The dog days of the NFL calendar have finally come to a close. Hallelujah.
Titans’ rookies reported to training camp on Saturday the 23rd, and the rest of their veteran teammates joined them on Tuesday the 26th. Compared to this time last year, the buzz around town for this team is a mere whimper. Perhaps folks are still recovering from how Tennessee’s 2021 campaign ended… or maybe it’s the somewhat confusing (though understandable) way the front office handled the offseason. Whatever the case, fans are thus far hesitant to get excited for another NFL season in Nashville.
Training camp is about to change that.
In the coming weeks, we will see the 2022 Titans for the first time on the field together as they’ll likely be constituted on September 11th. And for this team in transition, there is will be no shortage of things to keep an eye on in the months of July and August.
Let’s dive into the storylines to watch:
Treylon Burks has found himself at the very center of Tennessee’s offseason whirlwind, partially of his own doing.
After having the weight of replacing the most talented receiver in franchise history thrust upon his shoulders in April, Burks struggled mightily at rookie minicamp. The team did the best they could to obfuscate the true reasons for his inability to finish practices, but ultimately the truth was evident; he was out of shape.
Being too winded to finish minicamp drills isn’t a great look for a 1st rounder, especially one expected to make an immediate impact. Burks hype fell to a faint whisper through the summer, until just last week when Dianna Russini had this to say about Burks on The Athletic Football Show:
Could it be the case that the Titans organization is trying to get some positive spin for their new guy? Sure. But if what Dianna was told is true, it’s a big win for Tennessee. The reality of the situation should be made evident rather quickly when we get to see Burks in action again this week.
The other rookies to keep an eye on are Kyle Philips, Chig Okonkwo, and Theo Jackson. All three received praise in June during rookie minicamp, and the expectation is that they’ll come into training camp with all of that momentum.
Philips is the player I think will make the biggest immediate impact from this rookie class. I recall my friend and Broadway Sports colleague Justin Melo predicting earlier this summer that Philips will start Week 1, and I think he nailed it. While his abilities limit him to the slot, he is one of the most pro-ready rookie receivers in the entire league.
While I always hesitate to expect much from rookie tight ends, the discussion surrounding Chig Okonkwo seems to have some substance. Okonkwo is a player built in the mold of former Titans such as Delanie Walker or a speedy version of Jonnu Smith. He is the kind of guy who could make a pretty significant impact in the passing game early on, even if some of his other tight end duties take some time to develop.
Theo Jackson is the most surprising player to be talking about at this stage in the game. Jackson, a safety out of Tennessee taken in the 6th round, has already made an impression with his teammates. In his Broadway Sports Media exclusive interview with Justin Melo, veteran safety Amani Hooker went out of his way to praise Jackson unprompted.
Good ole’ fashioned position battles are a hallmark of training camp, and Tennessee has no shortage of them this time around. We won’t know for sure who gets the upper hand in each faceoff until we reach the regular season, but who gets more first-team reps in camp and the preseason is a very good indicator. Let’s take a look at the marquee matchups:
Left Guard: Aaron Brewer vs. Jamarco Jones
This will be one of the two battles to decide the Titans’ final answer for their starting offensive line. With plenty of questions surrounding which position 2021 2nd round pick Dillon Radunz would ultimately be playing last season, it now seems clear that this coaching staff sees him as a tackle (the position he played in college).
With the departure of Roger Saffold, Titans veteran Aaron Brewer and newcomer Jamarco Jones are left fighting for the start. Brewer has provided depth in the interior of the line for this team since 2020, and although a bit small at 6’1 and 274lbs, he’s proven himself to be a versatile and capable athlete. Turns out the low man does in fact win.
Jones was signed as a free agent in March, and despite what anybody else thinks, this coaching staff clearly sees him as a competitor for this starting role. Jones played in Seattle for his first three seasons in the league, earning seven total starts.
Brewer is my pick to win this job, however, I think it will be close. He’s familiar with this system, he’s earned the trust of these coaches, and he’s not let the team down when they needed him to step up in the past. I expect Lewan and Brewer will be holding down the left side of the line this year.
Right Tackle: Dillon Radunz vs. Nicholas Petit Frere
The second piece of this offensive line puzzle is at right tackle. This position has been a tumultuous revolving door for the Titans for a while now, and the front office desperately needs one of these two to be the guy going forward.
Dillon Radunz was drafted last year after Isaiah Wilson’s NFL career (or lack thereof) imploded spectacularly. But having come from a smaller school that played a single game in 2020, and trying to switch sides of the line, he was never ready for the spotlight as a rookie. He did get a single start in 2021, but it was at left tackle. His performance, though championed by many as a revelation, was merely passable. Now, his development timer is officially up.
Nicholas Petit Frere (NPF) was the Titans’ sole lineman draft selection this year. The rookie is coming from Ohio State, where he played mostly tackle. Evaluated as a prospect more on the raw talent side of the spectrum, he’s expected to need a good bit of development before he’s ready for starting consideration.
Radunz is my pick to win the job, and for the sake of a handful of folks within the organization, this better be the case. Radunz should be ahead of NPF in every meaningful category and should solidify himself as the starter early in camp.
Nose Tackle: Naquan Jones vs. Teair Tart
This battle bums me out because it’s hard not to really like both of these guys. Naquan Jones and Teair Tart are the poster boys for Jon Robinson’s proclivity to find talented UDFA defensive linemen. Tart joined the team as a rookie in 2020 and flashed early, solidifying himself as a solid depth piece.
Jones took a nearly identical path to Tart, joining as a UDFA rookie in 2021, but shining even brighter. He amassed two more passes defended, two and a half additional sacks, and thirteen more tackles than Tart. And if those numbers weren’t enough to convince you Jones has the upper hand, he did that in half as many starts.
So as much as I like Tart, Jones is my pick to win the job. I think both would be nice depth pieces for this dominant defensive line, but if there can only be one, I think Jones will be the choice.
Kick Returner: Trenton Cannon vs. Kyle Philips
Cannon was signed during free agency to come in and provide the Titans with some much-needed juice in the kick return game. Cannon has dealt with some injury issues in his short NFL career, but if healthy, he has the potential to provide real special teams firepower.
When Robinson and company drafted rookie WR Kyle Philips, Cannon’s roster spot was brought into question. Philips has experience returning kicks in college at UCLA. So who will be doing it for the 2022 Titans?
Cannon is my pick to win the job. While it would be nice to have a potential offensive starter like Philips eliminate the necessity of a special teams-only player like Cannon, I don’t expect the team to reverse course on their plan from free agency. Cannon will focus on fielding kicks for this team, and Philips will focus on catching passes.
Nickle Cornerback: Elijah Molden vs. Roger McCreary
Perhaps the most talked about position battle pre-camp, Molden vs. McCreary presents an interesting dilemma… or perhaps a false one.
Since the Titans drafted McCreary in April, many have speculated it could mean we see a lot less of the slot specialist Molden. Molden looked really promising in his rookie season, easily standing out as the most impactful rookie of his draft class thus far. but McCreary was a 2nd round draft grade for a reason. He’s expected to be able to get up to speed and make an immediate impact.
However, others see things entirely differently. My friend and colleague Justin Graver pointed out on Twitter this week that PFF released a list of fifteen second-year breakout candidates, and Elijah Molden’s name was among them.
How can Molden simultaneously be a rising star and on the verge of losing his job?
I’m inclined to say this has been made into a bit of a false choice. While McCreary’s physical traits are more in line with what you might expect from a nickel cornerback, his experience against SEC top-flight receivers makes him much more versatile on the outside than Molden is.
Ultimately, my pick to win the job of nickel cornerback is Molden. However I won’t be surprised to see them split snaps at the position, and I do think McCreary will see the field early and often. McCreary will be an active rotational piece both inside and out.
Returns from Injury
2021 1st-round pick Caleb Farley is the biggest name to watch in this category. Farley came into his pro career with injury questions already, having dealt with serious knee and back issues in college. Before he could ever really get his bearings straight on defense, he went down with a torn ACL in October.
The question still remains as to whether Farley can live up to his raw CB1 potential in the NFL. The traits are there; speed, acceleration, and length. If he can be back to one hundred percent this season (though with an ACL, you never know how long that will take) and remain healthy, he should emerge as a starter and potentially a star. While he avoided the PUP list to start camp, he’ll still be limited to start out. How he looks leading up to the season opener will be enlightening as to how big a role he’ll be able to play on an already elite defense.
Wide receiver Robert Woods is the other big injury question mark on this team. Woods, who joined the team in free agency this year, is coming back from an ACL tear as well. His tear came later than Farley’s, occurring in a flukey manner during a November Rams practice.
Woods’ recovery process has apparently gone incredibly well, allowing him to run routes and catch passes in mandatory minicamp back in June (something very few expected). He and Farley have reportedly been working together a lot, as they’re in very similar boats with their return to play.
With the state of this Titans’ wide receiver room, Tennessee needs Woods to be available and an immediate impact this year. whether or not he will be physically able to do that is yet to be seen, and training camp will provide us with a pretty good idea.
The other small injury-related things to keep an eye on are Bud Dupree, Taylor Lewan, and Derrick Henry. Henry’s 2021 foot injury should be a non-factor based on how other players have historically returned from the same injury. He should already be fully healed and left unhindered by his foot going forward.
Lewan and Dupree both suffered ACL tears in 2020, and both were slow to return to their old selves during the 2021 campaign. While both showed clear signs of improvement as last season went on, it remains to be seen whether we saw either of them play all the way back at full strength. I’m curious to see how they look in camp this year and to hear if they feel like they’re ready to resume their dominant ways of old.
This is the time of year Jon Robinson has historically liked to give some of his stars some contract love. Both Derrick Henry and Taylor Lewan signed extensions around this time in the past couple of years. And the Titans have a fantastic 2019 draft class to thank for the crowded impending free agent situation they find themselves in. The expiring rookie contract list includes the likes of Jeffrey Simmons, Amani Hooker, Nate Davis, and David Long Jr.
In a perfect world, Tennessee would like to keep all four of these players, but this is unlikely considering the price they’ll demand. The most important puzzle piece in this bunch is Simmons, a bonafide star and leader of this ferocious defensive front. Simmons was suspiciously uninvolved in mandatory minicamp earlier this summer, despite being healthy and in the building. When questions were met with evasive answers, the writing on the wall was clear: this probably had to do with his contract.
However, Jon Robinson was asked yesterday about Simmons and a potential new deal. He made it clear that the team and Simmons were on the same page, but declined to offer any more details. Simmons is reportedly expected to practice, so it sounds like things are going fine for now.
All of this being said, I would be surprised if any of these new contracts get done soon. If one were to be signed, I’d guess it might be Amani Hooker based on his conversation with Justin Melo. But the possibility of new deals for Titans players of the future is always on the table in July and August.
Easton Freeze is the Director of Published Content at Broadway Sports Media, covering the Titans and the NFL
Get more Titans coverage from Easton on Twitter @eastonfreeze