Let's get the obvious out of the way quickly, the Tennessee Titans offensive line has been an outright disaster this year. In particular, the caliber of play at the tackle position has been quite troubling, and no matter what "improvements" have been made on paper, the results have been abhorrent.
Ran Carthon did not have enough resources to completely fix the situation this year, so it is hard to blame him for failing to rebuild the line in a single offseason. However, next year he has no excuses not to resolve it. The offensive line is a long way from being settled, but the Titans might have just discovered that they have a future piece.
Jaelyn Duncan saw his first NFL action in Week 11 and his first start in Week 12, and it is safe to say that his performance has sparked some hope. Do not get me wrong, it was nowhere near perfect, and he is nowhere near penciled in as a starter for next year or ever, but there were flashes and signs that he could be valuable in the coming years.
Jaelyn Duncan has struggled but simultaneously showed upside for Tennessee Titans
The buzz on Duncan started in early November, right after the Tennessee Titans' tackles registered another disastrous performance on Thursday Night Football. He had hardly seen action up to that point, but Mike Kieth (aka the VOTT) mentioned that Duncan was growing on the coaching staff.
This raised eyebrows, especially given Mike Vrabel's history of not playing rookies very much. A recent sixth-round pick getting his attention must have meant that he was showing some good things, and we could see that a few weeks later in Jacksonville.
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11, Duncan played 25 snaps and gave up zero sacks, and zero pressures, and registered a 79.4 pass blocking grade. The performance was good enough to earn him the start the next week, and while there were still some flashes, he was not without his faults.
On paper, Duncan was terrible in Week 12, giving up three pressures, two QB hits, and one hurry, which resulted in a measly 47.1 pass-blocking grade. Most of his gaffes were in the beginning, as Vrabel too acknowledged that he got better throughout the game, and his run-blocking grade of 69.4 was actually decent.
His first career start was a bit of a mixed bag, and while we could see the great athleticism and talent, we also saw that his technique will need plenty of work going forward. Fans expecting him to be a starter next year are getting way too far ahead of themselves, but it is not a stretch to say that Duncan is someone for whom the good should be focused on much more than the bad.
Tackle is a very tough position to be great at as a rookie, and everyone knew that Duncan falling to the sixth round, despite his athleticism and upside, meant that he was going to be a project. The fact that he has not only gotten this far but was inactive for the first few games of the year, means that there has been gradual development and improvement throughout the season.
And going back to Vrabel's tendency to not play rookies, the fact alone that Duncan is playing is very promising. The obvious counter to this is that he is only getting a chance due to the other Titans' tackles being so aggressively bad, but that has been the case before.
Just look back to last year with Vrabel refusing to play Dillion Radunz at his natural position of left tackle, despite Dennis Daley being so awful all year. Andre Dillard was healthy again last week, yet Duncan still played over him, which means there is something legit going on with Duncan.
Let's also address the fact that even if Duncan became good enough to be a starter going into next year, the Titans would still need tackle help in the offseason. Whether he panned out on the left or right side, the team still has nowhere near enough talent at the overall position, so this notion that Duncan's performance could affect the team's plans to draft a tackle early is irrelevant.
That being said, he has played well enough that if the Titans were to miss on one of Joe Alt or Olu Fashanu, it would not be total doom and gloom, which would have been the case weeks ago. Such a situation would not be ideal, but assuming Duncan stays on his current path, Ran Carthon could be much more comfortable drafting someone like Malik Nabers or Brock Bowers and taking a tackle in the second round.
Once again, it is way too early to truly predict what Duncan will become in the NFL, and he could end up being nothing more than a solid swing tackle. But remember that in itself is very good value for someone selected in the sixth round.
And given how Duncan has progressed thus far in the season, there is a legitimate reason to expect more improvement as the rest of the season goes on. Without jumping to real conclusions, the Titans quest to improve play at the tackles has gotten at least a little easier with the emergence of Duncan, and it should help the journey of Will Levis in the short term and long term.