The Titans wrapped up minicamp on Thursday with a visit to the shooting range to learn gun safety with the Metro Nashville Police Department replacing the final practice session. We won’t see the team on the field again until they kickoff training camp on July 26th, but I wanted to take a quick moment to recap the offseason program and what we learned from it — if anything — about the 2018 Titans.
1. Team health is very important to Mike Vrabel
The health of the roster is important to every NFL coach, but Vrabel seemed to really be focused on it during OTAs and minicamp. When asked if he learned anything from his first time going through OTAs and minicamp as a head coach, Vrabel responded “I think you learn every day that the health of the team is critical to your success. There’s nothing more important than the health of our football players. You’re in constant communication with Todd [Toriscelli] and the training staff to try to balance conditioning with practice.”
The team appeared to be pretty cautious with guys that may have had minor injuries or conditioning issues. Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Michael Campanaro, Phillip Supernaw, Will Compton, and Jack Conklin all missed at least parts of team activities over the last few weeks. Outside of Conklin’s recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, all the injuries have been described “minor” and Vrabel said that he expects to have the entire roster (besides Conklin) full-go by the start of training camp.
Davis and Matthews are certainly the most critical pieces out of the group that were held out. Davis participated in individual drills — and looked good doing it as you can see in the video below — but was held out of team periods. Vrabel said that “we felt like the best thing for Corey was to, at times be out there full-go, and at times not be” before mentioning that he’ll discuss the injury report when they get to training camp.
Both of those receivers need to be healthy for the Titans offense to reach its potential in 2018 and they really need a chance to get as many reps as possible with Marcus Mariota in the new offense.
Vrabel is smart to be cautious with the team’s health at this point in the offseason. The dirty little secret of the NFL is that outside of teams on the extreme ends of the talent spectrum, a lot of success and failure comes down to how healthy a team stays and how much turnover luck they get throughout the year.
2. The Titans secondary is both talented and deep
Tennessee added Malcolm Butler to a secondary that was already trending up and early reports indicate this position group could be the backbone of the defense. Butler has gotten a few rave reviews. One came from John Middlekauff, a former NFL scout who now covers the Raiders and 49ers for The Athletic. Middlekauff visited Titans practice recently and wrote this about Butler based on his observations.
I think the 49ers made a mistake by not signing cornerback Malcolm Butler. During the Titans practice I attended, he made a ton of plays.
Middlekauff also noted that Butler was the second Titans player on the field after Marcus Mariota, something that aligns with Jon Robinson’s comments about Butler being on the field running sprints at 8:00 AM the morning after signing his free agent contract. Butler’s work ethic and competitiveness are part of what makes him so good and it seems that the big contract hasn’t changed that.
The addition of Butler isn’t the only reason for optimism though. Adoree Jackson is heading in to his second season after a rookie year that saw him get better and better each week. By the end of 2017, Jackson was playing at a very high level. Combine that trend and his first offseason focused entirely on football without track or combine training (which is essentially track training) and you have a recipe for a potential breakout season.
In addition to Jackson, the remainder of the Titans starting secondary — Logan Ryan, Kevin Byard, and Johnathan Cyprien — all head in to their second year as starters. That familiarity with each other, even if they are playing in a new system, should help this unit function more consistently at a high level in 2018.
Not to be forgotten, LeShaun Sims has created some buzz with his play during OTAs and minicamp as well. His experience and ability makes him one of the best 4th corners in the NFL. Jon Robinson used Sims as an example of a player that he was proven to be right about during his excellent interview with Paul Kuharsky. That’s a pretty strong compliment for the 3rd year cornerback.
As a group, the Titans secondary dominated during team drills in offseason workouts. While it must be noted that they were often working against backup receivers with Davis and Matthews sidelined, it is encouraging to hear that the defensive backs are living up to their billing so far. That group has certainly come a looooooong way in the last couple years.
3. The offense is a work in progress
Given the zero sum nature of practicing against yourself, the defense dominating means that the offense struggled. Obviously, the absence of Davis and Matthews has something to do with that, but I expect the offense would have struggled even if they had their top two wide receivers healthy. The transition the defense is making from Dick LeBeau’s defense to the system that Dean Pees is going to use will be little more than a small speed bump in comparison to the complete overhaul that the offense is going through.
Everything about the offense that Matt LaFleur is installing is different than what the Titans ran under Terry Robiskie the last two years. The running game will be transitioning from a power-gap heavy attack to one that is primarily built about zone blocking and outside zone-stretch runs. The passing game will move from a vertical, down-the-field attack to more of a traditional west coast scheme featuring short-to-intermediate routes with an emphasis on getting receivers the ball in space with a chance to create after the catch.
Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback who spent last season in Rams camp working under Matt LaFleur, does a great job of breaking down this offense and what makes it different from other schemes. For one, the Shanahan style offense that LaFleur has been raised in as an NFL coach is one of the more verbose when it comes to the wording required to communicate plays. You can see some of that in this video.
The passing offense is largely based on timing and the reads are very structured compared to other offenses. Orlovsky describes the process of learning this offense for a quarterback as being broken down and then rebuilt from scratch. Footwork is critical as the wide receivers routes and the quarterback’s reads are all designed to be synced with the footwork of the drop from center.
This offense is not easy to learn, but it has proven to be quite effective once installed and understood by the players. The wordy playcalls allow for tweaks and adjustments to be made on the fly to take advantage of what the defense is presenting during the game.
There is a good chance that the defense will remain ahead of the offense throughout much of training camp as they continue to work through this transition. The hope is that LaFleur is able to get Mariota and the Titans up to speed as quickly as he and Sean McVay were able to get Jared Goff and the Rams ready last year.
Last year LA opened up the season scoring 46, 20, 41, and 35 points in their first 4 games. I wouldn’t set the expectation level quite that high for the Titans — after all, the Titans open with three of the best defenses in the NFL in the first four weeks in Houston, Jacksonville, and Philadelphia — but you should hope to see the offense start closing the gap on the defense by the end of the preseason. Now is not the time to panic on the offense.
4. Rookie first impressions
It’s very hard to tell much about the play of the rookies so far because of the NFL’s rules about what reporters are allowed to say about practice. For example, they aren’t supposed to say things like “Player X is working with the 1’s” unless the coach acknowledges it during a press conference first.
However, there have been a few comments about Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry that have stood out to me. Vrabel said Evans “is not where he needs to be to start for our defense, and that’s OK”. And that is OK, he’s only got about 20 practices under his belt in a brand new system with brand new teammates. That also shouldn’t be read as Evans being off to a bad start. Vrabel has praised how conscientious his rookie linebacker is and his presence in the defensive huddle.
Landry has been drawing attention on the practice field already. Kuharsky commented that he’s “been impressed with how much Landry is out there” in a recent periscope. The Titans second round pick has certainly seemed to adopt the right attitude as a newcomer to the veteran-led outside linebacker group as shown in this great profile from Jim Wyatt.
“I definitely want to make the vets here proud, and make the front office and coach Vrabel and all the coaches out here proud for selecting me in the draft,” Landry said. “So every day I definitely come out here and bust my ass because I want to definitely make an impact as a rookie and be able to help this team win a Super Bowl.”
It seems extremely likely to me that Landry will have a significant role as a rookie in this Titans defense. Again, we will know far more once camp gets here and information about where players are in the pecking order starts getting reported.
5. Marcus Mariota’s wider base
One of the big talking points surrounding the Titans most important player has been his focus on widening his base both in the pocket and when delivering his passes. Quarterback coach Pat O’Hara discusses the importance of a strong base in the video below.
A wider base should help Mariota get more zip on the ball as well as reducing the number of high misses. You can see the difference already. Here is a shot of him with his narrower base from 2017.
These two technical errors are related; driving off the back foot allows the quarterback to get on top of their pass and drive through the ball, which, as Coach noted, is especially important with "sit" routes and intermediate passes across the middle. pic.twitter.com/9RdxJY2LHL— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) June 11, 2018
Now take a look at the shot below and you can see quite a difference in how wide Mariota’s feet are set both in his drop and when he delivers the ball.
A look at Marcus Mariota’s wider throwing base here. He’s made a concerted effort to make this a staple in his game. QB coach Pat O’Hara said reps are the key to make sure it stays the same when chaos occurs. pic.twitter.com/GUXriYdW5q— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) June 13, 2018
Obviously, one example is from game action with 300 pound men chasing him and one is from a controlled practice setting with no rush, but the Titans are trying to get this worked in to his muscle memory so that it will be second nature by the time the season starts. Matt LaFleur, like many west coast offense practitioners, is a footwork fanatic and is largely credited with adjusting Jared Goff’s lower half mechanics last offseason. This is the kind of thing that Mariota didn’t have the chance to work on while recovering from his leg injury last offseason, but can make a big difference in a quarterback’s performance over the course of a season.