The Titans kickoff their 2018 preseason schedule on Thursday night as they travel to Green Bay to take on
Aaron Rodgers Brett Hundley/DeShone Kizer and the Packers. While it sounds like we will at least get to see Marcus Mariota and most of the starters for a series or two, most of the action will be carried by backups and players competing for spots on the 53-man roster.
Lots of these guys will end up on practice squads or doing something besides playing on Sundays this fall, but some of them could turn in to NFL stars. You don’t have to look far to find examples of unheralded prospects that turned their shot in to outstanding NFL careers. Josh Kline, Malcolm Butler, Wesley Woodyard, Will Compton, and Quinton Spain are all projected starters for the Titans who were once undrafted free agents scrapping for a spot in their first training camp. In recent years, late round picks like Jayon Brown, Tajae Sharpe, and LeShaun Sims have all impressed in preseason work and eventually earned contributing roles during their rookie season.
These football rags-to-riches stories are far less common than first-round-pick-to-riches stories to be sure, but they do happen. So while everyone is excited to see what guys like Harold Landry, Dane Cruikshank, Malcolm Butler, and Dion Lewis look like in two-tone blue, the players who see the most action will likely be guys that the casual fan has never heard of. Here are some of my favorites based on what I’ve seen at camp so far.
Deontay Burnett, WR, #80
Burnett has been a star of training camp, catching everything thrown his way and working himself open consistently. He won’t wow you with his size — 6’-0” and 186 pounds — or his speed — though his 4.70 40-time from the USC pro day is misleading as he was rehabbing from a torn hamstring at the time — but he’s a smooth route runner with outstanding acceleration and great hands.
During his final season with the Trojans he finished with 86 catches for 1,114 yards and 9 touchdowns which was good for Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors. One of the amazing things about Burnett is that he’s still just 20 years old and won’t turn 21 until midway through his rookie season.
Burnett is working almost exclusively as a slot receiver for the Titans, in the mix with veterans Michael Campanaro and Nick Williams. If the results are anything like what we’ve seen in practice so far, Burnett will be one of the busiest Titans receivers on Thursday night. He has consistently been a playmaker and has made some of the most spectacular catches of camp. He also will likely get a chance to return some punts.
Anthony Firkser, TE, #86
Did you know that Anthony Firkser went to Harvard? You probably will by the end of Thursday’s broadcast. He’s another guy who has really made some waves at camp. At 6’-2” and 246 pounds, Firkser is more of a move tight end/H-back type in the mold Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith rather than a hulking in-line blocking tight end like Luke Stocker.
Firkser was Harvard’s leading receiver during his senior year in 2016 and spent time with the Jets and Chiefs practice squads last season before the Titans added him in May. Firkser has been excellent in camp over the last couple weeks, consistently getting open and making plays in the passing game. He’s been rewarded for that performance with some first team snaps when Walker, Smith, or Stocker have had days off.
With the Titans release of Phillip Supernaw, the light of hope to find a spot on the roster continues to flicker for Firkser. I don’t think he’s taking a roster spot from Stocker because they are two very different types of players — if anyone is pressing Stocker it will be the newly signed Jermaine Cunningham or Tim Semisch — but the question for Firkser is whether he can convince the team to keep four tight ends on the 53-man roster.
Even if he doesn’t end up sneaking on the roster, I expect Firkser to make some plays in Green Bay.
Devin Ross, WR, #83
Like Burnett, Ross is a UDFA wide receiver, one of five the Titans added after surprisingly not drafting a pass catcher in the 2018 draft. He started camp quietly, but has built some momentum recently, even earning a stray first team rep on Tuesday.
Ross is undersized at 5’-9” and 192 pounds, but in a league where the best receiver is the 5’-10”, 181 pound Antonio Brown, being a smaller receiver is really not an issue. Don’t take that as me comparing Ross to AB. I only point that out to say that guys like Ross shouldn’t be written off solely because of their size. If you can get open and catch the ball, you can play receiver in this league regardless of height.
Ross wasn’t as prolific as Burnett was in college, but then again he didn’t have Sam Darnold throwing him the ball either. His best season came in 2016 when he grabbed 69 passes for 787 yards and 5 touchdowns, doing his best work from the slot. The Titans have mostly used Ross outside though, using his 4.48 speed to stretch the defense similar to the way the first team offense is utilizing Taywan Taylor. Ross is another guy that could see some work in the return game as well. It will be interesting to see if Ross can continue his upward momentum in Lambeau.
Sharif Finch, EDGE, #56
According to Spotrac.com, Finch got the largest signing bonus ($16,000) of any Titans UDFA which indicates that the team liked him quite a bit and there was likely hot competition for his signature. As a 6’-4”, 250 pound edge rusher with a 4.65 40-yard dash and a 7.00 second 3-cone drill coming off an 8.5 sack season, it’s a little surprising that nobody took a flier on him late in the draft.
Finch’s college tape is pretty impressive and he’s flashed a few times early in camp, getting pressure against the second team offense before going down with a mystery injury. However, he returned to practice this week and was quickly back to making his presence felt.
Finch is battling Josh Carraway and Gimel President for the 5th and likely final spot at outside linebacker. We will probably see a lot of all three of those guys in Thursday night’s game so it’ll be interesting to see who is able to separate from that bunch.
Rico Gafford, CB, #40
Gafford is another player that was somewhat surprisingly undrafted. For a league that is notoriously obsessed with speed, letting a guy that reportedly ran in the low-to-mid-4.2s during his pro day go undrafted is unusual. Gafford’s freaky athleticism aside, the guy has really made some plays in camp, including a really nice interception during Tuesday’s practice when he peeled back off his underneath receiver to pick off a pass intended for another target in the back of the end zone. At 5’-10” and 184 pounds, some of the natural questions that Gafford will need to answer in preseason will be how he holds up against more physical receivers and whether he can tackle in run support.
Gafford was really looking like a long shot until Tye Smith’s injury opened the door for a 5th or 6th corner to sneak on to the roster. Right now I feel like Gafford is 6th behind Kalan Reed, but he’s been headed in the right direction it seems. He also may get a chance to use that blazing speed as a kick returner on Thursday night.
Akrum Wadley, RB, #38
I expect David Fluellen, Wadley, and Dalyn Dawkins to all get a ton of opportunity in the preseason. We kind of know what Fluellen can do. He’s a big body, no-nonsense runner who gets what is blocked but not much more and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if he didn’t end up making it on the roster one way or another. Wadley, on the other hand, is a 5’-10”, 194 pound dynamo who, at times, can resemble Dion Lewis Lite with his ability to make quick bursts and contribute as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
At Iowa, Wadley surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground for two straight seasons while also chipping in over 300 yards receiving both years. He’s another guy that was a surprise to find undrafted this spring and while he’s been up and down in camp, he has seemed to flash a bit more over the last few days.
Wadley will need to either beat out Fluellen or convince the Titans that they need to keep four running backs on the 53-man roster by the end of preseason. He will also have some competition from Dawkins who is a very similar style runner to Wadley (and wears jersey number 39 which makes it really hard to tell them apart at first glance). I expect to see a lot of Wadley on Thursday night and I’m excited to see what he can do.