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What to watch for during Titans-Vikings

The Titans wrap up their preseason slate on Thursday with a few roster spots still potentially hanging in the balance.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The final preseason game is always a little bit ridiculous. Neither team really wants to be there and the few starters that actually suit up don’t stay on the field for long. It usually ends with some unknown running back getting 20 second half carries as the team tries to run the clock out and get on to preparation for Week 1 as soon as possible.

That being said, there are a few compelling reasons to tune in for this one.

Rishard & Rak Return?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans got great news this week when Rishard Matthews was activated off the PUP and returned to practice. For all the progress that Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Tajae Sharpe have shown over the offseason, Matthews is still the most reliable receiver on the roster. He’s led the Titans receiver room in receiving yards and touchdowns each of the past two seasons. Getting Matthews back on the field will be a huge help for Marcus Mariota and the passing game.

Vrabel said that they “might target Rishard for Thursday” which means there is a chance that we see #18 on the field briefly as he continues to try to knock the rust off prior to Week 1 in Miami. If he does play — and that’s a pretty big “if” — I would expect it will just be for a series or two at most.

There is also a slim chance that we’ll see Brian Orakpo get a few snaps on Thursday after he returned to practice for the first time since injuring his shoulder on the second day of training camp. Like Matthews, Rak is a steady, productive veteran who will be a big asset for this team as they get geared up for meaningful football.

Correa’s Debut

Chicago Bears v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Titans sent a 2019 6th round pick to the Ravens on Tuesday in exchange for linebacker Kamalei Correa. Correa is expected to play mostly as an edge rusher/outside linebacker in Tennessee, though he can also contribute as an inside linebacker as needed. He has the benefit of two years experience in a Dean Pees defense which should help him hit the ground running, but getting some snaps with new teammates in a live game setting could be helpful for the newcomer.

Derrick Morgan is still recovering from a torn meniscus and likely a couple weeks away from a possible return. To make matters worse, on Tuesday Harold Landry and Sharif Finch were both absent during the portion of practice open to the media while Aaron Wallace and Brian Orakpo were doing side work with other players easing back in from injuries. That would leave Josh Carraway and Tobenna Okeke as the top two fully healthy edge rushers on the roster. No offense to those guys, but it’s no wonder Jon Robinson felt compelled to make a move for Correa.

Even though Correa has played for Pees before, the Titans defense is unlikely to be exactly the same as what he was running in Baltimore. It would make sense to me for him to see a good number of reps on Thursday to help speed up his integration in to the outside linebacker rotation. Depending on the status of guys like Morgan and Landry and Wallace over the next couple weeks, it’s possible that Correa could be an opening day starter for the Titans.

Bubble Battles

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

This is normally the biggest reason to watch the final preseason game and it should still provide some interest despite the possible overshadowing from Matthews, Orakpo, and Correa. I feel like most of the roster has been determined at this point, but there are still a few spots that could swing on a big performance Thursday night. A few that I’m interested in:

  • Akrum Wadley vs Dalyn Dawkins: Will the Titans keep 4 RBs and if so, which of these two gets the nod? The wrinkle here is whether or not Wadley will be healthy and available Thursday night. He could use a good final impression before cut down day in my opinion.
  • Darius Jennings vs Deontay Burnett vs Devin Ross: We know the top 4 WRs, but there is at least one and possible two spots for other receivers to make the final cut. With Nick Williams likely to miss Thursday night with a hamstring injury, this is the chance for one of the young guys to make a move.
  • Anthony Firkser and Luke Falk vs numbers at other positions: Falk and Firkser are in similar spots. Both need to convince the Titans to keep an extra player at their respective position and both likely have some work left to do to get there. I actually like Firkser’s odds better than Falk’s right now.
  • Kenneth Durden vs The Field: Durden has separated himself from the rest of this competition over the last two weeks with his impressive play. I think guys like Rico Gafford and Joshua Kalu are on the outside looking in right now. Durden will have a chance to further drive his claim on the 5th cornerback spot home on Thursday.
  • Julius Warmsley vs Matt Dickerson: These two have blown by the incumbent DL5, David King, during camp and preseason. The question now becomes which one — if not both — make the roster. They’ll get one final chance to show what they can do Thursday night.
  • Robert Spillane vs Daren Bates: Spillane is a guy who has clearly made a big impression on Mike Vrabel during his time here. The head coach spoke glowingly about his young linebacker this week and made the comment that “loving football will get you a good, hard look around here”. That sounds to me like a guy who has at least worked himself in to the conversation at inside linebacker.

All of these guys listed above should see a lot of snaps against the Vikings (except for possibly Wadley due to the injury) and could certainly help or hurt their case for the 53-man roster based on what they’re able to do with those opportunities.

Will the Titans go winless in the preseason for the first time since 1997?

Steve McNair #9

Obviously, preseason records are completely meaningless, but the Titans haven’t gone winless in the preseason since the 1997 season when they played in Memphis as the Tennessee Oilers. Over the past five seasons, ten teams have gone 0-4 in preseason action. Three of those teams — the 2017 Falcons, 2014 Colts, and 2014 Cowboys — went to the playoffs. For what it’s worth, the 1997 Oilers finished the season 8-8, missing the playoffs. The record truly isn’t going to matter one way or another.

Another similarity between the 1997 Oilers and the 2018 Titans is that they were/are both quarterbacked by 24 year olds. The 1997 season was McNair’s first as a starter after sitting for most of two seasons behind Chris Chandler, but his stats from that season are startlingly bad. He completed just 52% of his passes with a yards per attempt of 6.4 while throwing 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. McNair turned out to be a pretty darn good quarterback, splitting the MVP award in 2003 with Peyton Manning, but it took time for him to get there.

Unlike many other NFL positions, quarterbacks don’t truly peak until their late 20’s. Even some of the best in the game today struggled through ups and downs during their early 20’s. Go check out some of the stats from Drew Brees and Tom Brady when they were 24 years old. Aaron Rodgers didn’t start his first game until he was 25.

My point is that it’s largely unrealistic for the expectation to be that a quarterback enters the league and becomes a year-in-year-out star before age 25. Those guys are extremely rare. Only Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck really fit that description among the current crop of NFL quarterbacks and obviously Luck has had his issues since that hot start.

Obviously, Mariota has far more game experience at 24 than McNair did at the same age and he should be held to a higher standard, but overall he’s still a very young quarterback and he shouldn’t be viewed as a finished product, especially considering the fact that he’s on his 4th playcaller in as many seasons. All Titans fans want Mariota to be great right now, but I would advise patience as he continues to learn yet another new offensive system and continues his development as an NFL quarterback.