The Titans open their preseason account tomorrow night against the Baltimore Ravens, with plenty of storylines set to be activated and monitored with the utmost attention and care.
Per usual, the first preseason game will be centered more around the backups and roster bubble players. As the usual first team starters will either play a series, or maybe not play at all.
For the Titans, this year’s training camp window has been full of surprises and intriguing developments. They’ll begin their annual dramatic countdown to conclusion tomorrow night in Baltimore, so let’s jump right into it.
1. How many snaps will the starters play?
That’s one of the big questions surrounding the Titans’ preseason opener. Head coach Mike Vrabel indicated on Sunday, that everyone on the roster will have an opportunity to play on Thursday night.
But it’s reasonable to be skeptical of that, considering how careful Vrabel usually is with his starters in the preseason if the opportunity presents itself.
Which is always a good thing, since the possibility of preseason injuries is very much real.
If the starters do end up playing, we’ll probably see them for a series or two at most, before they’re pulled in favor of backups and players fighting for roster spots. We’ll see how the playing time situation unravels tomorrow, but until then, the speculation will run rampant.
2. Malik Willis’ (un)official debut
Perhaps the biggest story relating to the preseason opener, is the first NFL snaps for rookie quarterback Malik Willis. Fans and football minds alike were already eyeing his first bout of NFL action when he was drafted in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and now, it’s finally here.
We don’t know what we’ll see from Willis. He’s already been commercially billed as a gifted athlete with tremendous positive traits. But his lack of experience running pro style concepts, his wild at times play style, and his underwhelming mechanical play has some wondering just how long it’ll take for him to adjust to the vastly improved speed and mentally demanding sphere of the NFL.
Willis’ up and down camp journey can be used as an example as to why those concerns are valid.
He’s been shaky at times, failing to accurately throw the football and keep up with the fast paced style the NFL presents. But along with the negatives, there have been plenty of positives. Like Willis’ cannon of an arm guiding him to tight window throws, an impressive — albeit inconsistent – command of the offense, and athleticism that is way above average for the position.
The point is, Willis is a work in progress that obviously needs more time to polish. It won’t happen with the snap of a finger — that’s if it happens at all — but given enough time, and Willis should develop into a serviceable asset for the Titans.
This three game exhibition schedule will give Willis a chance to show just how far he’s come along with his development. So buckle up, this could be a bit of a wild ride.
3. The Treylon Burks first team snaps drama
Treylon Burks will get his first taste of NFL action on Thursday night, but not without the curses of drama following closely behind him.
Reports have been flying around lately, particularly regarding Burks not consistently practicing with the first team offense so far during camp. Are these reports accurate? Technically, considering Burks hasn’t consistently practiced as one of the starting two receivers during practice.
But that doesn’t mean the sky is falling and Burks should be deemed a summertime bust.
Burks will receive his opportunities with the first team offense. Whether that’s in practice or during a measly preseason game. So it’s useless to panic about a dodgy doomsday scenario that hasn’t even come close to occurring yet.
Instead, you should worry about Burks’ debut on Thursday night, and how big of an opportunity he has to show off the traits that made him a first round pick in the first place.
4. First look at Chig Okonkwo’s progress
Another debut that’ll be intriguing to watch play out is Chig Okonkwo’s.
Okonkwo possesses a unique skill set that should benefit the Titans’ passing game this season. But his small frame and lack of top tier skill as a blocker has stood in the way of Okonkwo truly being able to strut his stuff so far this summer.
Still though, his potential as the Titans’ next talented late round tight end project will demand the attention of many.
What’ll be fascinating to see if how much Okonkwo can hold his own as a blocker against NFL talent. That’s been one of the main concerns with him so far, and with the Titans routinely relying on their tight ends to contribute as blockers, it’s understandably a big talking point that’ll be monitored as the game goes on.
Fortunately, this facet of Okonkwo’s game will be on full display, so we’ll be able to receive a decent amount of early feedback as to where Okonkwo is in terms of his development as a compact mover of men.
5. Depth wide receiver battle
The Titans have seen their fair share of heated wide receiver roster battles over the past few seasons. But the one that’s currently going on right now, could trump them all with room to spare.
Behind the four current roster locks — Robert Woods, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Treylon Burks, and Kyle Phillips — the fight to secure those all important fifth and likely sixth roster spots is starting to heat up.
Racey McMath — who has had a pretty impressive camp so far — is vying for one of the last few spots, likely as the team’s only legit deep threat. But his roster spot feels more secure than not at this point, so he isn’t a player that should be considered on the bubble.
For now at least.
However, the last spot is still seemingly up for grabs. Dez Fitzpatrick, Josh Malone, and Reggie Roberson feel like the main contenders for the the coveted sixth receiver spot, and all should have plenty of opportunities to win the spot during the preseason.
Especially tomorrow night, since the starters aren’t expected to play many snaps, if any at all.
All three possess different skill sets, but we all know it only takes one good preseason stretch and a few breaks for an individual to avoid the dreaded phone call that informs you of your impending release.
6. A busy night for Roger McCreary?
One of the more brighter training camp stories has been the impressive play from rookie Roger McCreary. He’s quickly shed his label as an unnecessary draft pick, and has shot his way into the conversation for immediate playing time as soon as the regular season starts to grind its gears.
First though, a clean debut on Thursday night while potentially lining up at a variety of positions.
When this pick was made, there were questions as to where he would play, since his primary role as a boundary corner was already occupied by the likes of Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley. Due to that, some speculated he would get his foot in the door as a nickel corner, or even as an extra defensive back in the Titans’ dime package.
Whatever the case may be, McCreary has plenty of possible sub roles roles waiting for him. It’s all a matter of him taking advantage of the opportunity, and building upon his fantastic start as a professional.
Thursday night’s preseason opener could give us an indicator as to what roles McCreary could add to his name. Although, that’s a little far fetched because of the ongoing injury situation to second year defensive back Elijah Molden.
Nonetheless, it should be an intriguing debut for McCreary on Thursday night, one way or another.
7. Who gets the first nod at right tackle?
After David Quessenberry was let go, and after a few comments made by the Titans’ staff, it appeared the starting right tackle job was likely going to be won by Dillon Radunz.
The second year tackle was constantly at the center of positive compliments by his teammates and Mike Vrabel’s staff. Add in the fact that he came into camp in much better shape, and nobody would blame you if you penciled in Radunz as the starting right tackle for Week one.
Rookie tackle be damned.
But a couple of weeks into camp, it looks like Radunz isn’t the immediate fill in solution many thought of him to be.
Rookie tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere played some snaps with the first team offensive line this past Friday. It’s a development that’s significant in a sense, because we hadn’t received any indicator that Radunz was in trouble of falling into serious competition with Petit-Frere for the starting right tackle spot.
But here we are, weeks into another training camp window, and it’s clear this staff sees this competition as a legit one.
Whoever gets the first look at right tackle tomorrow night won’t immediately take control of the situation on hand. But it would still serve as a handy reminder as to who has a leg up in the competition, and who needs to step up their play before its too late.
8. Caleb Farley’s first in game snaps as a bonafide starter
If the Titans’ defensive starters get a few snaps in tomorrow night, it’ll be a good chance to see how Caleb Farley fares as one of the starters at boundary corner.
It’s preseason game number one, so no conclusions should be reached. Well, unless you’re a flaming pessimist or optimist that hangs their hat on any amount of game time Farley can get.
But still, Farley receiving some game time to get “acclimated” of sorts as a true, bonafide starter couldn’t hurt. Mostly in terms of in game communication and some much needed playing time to shake the rust off after offseason knee surgery.
9. Who gets off on the right foot in the depth defensive line battle?
The top four defensive line options appear set for the Titans. But a potentially crucial fifth spot remains vacant and open for the taking, with plenty of candidates eager for the opportunity to snatch it for their selves.
Da’Shawn Hand has performed well over the course of camp, as well as DeMarcus Walker. Aside from those though, there hasn’t been as much noise.
Larrell Murchison is a returning player that has served as a reserve — and often injured — defensive lineman ever since his rookie year.
But he’s struggled with injury and overall effectiveness as the years have gone by. This is one of the more underrated position battles on the team, since no one thinks of a fifth string defensive lineman as important of worthy of attention.
However, as we saw last season, depth plays a really big part in determining just how far a team can push itself without running into any overbearing obstacles.
So keep a watchful eye on the reserve defensive linemen that do receive snaps. Since one of those could end up keeping a roster spot and contributing down the line if injuries do in fact become a nuisance for the Titans again.
10. Hassan Haskins looks to fend off backup running back contenders
Haskins’ arrival hasn’t been met with a lot of excitement since he’s not in contention to steal any snaps from star Derrick Henry.
But he still has a role to fight for, which is Henry’s backup.
Haskins’ play has been received well so far in camp. But like every other training camp/preseason phase, putting the pads on against different competition can have an interesting effect on the stock on the players once thought of as locks or sure things.
Mike Vrabel himself has said he wouldn’t expect Henry to play in the preseason. So that means plenty of opportunity for Haskins and other running backs on the roster to thrust themselves into the spotlight.
Something that should be fascinating to watch.
11. A chance to shine for Chance Campbell, other backup linebackers
With Monty Rice recovering from injury, the rest of the Titans’ backup linebackers have been given chances to play more significant snaps during camp.
That includes the likes of Chance Campbell, Joe Jones, and even Jack Gibbens — someone Mike Vrabel has recently spoken highly of.
The likes of Campbell and Jones were already seen as special teams contributors if they were to make the roster. But with some good, consistent play, a role as a fifth inside linebacker — if the team decides to keep five — isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
So keep an eye out on these names tomorrow night.
12. Any new wrinkles from Todd Downing?
This is a stretch, but you should keep an eye on if Downing runs with more tight end friendly personnel.
Last year, the Titans ran a lot of 11 personnel, opting for more receivers on the field instead of putting an extra tight end on the field. This change in philosophy made the offense lose the efficiency that made it hum like a high horsepower engine in 2020, and played a part in the offense’s regression in 2021.
Now, with Austin Hooper and Okonkwo in the fold, it’ll be interesting to see if Downing decides to jump back on the ship that carries the Titans’ all important physical identity.
Or stick with the schematic details that he’s come to love.
We won’t get any conclusions based on that tomorrow night, but we should see just how often Downing decides to roll with specific personnel groupings, and which plays he runs with them — although that’s a pretty bleak scenario since playcalling is far from diverse in the preseason.