Let’s start by clarifying that this is not a list of the five most important players on the Titans roster. That list — which would include Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, Bud Dupree, and either A.J. Brown or Julio Jones — is primarily comprised of known quantities, guys that have a strong track record of production either in Tennessee or elsewhere.
This list is for players who could be key contributors in the 2021 season, but have something to prove over the next six weeks before the start of the regular season. These players have a lot to gain or lose in terms of playing time and opportunity to make an impact.
Additionally, the success they find in camp and beyond could have a large influence on the ceiling for the 2021 Titans as a team. Let’s jump in with a guy that I consider to be the most critical player on this list.
Kristian Fulton | CB
The Titans 2020 second-round pick had a rough rookie season. A strained hamstring in training camp limited his ability to get reps in an already drastically shortened offseason. That was followed by a trip to the COVID list during the team’s outbreak in Week 4 and then a knee injury suffered against the Steelers that knocked him out until late in the season.
All that disruption led to Fulton getting just 202 regular-season snaps. Being without Fulton — who the team expected to be a big part of the cornerback rotation after losing Logan Ryan in free agency — was painful for the 2020 Titans. Instead of a secondary featuring Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, and Kristian Fulton, Tennessee spent much of last season playing the likes of Johnathan Joseph, Breon Borders, Chris Jackson, and Tye Smith. That certainly wasn’t the plan.
Fulton enters the 2021 camp as the Titans longest-tenured corner on the team, a stark new reality for a cornerback room that had enjoyed a period of stability with Butler, Jackson, and Ryan not too long ago. For the Titans to make the big strides on defense that they desperately need to, Fulton must not only step into a starting job alongside Janoris Jenkins, he needs to play well in that role.
The good news is that there is plenty of reason for optimism for Fulton to do just that. While the small sample size that we got from him in 2020 was just okay, you could see the traits that the Titans liked from him coming out of LSU. He’s got good size and athleticism at 6-0, 197 pounds with 4.46 speed and he’s extremely effective at matching and mirroring receivers in man coverage. He was rarely targeted in coverage, seeing just 17 total targets in 128 coverage snaps, which is generally an indication of good corner play.
However, his biggest strength at LSU was his ability to read, react, and close on pass attempts. His 29.1% forced incompletion rate was the highest of any corner with at least 75 targets since PFF started studying college football in 2014, narrowly edging Browns star Denzel Ward for the top spot. That is where I see the biggest leap for Fulton coming in year two. With no rookie minicamp, no OTAs, and a shortened training camp that was interrupted by injury, Fulton’s ability to absorb and understand the Titans defense was extremely limited. Coming into a full offseason with a base of knowledge already should be extremely beneficial to a player whose job depends on making split-second reactions within the framework of the defense.
Fulton fits within the mold of what the Titans want this defense to be in the secondary. He excels in press-man coverage — something that I would expect to see a lot from Shane Bowen’s unit in 2021 — and is capable of matching up with a wide variety of receivers.
In Mike Vrabel’s opening press conference today, he singled out Fulton — as well as two other players on this list — as players who have shown noticeable improvement since the end of last season. If that improvement translates to the field this fall, that will be a huge development for a Tennessee defense that desperately needs better cornerback play than what they got last season.
Teair Tart | DT
Tart was another of the three players that Vrabel praised for their commitment and results over the offseason and that’s not the first time I’ve heard mention of his physical transformation. Mike Keith and Amie Wells have brought up the second-year defensive tackle’s development on the Official Titans Podcast multiple times as well.
With DaQuan Jones being allowed to walk in free agency and the team signing a very different type of defensive lineman in Denico Autry, it feels like Tart is the clear favorite to take on the nose tackle role in Tennessee’s base 3-4 defense. Listed at 6-2, 304 pounds, Tart isn’t the giant space-eating 3-4 nose in the mold of a Vince Wilfork or Haloti Ngata, but he showed the ability to stack up offensive linemen at the point of attack and also flashed some pretty impressive pass rush chops for a man of his size.
Like Fulton, Tart should benefit from the reps he got last year and a full offseason to continue to learn the defense as well as developing physically. His competition for a significant role in the defense is minimal. Journeyman veterans Woodrow Hamilton and Anthony Rush could factor in as well as undrafted rookie Naquan Jones, but Tart’s experience last season and a strong summer of work should put him in a good position to be the third defensive lineman in the Titans rotation.
A breakout season from Tart would significantly alter the outlook on Tennessee’s defensive front.
Dillon Radunz | OT
Radunz versus Kendall Lamm and Ty Sambrailo is one of the very few clear-cut battles for a starting job that we will see during camp. The Titans are very solid at the other four spots on the offensive line with three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan returning from injury to join Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis (all of whom received First-Team All-Pro votes last year). That base will allow offensive line coach Keith Carter and offensive coordinator Todd Downing to help the right tackle spot quite a bit if needed, but if they don’t have to… well, that just gives Downing more freedom to really expand this Tennessee offense in 2021.
With all due respect to Lamm and Sambrailo — both are high-quality backup, fringe starter level players — Radunz offers the highest upside and the most hope for the Titans to field a truly dominant offensive line across the board. At 6-5¾ and 301 pounds, the rookie from North Dakota State tested extremely well at his pro day and has all the physical traits you’d want in a tackle within the Titans outside zone heavy scheme.
Rookie offensive linemen often struggle with the transition to the pros — just ask Nate Davis — but getting the growing pains out of the way early can have its benefits. By the end of the 2019 season, Davis was no longer a liability and was a big part of the Titans ground game smashing their way through New England and Baltimore and into the AFC Championship game.
Radunz, for his part, seems to be more than willing to put in the work required to give himself the best chance to start right away. He’s drawn praise from offensive line coach Keith Carter for his work during OTAs and has been putting in extra work alongside his veteran linemates.
A great camp from Radunz that culminates with him winning the starting right tackle job would not only raise the ceiling for what this offensive line can be by the end of 2021, but it also would provide some confidence that the Titans may have landed on another young long term starter in a position group that is otherwise aging.
Caleb Farley | CB
It should be no surprise that Farley lands on this list. He’s the team’s top draft pick, widely considered a top-10 talent, and plays a position of extreme need on this roster.
The 22nd overall pick will start camp on the Non-Football Injury list as he continues to work his way back from an operation on his lower back in March. If Farley were to miss all of camp and see his injury linger into the regular season, that would be a pretty tough blow to a defense that needs talent like him in the secondary.
However, I would still be surprised if that proved to be the case. While Farley’s line about “rebuking” the idea that he wouldn’t be ready for training camp “in the name of Jesus” obviously hasn’t panned out, maximizing the length of time he has to recover from the surgery is certainly in the best interest of both the team and player. The expectation should be for the Titans to be extremely cautious with easing Farley back into full practice. Yes, he needs reps to get himself ready for the season, but Vrabel must keep his eyes on the long term when it comes to his blue-chip prospect.
That being said, Farley’s ability to participate in camp — and how he looks doing so — will be a huge storyline to track as we get closer to the start of the season. As we mentioned with Fulton above, the cornerback spot is very unsettled heading into camp. If Farley can’t come in and take one of the starting spots, that pushes fellow rookie Elijah Molden and inexperienced second-year players Breon Borders and Chris Jackson into the hot seat. Obviously, none of those three have the enormous upside that Farley offers.
Vrabel has said that he enjoys coaching Farley and all reports indicate that the rookie corner is doing everything the team asks of him behind the scenes to get ready to compete. For the Titans, his development and health will be critical to determining what the ceiling is for this defense in 2021.
Amani Hooker | S
Hooker is heading into his third year with the team and his first season as a full-time starter. After two seasons of playing the third safety role in the Titans sub-packages, he will be taking Kenny Vaccaro’s spot next to Kevin Byard in 2021.
The fact that Jon Robinson didn’t choose to bring in any significant competition for that job — apologies to Matthias Farley and Brady Breeze — is a vote of confidence in his 2019 fourth-round pick. And it’s earned in my view. Hooker tied for the team lead with four interceptions in 2020 despite playing just 42% of defensive snaps. He also ranked seventh among Titans with 35 solo tackles and tied for second with 8 passes defended.
Where Vaccaro brought a thumping style to the position, expect Hooker to provide more athleticism and coverage ability. At 5′-11½ and 210 pounds, he’s got adequate size for a modern safety, but he also brings 4.48 speed and high-end change of direction skills.
While Vaccaro’s physicality and leadership will be missed, I look for Hooker to be an upgrade at this spot in 2021. The advanced instincts that allowed him to become a turnover machine at Iowa have translated at the NFL level and it’s worth mentioning that he just turned 23 last month.
However, we still need to see him perform in a starting role, and that will include an increased responsibility in the run game, an area where he has struggled a bit over the last two years. How he handles that transition and whether he can continue to take the ball away frequently will be important factors for how much the Titans defense can improve this year.
Anthony Firkser | TE
We’ll end with the third player that Vrabel mentioned specifically as someone who showed considerable improvement during the offseason: Anthony Firkser.
We are somehow heading into Firkser’s fourth training camp in Tennessee, but like Hooker, it’s his first as a starter. Steady growth from a camp invite into a valuable role player has earned him bigger and bigger opportunities, but I think most would admit to being a little surprised that Jon Robinson didn’t bring in another tight end after seeing Jonnu Smith and MyCole Pruitt leave in free agency. After all, Smith and Pruitt accounted for over 1,007 snaps and 10 touchdowns in 2020.
Firkser’s abilities as a receiver should be unquestioned at this point. He’s not the prolific run-after-catch threat that Smith was, but he does everything else in the passing game better than the newly signed Patriot. He’s a fantastic route runner with great hands and an excellent feel for reading leverage and getting open. It should be expected that Firkser will maintain his role as the team’s primary third-down tight end — a job he held even when Smith was here — and Vrabel has even hinted at the idea that he might have an expanded opportunity in the red zone this year.
However, the big question with him is whether or not he can improve as a blocker enough to stay on the field for early downs. No team used multiple tight end packages more than the Titans over the past two years, particularly on first and second down. We know Geoff Swaim is likely to handle the heavy inline blocking work — as he did last year — but can Firkser do enough as a blocker to get some of that early down work? If so, that would open up a lot more opportunity for him as a pass-catcher on the various TE screen and play-action packages that the Titans ran for Jonnu Smith (53 of Smith’s 65 targets came on early downs last year).
Not only would that development improve Firkser’s production, but it also would be a big boost to the Titans to be able to use their best pass-catching tight end — by far — in those heavy formations, increasing the level of run-pass conflict that they can put the defense in. With the other options on the roster being complete unknowns — second year UDFA Tommy Hudson is my favorite to earn the TE3 role currently — Firkser’s development into a more complete player feels like one of the biggest sub-plots of training camp on the offensive side of the ball.