The Titans 5 biggest roster questions heading into mandatory minicamp

A week and a half ago I would have led this piece with questions about the Titans receiver depth behind A.J. Brown, but the trade for Julio Jones provided a clear answer there. Not only does Jones’ addition give Tennessee arguably the best tandem in the league at the top of that unit, it also returns several players to more comfortable levels in the pecking order. Josh Reynolds as WR3, Dez Fitzpatrick as a developmental piece who doesn’t need to contribute right away, Cam Batson and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine go back to competing for roster spots instead of snaps in the regular receiver rotation. Suddenly, it feels like a position of strength from top to bottom. It’s amazing what adding an all-time great can do for the depth chart at a position.

With the receiver position addressed, let’s look at the remaining burning questions on this Titans roster as we head into mandatory minicamp.

1. Tight End

Let me start by saying that I’m probably among the biggest Anthony Firkser supporters out there. He’s done nothing but get open and catch passes since arriving in Tennessee three years ago. I have no questions about his ability to continue to do that and serve as a weapon for Ryan Tannehill on passing downs.

However, his blocking has never been a strong suit and the Titans have largely done a good job of keeping him out of situations where he’s required to block in years past. Jonnu Smith and a combination of Geoff Swaim and/or MyCole Pruitt would always handle the early down heavy lifting. Smith and Pruitt are gone now, leaving Swaim as the only proven run blocker on the team at the tight end position. For a team that led the league in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) usage and finished third in 13 personnel usage (three tight ends) on early downs — the Titans had at least two tight ends on the field for over half their snaps last year — that could become a major issue.

There are a few things that could happen here.

  1. They could use Firkser with Swaim on early downs and either hope Firkser’s blocking improves enough to be passable or that they can hide him with non-critical blocking assignments as much as possible.
  2. They could see if one of their young tight ends like Tommy Hudson, Morris Forristall, Briley Moore, or Jared Pinkney can step up into the role vacated by Pruitt.
  3. They could sign outside help.
  4. They could lean more on 11 personnel on early downs to take advantage of their talent at wide receiver and force smaller personnel packages from opposing defenses.

Mike Vrabel’s comments about Firkser following a recent voluntary OTA session shed some light on the team’s thinking here as the head coach described him as “primarily a third down and red zone guy”.

The third down part of that equation is nothing new. Firkser has been the team’s go-to option at the position on the money down for years now, even with Jonnu Smith in the fold. However, the red zone part is certainly new. Firkser has been targeted inside the 20 just 11 times in the past two years combined. That’s a pretty small number compared to team leaders Jonnu Smith (26) and A.J. Brown (23) over that time period.

However, it also suggests that the team might not have plans to unleash a full three-down deployment for Firkser in 2021, and if that’s the case, Geoff Swaim needs a running mate for those heavy 12 personnel sets that the Titans love so much on first and second down.

My gut tells me that Tommy Hudson is the guy to watch among the tight ends currently on the roster. He’s a bigger guy at 6-5, 255 pounds and he came to the Titans as an undrafted free agent after the 2020 NFL Draft with a reputation as a good blocking tight end who had limited opportunities as a pass catcher at Arizona State.

Hudson spent all of 2020 on the Tennessee practice squad despite serving a six-game suspension for a positive PED test during the season. It would have been easy for Jon Robinson to cut bait on the former Sun Devil at that moment if he wanted to. The Titans were in the midst of their COVID outbreak and practice squad spots were valuable. But they stuck with Hudson through the suspension and now he’s set to enter minicamp as the third-longest tenured tight end on the roster.

Undrafted rookies Miller Forristall and Briley Moore offer some intrigue as well, but my money is on Hudson to take the third tight end role if the Titans don’t make an addition to this group.

If they do choose to go outside for help, a call to Titans legend Delanie Walker makes some sense. Yes, he’s about to be 37 years old and he hasn’t taken an NFL practice rep since Week 7 of the 2019 season, but the Titans wouldn’t need Walker to be the star that he once was for this franchise. Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones offer more than enough star power in the Tennessee offense. They just need a solid blocker who can give them something as a pass catcher every now and then. I’d bet Walker — who was always a plus run blocker even when he was starring as the team’s top receiving threat — can still offer that on a limited snap count.

If not Walker, the available tight end that makes the most sense to me is Jesse James. Tyler Eifert is the biggest name still on the market, but despite his tremendous size, Eifert has never been much of a blocker in the run game. Trey Burton is another recognizable name, but he’s not much of a blocker either at 6-2, 238 pounds (you’re probably better off just using Firkser to block at that point). James, on the other hand, is a 6-7, 250 pound inline blocker similar to Swaim. He’s got a pretty decent track record as a pass catcher too — 30 catches for 472 yards and a pair of touchdowns with the Steelers in 2018 — though that’s not something I’d expect the Titans to use much from whoever ends up being their third tight end.

I don’t think a trade for a tight end like Zach Ertz, David Njoku, or O.J. Howard is particularly likely. The Titans just gave up a second round pick for Jones and won’t want to part with much more draft capital for a player who will be the fourth or fifth option on offense. They would also be stretching the cap even further if they were to take on the salaries of any of those three. Howard and Njoku both would carry $6-million cap hits while Ertz would be a $8.5-million hit if he were traded without the Eagles retaining any salary. Is it possible for the Titans to create the kind of room necessary to add one of those players? Sure, they could extend Ben Jones and restructure Derrick Henry’s deal and create some additional room to make it work, but the strain on the 2022 cap will start to become a real problem in relatively short order if they continue to push 2021 cap hits into future years. With Ertz you also have the problem of him being a non-blocker.

I still think that a Walker reunion makes the most sense assuming that he’s willing to play for close to the veteran minimum. He knows the offense and the locker room and could give you both a viable second blocker to go along with Swaim on early downs and provide some insurance as a pass catcher if Firkser was to be injured at some point in the season.

2. Edge Rush Depth

The Titans did address this massive need in a significant way already. They signed Bud Dupree to a massive contract, adding a player who ranks eighth in the NFL in sacks over the last two years. Then Jon Robinson turned around and drafted Rashad Weaver out of Pittsburgh in the fourth round, widely considered one of the better value picks in the draft.

Adding those two to a solid starter in Harold Landry should make the Titans pass rush better than it was a year ago, but there is some uncertainty with both of the additions in the outside linebacker room. Dupree is six months into his recovery from ACL surgery. His target for return is the start of training camp so it’s unlikely that he’ll miss any regular season action, but it’s still major surgery and recovery. Weaver’s uncertainty comes in the form of the lingering assault charges that were filed the day before he was drafted. The baseline punishment from the NFL for assault is six games and that can be handed down whether the player is found guilty or innocent (or if charges are dropped). It all depends on the evidence turned up in the league’s investigation.

Those two situations leave the door cracked for an absolute nightmare scenario for Tennessee’s defense. If Weaver gets suspended and Dupree needs time to work his way back into form… the Titans could find themselves trotting out the same patchwork crew that didn’t get the job done last year in the pass rush with Derick Roberson, Tuzar Skipper, Ola Odeniyi, and Wyatt Ray competing for snaps opposite Harold Landry.

I think adding one more piece to the rotation here makes a lot of sense. Especially since there are still some high quality veteran options available that could be willing to take a cheap contract to play for a team who is widely viewed as a contender after adding Julio Jones.

Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, Olivier Vernon, and Everson Griffen are all in their 30’s, but the Titans don’t need someone to play 60 snaps per game as a full-time starter. They just need someone who can work in as a rotational piece behind Landry and Dupree and maybe even feature in their NASCAR package on third downs. All four of those players can still contribute in that kind of role.

Obviously, price is a big consideration for the Titans now. They have right around $9-million in cap room at the moment, but still need to sign both of their third round picks — Monty Rice and Elijah Molden — and save some room for the practice squad, injury settlements, and general roster attrition throughout a normal NFL season. They could create some more cap space by extending center Ben Jones, who is on the final year of his current deal and still playing at a very high level. If structured correctly, that could save as much as $4-million against their 2021 cap. The team could also restructure an additional contract — I’d start with Derrick Henry since his 2021 salary is fully guaranteed anyway — to create some wiggle room, but any restructure just puts more strain on the 2022 and 2023 cap numbers at this point.

I think the Titans need to make a move on one of these pass rushers before training camp begins. Given the struggles getting to the quarterback in 2020, Jon Robinson needs to take a “couldn’t hurt to have one more” type approach to this position in 2021. Dupree and Weaver should help a lot, but one more could really round out the outside linebacker room.

3. Backup Quarterback

Last season the Titans somewhat surprisingly rolled with Logan Woodside as the backup to Ryan Tannehill. The former Toledo star was able to hold off 2020 seventh round pick Cole McDonald — who didn’t even make it a week into training camp — and veteran Trevor Siemian to earn the job and even saw some snaps in mop up duty of a few blowouts.

Woodside has been with the Titans for three years now and it’s clear that the coaching staff likes him quite a bit. He’s put in extra work every step of the way, starting with helping to get A.J. Brown up to speed in the offense in rookie minicamp of 2019 and has continued to include organizing throwing sessions in Nashville each of the last two offseasons. Coaches have frequently praised his knowledge of the offense and professional approach and he looked very solid in preseason action in 2019.

Yet there will remain doubt in the minds of fans about his ability to adequately serve as a backup until we see him actually perform in a game situation (which, of course, is not something anyone is rooting for). Another strong preseason performance would help ease minds, but you never know about a backup quarterback until they’re thrown into the fire in live action.

His competition for the QB2 spot right now is DeShone Kizer. The Browns 2017 second round pick has 15 pro starts — all as a rookie — but hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since 2018. He was signed to the Titans practice squad in November of last year and has remained on the roster since. The 6-4, 235 pound passer has a tremendous arm and certainly looks the part of an NFL quarterback, but accuracy issues and processing of pro defenses have held him back. Still, at just 25 years old, he’s an intriguing development project for quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara.

It’ll be interesting to see what those two do in preseason action after having zero preseason to work with in 2020. If the Titans have concerns about Woodside and/or Kizer, they could look outside to a free agent class that includes Robert Griffin III and Brett Hundley, but my guess is that they stick with what they’ve got for right now.

4. Kicker

You could make a case that this is the biggest question mark at the moment given the Titans struggles in this department over the last two years. Currently, 2020 UDFA Tucker McCann and undrafted rookie Blake Haubeil are the kickers on the Tennessee roster and I think they’d love for one of those two to be their solution for the 2021 season and beyond.

McCann spent camp with the Titans last season and then remained on the practice squad throughout the season. He’s known to have a big leg with a 57-yard make during his time at Missouri and a 60-yarder in high school, but his college conversion rate of just 72.6% was just mediocre and those who saw him in camp last year felt like he kicked a “wobbly” ball despite a high rate of makes during media-observed sessions. With no preseason in 2020, we still haven’t seen McCann boot a football on an NFL field.

The same is obviously true for Haubeil, who the Titans signed after the draft as a rookie out of Ohio State. Like McCann, the 6-4, 233-pound kicker has a big leg, hitting from as far as 55 as a Buckeye and 61 in high school. His college career saw him connect on 80% of his 35 field goal attempts and all of his extra point tries as well as providing one of the smoothest onside kicks in football history.

I believe the Titans plan for this spot is to let McCann and Haubeil battle it out through camp. If they get a few weeks in and the kicking is a major problem, they can turn to a veteran — likely Stephen Gostkowski — to come in and take over. However, the ideal situation for the team would be for one of the young guys to run with the job. That would give the Titans a long term solution at the position at a minimal cost for the next few years. The cost part of that equation is important given the team’s current cap situation.

Just a hunch, but I think Haubeil ends up being the Titans kicker in 2021.

5. Nose Tackle

When the Titans signed Denico Autry and let DaQuan Jones walk in free agency, they signaled a change in approach along the defensive front. While the run-stuffing Jones played a lot of good football in his seven seasons in Tennessee, he never developed much of a pass rush game to complement his strong early down work. Pairing Autry with Simmons as the top interior defenders gives the team two players who can penetrate and create chaos in the backfield. They are sacrificing some stoutness in the middle for more disruption in the pocket.

While Jones played 63% of defensive snaps for the Titans at the nose tackle position a year ago, this spot will be much closer to a 30-40% snap count role in 2021. Who takes those snaps is a question at this point.

The top contenders would appear to be Teair Tart and Abry Jones. Tart showed some enticing flashes in limited action as an undrafted rookie as both a run defender and pass rusher. On the most recent episode of the Official Titans Podcast (OTP), Mike Keith said that Tart has “completely remade his body” during a strong offseason for the FIU product. Tart certainly offers the most upside at this spot for the Titans, but the question will be whether the young defensive tackle can earn the trust of the coaching staff to take on such a big role.

Pushing Tart will be eight-year veteran Abry Jones, who was recently signed as a free agent after spending his entire career in Jacksonville. Jones was a steady performer on a lot of bad Jaguars defenses, but gives the Titans a big body veteran who can provide at least adequate play at nose tackle if called upon.

It’s also possible that undrafted rookie Naquon Jones gets in the mix, but I think it’s far more likely that either of the players mentioned above gets the nod.

Damon “Snacks” Harrison is the clear top option among the remaining unsigned free agents. At 32, it’s unclear how much he has left in the tank at this point, but he’s not too far removed from some pretty high level play. Geno Atkins is another big name option, but he’s far more of a 3-tech than he is a nose tackle so I’m not sure he fits with the Titans other defensive line pieces that well. Sheldon Richardson and Kawann Short would also fall into that category.

The Titans will have two or fewer defensive linemen on the field for about 70% of their defensive snaps so calling this spot a “starter” is largely a misnomer despite the fact that it is on the field in the team’s base 3-4 fronts. My guess is that Tennessee sticks with what they’ve got in Teair Tart and/or Abry Jones at nose tackle.

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