The start of the 2021 NFL season is officially in view as Titans training camp kicked off today at Saint Thomas Sports Park. The phrase of the day seemed to be “in progress”.
Construction of the team’s substantial expansion of their facilities is in progress.
The Titans have close to 90% of their roster either vaccinated or in progress of being vaccinated (the latter group includes starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill).
And Tannehill mentioned that this group is in progress towards becoming a true team.
All of the talk of progress was a good reminder that NFL teams are not finished products when we first see them on a steamy day in late-July. For that matter, they really aren’t finished products when we see them in Week 1. What we saw today was a snapshot in time showing where this group started their journey, not a projection of what the end might look like.
With that being said, there are several takeaways from what I was able to watch at training camp today that could be informative of some of the changes that we’ve seen since the last time we saw the Tennessee Titans on the field at Nissan Stadium in January. Here are some things that stood out to me:
Roster Health Notes
- Mike Vrabel is pretty smart when it comes to the way he organizes his practices. Today’s work was packed with red zone drills. Every segment — 1-on-1s, 7-on-7s, and 11-on-11s — was restricted to within the 30-yard line at most. The reason for that, as Vrabel explained in his press conference after practice, is to keep players from really opening up and risking a pulled muscle on their first day back in the heat. Practices will ramp up in both physicality and distance traveled from here, but there is a clear emphasis on avoiding early injuries.
- Speaking of injuries, the Titans appeared to get through practice without any new injuries. Obviously, the five players on either PUP or NFI — Caleb Farley, Bud Dupree, Aaron Brewer, Ty Sambrailo, and Jeremy McNichols — were not out there, but everyone else who started practice, finished.
- The Titans — as expected — were pretty cautious with some of their vets. Taylor Lewan did not participate in team sessions as he works his way back into form after ACL surgery. Derrick Henry and Julio Jones were also limited to just inidividual drills with the exception of a very brief Julio cameo in 7-on-7s (where he scored a quick touchdown on a crossing route from Tannehill and then returned to spectating).
There are lots of players who made plays today, but here are the five guys that really stood out the most to me:
- Teair Tart — I wrote about why I thought Tart was one of the six most important players at Titans camp yesterday and boy did he get off to a hot start. Tart got a lot of work and made the most of it, regularly making appearances in the offensive backfield to disrupt plays. He and Jeffery Simmons were a load to handle for the interior of the Titans offensive line.
- A.J. Brown — Look, it’s no big surprise that A.J. Brown looked good, but he was outstanding today. Ryan Tannehill’s trust level with his favorite target continues to shine through as the quarterback fit several tight window throws into Brown throughout practice and his Pro Bowl receiver made them them stick for big gains. Brown was very active in team periods.
- Amani Hooker — Another guy that I mentioned as a key piece for the Titans heading into 2021, Hooker also got off to a great start. He looks very comfortable in this defense, and showed off his instincts and ball skills by jumping a pass from Tannehill to Chester Rogers for what would have likely been a pick-6 (though Tannehill did make a good effort to run Hooker down). Hooker looked quicker and more decisive than ever.
- Kevin Byard — It was a good day for the Titans starting safeties. Byard showed up consistently in team drills, getting his hands in to break up multiple passes. Tennessee’s star safety is looking for a bounceback year and today was a strong start.
- Racey McMath — McMath has been building some buzz during the offseason and that continued today. He made the catch of the day (video below) right in front of me in 1-on-1s and earned some praise from Vrabel after practice for being “big, fast, and coachable”. The 6-3, 221-pounder out of LSU was thought to have potential to make the 53-man roster thanks to his special teams abilities, but he’s proving to have some chops as a receiver as well.
The Titans kicker situation is going to be something to watch during camp. After two years of really struggling to get this spot right — though Stephen Gostkowski was very good over the back half of last season — they’re now relying on two unproven commodities in Tucker McCann and Blake Haubeil.
During the lone field goal session that we saw today, both kickers were perfect with McCann going 5-for-5 from 28, 33, 41, 45, and 46 yards out and Haubeil going 4-for-4 from the same distances (he didn’t get a chance to take the 46-yarder). However, the trajectory and spin on McCann’s kicks were far more promising that Haubeil’s, who had a bit of a side spin to his ball and had one of his kicks kiss off the Sloman post before going through.
McCann also appears to have the stronger leg of the two. His make from 45 yards would have been good from 65.
Other Practice Notes
- Teair Tart, Anthony Firkser, Larrell Murchison, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine were recognized by Vrabel as the winner’s of this year’s offseason awards complete with the world-famous parking spots and gift baskets from Stretch that comes with the awards. The Titans head coach praised all four for their effort and for their attendance at the team facility during their time off.
- With Lewan being held out of team periods and Sambrailo on PUP, David Quessenberry, Kendall Lamm, Dillon Radunz, and Christian DiLauro got most of the top reps at the tackle spots.
- Unsurprisingly, all of the rookies were working pretty low in the rotations at their respective positions. They’ll have to earn more reps as they work through camp.
- Chris Jackson had a good day, particularly during 1-on-1s and was working as the top nickel corner for most of the practice.
- Elijah Molden also had a strong practice, breaking up some passes and earning praise from Vrabel afterwards. The competition at both the cornerback and wide receiver spots is going to be fierce.
- Jayon Brown appeared to be participating in all drills, but was sporting a large Gronk-style elbow brace.
- Greg Mabin had a nice punch to force a fumble on Cameron Batson near the sideline during 7-on-7s.
- It was a relatively quiet day for the tight ends in team periods, but second-year UDFA Tommy Hudson appears to be the clear favorite to grab the third spot behind Anthony Firkser and Geoff Swaim as camp begins.
- Fourth-round rookie receiver Dez Fitzpatrick made a nice catch and run for a touchdown during a late team period.
- Breon Borders had an excellent diving interception of DeShone Kizer near the sideline during 7-on-7s.
- Speaking of the backup quarterbacks… Woodside looked better today in team periods. Kizer has the physical skill set, but he looked very indecisive at times and held the ball way too long. Vrabel mentioned that playing with receivers lower on the depth chart could have something to do with that, but the level of decisiveness between Woodside and Kizer was a glaring difference today.
- Chester Rogers, Cameron Batson, and Mason Kinsey took turns catching punts. That group is likely competing for just one roster spot. Rogers was more involved early on than I expected.
- Kristian Fulton got a lot of work across from Janoris Jenkins today, but I thought he struggled a bit. Josh Reynolds beat him for touchdowns in both 1-on-1 and 7-on-7 work.
- Newly signed defensive lineman Kyle Peko — the younger cousin of longtime Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko — flashed a couple times. He was a frequent visitor to the backfield during one of the team drills.
- Denico Autry lined up all over the place defensively. He gives the Titans defense some real versatility on the defensive front.
- Fullback Khari Blasingame (video below) looked like a guy who had been hitting the weight room hard during the offseason. Listed at 233 pounds, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was closer to 250 now.
I’ll be back at practice on Friday and will provide some more notes then! In the meantime, make sure to check out John Glennon’s reports from practice each day here on Broadway Sports.