The Tennessee coach, alongside a new general manager, is once again resetting expectations for his roster in adding the star wide receiver.
Here’s what I believe to be a fair reading of the Titans over the past six-or-so months: They replaced one general manager with another, who may be a little more willing to side with Mike Vrabel on the coach’s vision for personnel and the state of the team.
And so, after the draft, we acted like there may be nothing to see here—a long-term rebuilding plan unfolding when the team selected quarterback Will Levis in the second round, which would seem to have jibed with the organization’s overall ethos at the end of the Jon Robinson regime as well (which, you’ll remember, involved the trading of A.J. Brown for a younger, cheaper replacement and an eye toward the future).
But the real Titans arrived Sunday night, breaking up a summer weekend by nabbing DeAndre Hopkins, a 31-year-old wide receiver. Whether or not this actually pays dividends remains to be seen. Some receivers such as Hopkins age gracefully and some, as the Titans know full well after trading a second-round pick for Julio Jones, have a quieter twilight. That we have no way of knowing.
What we do know is the Titans think they are much better than everyone else does. We know that Vrabel, specifically, believes he can win now, and in the future, and that there is no reason to hand the division over to the ascending Jaguars. We know that this is precisely the kind of move he could make with the general manager he has now, Ran Carthon (who presumably shares Vrabel’s belief). We know the Titans won’t simply be clipping their wings for future draft capital any time soon.
At stake here, I believe, is either the birth of the next Mike Tomlin–, Steelers-like franchise: a team that is always competitive in ways that defy our understanding (in fairness to Tomlin, he has not had a losing record since 2007, while Vrabel just logged his first losing record since 2018). Or, it’s spectacular, spectacular death. Vrabel’s roster—which is buoyed by a 34-year-old quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) who has shown multiple instances of withering in big games and who the franchise has already tried to replace multiple times, and a running back (Derrick Henry) with more miles on him than Mike’s Toyota Tacoma—has no business trying to make another run at the division. But the Titans are and, most likely, they will. Vrabel always outcoaches expectations. I think it is that belief that led him to the point we are now.
Vrabel has led the Titans to three playoff appearances, two division championships and one AFC Championship appearance.
Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network
With almost any other coach, this move feels desperate. With the Titans, it feels oddly sensible.
Signing a veteran this late in the process isn’t always a declaration. There could be a hole on the roster somewhere, and someone’s price could have come down. Hopkins is different because he had options. Not necessarily great options, but options nonetheless. The Titans had to compete for his services. They had to work for Hopkins. A franchise isn’t going to do that if they’re trying to crash land for a whiff at Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, or if even they thought that was remotely possible.
There are teams in the NFL who notoriously move on from different iterations of their roster early (think the Eagles) and teams who notoriously move on from them late (think the Giants under Eli Manning). Then, there are teams that just keep on reemerging, such as the blown up plastic green soldier in Toy Story, trudging through the mud. Vrabel, who has been the Titans’ head coach since 2018, seems eager to make the latter his perpetual disposition.
The Titans are breaking in essentially two rookie tackles (2023 first-round pick Peter Skoronski and former Eagles first-round pick Andre Dillard, who seldom managed to crack the elite lineup in Philadelphia and never reached 20% of the club’s snaps in any season). Few of Tennessee’s best defensive players were drafted after 2020. This would seem like the kind of window in which a team would play the compensatory pick game, place all of their efforts into breaking in young talent and hoping to catch a heater in November, or bottoming out nicely enough to increase their draft equity.
This would also not be the way of the Titans.
This is Vrabel’s boat, and anyone who believes there is not a playoff roster to be found goes overboard. Who are we to judge at this point? They have convinced Hopkins. Next on their list is the rest of us, who may not see what Vrabel sees right now (but soon could).