Tennessee Titans General Manager Jon Robinson has routinely found undrafted free-agent gems since becoming Tennessee’s chief decision-maker. That tradition continued in 2021 via former Michigan State standout Naquan Jones. An underrated draft prospect that earned a spot on Tennessee’s 53-man roster, Jones earned more playing time down the stretch of last season and wrapped up his rookie campaign by impressively totaling 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks despite featuring as a rotational player. Jones is expected to take another step forward as a sophomore in 2022.
Jones recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports while reflecting on his rookie season. Jones reminisced on his first career sack, the lessons he learned as a first-year player, his relationship with defensive line coach Terrell Williams, and so much more.
JM: You enjoyed a successful rookie season after earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent. Now that you’ve had some time to really think about it, how do you reflect on your first season?
NJ: I feel extremely blessed. I’m very grateful for how my first year in the league went. There are a lot of positive words I can use to describe my rookie season, but I think the biggest takeaway is that I have to improve now. I have to be even better in my second season. How can I take that next step? I showed a lot of flashes as a rookie, but there’s also a lot of things I need to work on from a technique and fundamental standpoint. Everybody at the NFL level is very talented. It’s the big leagues. Who can play with terrific effort and technique is what separates you from the pack. Doing that on a play-by-play basis is what it’s all about.
JM: That’s a great point. When we last spoke, you talked about picking the Titans in undrafted free agency because you felt wanted by the coaching staff. Fast forward more than a year later, and you must be feeling pretty good about your decision.
NJ: I definitely still feel great about making that decision. My first season in Tennessee, it’s funny, it feels like three-to-five years for me (laughs). That’s how comfortable I feel around my teammates and this coaching staff. I think that speaks volumes of the team camaraderie. It’s in relation to coach Mike Vrabel and how he operates the building. It feels so much more family-oriented than just another football team. You feel that from the top down. I’m talking about the janitors, maintenance work, and the people who cook and serve our food. It’s such a loving environment.
Going into last year’s draft and going undrafted to the Titans, I felt like that was the correct fit for me from Day One. It was perfect for me. I was able to speak with coach Vrabel and coach Terrell Williams before the draft and from those conversations alone, I could immediately tell that it was an organization that saw value in me. There was a level of mutual respect from the beginning. I knew it was a really good fit for me.
JM: On that topic, how has your relationship with head coach Mike Vrabel developed since then? We all remember coach Vrabel’s memorable quote about you, “running your fat ass to the ball.” All kidding aside, coach Vrabel doesn’t say something like that publicly unless he’s taken a liking to you.
NJ: Coach Vrabel loves to mess with the rookies (laughs). He talked some trash to me, for sure (laughs). At first I was like, oh my goodness, is this a good thing or bad thing? (laughs). After getting some experience under my belt, and having spoken with a few of my teammates, I learned that’s just how coach Vrabel shows affection (laughs).
That comment was obviously funny and I didn’t pay too much attention to it. It was a joke. For him to even notice something in me, and how much effort I try to show on every play, for him to say it stood out and for him to give it some public attention, I was very thankful. I want to come in here and solidify a role for myself. That’s my approach every single time I step on the field. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team. As long as I’m doing that in coach Vrabel’s eyes, and in the eyes of the front office, I feel good about taking that next step.
JM: You recorded 2.5 sacks as a rookie. Your first sack occurred in a mid-November win over the New Orleans Saints. What do you remember about that play and that first career sack feeling?
NJ: I was lined up against Cesar Ruiz. He’s a Michigan guy. You know I went to Michigan State. I wanted to do everything within my power to win that one-on-one battle (laughs). I knew some of his tendencies. That comes with watching film and studying players. Jeffery Simmons had been bull-rushing him and playing him with power all game long. On that rep specifically, I knew it was going to be a pass. I wanted to set something up differently. I knew he was probably going to be leaning pretty hard because of how Jeffery Simmons had been approaching him. I knew I could beat him with quickness once he leaned over.
It all happened so fast to be honest with you. It was like a blackout moment (laughs). I just remember getting the quarterback to the ground and hearing the stadium go crazy. It was an exciting moment for me, especially with it being my first career sack in the NFL.
JM: You hit Cesar Ruiz with a nice club-swim for that sack.
NJ: Yeah, that’s my go-to right there (laughs).
JM: I was just about to ask if that’s become your go-to move as a pass rusher.
NJ: Oh yeah, it is. It was my go-to move in college as well. I’ve always loved that move. It allows me to showcase some of my speed and quickness off the line of scrimmage. I’ve always thought of myself as a big, athletic guy. I love showcasing that quick-twitch movement off the ball. It’s a move that opens some eyes for me.
JM: You actually had more sacks in your rookie year than you did at Michigan State. Is there anything specific that you can point to as a reason for that jump in production as a pass rusher?
NJ: Coach Terrell Williams tells us all the time, and he’s very transparent with this. He’s very honest with us and he says there’s three things in this league that gets you paid and recognized. One is being a superior run stopper, two is being a great pass rusher, and three is the ability to make plays downfield. That means guys that run to the ball and make extra-effort plays. I try to implement all three of these traits into my game.
I know that you have to be versatile in this league. You want to force NFL teams to make tough decisions. Make them feel like they can’t get rid of you. As much as I can produce and showcase my talents in each facet of playing on the defensive line, I’m going to put my best foot forward and do that.
I feel like I’m playing with more confidence now. I have a little bit more freedom. It all worked out for me. Like I said earlier, I like to look at myself as a big, athletic guy. A lot of guys my size can’t move the way I do. A lot of offensive lineman aren’t expecting somebody my size to move like that. I just want to continue flashing different aspects of my game.
JM: You’ve done just that. The Titans have a history of developing young defensive linemen under position coach Terrell Williams, who you’ve brought up a few times throughout this conversation. Is there something you can specifically point to that Coach Williams has been able to bring out in your game?
NJ: It’s funny, because coach Williams is actually really good friends with my college position coach Ron Burton. Coach Williams and Burton spoke about me throughout the pre-draft process. Like I said earlier, coach Williams is very transparent. I have a lot of respect for him. It’s easy to play for a coach when you trust that coach and I trust coach Williams a lot. From my year-plus knowing him, he’s never led me in the wrong direction, and I don’t ever see him leading me astray.
He also places his trust in his players once you earn that trust. I feel like every day coming into the building, I’m trying to earn more and more of his trust. That’ll help me earn more playing time.
JM: It seems you two have an excellent relationship. What was the overall vibe throughout minicamp and organized team activities (OTAs)? This is a young defensive line group that’s hungry for more success in 2022.
NJ: It was great to get back on the field with everybody. We had our little time apart and everybody was putting in work away from the team. To come back and see how excited everybody was to be back on the field, it was a great feeling. This is a team that isn’t messing around. This is a team that’s serious about winning. We’re about our business. It felt really good to be back.
Seeing guys like Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Harold Landry and Bud Dupree, seeing all of them come back with excitement, that feeling is felt throughout the entire roster. To see them come back and work hard every day, especially during minicamp, that’s very inspirational because all of those guys are either very well paid, or will be high-paid players that are on their way there. To see them play hard every play regardless, every practice, it’s inspirational. Coach Vrabel had to tell us to slow down at times during OTAs (laughs). Guys are hungry. That attitude translates, especially going into training camp, and eventually the preseason and regular season.
JM: This is a talented and hungry defensive line group. What advice are you giving guys like Haskell Garrett, Jayden Peevy and Sam Okuayinonu, who are three undrafted free-agent defensive lineman who find themselves in the same position you found yourself in a year ago?
NJ: I’ve actually been able to speak with all three of those guys a lot. It’s funny because I didn’t actually know any of them coming into camp and now they’re like little brothers to me. They play hard. I try to give them little pointers because of how I made it. I told them that coaches love when guys play with a lot of effort, run to the ball every opportunity you get, play with good technique and fundamentals and play physical. Those are some of the little things I told them while going through individual periods or if we’re going through drills and they made a little mistake.
I’m trying to keep them positive because it can get overwhelming, especially when you’re the new guy all over again. You’re meeting your teammates for the first time and some of these guys are big-time names and that alone can overwhelm some of these young rookies. I try to keep them level-headed while helping them work through little things at practice.
JM: We’re ready for some football. I’ve really appreciated your time today, Naquan. This has been an excellent conversation as always. In closing, what are your goals for your second season as we prepare to launch training camp in a few days?
NJ: I just want to continue getting better like I said earlier. I want to improve my production in any way I can. I want to solidify my role on this team. Everybody that watched me, everybody that supports me, I want to make them proud. My mother most importantly. She passed away in 2019. I know she’s looking down on me and I want to continue making her proud and shine a light for my family and friends.
At the end of the day, I want to be the best player I can be for this organization.