The Titans are fortunate to have relatively few positions on the roster that don’t have an entrenched starter with at least some track record of success at the NFL level. With a shorter-than-usual offseason, that continuity could prove to be key to getting off to a fast start — a focal point for a Tennessee squad that barely escaped a 2-4 hole in 2019.
However, there are still a few meaningful position battles that will be worth keeping an eye on as training camp begins later this month. Here are the five that I’m going to be watching the closest.
1. Dennis Kelly vs Isaiah Wilson
Right tackle is the one and only starting gig on the Titans offense that is up for debate heading into the season and it’s also the most fascinating battle that we’re likely to see in camp.
Offensive line battles are always interesting because the line is one of the few spots on a football field where rotation is extremely rare. Most of the time you’re either a starter or you’re planted on the bench. There is no in between.
The question here isn’t who will win the position, it is how long can Dennis Kelly can hold off the Titans first round pick. It would be pretty shocking — and frankly, disappointing — if Isaiah Wilson didn’t make his way into the starting lineup at some point in 2020. From a continuity and chemistry standpoint, the sooner he takes over the better. You’d like to see the Titans offense clicking on all cylinders by the time the playoffs get here and Wilson getting those rookie lumps out of the way early would help that cause.
That being said, I would expect Kelly to enter camp as the starter with Wilson trying to push him for that job. Kelly is entering his fifth season with the Titans and has done an admirable job acting as the primary backup for both Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin over the past four years as well as serving as the team’s jumbo tight end in goal line sets.
With COVID-19 eliminating rookie minicamp and making OTAs go virtual this offseason, that experience advantage should be a big boost to Kelly’s chances of being the Week 1 starter at right tackle. He’s shown the ability to play well for extended stretches, especially on the right side.
When Kelly took over for an injured Conklin late in 2018, he actually proved to be an upgrade at the position (in fairness to Conklin, he was pretty banged up even before getting shut down for the year), grading out as a top 25 tackle in the league by PFF’s grading system. He allowed just one sack and helped pave the way for Derrick Henry’s red hot close to the season.
Kelly — or The Undertaker as he’s known in some parts — offers a solid floor for the Titans right tackle position in 2020. At age 30, and with two years experience in the Titans current offensive system, we know what Kelly is. He’s a big, long tackle (listed at 6’-8” and 321 pounds) who knows the offense and isn’t going to make many mistakes. He’s very capable of creating movement in the run game and will probably need some help in pass protection when he gets matched up with elite edge rushers. Kelly is an adequate starter at the NFL level.
Wilson, on the other hand, offers the tremendous ceiling. At 6’-6”, 350 pounds, he brings incredible size, length, and power to the position. At the NFL combine in February, he became the first player in the history of the event to post at least a 29-inch vertical and a 110-inch broad jump at more than 338 pounds, demonstrating otherworldly explosiveness for a man of his stature.
To me, Wilson profiles as a guy who could be the next Trent Brown — Las Vegas’ similarly massive Pro Bowl right tackle. In fact, he cited Brown as one of the offensive linemen that he most enjoyed studying when speaking at the combine earlier this year.
Beyond the obvious and impressive physical traits, Wilson is coming from an offense at Georgia that used a lot of zone runs similar to those the Titans will employ and that should ease his transition. There are some known issues with pad level and a tendency to overset against speed rushers that will need coaching attention and reps to work out, but he seems to be a player that would step in as a plus in the run game right away.
My guess here is that Kelly winds up opening the season as the starter at right tackle after the shortened offseason, but that Wilson pushes his way into the starting lineup by the time Tennessee returns from their Week 7 bye.
2. Kristian Fulton vs Johnathan Joseph vs Amani Hooker
We know that Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler will be holding down two of the Titans’ three starting jobs at corner when the season opens, but with Logan Ryan departing as a free agent, Tennessee will have to fill his slot corner role with someone else for the first time in three seasons.
I don’t think there are any obvious “slot only” corners on the roster at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mike Vrabel opt to use a hodgepodge of guys there throughout the season depending on matchup, so we will just frame this battle as a fight for the third corner spot. The three guys I have listed here all bring something different to the table so it’ll be fascinating to see how this group shakes out.
We will start with Kristian Fulton, the Titans second round pick (still shocked he was on the board at pick 61). He clearly offers the highest upside of the group with the ability to stick in press man coverage and penchant for getting his hands on the football that he showed at LSU.
Like Wilson, the Titans would love Fulton to take this job and run with it early with hopes of him being settled in by the time December and January football rolls around. However, he’ll have some veteran competition from free agent addition Johnathan Joseph.
The long time Texans star is certainly on the back-nine of his career at age 36, but he knows Mike Vrabel’s system well from their time together in Houston. He’s also going to have a familiar face in his position room as Titans defensive backs coach Anthony Midget made the move from Houston to Tennessee earlier this offseason as well.
How much Joseph has left in the tank remains to be seen. There is little doubt that he’s lost a step or two off his 4.31 speed that helped him become a first round pick 14 years ago, but his experience and knowledge of the scheme could help offset some deterioration in physical ability.
Finally, I think we at least have to mention Amani Hooker here. Technically listed as a safety on the Titans depth chart, he played a lot of snaps as a rookie in 2019, mostly in “big nickel” or “big dime” packages with three safeties on the field together. However, he excelled as a slot corner during his final year at Iowa and could factor into the Titans plans at that position this fall.
The answer in the slot is unlikely to be as simple as one player in my opinion. We could see a situation where the Titans use a different player each week or even rotate guys through that spot from series to series depending on matchup.
3. Logan Woodside vs Cole McDonald
Titans fans need little reminder about how important a backup quarterback can be. Ryan Tannehill started 2019 as a backup before getting his shot, catching fire, and rescuing the team’s season. Those with longer memories will recall Kerry Collins coming off the bench for an injured Vince Young in 2008 and leading Tennessee to a 13-3 record and a 1-seed.
The Titans 2020 backup position appears poised to be a two-man battle between third year pro Logan Woodside and seventh round rookie Cole McDonald, though I don’t think we can completely rule out the idea of a veteran backup getting added to the mix at some point, especially with some pretty appealing options still available in Case Keenum, Trevor Siemian, Colt McCoy, Blake Bortles, and yes, Colin Kaepernick.
For now though, it appears that Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel will at least give Woodside and McDonald a chance to take control of the QB2 job at the open of camp.
Woodside enters as the clear favorite thanks to his edge in experience and knowledge of the offense. He was very strong in preseason action a year ago and the Titans coaching staff has frequently gone out of their way to praise the 6’-1”, 213-pound signal caller for his work behind the scenes last season, despite dealing with an injury that kept him from taking practice reps most of the year. Woodside spent most of his summer in Nashville and regularly organized throwing sessions with teammates such as Corey Davis, Anthony Firkser, and A.J. Brown and is doing all the right things for a guy who is trying to earn a bigger role.
Let’s not forget that Woodside was an extremely prolific college quarterback, putting up over 10,000 passing yards and 93 touchdowns for Toledo. There is absolutely some talent in that right arm. Spending much of the last two years on the Titans practice squad — plus a stint as a starter in the short lived AAF — has given him some valuable experience and the shortened offseason has no doubt played to his advantage.
However, the challenger that he’ll be tasked with holding off is one of the more interesting developmental QB prospects that this team has had in quite some time. The Titans drafted Cole McDonald out of Hawaii in the seventh round, and like Woodside, he’s coming off an extremely productive college career, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
At 6’-4” and 215 pounds, McDonald has prototypical size and offers a big arm and an aggressive, attacking mindset to the game. His 4.58-second 40 yard dash at the combine was also the best among all quarterbacks in the 2020 draft class so the threat of the QB keeps and boots that Tannehill brings to the Tennessee offense remains intact if McDonald is in the game.
The drawbacks to McDonald are his risk-taking and the awkward, looping throwing motion that he is currently working to refine. However, if he can clean up his mechanics and will allow the coaching staff to dial back his aggression just a touch, he has a chance to develop into a high quality backup and/or borderline starter at the NFL level with his skill set.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans keep three quarterbacks on the active roster this fall. The looming threat of a positive COVID test disrupting the depth chart at the game’s most important position could drive teams to carry more depth at QB than they might have under normal circumstances. It could even push some teams to create a “designated survivor” type arrangement in their QB room to keep one passer separate from the others in the event of an outbreak at that position.
COVID scenarios aside, McDonald’s athleticism at least offers some potential for him to serve some sort of role on Sunday’s beyond holding a clipboard. No, he’s not going to be Taysom Hill — Hill is much a much bigger and more powerful athlete — but he could pick up some of the package plays that Marcus Mariota ran late last season to take a few hits off Tannehill.
I’d be pretty surprised if Woodside’s knowledge and experience didn’t hold off McDonald’s upside for the QB2 position, but if he flashes some of that talent in preseason he still might earn himself a roster spot.
4. Greg Joseph vs Tucker McCann
The Titans will hope that their kicking woes of 2019 don’t follow them into 2020. Cairo Santos, Cody Parkey, and Ryan Succop famously combined to make just 8 of 18 field goal attempts last year. The good news is that none of those guys are back this year.
The kicker that is back is Greg Joseph, who was added late in the regular season and converted all 18 extra point tries that he was given and made his only field goal attempt. The level of difficulty on those kicks were extremely low so it’s fair to remain somewhat skeptical of Joseph as the long term answer, but you also can’t fault him for converting 100% of the opportunities given to him.
Prior to his stint in Tennessee at the end of last season, Joseph had a pretty strong year as the full time kicker for the Browns in 2018, connecting on 25 of 29 field goal attempts (85%). However, he did struggle on extra points, hitting just 17 of 20 point after tries.
His experience gives him a leg up — pun intended — on undrafted rookie Tucker McCann, but he certainly isn’t a lock. McCann had a bit of an up-and-down college career at Missouri, hitting just 72.6% of his field goal attempts. However, he does have a monster leg, setting the Illinois high school state record with a 60-yard field goal and connecting from 57 yards against South Carolina while at Mizzou.
The good news is that college accuracy historically has very little correlation to NFL accuracy. Just take a look at the ten most accurate kickers with at least 100 career attempts currently active in the NFL right now:
- Justin Tucker — 83.3% in college, 90.8% in NFL
- Harrison Butker — 71.7% in college, 89.7% in NFL
- Josh Lambo — 84.0% in college, 88.5% in NFL
- Wil Lutz — 69.2% in college, 87.5% in NFL
- Dan Bailey — 79.2% in college, 87.3% in NFL
- Chris Boswell — 73.9% in college, 87.0% in NFL
- Robbie Gould — 63.9% in college, 86.8% in NFL
- Steven Hauschka — 88.9% in college, 85.7 in NFL
- Dustin Hopkins — 78.6% in college, 84.9% in NFL
- Matt Prater — 67.6% in college, 83.8% in NFL
So four of the current top ten kickers in the NFL had a lower accuracy rate in college than McCann’s 72.6%. All but one — Hauschka, who attempted just 18 field goals total in college — improved their accuracy during the transition to the pro game. There are also examples of good college kickers becoming poor performers in the NFL. The most glaring is former 2nd round pick Roberto Aguayo, who converted 88.5% of his field goal attempts at Florida State before making just 71% for the Bucs and crashing out of the league in just one year.
Kicking is one of the very rare positions on a football field where things actually get easier at the NFL level. The professional game features significantly narrower hashes which allow for more straight away angles than those that are used in college. Pro kickers also get actual special teams coaches — not just great recruiters who needed a spot on the staff so they could travel — and the benefit of improved muscle memory that comes with repeating their “swing” for additional years.
Whether McCann can prove to be consistent enough to push Joseph for the kicking job remains to be seen, but history has shown that his 72.6% college conversion rate is far from a disqualifier for NFL success.
There is also the strange-but-possibly-unrelated news of long time Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski buying a home in Franklin, TN just south of Nashville. Gostkowski is a free agent after being released by New England following a season that ended after just four games due to a season-ending hip surgery.
At 36 years old and coming off a major injury, it’s unclear how much juice he might have left, but Gostkowski is the fifth most accurate kicker of all time at 87.4% and connected on his career-long of 62 yards just two seasons ago.
Then again, he could have just bought a house in Franklin because it’s a nice place to retire and he’s familiar with the state from his time in college at Memphis.
If Gostkowski is healthy and wanting to play, that certainly throws a curveball into this competition, but I’d still peg Joseph as the most likely candidate to take the opening kickoff in Denver on September 14th.
5. WR Depth
These next two are more about back of the roster type players than potential starters (or even high profile backups like QB2), but they are still worth keeping an eye on.
We all know that A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries are going to lead the Titans receiver room in 2020 and Kalif Raymond seems like a good bet to return to his role as a rotational vertical threat and kick/punt return option, but after those four things get awfully hazy.
Rashard Davis, Cody Hollister, Trevion Thompson, and Cameron Batson all have some experience at the NFL level, but none have enough to be anything close to roster locks heading into training camp. Then, of course, you have a myriad of UDFA options in guys like Kristian Wilkerson, Mason Kinsey, Kyle Williams, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine.
I would expect at least one, maybe two, of these guys to end up on the 53-man roster by the end of training camp, but the race to see which two emerge will be interesting to watch. I like Batson and Wilkerson if I have to pick today.
Batson brings a lot of the same skill set that Raymond has to the table. At 5′-8″ and 175 pounds, he’s undersized, but speed is the name of his game. A 4.32-second 40 time at Texas Tech’s pro day in 2018 helped put him on the Titans radar despite relatively meager production during his time in Lubbock. In his rookie season, Batson was a surprise keep on the 53-man roster and contributed 8 catches for 82 yards as a rotational slot receiver.
Wilkerson is more of a prototypical build for an NFL wide receiver at 6′-1″ and 200 pounds and is coming off a college career that saw him put up big numbers, albeit against a lower level of competition in the OVC. He’s got outstanding ball skills and is capable of making some pretty incredible catches, like this one.
Most years, the time-honored tradition of Titans fans falling in love with a UDFA wide receiver during training camp and preseason ends in heartbreak and disappointment, but this season offers some real opportunities for a breakthrough.