Monday Night Football’s showdown takes place at the Denver Broncos’ Empower Stadium at Mile High. On the surface, both teams look like classic ball-control offenses coupled with stout defenses. Unfortunately for the home team, only Tennessee is equipped to operate that way.
Titans’ offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s offense may be best encapsulated by QB Ryan Tannehill’s 2019 7.7% touchdown rate, which took second only to Lamar Jackson. Although that rate is sure to naturally regress closer to 5%, Tennessee fans can rest assured that the overall efficiency of the offense should keep on humming.
While households know of running back Derrick Henry as being the engine of the Titans’ offense, OC Smith’s heavy use of play-action passing is the team’s secret sauce. As noted in Sharp Football’s 2020 Football Preview, Smith’s Titans ran play-action on 52% of the teams’ early-down passing attempts through quarters one, two, and three, resulting in a whopping 12.2 yards per attempt for Ryan Tannehill. With Tannehill and stud WR A.J. Brown carving up defenses early, the floodgates are opened for Derrick Henry and his bulldozing offensive line to put up points and kill the clock.
Were this early 2019, fantasy managers might be too frightened by Denver’s dominant pass rushing duo, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, and lockdown cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to start Tannehill. But with Miller tragically suffering a season-ending injury, Chubb still recovering from his 2019 ACL tear and certain to be on a snap count if available, and Harris off to the Chargers, Tannehill’s scoring-floor is firmly intact with a chance at a decent ceiling.
2019 rookie phenom, wide receiver A.J. Brown looks poised to produce high-end WR2 numbers. Despite seeing a limited snap share through much of last season, Brown still cleared 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on far fewer targets than his counterparts. In an attempt to stop him, Denver will trot out cornerback A.J. Bouye, who offenses roasted for 71 receptions in 2019 — that’s more than Brown caught all year. The ascending sophomore wide receiver should have no issue posterizing one of the game’s defensive “has been’s” in primetime.
No. 2 WR Corey Davis enters MNF hobbled by a hamstring injury. Although Davis wouldn’t need a bum hammy to underwhelm, the injury does make the 2017 1st Round bust even less desirable. Slot receiver Adam Humphries could pick up some of the slack but would be no more than a low quality boom/bust PPR flex option.
Tight end Jonnu Smith is the bet to assume No. 2 pass catching duties behind A.J. Brown. As detailed in the Tennessee Titans Team Preview, Smith had begun to separate from fellow pass catching tight end Anthony Firkser towards the end of the year. Smith possesses noteworthy athletic ability and has continued to develop as a pass catcher. Although he’s unlikely to ever see high-end see gaudy usage of the elite tight end group, in the right matchup he’s capable of producing backend top 12 numbers. This is such an occasion.
It took Derrick Henry finding box score success in 2019 for viewers to rid themselves of their big-bodied-running back biases, finally seeing that the then-fourth-year running back’s NFL Combine scores weren’t a lie. Standing 6-foot-2, 247 pounds, Henry’s a hyper athletic football player that fans had confused for a classic plodder.
Against Denver’s depleted defensive front, Henry’s abilities will be on full display and it’s not unreasonable to think that he pushes for the league-lead in carries in Week 1. Raising his ceiling even higher, Henry’s lone competition for targets out of the backfield, No. 2 back Darrynton Evans, is out this week with a hamstring injury. That Evans’ replacement is set to come from the practice squad seriously locks in Henry’s chances at seeing four to six targets abasing the Broncos. His surprising ability to leave defenders in the dust makes him a threat to house screen passes from anywhere on the field. He’s the overall RB3 this week.
On early downs in the first half, over the last three seasons, Pat Shurmur’s Vikings (2017) and Giants (2018-2019) passed the ball between 49-56% of the time. Although the upper end of that mark is decent, it’s a far cry from the more intelligently run teams. With Shurmur newly hired to run the offense within defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio’s parameters, a run-first mentality is here to stay. The team’s primary offensive acquisition was ex-Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, showcasing the Denver Broncos’ desire to pound the rock.
Second-year QB Drew Lock is set to make his sixth NFL start on Monday and he’s in for a rough ride. While Shurmur attempts to establish the run against Tennessee’s stout defense, Tennessee’s offense is likely to start running away with the game. Eventually Lock will be called upon to dig the team out of the hole, but it’s a whole lot harder to pass against a defense that knows you want to pass. Doing so against the Titans’ ferocious front-seven — a group that was a team-strength before they added Jadeveon Clowney last week — will be nigh impossible. Lock can’t be trusted in fantasy lineups.
Making matters worse, top wide receiver Courtland Sutton suffered an AC joint sprain in his right shoulder on Thursday. His status isn’t definitively known but it’s likely he misses the game. On the off-chance that Sutton is able to play, he’d be a boom/bust WR2 as his talent is undeniable but situation unenviable.
2020 first round pick, WR Jerry Jeudy would likely assume No. 1 WR duties were Sutton to miss MNF. Should that be the case, he’ll be a volume-based flex option with a chance to finish as a WR2. With the COVID-stunted training camp/preseason, Jeudy was robbed of valuable reps with the 1st team offense. He’s easily the most talented, if unripe of the group. Should Sutton suit up, Jeudy must be demoted to a low-ceiling flex option.
Tim Patrick can only be expected to be a role player, regardless of Sutton’s availability. Meanwhile, DaeSean Hamilton may have one last chance to fight for the starting slot receiver gig. Denver drafted speedster K.J. Hamler in the second round of this year’s draft but the rookie receiver was unable to practice for much of camp due to a hamstring injury. The hope was that Hamler would finally provide a reliable option in the slot, in the post-Emmanuel Sanders world. Hamler now looks like he’s a shot to play though so Hamilton will have to give it everything he’s got to keep his job. Should Hamler miss though, Hamilton would be a lowkey, if capped-ceiling, flex option in PPR leagues as Tennessee lost stud slot cornerback Logan Ryan in free agency.
Perhaps the most exciting option in the passing game though is second-year tight end Noah Fant. Fant showed well in his first season and is primed for a breakout 2020. The word from the team is that Fant will be used all over the formation and should be a focal point of the offense’s passing attack. He’s a rock solid TE1.
The running back group has far less daylight between its members than fantasy members would like. Free agent-signee Melvin Gordon, a far larger back than Denver’s 2019 starter Phillip Lindsay, has reportedly struggled to adjust to the altitude in Denver and the coaching staff has made it clear that this is much more of a 1A/1B situation than it is a No. 1 RB/ No. 2 RB one. Although offensive line guru Mike Munchak, who joined the team last season, is a good bet to improve the offensive line in the long term, in the short term, this is not a strong unit. Coupling the tough matchup with the split workload and fantasy hopes can’t be terribly high for the duo. Gordon is the preferred fantasy option though, given his high-value passing game usage. Lindsay has always been more of a rush-first back, than a dual threat. Of course, the altitude issue with Gordon still makes his floor shaky. Gordon comes in as this week’s RB23 while Lindsay’s a mid-range flex option.