The Titans continued their Zoom press conferences with the media on Monday, sending safety Kevin Byard, outside linebacker Harold Landry, left tackle Taylor Lewan, and tight end Jonnu Smith to the proverbial podium to answer questions about COVID-19, training camp, and the upcoming season.
Taking notes during these media appearances, I noticed similar themes emerging from each player. Here are my top four takeaways gleaned from their collective answers…
#1. The Titans are taking COVID-19 very seriously
Obviously the COVID-19 impacts are dominating the training camp storylines as we kick off the 2020 season. While we’ve seen the NBA and NHL successfully restart their seasons in “bubble” style environments, Major League Baseball has had a lot more trouble, already postponing multiple series after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals’ recently reported outbreaks.
It remains to be seen how well the NFL will handle COVID-19 problems as they arise, but so far, the protocols in place seem to be working. The Titans appear particularly focused on being safe, recognizing the importance of staying healthy this season.
“At the end of the day, the safest team and the healthiest team this year, I think is going to be the one that’s playing in January and February,” said Kevin Byard. “The different sports all have different ways of going about things, but as far as us, we’re just trying to do our best.”
Or as Taylor Lewan put it, “I think so far the guys in this locker room have done a really good job of being on top of it and making sure that they’ve social distanced and worn their mask… Let’s make sure we’re all being safe and in our designated areas.”
Lewan also added, “It’s hard, but this is my job. This is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life, so it was never a thought for me to opt out.”
Kevin Byard mentioned the discussions he had with his wife, but admitted he never really considered strongly the opt-out option. Jonnu Smith expressed a similar sentiment: “If I felt my gut told me to do something, I would go with my gut feeling, but there was nothing—for me at least—that would’ve made me opt out. I talked to my wife about it and some of my family, and we were all comfortable with the decision I made to play this season.”
Each player spoke about the Titans’ emphasis on following the protocols, commenting on how well the team was doing making the players and staff feel safe.
Byard said, “Honestly, I feel like the Titans are trying to do their best and we’re trying to do our best to make sure everybody’s safe. It’s a crazy world right now, I feel like you can catch COVID walking to the grocery store, getting gas, anywhere. We all just have to make sure that we’re taking the precautions, washing our hands, wearing a mask, and that’s everybody.”
Lewan was on the same page as his teammate, saying, “When it comes to that stuff, it’s your obligation to be a pro when you’re outside the building. If guys want to take part in this season, then it’s on them to do those types of things. Don’t put yourself in a position to contract something or be somewhere that you shouldn’t be. This is a business, and what we’re trying to do is have a football season. It’s not about ‘going out.'”
When discussing how the situation would affect practice, Lewan added, “The Titans are doing a good job of putting us through these protocols to make sure we’re safe. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel safe. So, when we go to practice, it’s practice. We’re not tip-toeing around anything, we’re getting ready to play football, from my understanding.”
Jonnu Smith said something along the same lines: “I think that everyone who has decided to be here understands the issue we’re dealing with, and we’re all here. So I think that everyone’s bought in and is ready to take what comes with it… We’re expecting that everyone in this organization has taken the right procedures to make sure that we’re all safe. So I think everybody that’s here is comfortable with that.”
They also humorously touched on Dennis Kelly’s role as the player representative in charge of enforcing the safety measures with his teammates.
Said Kevin Byard, “Dennis Kelly has been anal about it. For some guys, we’re all getting used to the new rules and protocols, and it’s good.”
Lewan gave his teammate some tongue-in-cheek praise for his job so far, “I think Dennis would be an unbelievable dictator in any country based on the way he’s handled the mask thing. Although it’s been very annoying, he’s been doing a good job. He definitely has not worried about being annoying from that sense, which is good.”
Jonnu Smith’s comments weren’t much different, “Dennis is making sure that we’re staying safe, keeping the health of the team first, keeping the health of everyone in the organization first. He’s definitely been patrolling, doing his thing. We just need to follow Dennis’s lead when it comes to safety protocols.”
#2. Communication is a huge theme for this Titans team
The second thing that jumped out to me was how much each guy emphasized communication and continuity as keys to success in 2020. Kevin Byard harped on communication maybe more than anyone:
“I think not having the preseason snaps, it’s going to be very critical in walkthroughs, jog throughs, practice in helmets, it’s going to be highly critical that we’re communicating, making sure we’re on the same page,” said Byard. He also touched on the importance of communicating with his new teammates, Kristian Fulton and Johnathan Joseph:
“The rookies reported a week earlier, I heard they’ve been great in walkthroughs and great in meetings and things like that, so they’re ahead. It’s been pretty good, I’ve worked out with [Fulton] this summer with Jason Spray. He’s a worker, so I understand that he’s always going to be attentive in meetings.
“[Johnathan Joseph] has been in this league a long time. He’s a pro, he’s going to pick up the defense and stuff. But that’s going to be the main thing when we’re going through walkthroughs, just making sure we’re all on the same page. That’s going to be my biggest responsibility this year, making sure that a guy like J-Jo, a guy like Kristian Fulton, that we’re all talking and speaking the same language.
“Honestly, I think this year, it’s really going to have to be a lot of player leadership, including myself, really leading the guys, especially on the field.”
Byard wasn’t the only one who mentioned being a leader in terms of making sure his teammates understand their responsibilities. Taylor Lewan when speaking about his relationship with first-round tackle Isaiah Wilson (who signed his rookie contract today) said:
“Isaiah and I talk very consistently since he was drafted here. We’ve worked together in person on techniques and fundamentals, and what [offensive line coach] Keith [Carter] is going to look for when we get to the season and individual [work].”
Lewan mentioned that this is the aspect of leadership he wants to grow in the most: helping the younger and less experienced players, which in turn will help him improve as well.
Lewan also added this about offensive continuity along the offensive line and with the team in general:
“How close we are as a unit is huge. I’m pretty confident being the third year in the same offense that we have a huge opportunity here, especially as an offensive line, to mold and gel fast and not have those hiccups, whether it was me being suspended at the beginning of the year, all the sacks at the beginning of the year… we have an opportunity to right those and take advantage of our opportunities.”
Lewan also discussed the ease of focusing on the small minute details given how close they are, and the focus on perfecting the little things given that the line knows the offense so well. I think it’s interesting to note that Lewan multiple times referred to this as the team’s “third year” in the offense, not the second year. That shows how much the playbook and terminology originally installed by Matt LaFleur carried over into last season.
Meanwhile, Jonnu Smith had this to say about the offensive unit’s mindset:
“We don’t set limits on ourselves. We have a lot of work to put in, and we just need to continue to have that growth mindset, always looking to improve, and just know that we have everything in front of us to take. We just always want to try to get better, adjust and adapt to the uncertainties of what we’re dealing with right now, and I think the way that we handle this will be a huge part of our success.
“Art is one of the smartest football people I’ve ever been around in my life… Art is always trying to find a small detail in something that could be the deciding factor in us winning or losing, and that’s why I love him. I have so much respect for Art, his grind and his work ethic, a lot of people don’t see it. He comes to work every day and gives us his all, and I think that showed last year, and I know he’s coming to give us more this year.“
Jonnu Smith also touched on his offseason workouts with Ryan Tannehill and Darrynton Evans in Florida, citing that work as another reason the offense should continue to improve this season:
“[We] put in a lot of great work this offseason. Ryan was great, the best I’ve ever seen him since I’ve been around him. He looks confident and ready to lead this team, I know he’s definitely going to make some strides this year.
“Darrynton Evans, very fascinating player. Just as athletic as he can be, as quick as he can be, he’s going to be a great addition to this offense and I know we’re going to find ways to get him the ball and use him to help us win some games.”
Ryan Tannehill also spoke about Darrynton Evans’ potential impact last week. The third-round rookie is making an early impression on his teammates.
#3. Shane Bowen might be the Arthur Smith of the defense
Last offseason, when Matt LaFleur was hired by Green Bay to be their head coach, Arthur Smith was the popular internal candidate to replace him as the Titans’ Offensive Coordinator. The players had nothing but good things to say about Art as a man and as a coach, and his background made him a worthy candidate for the job. A year and a half later, it looks to have been a great choice.
This offseason, Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees retired, and Mike Vrabel made no move to hire his replacement. Vrabel has noted that Outside Linebackers Coach Shane Bowen will be his “voice” in defensive meetings when Vrabel has other head coach duties to attend to.
The players today had nothing but compliments for Shane Bowen during the press conference and spoke highly of his new role, leading me to believe that he could be in line to become the official defensive coordinator sometime in the future. The common theme was how well Bowen communicates.
Kevin Byard said, “Shane is a very knowledgeable guy, he’s always been great with the guys, and when he gets in front of the room, when he speaks, everybody listens.”
Harold Landry was also full of glowing praise for his position coach:
“Shane realizes that in the NFL you have to coach everybody hard, but you can come at it from a different angle depending on the players you’re talking to, and he’s really good at getting through to players.
“With me personally, he knows how to get through to me, and I think that’s key. I have a lot of confidence in him being able to step up and be that voice with Vrabs. I’m happy for him, excited for him, I think he deserves it. He does a great job relating to players and communicating his message to every player.”
#4. High Expectations
My last major takeaway from today’s media Zoom was the high expectations these players have for themselves and the team.
Harold Landry spoke a lot about his own offseason work and the standard he holds himself to and his work developing as a pass rusher:
“I hold myself to a high standard, so whenever I’m out there, I should be performing at a high level. I just need to be able to perform at my best, full go, every single play. If I end up leading the team in sacks, it is what it is, but my goal on every single snap is to just be impactful.
“Depending on what moves you’re trying to work on, there’s a whole bunch of guys in this league who have picked certain moves and they’ve kind of mastered them, and I feel like that’s what you want. To maintain a level of consistency in this league to produce wins in pass rushing, you have to pick a couple moves and make them your best moves, and be able to hit them in stride without thinking about it every rep.”
Landry said he spent the whole offseason training in Tennessee after having just finished renovating his home gym: “I put in a lot of work and I’m excited for this season.”
He was asked about the added pressure to produce with Jurrell Casey’s offseason departure, and responded:
“I don’t feel any added pressure, because no one holds a higher standard for themselves than me. You just have to make sure you take advantage of every rep and don’t take any of it for granted.“
Landry isn’t the only one holding himself to a high standard this season. Kevin Byard said that the goal for the secondary is to be “the best secondary in the NFL in 2020.”
He elaborated, “We’re not really concerned with the stats we put up last year, or anything like that. This is a whole new group. We have to set lofty goals for ourselves, trying to be the best that we can be and helping our defense out. Not giving up big plays… being great tacklers, being physical, that will help us take our defense to the next level.”
Jonnu Smith also has high expectations for himself and the offense as he looks to take over the “TE1” role from Delanie Walker:
“Right now, I’m trying to definitely surpass just fulfilling the shoes that [Delanie Walker] walked in. Delanie was a great player, but I myself have always talked about never setting limitations on myself, and I feel like if I was to say that I was just trying to “fill shoes” at this point, then I’m selling myself short.
“What I mean is, I want to continue to surpass everything Delanie did, and what any great tight end has done. I’m trying to be the best, and that’s the foundation that I’ve laid out for myself and I’ve got to fulfill that. I want to help this team be in the best position come the season, so I’m just trying to work everyday as hard as I can to put myself in that position and make sure I stay ready day in and day out. As far as filling shoes, it’ll definitely be a challenge to surpass a guy like Delanie and everything he’s done, but I’m definitely up for that challenge. That’s just the player I am.”
My money is on Jonnu Smith as the Titans’ top breakout candidate for the 2020 season.
Jonnu was also the recipient of the 2019 Ed Block Courage award, as voted by his teammates. Asked about what it meant to receive that award, he said:
“It meant a lot. It’s one thing to get an award from other players, or even fans, whether it’s the fanvote, coaches, whatever… but to get an award from the guys that you walk in this locker room every day with and lay everything on the line for, that’s different. That hit a different place in my heart. That just really showed how much respect those guys have for me, because I have a lot of respect and love for everyone in that locker room and everyone in this organization.“
The team appears fully locked in, focused, and ready to do the necessary work to prepare for the 2020 season.
Below you can watch the full press conferences with Byard, Landry, Lewan, and Smith, via the Tennessee Titans YouTube Channel.