Titans S Amani Hooker Is Ready To Make Leap Into Elite Territory

Tennessee Titans safety Amani Hooker broke out of his shell in his first complete season as a starter in 2021 while forming one of the league’s most fearsome safety duos alongside Kevin Byard. A former fourth-round selection out of Iowa in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hooker recorded 62 total tackles, four pass breakups and one interception while earning a high-level overall grade of 83.3 from Pro Football Focus (spearheaded by a coverage grade of 83.4). Hooker was excellent in 2020 as well in a rotational role, totaling a career-high four interceptions and eight pass breakups. Currently in a contract year and still just 24 years of age, Hooker appears primed to make the leap into elite territory in his second season as a full-time starter in 2022.

Hooker recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports regarding his excellent 2021 campaign, forming an elite partnership alongside Kevin Byard, his eye-opening shoestring interception against Joe Burrow in the playoffs, ongoing contract negotiations, how he’s preparing for the upcoming season, and so much more.

JM: You didn’t disappoint in your first season as a full-time starter in 2021. How do you look back on last season? Are you satisfied with your performance?

AH: I got hurt during the first game of the season and that was a frustrating experience for me. That was unfortunate. When I came back from that injury, it took me a few games to get back into a rhythm and the flow I’m used to. I thought I had a solid season given the amount of games I played. I did my best to help our team on the defensive side of the ball.

JM: I wouldn’t say you broke out in 2021, even though it was your first season as a starter, because you were excellent in 2020 as well. What’s next for Amani Hooker? What’s the next step you’re hoping to achieve to catapult yourself into elite safety status?

AH: I want to disrupt the catch point more effectively in 2022. I want to produce more ball production going forward. I want to get my hands on the football on a more consistent basis. Whether that means making more interceptions, forcing fumbles, sacking the quarterback, forcing throwaways or whatever, I’m trying to make more impact plays. I also want to be more of a leader, a vocal leader. I want to make sure I’m not only bringing myself along, but I want to help the guys around me as well.

JM: You made one of the craziest interceptions I’ve ever seen in the playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It was a shoestring interception against Joe Burrow, and it really swung the momentum of that game. Can you walk us through that play?

AH: We were playing Cover 3 zone defense. They were running play-action but I didn’t really bite on the run fake so I did well to get into my drop, my curl flat drop. They ran a 3 level Sail Concept to my side of the field which was a corner route. There was a flat route to the back as well. I saw Burrow peak his eyes towards that corner route so I knew he was going to try to take his check down. I made a quick break on the ball. The ball tipped off the running back’s hands and I made a play on the ball.

JM: I have a two-part follow up. Is it the most athletic play you’ve ever made on the ball? Any nerves during the replay review? They looked at it for a long time.

AH: It’s probably the biggest, most athletic play I’ve ever made when considering the overall importance of the game. It happened on a big stage in the playoffs. I made a few big plays on the ball at Iowa that I would consider to be very athletic but given that this happened in a playoff game, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.

In terms of the review, I honestly didn’t even know what they were looking at (laughs). I didn’t initially know what they were reviewing until I saw the replay because I had no idea the ball had come that close to hitting the ground. It felt like a very clean catch to me until I saw the replay. I was pretty nervous, but I had a pretty good feeling they’d make the correct call at the end of the review.

JM: It was one of the most incredible plays we’ve seen. When you and I spoke last season, we discussed how the defense wanted to change the narrative after a lackluster season in 2020. You guys did just that in a major way. From the pass rush to the secondary, the Titans fielded an elite defense. What do you credit for that major shift in production?

AH: I would say we really bought into the scheme as an overall unit. We understood the defensive game plan every single week. We knew what our objective was for that upcoming game. We did an excellent job executing our assignments. We were playing fast and physically without having to think too much. That allowed everybody to do their job with 100% focus. The defensive line was focused on getting after the quarterback and stopping the run. The secondary was able to cover and make plays on the ball. We played with complete trust that everybody was going to do their job.

JM: Given that 10 of 11 defensive starters from last season are returning, with Jackrabbit Jenkins being the lone departure, is it fair to assume more of the same is coming in 2022?

AH: We had a good offseason and a productive period during OTAs. I definitely think we can continue to build on last season’s success. We know we’re playing in a smart defensive scheme that suits our abilities. We want to learn. We have a bunch of coach-able guys that want to get better. We don’t have any me-first kind of guys. We all just want to help the team win games. I think we’re going to have a phenomenal season.

JM: Speaking of the offseason, what did you see out of these young secondary players such as Caleb Farley and Roger McCreary throughout OTAs? You’re still 24 years old, but you’re a veteran in this defensive back room.

AH: All of our young guys came in ready to learn. They’re smart players. Obviously Caleb Farley has been here for a year already but he didn’t really get too much playing time last season. He wasn’t able to be on the field as much as he wanted to be, but he still has an excellent understanding of our system. Our young players have been improving ever since OTAs started. Whether it was their coverage abilities, technique, understanding our concepts, they’ve all been doing a great job.

I would mention Theo Jackson as well. He’s a rookie safety out of Tennessee we drafted in the sixth round this year. He’s a smart kid that really impressed us throughout OTAs. He’s definitely going to add value to our safety room.

JM: Everybody is excited about the young talent in this secondary. Do you think one of those guys is going to break out in 2022, much like you did in 2020 and 2021?

AH: Yeah, I definitely think our young players are going to receive an opportunity to help out our defense. Whether that’s defense or special teams, they’re going to make an impact. It’s up to them and the coaches at the end of the day. The starters in our secondary are going to do the best we can to make sure they’re comfortable and that we have the best 11 players on the field. We want to have the best group out there.

JM: Do you feel like you and Kevin Byard have already formed an elite partnership at safety? What is it about you that compliments Byard’s skill set, and vice versa? Watching the film, it seems your roles and positions are extremely interchangeable.

AH: Kevin Byard and I just know each other so well. I’ve been with the Titans since 2019 and I started out in a bit of a reserve role, so I was really able to sit back and pay close attention to how he approaches the game. I paid attention to how he prepares for an opponent and what not. I definitely think him and I are interchangeable.

Both of us can do multiple things. Neither of us is a one-dimensional player. That just helps us, and it especially helps our defense out. It allows our defense to do multiple things when we’re on the field together, which is pretty much every play. Most importantly, it prevents the offense from getting a beat on what we’re trying to do.

JM: It makes the defense so unpredictable. Your ability to fit the run from 2-high looks is outstanding on film. It seems that allowed the Titans to play more favorable coverage looks.

AH: That definitely allowed us to hold our disguises. We never give away what we’re trying to do defensively as far as coverages go. Opposing offenses have a tough time figuring out what we’re doing defensively. We place emphasis on knowing that we have time to get downhill and attack the run game from our 2-high looks. Nobody panics. We don’t even have to fly down there full speed to record a tackle for loss. We can get down there and make a tackle for a two or three yard gain and we’ll live to fight another down. That’s a technical battle.

Byard and I did a great job stopping the run from those 2-high looks last season. I think our defense ranked No. 1 in the league in terms of limiting big gains via the run game, which is defined by plays of 20-plus yards. We take a lot of pride in that.

JM: Offenses had a hard time running the ball on the Titans in 2021. You were part of a transformational draft class for the Titans in 2019 along with Jeffery Simmons, A.J. Brown, Nate Davis and David Long Jr. How soon did you know that group had a chance to be special?

AH: I think I knew it after our first camp. Nate Davis announced himself as a starter rather quickly. Jeffery Simmons wasn’t back from injury yet, but I had actually trained alongside him leading up to that year’s NFL Scouting Combine. I already knew he was a dog just from how he was working out (laughs).

I saw something special in David Long Jr. during training camp and the preseason. He was flying around making plays. Obviously A.J. Brown is A.J. Brown. I quickly noticed that we were a nice draft group. The coaches saw it as well, because they got all of us on the field pretty quickly. They did a great job making sure we were mentally ready to go.

JM: You’re entering a contract season. A report came out a few weeks ago stating your representation and the Titans have held some preliminary discussions regarding a potential extension. Are you able to confirm that report, and do those talks remain ongoing?

AH: Yeah, we’ve had some talks. They remain ongoing at this time. Neither side is feeling any pressure at this moment. We’re just going with the flow. We’ll see what happens. I’d love to be a Tennessee Titan for a long time. We’ll see how the situation plays out. They’re going to do their part on their end, and my agent will do his part as well. We’ll see what happens.

JM: We’ve really appreciated your time today as always, Amani. In closing, what are your goals as we prepare to kick off training camp a few days from now?

AH: My goal is to be the best player I can possibly be while helping this team achieve their goal of winning a Super Bowl. A personal goal of mine is to be recognized as one of the top safeties in the league. I want to both start and finish the year off strong. Another goal of mine is to play all 17 regular-season games. I want to stay healthy.

We have our sights set on making another deep run into the postseason.

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