-pound. Brown posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season and Davis fell just 16 yards short of 1,000 yards.
The Titans' interview request for Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was declined. There are still options, but coach Mike Vrabel needs to act fast because new coaches such as Smith with the Falcons are also looking to fill their staff.
Vrabel will have some internal options such as tight end coach Todd Downing and quarterback coach Pat O'Hara who both possess previous experience as offensive coordinators.
Will Vrabel name a defensive coordinator?
Ah, the million-dollar question. After losing Dean Pees to retirement before the season, Vrabel didn't name a replacement. But he empowered outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen to essentially fill the role. Any time there was a defensive hiccup, Titans fans blamed it on not having a defensive coordinator.
The Titans finished with only 19 sacks and allowed opposing offenses to score on 69.2% of their red-zone visits. These shortcomings don't fall solely on Bowen. There were scheme issues at times and the team also lacked playmakers both in the back end and front end of the defense.
Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson need to do some self-reflection as they prepare their plan to build a better team in 2021.
"What we have to do is we have to evaluate every position on our staff as well as on our roster," Vrabel said in his news conference at the end of the season. "We'll do that and we'll make those decisions that we feel like are in the best interest of the football team. That [defensive coordinator] will be one of them."
Vrabel seems likely to hire a defensive coordinator given how he has already interviewed Pittsburgh Steelers defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin. Former Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher drew interest from Vrabel when he first became the Titans' coach. Bettcher is certainly an option for Tennessee if they decide to hire an external coach to be their defensive coordinator.