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Five things we might learn from Titans OTA reports over the next couple weeks

Phase 3 of OTAs starts today and that means Titans rookies and vets will mix for the first time in 2019.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Phase 3 of the Titans “Organized Team Activities” — better known as OTAs — begins today and will run three days a week for each of the next three weeks. Phase 3 is significant because it is the first time that rookies and veterans will mix on the field and we should start to get a feel for where guys are in the initial pecking order.

Of course, the most important thing about OTAs is that the players get their work in without suffering significant injuries. The news out of Washington this morning that linebacker Reuben Foster was carted off with a knee injury is a stark reminder of how quickly a season can end, even in non-contact practices.

That being said, there are a few things that I think we will have a chance to learn from OTA reports over the next few weeks.

1. Who leads the way at right guard?

The right guard spot appears to be the only “true” position battle on the roster as the Titans look to replace a three year starter who they released earlier this offseason in Josh Kline. The top options to man the starting job between Ben Jones and Jack Conklin are Kevin Pamphile, Corey Levin, and third round pick Nate Davis with Hroniss Grasu and Aaron Stinnie as darkhorse candidates.

Pamphile is the guy that I would expect to get the nod to start OTAs. He’s got 35 starts in his five years in the NFL and was with the Titans last year so he knows the offensive system better than Davis will for right now. When he signed here before the 2018 season we assumed that Pamphile was going to be competition for Quinton Spain at left guard, but injuries at the tackle position never really allowed the Titans to get a look at him inside before a season ending biceps injury halted his first year in Tennessee. After signing another one year deal this offseason, Pamphile appears poised to get a real look at right guard.

There is little doubt that the team would prefer to see Davis win this job before the end of camp though. He offers the largest upside out of this group and would solidify the right guard position through the 2022 season at an extremely cheap price if he can come in and be a quality starter from day one.

This position battle won’t truly take off until training camp when the pads come on — it’s hard to really judge an offensive lineman in shorts and helmets — but it’ll be interesting to know where these guys stand heading into camp.

2. How are injury recoveries coming along?

The Titans are notoriously guarded when it comes to any injury information, but we should at least find out who is doing on-field work and who is limited to a spectator’s role over the next few weeks. Here are the guys who ended the season on the injured list that we should be keeping at eye on:

  • Jack Conklin (knee)
  • Jonnu Smith (sprained MCL)
  • Delanie Walker (fractured and dislocated ankle)
  • Logan Ryan (broken fibula)
  • Jurrell Casey (strained MCL)
  • Tye Smith (torn ACL)
  • Jeffery Simmons (torn ACL)
  • D’Andre Walker (sports hernia)
  • Marcus Mariota (nerve damage, torn plantar fascia)

There are some pretty substantial names on that list, but given what we know right now — which isn’t much — I’d say that Simmons is the only guy that is in real danger of missing regular season action. I explored his return in depth earlier this offseason if you want to check that out here, but my guess is that we see him make his debut sometime between Week 8 and Week 12.

It should not be surprising or alarming if some of the veterans on this list — particularly Casey, Walker, and Ryan — are eased back in slower or given more days off than normal throughout the offseason. Those are guys that know what they’re doing and the team knows what they’ve got in them. Giving them some extra rest both helps keep their bodies fresh and provides some valuable reps for younger players developing behind them. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see where each of these guys are with their recoveries and how they look on the field.

3. What does the wide receiver rotation look like?

Staying late to put in extra work after practices, turning in a one-handed leaping grab in rookie mini-camp, and then following it up with this look at the NFL Rookie Premiere this past weekend has Nashville buzzing about second round pick A.J. Brown.

There are plenty of football reasons to be excited about the addition of this prolific pass catcher as well.

It will be interesting to see where he slots in among the Titans receivers in OTAs. I think it’s fair to assume that Corey Davis and Adam Humphries will be at the top of the list given their experience, production, and paystubs, but will Brown jump right in at that third spot that most assume he’s going to end up claiming? Or will the coaches make him earn it over guys like Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe?

Brown doesn’t strike me as the type to need any “extra” motivation — the guy was already getting in early and staying late with third string quarterback Logan Woodside during a rookie mini-camp where he was clearly the best wide receiver on the field — but coaches are very conscious of the messaging that they’re sending to a team or a position group when they throw a rookie in immediately over veterans. Based on everything I’ve seen and heard I don’t think it’s going to take long for Brown to stake a claim to that third wide receiver spot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Taylor or Sharpe got the nod for now.

4. What does the linebacker rotation look like?

The term “linebacker” has become somewhat nebulous in the NFL in 2019. There are linebackers that look and cover like safeties, linebackers that are really pass rushers, and there are linebackers that do a little bit of everything. The Titans are fortunate enough to have several players that live in this linebacker gray area on the roster.

Wesley Woodyard, Jayon Brown, and Rashaan Evans figure to split the two starting inside linebacker roles, but how that split looks is anyone’s guess. Woodyard is one of the leaders of this defense and is somehow playing his best football in his 30’s. I’ve been writing that “we’re likely to see Woodyard regress a little bit” for three years now and I’m tired of being wrong. He’s likely to retain a big role in this defense for another season.

However, the team also has two emerging young linebackers in Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans. You could make a strong argument that Brown was the Titans MVP in 2018 as he stuffed the box score in every conceivable way while seemingly making at least one massive play per game. Evans — the Titans 2018 first round pick — started slow after a nagging hamstring injury held him out of training camp, but finished red hot late in the year. Neither of these guys should be off the field very often.

So how does defensive coordinator Dean Pees balance this talented group? Is it Woodyard and Evans inside on early downs with Brown coming in on passing downs and bumping Evans to some sort of pass rushing role? Or is this the year that the youngsters take over and we see Evans and Brown dominate the snaps inside? Do we see any three safety looks from the Titans and might that include some sets with rookie safety Amani Hooker playing in a linebacker spot? I don’t think we will get answers to all those questions in OTA reports, but we might start to get some hints.

The outside linebacker rotation is interesting for a different reason. Cameron Wake was signed to help the pass rush, but at age 37, he’s likely to be on a somewhat limited snap count. Harold Landry played well in 2018, but needs to take the next step if the Titans are going to be the elite defense they want to be this season. Behind them are a mix of relative wildcards. Sharif Finch had a promising rookie season, but will likely be relied on for a much more substantial role in 2019. Is he up for it? Can Kamalei Correa hold off young challengers like D’Andre Walker and UDFA Derick Roberson?

The biggest question out of these groups combined is “who do the Titans have on the field on big third downs?” Wake and Landry seem like virtual locks to be lined up on the edges for most passing snaps and we already know that Jurrell Casey will be taking one of the inside rush positions. Who takes the other inside spot though? Is it Rashaan Evans? Sharif Finch? Is Brent Urban a viable option? I will be very interested to see what the Titans plan is for their primary pass rush combination and that’s something that we might start to get hints of in OTAs as well.

5. Will we see a “surprise” position battle on the offensive line?

As I mentioned up top, right guard is one of the very few starting spots that is truly an open competition heading into this portion of the offseason. However, there are a couple other positions in the starting group that could see a surprise challenge. The keyword here is “surprise”, as in I don’t expect these things to happen, but it’s not completely out of the question that they could.

I’m very much in the “Jack Conklin was actually good in 2016 and 2017 and he got screwed by being forced to come back from ACL surgery too fast in 2018” camp. The narrative that “Conklin was never a good tackle” is absurd to me. That being said, Dennis Kelly’s 2018 performance was really really legitimately good. Could Kelly perform well enough this offseason to make this an actual competition for the starting right tackle job? I think it’s at least possible. With both guys slated to become free agents next March, the Titans will likely be forced to choose between them soon either way.

The other spot that has an outside chance at becoming a competition is center. Ben Jones has been mostly average as the Titans starting center over the past three years. Could this be the year that Corey Levin gives him a real run for the starting center spot? Levin got some regular season game experience in 2018 with mixed results, but he’s an example of a guy who has very clearly shown progress during his time in Tennessee. With both of these players having center/guard position flexibility, this battle — if it becomes one — would have some spill over into the open right guard position battle, including a possible scenario where Levin starts at center and Jones moves to right guard (a position he has played before in the NFL).

Again, I’d say that we are more than likely going to see Jones at center and Conklin at right tackle when Week 1 kicks off as expected, but there is a non-zero chance that we could see Levin or Kelly mix things up a little bit.