I was out at Saint Thomas Sports Park this morning to check out the Titans first padded practice of the season. I’m going to borrow a tradition from hockey and give out three stars for the practice session and then follow up with some additional notes from practice below.
3RD STAR: TAYWAN TAYLOR
This was my first chance to see Taylor in person and I came away extremely impressed. He runs sharp routes and has an extra gear. Very few corners were able to stick with him during both one-on-ones and team segments.
At one point he roasted UDFA Manny Abad for a deep touchdown. Yes, you’d expect a highly touted 3rd round receiver to beat a UDFA, but Taylor showed off an extra gear to create a good 5 yards of separation before Alex Tanney dropped a beautiful ball in for an easy touchdown.
During team drills we also got a preview of some of the other dimensions Taylor might bring to the offense as the Titans gave him the ball on a couple reverses. Last year we saw guys like Tajae Sharpe and Delanie Walker getting that type of work. Taylor is going to be much more effective on those types of plays.
2ND STAR: KALAN REED
This was an unlikely star for me. It’s not that I didn’t like Reed, just that I didn’t expect him to flash as much as he did. He was tight in coverage consistently throughout the day.
I was making notes throughout the day and wrote his name three times (the most of any player). The first was a play where he had tight coverage on UDFA KeVonn Mabon, but Mabon was able to make an even better play to make a diving contested catch.
Reed also had two other pass breakups during team drills including one that he nearly intercepted. The cornerback depth may be in better shape than we originally thought.
1ST STAR: KEVIN BYARD
I was high on Byard before seeing this practice, but I left convinced that Byard is going to be a star. He had a great interception during 7-on-7 reps where he anticipated a route, broke on the ball, and made a leaping catch.
One thing that struck me during one-on-ones was that Byard could be one of the better corners on the team if we wanted to play him there. He was consistently great in man-to-man coverage against wide receivers. The range of his skillset is enormous.
Mike Mularkey gushed about Byard in his press conference afterwards saying he looks like more than a second year player. He said the communication in the secondary has been excellent and that Byard is at the forefront of that as the guy charged with making sure everyone is aligned correctly pre-snap. He talked about how much tape Byard watched during the offseason and that it is showing up on the field now. He looks like the real deal.
- THE STREAK IS OVER! Eric Decker dropped his first (and second) ball of camp today. Not that this should be a story, but the media coverage of Decker not dropping passes in the first two days of camp was reminiscent of another camp streak that you may remember from 2015.
- Speaking of that streak, Mariota threw an interception during one of the last team segments of the day as Da’Norris Searcy stepped in front of Eric Decker on a dig route to make a nice interception. That play got a big reaction from the defense as Mularkey had promised to cut meetings half an hour short today for the side that won the turnover battle in practice.
- Outside of that interception Mariota was mostly very sharp with his ball placement throughout practice. He moved around pretty well and unleashed a rocket to Rishard Matthews for a touchdown while rolling to his right at one point in a team segment.
- The new wide receivers are really impressive in person. Davis and Decker are big, physical guys who run extremely sharp routes and I already mentioned my impression of Taylor above. The routes these three ran drew several “ooooooooh” moments from the crowd as they would hit their break and suddenly create huge separation. The days of press man coverage smothering the Titans passing game will soon be over.
- Davis and Matthews are clearly the starting X and Z receivers at this point in camp with Decker being the primary slot receiver when they go to three wide sets. During Mularkey’s press conference he mentioned that they don’t have a “slot receiver depth chart”. He said that all receivers start outside and then a select few also have the ability to slide down in to the slot. Those few currently appear to be Decker, Taylor, Harry Douglas, Tre McBride, and Jonathan Krause.
- Tajae Sharpe was out on the practice field, but not participating in any drills. He also didn’t appear to be doing any conditioning or running on the side at this point, mostly just watching with his teammates and playing catch during breaks. He doesn’t appear to be particularly close to returning at this point, although he is not wearing a boot or walking with a noticeable limp.
- Further down the wide receiver depth chart, former Commodore Jonathan Krause made a couple big plays, but as Mularkey noted in the post-practice press conference, he also dropped a few and needs to add consistency to his game. He’s highly unlikely to make the roster, but the kid can run.
- Mekale McKay, the UDFA wide receiver from Cincinnati, is massive. You won’t have any problem picking him out at camp at 6’-5” tall. He is wearing #2 in camp and I thought he was Derrick Henry for a split second when I first saw him. He moves pretty well for a big guy and could be an interesting practice squad stash.
- Murray and Henry continue to split first team reps at running back. Murray didn’t get a ton of action later in practice and Mularkey said he was cramping up a bit so they eased his reps down. Both look good, but it is still striking to see Derrick Henry’s shear size in person and it is even more amazing when you see him move. The Titans showed several looks with both on the field today. Often with Murray split out wide and Henry in the backfield.
- We saw a lot of David Fluellen and Khalfani Muhammad carries today. Muhammad is fun to watch run. His speed pops and he’s so small that he is hard for linebackers and safeties to find behind the line of scrimmage.
- Delanie Walker’s still got it. Anybody questioning whether he can keep producing at age 33 this year should just put that idea on the shelf until next year. He’s still among the best athletes out there. At one point he caught a tight end screen on the backside of a play action fake and took off down field looking like a 26 year old running back.
- When it comes to depth tight ends, I thought Tim Semisch was pretty impressive. He stands out at 6’-8” tall, but he moved pretty well and looked natural catching the ball. I’ll take him over Jace Amaro if the Titans decide to keep four tight ends (I expect them to keep three).
- Jonnu Smith looks very fluid and Mularkey gave him a lot of praise in the press conference saying that he was extremely coachable and desperately wants to be great.
- Kevin Dodd looked good again today. He had one play that would have been a sack or a forced intentional grounding had it been a game and then the next snap he knifed in to the backfield to stop an outside zone run. He’s been impressive so far.
- Johnathan Cyprien flashed his underrated coverage skills during drills today breaking up a couple passes in tight coverage.
- The starting secondary at this point in camp is clearly Ryan, Sims, Byard, and Cyprien. That group was very good today, particularly in team segments.
- The other member of the secondary besides the starters and Reed that stood out in a good way today was Demontre Hurst. He made several nice plays on the ball and I saw him rotating in a free safety as well. It seems that the Titans may be planning to use their 5th and/or 6th corners as backup free safeties to give them some depth behind Byard and Searcy. DJ Smith has some catching up to do to make the roster at this point in my eyes.
- Antwaun Woods made a big play that got a huge reaction out of the defense as he tossed Tim Lelito aside and made a stop in the backfield. I can see why he was a camp darling last year.
- It wasn’t all bad for Lelito though. He blew up Jayon Brown on a pull block later in a team segment clearing a hole for Derrick Henry. Brown can really move, but I am a little bit concerned about his size/strength in the middle. Teams will likely look to run right at him when he’s in the game. Right now Brown is behind Daren Bates and Nate Palmer in the ILB pecking order.
- Austin Johnson was rotating in with the first team on defense today splitting some reps with DaQuan Jones across from Jurrell Casey.
- Adoree Jackson looks like a talented but inexperienced player...which he is. So that’s not all that surprising, but secondary coach Deshea Townsend stayed on him for several plays in a row during one segment correcting his alignment and getting after him for allowing a receiver to cross his face. His speed and athleticism is unmistakable, but if he’s going to push for a starting job in Week 1, he’s got a lot of work to do. Jackson did force a fumble.
ODDS AND ENDS
- This practice wasn’t as crisp as the first two were. There was one point where there were back-to-back false starts on the offense. Mularkey still said he liked the energy of the practice. The defense was clearly ahead of the offense during the first day in pads, with the secondary standing out. As good as we all expect this offense to be, this should be considered a good sign that the defense is hanging right with them.
- During punt coverage drills the guys taking reps at returner were Adoree Jackson, Khalfani Muhammad, and Harry Douglas. Eric Weems was working at gunner during this time, but he will be in the mix there as well. Eric Decker also made a brief cameo catching a couple punts, but he didn’t stay in the rotation the entire time. I can’t imagine them using him back there unless it was an emergency.
- Taywan Taylor worked as a gunner during this drill as well and looked good doing it. Taylor is going to get some snaps in the offense, but it seems like he might be contributing on special teams during his rookie year as well.
- Mike Mularkey announced the winners of the OSPY Awards today (Offseason Performer of the Year). He has three categories: Skills (WR/DB), Mids (TE/RB/LB), and Bigs (OL/DL). The winners of the OSPY’s this year were LeShaun Sims (Skills), Delanie Walker (Mids), and Jurrell Casey (Bigs). Mularkey particularly raved about Sims’ work ethic and said the room gave him a big reaction when Mularkey announced him as a winner. This team is VERY high on Sims. As I’ve been saying for a while now, don’t be shocked when he’s starting across from Ryan Week 1.
- There were a few funny moments from practice with the players. After the first two running plays in the first team segment — which were both nice runs to the left side — Taylor Lewan yelled at the nearby Paul Kuharsky and told him to write that down while miming a writing motion.
- Towards the end of practice Lewan, Ben Jones, Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews, and Harry Douglas were standing together near the fans watching the backups get some work. A kid was trying to get Decker’s attention and Harry Douglas said “you want something from the beautiful Decker?”. He then proceeded to walk over to Decker and steal his towel to give to the kid.
- After a lightly defended fake field goal attempt that featured a Brett Kern-to-Phillip Supernaw touchdown pass, Supernaw came bouncing back to the sidelines joking “ain’t that something, one special teams play, one touchdown”.
- I wasn’t able to get as many pictures and videos as I had hoped. It is very difficult to watch practice and film at the same time and they also don’t allow you to take video of team segments which was a large portion of today’s practice, but here is what I was able to get.