The Titans move from Phase Two into Phase Three of the offseason program on Monday with the start of the team’s first OTA (Organized Team Activity) session.
Jim Wyatt has the full set of dates for the Titans offseason program here.
For an in-depth look at the rules differentiating voluntary workouts, OTAs, and minicamp, check out this article by Kevin Nogle for the Phinsider from a couple of years ago.
As the months of May, June, and July are typically very slow-going for football lovers, lets take a look at some of the top storylines that could keep us entertained through the middle of June coming out of Saint Thomas Sports Park.
5. The Rapport Between Marcus Mariota and Corey Davis
The Titans drafted Corey Davis with the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft, but unfortunately, he and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota hardly had any time to establish a rapport before the middle of last season.
Mariota, of course, was coming off a gruesome lower leg injury that required months of extensive rehab. While he was able to take the field with his teammates for OTAs last May, he was limited in many aspects to mostly 7-on-7 work. Davis himself was limited while recovering from an ankle injury that required surgery in January of last year.
Then early in training camp, Davis suffered a hamstring injury and wasn’t able to take a single preseason snap.
In 2018, Mariota and Davis have already been working this offseason to develop that connection, getting together with a handful of other pass-catchers (including Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith) at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, CA, earlier this year.
Anyone know where in LA this is? Lol pic.twitter.com/vuCyrvKe0W— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) March 12, 2018
That development will need to continue as OTAs progress and training camp rolls around. It will be great to see videos of Mariota throwing to Davis popping up on social media throughout OTAs.
4. Mike Vrabel’s Relationship with the Nashville Media
One interesting league rule for OTAs is the required media access. This passage from that Phinsider article would normally be a non-story...
According to the NFL’s Media Policy, local media must be allowed access to OTAs and minicamp. During OTAs, one of every three days has to be open to the media, meaning four total days of the 10 must be allowed to be viewed by the media. During the mandatory minicamp, the media will have access to all practices.
Players and coaches must also be made available to the media on any day in which the media is allowed at practice.
But in light of Mike Vrabel’s recent dispute with the local Nashville-area media, or rather, the Nashville-area media’s reaction to Vrabel’s new media policies, this could be an interesting story to track. In particular, how the media covers OTAs with their newfound bias against Vrabel should be interesting.
Will the stories about Vrabel’s demeanor in practice be tainted by this negative perception? Or will the coverage be the typical positive-hype-machine we’re used to seeing this time of year?
I also will be paying close attention to which players to whom the media are allowed access. For what it’s worth, according to the Titans social media manager Nate Bain, only 7 of the 32 teams in the NFL allowed local media to speak to their UDFAs.
3. Where is Dane Cruikshank Lining Up?
Dane Cruikshank was selected in the 5th round after a trade up by the Titans in April’s draft. At the time of the pick, Cruikshank was announced as a “defensive back” rather than specifically as a cornerback or safety.
Cruikshank spent the 2016 season at Arizona University as a boundary cornerback, and then moved to a hybrid safety/linebacker/nickel corner role for his senior year. (If you missed it, I broke down Cruikshank’s senior season and his outlook as an NFL prospect here).
In the press conference following Day 3 of the draft, when asked what position Cruikshank would line up at first, Vrabel simply said, “We like him at DB.”
At the Titans’ rookie minicamp, Cruikshank himself was asked if he was playing more corner or more safety, to which he responded, “I’m a DB.” When Paul Kuharsky asked Cruikshank which group he went with when the safeties and corners split up, he said, “I go wherever the coaches tell me.”
May 12: Fifth-round draft pick Dane Cruikshank already programmed by the #Titans. Asked if he working with safeties or corners when they split up, reiterates he's a 'DB." This is the sort of secret that will produce big results!— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) May 12, 2018
You’d better believe that during one of the open media practices, Paul Kuharsky is going to do his best to find out with which group Cruikshank is spending more time.
It would be slightly surprising if Cruikshank was used as a cornerback more than at safety, simply because the Titans have (presumably) four cornerbacks ahead of Cruikshank on the depth chart in Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Adoree Jackson, and third-year man LeShaun Sims.
Meanwhile, the Titans have just Kevin Byard and Johnathan Cyprien entrenched at safety ahead of Cruikshank, with free agent signee (and likely camp body) Kendrick Lewis and special teamer Brynden Trawick competing for snaps behind those two.
But if Dane Cruikshank is just going to be a safety, why is the team being so cryptic about it?
2. Who is the “Starting” Running Back?
In addition to a couple of camp-competition wide receivers, the Titans bolstered their offense by signing talented and versatile running back Dion Lewis to compliment Derrick Henry in Tennessee’s backfield.
Lewis lead the New England Patriots in rushing last season, while Henry lead the Titans. Lewis also contributed 214 yards through the air on 32 catches.
We probably won’t get a definitive answer on who the “starter” is during OTAs, and it also likely doesn’t matter, as that player will be a “starter” in name only. Both backs will see plenty of action in Matt LaFleur’s offense.
But we may learn a lot about how this new coaching staff views these running backs based on how they’re used during these offseason practices. The new staff has no loyalty to Henry.
I don’t expect a “starter” to be named anytime soon, but there will be first-team and second-team reps in practice. Both backs will likely take reps with the first-team, but they will have to alternate.
As the incumbent, if Henry is first up for first-team reps, it could mean nothing. However, if it’s Lewis up first, that could be a signal that Lewis will play more than just a complimentary role to Henry this season. Fantasy football owners out there should pay attention to this potential “position battle.”
1. How Healthy is Jack Conklin?
The number one thing I’m interested in learning and tracking throughout OTAs is the health of Jack Conklin.
While many things went wrong in the January blowout at Foxborough, perhaps the most significant was when Jack Conklin’s season ended three quarters before the rest of the team’s with a torn left ACL.
The typical recovery time for torn ACLs in the new-age of sports medicine is around 9 months, which would put Conklin out until mid-October. However, Conklin may be a little ahead in his recovery, as he was recently out and about Nashville without crutches.
Jason Wolf had this from the Titans’ big uniform event in April:
#Titans RT Jack Conklin (torn ACL) was spotted at tonight’s uniform unveiling. No crutches. Little bit of a limp.— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) April 5, 2018
And in this amazing video from the Predators’ playoff run, Conklin is pouring a pair of beers over a catfish for Taylor Lewan to do Taylor Lewan things...
Cameron Wolfe of ESPN reported in February that Conklin was likely to start the season on the PUP list, but I don’t know if that was his own speculation or based on actual information.
Expect Conklin to be limited to individual sideline work as OTAs open, if he is on the field at all. The Titans will need him to be healthy as soon as possible if the offensive line is to gel with each other in the anticipated new zone blocking scheme, which requires effective communication by the linemen.
Which storylines have I left out? What are you most excited for as the Titans start OTAs?