Titans rookies officially reported for training camp yesterday and the rest of the veterans will follow on Tuesday. Suddenly, the 2021 NFL season has appeared on the horizon after what felt like an excessively long hiatus.
For Tennessee, this means preparation for a defense of their 2020 AFC South title and — hopefully — a longer stay in the postseason. Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel made their intentions clear when they traded for Julio Jones last month. They feel like they can contend for a Super Bowl in 2021.
But to reach that final game in February, a foundation must be built in July and August. So let’s dig into some of the top storylines to keep an eye on during Titans training camp.
Health of the Roster
“The NFL is a game of attrition.”
You’ve probably heard that quote uttered by commentators once or twice over the years and it’s true. As Mike Vrabel likes to say, there is a 100% injury rate in this league.
The timing, severity, and management of those injuries are huge factors in teams’ ultimate success or failure. That’s something that Mike Vrabel seems to be very cognizant of and it starts in training camp, where he regularly puts veterans and players coming off injury on an individualized maintenance routine.
The Titans have several key pieces coming off of injury heading into training camp that will be worth monitoring early on:
- LT Taylor Lewan: Torn ACL suffered in Week 6 of the 2020 season.
- EDGE Bud Dupree: Torn ACL suffered in Week 12 of the 2020 season.
- CB Caleb Farley: Back surgery in March to repair bulging disc in lower back.
- WR A.J. Brown: Clean up surgery on both knees after the 2020 season.
- LB Jayon Brown: Dislocated elbow suffered in Week 11 of the 2020 season.
We already know that Jayon Brown, Taylor Lewan, and A.J. Brown will be full go to start camp which is great news. Unfortunately, newcomers Caleb Farley and Bud Dupree — the two biggest offseason additions to Tennessee’s ailing defense — are going to start camp on the NFI (Non-Football Injury) and PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) lists. Both of those designations can be removed as soon as the players are cleared to practice so they have no bearing on Week 1 availability or anything of that nature at this time.
The reason that Farley is on NFI as opposed to PUP is simply because his injury occurred away from the NFL. Both NFI and PUP lists function identically with the exception that teams are not required to pay players while they are on NFI, though they often do.
Joining Dupree on the PUP list will be backup tackle Ty Sambrailo and backup running back Jeremy McNichols. Both players were going to be competing for roster spots — Sambrailo has an outside chance to factor into the right tackle competition and McNichols will be trying to hold off Brian Hill for the team’s fourth running back spot — and starting on an injury list certainly doesn’t help their cause.
Backup center/guard Aaron Brewer has also landed on the NFI list, which could mean that the second year player suffered some sort of injury while training away from the team over the last few weeks.
While McNichols, Sambrailo, and Brewer all have a chance to serve as important depth pieces, Dupree and Farley are the two guys that everyone will be waiting to see. The sooner they can get healthy and on the practice field with their teammates, the better.
Beyond the guys coming back from previous injuries, it will also be critical for the Titans to get through training camp without major new injuries popping up. Last year we saw Adoree’ Jackson, Kristian Fulton, and Darrynton Evans all suffer setbacks that not only cost them playing time during the regular season, but also seriously hampered their overall development and ability to contribute even after they did get healthy. Getting this roster to Week 1 in the best possible condition is always a focus of Vrabel’s, but last year’s struggles at certain spots certainly underscore how critical that goal is to the success of the football team.
The Titans entered last year with very few significant position battles to keep an eye on, and the one that everyone expected to be the headliner — Isaiah Wilson pushing Dennis Kelly at right tackle — never materialized. This year, brings a very similar dynamic. Almost all of the starting spots on both offense and defense are spoken for, but there are a few battles worth watching as camp gets underway:
- Right Tackle: After the somewhat surprising release of 2020 starter Dennis Kelly this offseason, the Titans added veteran jouneyman Kendall Lamm in free agency and brought back Ty Sambrailo, who started last year as Tennessee’s top backup tackle and got five starts at left tackle in place of Taylor Lewan before suffering his own season ending injury. Those two are joined by 2021 second round pick Dillon Radunz who, unlike Wilson, has already drawn significant praise from the Titans coaching staff. There is little doubt that Radunz offers the most upside, but Lamm (27 starts) and Sambrailo (18) have a significant edge in experience and are both coming off relatively strong seasons.
- Kicker: Tucker McCann and Blake Haubeil appear set to battle for the Titans placekicking job during training camp. McCann spent most of the 2020 season on the team’s practice squad and Haubeil is an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State. Neither have a single NFL kick to their name so you’d have to figure this battle is about as wide open as it gets. My hunch is that the team will let McCann and Haubeil compete with the hopes that one of them impresses enough to earn the job. However, calling Stephen Gostkowski — who hasn’t retired and lives in Franklin — still lingers as a fallback plan.
- Cornerback: No Titans position group saw more turnover than corner during this offseason. Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, and Desmond King are out. Janoris Jenkins, Caleb Farley, and Elijah Molden are in. While Kristian Fulton is technically one of the few holdovers from last year’s unit, he feels like a new player after playing just 202 snaps as a rookie primarily due to injury. I feel pretty confident that Jenkins will be a starter here, but everything else feels up in the air. Will Farley be past his back injury in time to start Week 1? Will Fulton take a big step forward in his second season? Can Molden earn early snaps in the slot? Could Breon Borders or Chris Jackson make a surprise push for playing time? I think the Titans would love to see Jenkins, Farley, and Fulton emerge as their starters here, but that’s certainly not set in stone heading into camp.
- Backup Quarterback: Logan Woodside versus DeShone Kizer will add a little drama to the preseason slate this year as they battle for the right to serve as Ryan Tannehill’s top backup. Woodside is — somehow — heading into his fourth season in Tennessee. Much of that time has been spent on the practice squad, but after serving as the top backup last year, it’s pretty clear that the Titans coaching staff is fond of the former seventh round pick. Kizer was signed to the practice squad during the season last year and spent his time with the team serving as the Titans “designated survivor” at quarterback, isolating from Tannehill and Woodside to avoid COVID protocols potentially wiping out the entire QB room. The former second round pick has the physical skill set to play in this league, but struggled mightily during his one season as a starter in Cleveland. Can his upside and experience trump Woodside’s tenure and trust level with the coaching staff?
- Punt Returner: I would fully expect second year running back Darrynton Evans to take the kick return job in 2021. He finished last year in that role and was very successful returning kicks in college. However, he does not have punt return experience and those two jobs, while similar, are certainly not identical. With Kalif Raymond in Detroit, that begs the question… who handles punt return duties for this team? And I’m not sure there is a clear answer. The guys with punt return experience on the roster are all at wide receiver — Chester Rogers, Cameron Batson, and Mason Kinsey — but none of them are locks to make the 53. Winning the punt return battle seems like it will be a key factor to earning a spot at the back end of the wide receiver rotation.
Those are the five battles that I’m most interested in, but there are others that could pop on the radar as well, like… who takes the starting nose tackle spot between Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry? Who is the third (and fourth?) tight end and how does that rotation shape up? Which backup wide receivers stick on the roster behind Jones, Brown, and Josh Reynolds?
The Titans have two new coordinators to break in this year as Todd Downing takes over for Arthur Smith on offense and Shane Bowen officially gets the defensive coordinator title on defense. Downing has a lot of pressure heading into his second chance to be an offensive playcaller at the NFL level. He’s taking over a unit that has averaged over 30 points per game since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback, is returning the majority of their key pieces, and just added an all-time great talent at wide receiver in Julio Jones. If the offense doesn’t hum in 2021, all eyes will be on the playcaller.
Bowen finds himself under a different sort of pressure. After overseeing a flailing defense in 2020 — though without the official coordinator title — he was promoted this offseason, much to the chagrin of Titans fans everywhere. The team also brought in a very successful, experienced defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz to serve as a senior defensive assistant. In theory, Schwartz is there to help the Titans young coordinator, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where he could become his replacement if the defense struggles again.
Training camp is not where coaches are ultimately judged, but it is going to be interesting to watch each guy work in his new role. Even if Bowen was the defensive playcaller last season, he was never given oversight of the entire defense from an install standpoint. This year, he’ll have that opportunity and he needs to make the most of it.
Every year at training camp, newcomers always attract a lot of attention. This year will take that attention to a new level with Julio Jones arriving.
We also shouldn’t forget that Bud Dupree — a guy who just signed the third biggest contract in team history in terms of AAV — and first round pick Caleb Farley will be making their debuts in the two-tone blue in the coming weeks as well. With neither Dupree or Farley appearing at OTAs as they work back from their injuries, I’d expect them to attract a lot of attention when they do suit up at Saint Thomas Sports Park for the first time.
Janoris Jenkins, Denico Autry, Kendall Lamm, Dillon Radunz, Elijah Molden, Monty Rice, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Rashad Weaver will all be interesting to watch as well. The Titans need several of these newcomers to play key roles for them in 2021 and it’s always intriguing to get the first glimpses of these guys in person.
Three Preseason Games
After having zero preseason last year, exhibition football is back for 2021! A more manageable three game slate should help the preseason fatigue factor and the backup quarterback battle should provide an extra layer of drama as well. I’m actually legitimately excited to watch preseason football action this year.
The Titans preseason slate includes a trip to Atlanta to visit Arthur Smith and the Falcons. Of course, that could also be a quick homecoming trip for Julio Jones, though I certainly would not expect him to appear in the game and think there is at least a chance that he doesn’t even make the trip with the team as the Titans focus on getting the 32-year old receiver ready for a 17-game season.
The next preseason game will see Mike Vrabel visit his old friend Tom Brady and the defending champion Bucs. The Titans will spend the week leading up to that game in Tampa participating in joint practices with the Bucs at their training facility. That week should be a great test for Tennessee as they get reps against the most talented team in the NFL from top to bottom.
Finally, the Titans host the Bears for the final preseason game and then have two full weeks to prepare for their opener against the Cardinals.
It will be interesting to see how the Titans treat the preseason process this year. In 2019, Mike Vrabel never gave starting quarterback Marcus Mariota more than three series and we never saw Derrick Henry in uniform (Henry was being eased back in from a strained calf suffered in training camp).
The current NFL trend is to sit stars entirely during the preseason to avoid injury. Sean McVay famously refuses to play any of his starters in exhibition games, but other successful coaches — like Andy Reid, for example — see the preseason as valuable live reps for their top players to get ready for the full contact experience coming in Week 1. Vrabel has generally been somewhere in between the two extremes, but he certainly errs on the side of caution when it comes to players dealing with even the smallest of injury concerns. Given the heavy veteran presence on this offense, I don’t expect to see much of Tannehill, Henry, Jones, or Brown during the preseason.
The 2020 Draft Class
The old adage in the NFL has long been that players make their biggest jump in performance between their first and second season in the league. The reason for that boils down to one word: preparation. In the offseason between their final year of college football and their rookie season, players spend the first four months preparing for the draft. That includes training for the combine — which is much different than training for football and often involves shedding or adding weight — along with interviews, travel, and media obligations.
After the draft, they’re moving to a new city, figuring out how to truly live on their own for the first time in their lives, and doing all that while trying to learn a new, far more complex playbook than they likely learned in college and re-training their bodies for football. That’s a lot to juggle for anyone, much less a 21 or 22 year old.
The offseason before a second NFL season is much calmer. Training and studying can all be geared towards the goals that your team laid out for you during your exit interview from the previous season. Your focus is entirely on improving as a football player and you already have some grasp of the scheme, playbook, and how coaches want you to execute your job. That kind of preparation makes a huge difference.
No team needs a bigger jump from their 2020 draft class than the Titans. Obviously, there is no salvaging the first round pick, but day two picks Kristian Fulton and Darrynton Evans at least showed flashes of ability as rookies. Larrell Murchison, Chris Jackson, Teair Tart, Aaron Brewer, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine all got their first tastes of NFL action as well.
When you add the unprecedented complexities that COVID-19 brought to their rookie seasons — no rookie minicamp, no OTAs, no mandatory minicamp — I think it’s fair to leave the door open for a big improvement from some of these guys.
Fulton and Tart will be expected to compete for starting job in Tennessee’s revamped defense and I’m going to be very interested to see how they look as camp progresses. Significant jumps from those two could change the outlook on the Titans defense considerably.
On offense, Darrynton Evans is among the most interesting players to watch for me. Rumors from last year’s camp indicated that, prior to his injury, the Titans had plans to use him in a bigger role than what we saw during the season. Can he emerge as yet another weapon in this stacked Tennessee offense?
Training camp can be tough to gauge when it comes to a team’s overall quality. After all, for every rep the offense wins, the defense loses, and vice versa. However, you can get a good feel for general strengths and weaknesses.
Watching how the position groups at wide receiver and tight end shape up might be the most fascinating aspect of this upcoming training.
We know A.J. Browns and Julio Jones are elite options at the top of the depth chart, but will Josh Reynolds, Cam Batson, and Dez Fitzpatrick prove to be capable of serving as quality rotational receivers behind the top two? Or could a surprise emerge from likes of Racey McMath, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Marcus Johnson, and Mason Kinsey?
At tight end, it’s going to be very interesting to see how Anthony Firkser and Geoff Swaim are deployed, but it’s almost more intriguing to figure out who might join those two as part of the regular rotation on offense? Is Tommy Hudson ready to emerge as a quality third tight end? Could Jared Pinkney or undrafted rookies Briley Moore or Miller Forristall make the 53? Will the Titans simply move to more 11 personnel in 2021?
We will try to provide some hints about how those battles — and the ones listed earlier — might be shaping up over the next few weeks.