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From 90 to 53: A breakdown of the Titans roster as we head towards mandatory mini-camp

An early look at what the Titans roster might look like and who could find themselves on the bubble at the end of August.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The churn of an NFL roster never truly ends. Trades, waiver claims, cuts, and signings are constant as general managers look to upgrade every part of their team at all times.

However, now that the NFL Draft, UDFA signings, and rookie mini-camp are in the rear view mirror we can reasonably project that this is roughly the roster that will open training camp in July. So let’s take an early glance at each position and how things are shaping as we head into mandatory mini-camp next week.

Quarterbacks (3)

  • Marcus Mariota
  • Ryan Tannehill
  • Logan Woodside

Locks: Mariota and Tannehill

Mariota is set to start his fifth consecutive season opener for the Titans and we all know what’s on the line for him as he plays the final season of his rookie contract. Tannehill will be the best backup quarterback the Titans have had since Matt Hasselbeck.

Bubble: Woodside

After spending some time on the Titans practice squad in 2018 and then earning a starting job in the short lived AAF, Logan Woodside returns to camp looking to force Jon Robinson to keep three quarterbacks on the roster for the first time since 2016.

He’s off to a pretty good start so far. During his press conference following rookie mini-camp, Vrabel told reporters that Woodside and second round pick A.J. Brown “are here early studying and they stay late”, adding that he’s been really proud of Woodside for his work helping the rookies get up to speed in the offense. Drawing unprompted praise — the quote came from a question asked about A.J. Brown’s penchant for putting in extra work — from a coach in rookie mini-camp and making a 53-man roster are two completely different things, but I think there is a chance we see Woodside hang around if he has a strong camp.

Neither Mariota nor Tannehill have been particularly durable during the course of their careers and last season the Titans ended up forcing Mariota back into a game that he didn’t start due to injury because Blaine Gabbert got knocked out with a concussion. That’s how quick you can get to a situation where you might need to use a third quarterback.

Last season the Titans opted to try to sneak Luke Falk onto their practice squad as a third quarterback rather than keep three on the 53-man roster. That backfired when the Dolphins claimed him off waivers. Will they risk it again with Woodside if he has a good camp and preseason?

Longshots: None

Number Kept in 2018: 2

Running Backs (6)

  • Derrick Henry
  • Dion Lewis
  • David Fluellen
  • Alex Barnes
  • Jeremy McNichols
  • Dalyn Dawkins

Locks: Henry and Lewis

No real drama likely here. Henry is expected to enter 2019 as the unquestioned lead back for the first time in his NFL career. Lewis will provide a change of pace and should handle most of the third down work.

Bubble: Fluellen, Barnes, and McNichols

This is going to be one of the more fascinating battles of training camp to me. While the team’s RB3 is unlikely to have a big role in the offense from week to week, it’s a spot that will contribute on special teams and could suddenly become pretty important if one of the top two guys goes down.

Fluellen has been with the team since 2015 after going undrafted out of Toledo and bouncing around a couple other NFL practice squads. That actually makes him the 10th longest tenured Titan on the roster. To stick around for another season, Flu will have to hold off some stiff competition in the form of Jeremy McNichols and Alex Barnes. McNichols was added to the roster late last year, but was active for just one game and didn’t see any real action.

Fluellen is going to be tougher to unseat than many think. It’s clear that Mike Vrabel loves him and he’s drawn some praise once again this offseason for his work at OTAs. There is also the report from the “Updates from Titans OTAs” episode of the Official Titans Podcast that Fluellen has put on 16 to 18 pounds of muscle since going down with a knee injury last season. That would put him up to a Derrick Henry-esque 240 pounds. The weight add is fascinating because it would seem to suggest that the team asked him to get heavier this offseason. Are they going to take a look at him as a fullback or did they just think he’d be more effective at a heavier weight? I’m intrigued to see how he looks when camp opens.

That being said, I really like undrafted rookie Alex Barnes. He’s got the size, strength, and explosiveness to be a high quality runner between the tackles and brings a ferocious mentality to his carries. Barnes is also skilled as a pass catcher out of the backfield. His game reminds me a lot of James Conner and I truly believe he could develop into a starting quality back at the NFL level. This will be one of the storylines to watch as camp and preseason action get started.

Longshots: Dawkins

Dawkins out-performed Akrum Wadley in Titans camp last year and ended up sticking around on the practice squad for most of the season. I simply think guys like Fluellen, Barnes, and McNichols bring more to the table than Dawkins so I’d be pretty surprised to see him make the roster.

Number Kept in 2018: 3

Wide Receivers (12)

  • Corey Davis
  • Adam Humphries
  • A.J. Brown
  • Taywan Taylor
  • Tajae Sharpe
  • Cameron Batson
  • Darius Jennings
  • Jalen Tolliver
  • Cody Hollister
  • Anthony Ratliff-Williams
  • Kalif Raymond
  • Joe Parker

Locks: Davis, Humphries, Brown, and Taylor

Obviously, the Titans top receiver, one of their top free agent additions, and their second round pick will be making the roster. The real question among this group is how snaps will be distributed. Will Humphries and Brown rotate in the slot? Who gets the majority of the snaps opposite Davis in two receiver sets? If Brown turns out to be the NFL ready player that most analysts think he is, this could be the best trio of receivers the Titans have put on an NFL field since the Derrick Mason, Drew Bennett, and Justin McCareins played together.

Taylor was one of the guys that I struggled with placing in a category. While the additions of Humphries and Brown make it clear that the Titans aren’t exactly thrilled with his development, it would also be pretty surprising to see them cut their 2019 third round pick before his third season starts.

Before you say “but they did it with Kevin Dodd”, it’s important to note that Taylor, despite his drop issues and inconsistency, has been a significantly better pro than Dodd ever was. His per snap production has always been strong and his ability as a deep threat is still valuable, even if it’s on a limited number of snaps. Taylor also hasn’t started no-showing team meetings. The fact that he can contribute on special teams as well makes his spot on the roster pretty safe in my opinion.

Bubble: Sharpe, Batson, and Jennings

This is where things start to get interesting to me. Despite playing ahead of Taylor for much of the 2018 season, Sharpe lands here for a couple reasons. First, his per snap and per target production last season was absolutely awful. Out of 107 qualifying NFL wide receivers, he ranked 99th in PFF’s yards per route run metric while Davis and Taylor ranked 31st and 29th, respectively. Second, unlike Taylor, Sharpe has never been a special teams contributor and doesn’t have the physical skill set that would suggest he could be a good one.

It’s really tough for a team to keep a WR5 on the roster who can’t play special teams so I think Sharpe has to beat out Taylor to earn a spot on the roster. That is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near certain, especially with Sharpe heading into the final year of his rookie contract. I think Sharpe will end up making the roster — he’s having a really good offseason by all reports — but I’m not confident enough to call it a lock just yet.

I slotted Batson and Jennings here as well and I think it’s safe to say these guys are going to be in direct competition with each other for a roster spot. Jennings was dynamite on kick returns last season and that’s going to be the best route for him to make the 53. Batson offers a little more as a receiver, but must prove that he can be a difference maker on special teams if he wants to take this job. I have noticed Batson’s name coming up quite a bit during OTA reports for what that’s worth.

Longshots: Tolliver, Hollister, Ratliff-Williams, Raymond, and Parker

The Titans have signed a couple free agents here in recent weeks in Tolliver and Hollister, adding more competition for the final couple roster spots. I would be pretty shocked if the Titans kept more than six wide receivers, so if you agree with my locks above that leaves eight players fighting for a maximum of two roster spots.

Out of this group of longshots, I would give the best odds to Tolliver and Ratliff-Williams. Tolliver is a big bodied receiver who went undrafted out of tiny Arkansas-Monticello last year, but ended up sticking on the Cardinals practice squad and eventually getting some playing time after a late season call up to the 53-man roster. He also played some special teams snaps in Arizona so he could help himself in that phase of the game as well.

Ratliff-Williams is one of the more intriguing UDFA signings for the Titans (you can find my full thoughts on him here). He offers value as a return man on special teams and his raw ability as a wide receiver is intriguing. He converted from quarterback to receiver in college so he’s not the most polished prospect, but there could be some upside here.

Number Kept in 2018: 6

Tight Ends (7)

  • Delanie Walker
  • Jonnu Smith
  • MyCole Pruitt
  • Anthony Firkser
  • Parker Hesse
  • Keith Towbridge
  • Cole Wick

Locks: Walker, Smith, and Pruitt

Walker and Smith are obvious, but some may be surprised to see Pruitt listed here. My reasoning is pretty simple. With Luke Stocker in Atlanta via free agency, Pruitt is pretty comfortably the best blocking tight end on this team not named Delanie Walker. Blocking isn’t sexy, but it absolutely matters at this position. Jonnu Smith’s struggles as a blocker played a big role in the ineffective running game for much of last season. Unless Smith has made some major improvements in that part of his game, expect to see a lot of Pruitt on the field in 2019.

Bubble: Firkser

Firkser was one of my favorite stories of 2018. He was a back of the roster guy that I had to Google at the start of training camp when he kept making noteworthy plays because I had no idea who he was. After a strong preseason, he was included on the initial 53-man roster. Some injuries forced him to go down to the practice squad early in the season, but he was later called back up with Vrabel commenting that he just kept making plays for the scout team against the Titans first team defense in practice.

Down the stretch, Firkser became something of a third down tight end for the Titans and excelled in that role, contributing 19 catches on just 20 targets for 225 yards and a touchdown. Those stats included eight third down conversions and some pretty spectacular grabs.

Despite the production, I’m not 100% sure that Firkser makes the 2019 version of the Titans. He not only has to hold off challenges from some of the other tight ends — and it’s fair to wonder if the Titans wouldn’t rather have a better blocker as a backup for Pruitt than a guy who is primarily a pass catcher — but he also has to compete with the Titans keeping a third quarterback, a fourth running back, a seventh wide receiver, or a ninth offensive lineman as well. Firkser would help his cause quite a bit if he can demonstrate that he’s improved as a blocker during the offseason.

Longshots: Hesse, Towbridge, and Wick

This group certainly qualifies as longshots. Towbridge and Wick are both big, powerful blocking type tight ends which could make them more attractive if the Titans want a player like that on the roster. They’ve both been on NFL rosters before so they have some experience, but neither has ever played significant snaps.

Hesse is the guy that I’m most interested to see. After a successful college career as a defensive end for Iowa — 30.5 career tackles for loss, 13.5 career sacks, and 181 career tackles — the Titans are moving him to tight end. At 6’-3” and 261 pounds with pro day testing results that put him in the elite range among tight ends in the vertical, three cone, and short shuttle drills, Hesse has a very desirable skill set for the position and with two career interceptions as a defensive end, we know he can at least catch a little bit.

I’m not sure what it is about this franchise and trying to convert defenders to tight ends. First it was Taylor Thompson, then we had Nick DeLuca last year making the switch from linebacker to tight end during camp, and now Hesse will give it a go. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Number Kept in 2018: 4

Offensive Line (16)

  • Taylor Lewan
  • Rodger Saffold
  • Ben Jones
  • Kevin Pamphile
  • Jack Conklin
  • Dennis Kelly
  • Nate Davis
  • Corey Levin
  • Aaron Stinnie
  • Austin Pasztor
  • Hroniss Grasu
  • Tyler Marz
  • Jamil Douglas
  • David Quessenberry
  • Cody Conway
  • A.T. Hall

Locks: Lewan, Saffold, Jones, Conklin, Davis, Kelly, and Pamphile

This group is safe to me. Some may question Pamphile being included here, but I think his five position flexibility makes him a valuable utility backup even if he loses out on the starting right guard gig.

Bubble: Levin, Stinnie, and Grasu

I think Levin ends up making the roster, but I am including him on the bubble because the Titans might choose to keep just eight offensive linemen and there is at least some chance that he gets beat out by either Stinnie or Grasu for that final spot. I’ve mentioned it many times since the end of last season, but the fact that Stinnie stuck around on the 53-man roster all year seems to be an indication that the Titans like what they saw from him in camp, preseason, and practices. I think there is a pretty decent chance the team keeps nine here and that would leave room for him. He’s one of the guys I’m going to be interested to watch in preseason action.

Grasu is a former third round pick who has 13 NFL starts to his name so he should be given at least some consideration for a roster spot. His performance in those starts wasn’t great and he’s struggled with injuries, but it will be interesting to see how he looks here. He’s got the athleticism you’d like to see from a zone blocking center.

Longshots: Pasztor, Marz, Douglas, Quessenberry, Conway, and Hall

This group features some familiar names as Pasztor, Marz, Douglas, and Quessenberry all spent time on the Titans practice squad and/or roster last season. Conway and Hall are undrafted rookies who profile as athletic tackle projects. One of them might have a pretty good shot at a spot on the practice squad.

Number Kept in 2018: 9

Defensive Line (10)

  • Jurrell Casey
  • Jeffery Simmons
  • DaQuan Jones
  • Austin Johnson
  • Brent Urban
  • Matt Dickerson
  • Frank Herron
  • Isaiah Mack
  • Braxton Hoyett
  • Amani Bledsoe

Locks: Casey, Simmons, Jones, Johnson, and Urban

Considering the fact that the Titans have just four defensive linemen on the roster with real NFL experience — Casey, Jones, Johnson, and Urban — it seems like a safe bet that they’re all going to make the cut. First round pick Jeffery Simmons will likely start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he recovers from ACL surgery which means he won’t count against the 53-man roster, but he also won’t be able to practice or play for the first six weeks of the regular season. That timeframe sets up pretty well for a return to the field sometime in that Week 8 to Week 12 window that I think is reasonable to view as a possibility.

Bubble: Dickerson, Herron, and Mack

The Titans kept just five here last season, but they ended up carrying six for much of the season. That leaves at least one and possibly two spots available for these guys until Simmons is activated.

Dickerson — like Stinnie — was retained on the 53-man roster all year in 2018 and figures to have the best chance out of this group to make the team. He’s got some length and is a natural fit as a 3-4 defensive end.

Mack is an undrafted rookie from UT-Chattanooga who had a prolific college career, including a senior season that saw him post 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss as an interior defender. He also tested well at the UTC pro day, posting a 4.94-second forty, a 7.50-second three cone, and a 32.5-inch vertical. His size (6’-1” and 299 pounds) is a big part of the reason he went undrafted, but he profiles as a guy who could surprise in camp.

Herron was the most recent addition to the roster as the Titans signed him following his release by New England last month. The former five-star recruit has spent time on the practice squads of the Patriots and Seahawks last season and could get in the mix for the last spot or two in the defensive line rotation.

Longshots: Hoyett and Bledsoe

Both these guys have a chance simply due to the lack of NFL experience at this position beyond the first few guys, but I don’t like their chances quite as much as I like Dickerson’s and Mack’s.

Number Kept in 2018: 5

Outside Linebackers (8)

  • Cameron Wake
  • Harold Landry
  • Sharif Finch
  • Kamalei Correa
  • D’Andre Walker
  • Gimel President
  • Derick Roberson
  • LaTroy Lewis

Locks: Wake, Landry, and Finch

This is an interesting position for the Titans and I had trouble figuring out where to slot some of these guys. Obviously, Wake and Landry are absolute locks. Wake is coming in with a brand new free agent contract and still had plenty of gas in the tank last time we saw him on a football field.

Landry had a pretty promising rookie season and has put in a massive amount of work this offseason according to multiple unsolicited comments from Mike Vrabel. The Titans need Landry to blossom into a difference making pass rusher this year and I think there is a real chance we see that happen.

The surprise inclusion in this group for some will be Sharif Finch. If you’ve been around MCM for the past year, you know that I’ve been a huge fan of Finch’s game for quite some time now.

Between the promise that Finch showed at the end of last season when he started to see an increase in snaps and the comments from coaches about him, I think it’s safe to say that he’s going to have a spot on the 53-man roster. The only question for me is how much playing time he might get. I could absolutely see a scenario where Finch gets something in the range of 60% of defensive snaps in 2019.

Bubble: Correa, Walker, and Roberson

Correa and Walker are both highly likely to make the roster so I had them pretty close to being locks. The fact that they aren’t in that category is primarily due to the fact that I really think a lot of Derick Roberson as an undrafted free agent prospect. I covered my interest in him a bit here (along with Alex Barnes, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, and the since released Hamp Cheevers), but I think Roberson has a chance to steal a spot from one of those two guys.

Obviously, the team liked Walker more than Roberson coming out since they chose to spend a fifth round pick on him, but that’s not a big enough investment to make them think twice about keeping someone else at this spot if Roberson has a big camp/preseason. I think it’s very likely that Correa and Walker are your fourth and fifth edge rushers though.

Longshots: President and Lewis

President flashed a little bit during preseason last year, but ended up coming down with an injury before the roster cut down day, costing him any real chance to slip onto the roster. The fact that the Titans brought him back tells me that they at least have some interest here — and he was brought over from Houston after Mike Vrabel got the Titans job — but it’s going to be an uphill climb for him.

Number Kept in 2018: 6

Inside Linebackers (7)

  • Wesley Woodyard
  • Jayon Brown
  • Rashaan Evans
  • Daren Bates
  • David Long Jr.
  • Riley Bullough
  • Nigel Harris

Locks: Woodyard, Brown, and Evans

No surprises here. Woodyard continues to perform at a high level late in his career. This is his final season on his current contract, but I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t finish out that deal here in 2019.

Brown and Evans are rising stars in the middle of the Titans defense and could be one of the better linebacker duos in the league for years to come if the team can keep them together.

Bubble: Bates, Long, and Bullough

Daren Bates has long been one of the Titans core special teamers, but he will have some real competition for his spot this year. Sixth round pick David Long profiles as an ideal special teams contributor thanks to the intensity and instincts that he showed in college. Former Bucs linebacker Riley Bullough is a proven solid special teams player who also has some experience at the NFL level as a starting linebacker. Chances are only two of these guys make the roster so Bates will have his work cut out for him to retain his spot.

Longshots: Harris

Harris was on the Titans practice squad for most of 2018 and even got a little time on the active roster towards the end of the season. That being said, the guys above him all have far more experience (Bullough and Bates) or upside (Long) and that will make Harris’ bid to make the 53-man roster tough.

Number Kept in 2018: 5

Cornerbacks (10)

  • Malcolm Butler
  • Logan Ryan
  • Adoree’ Jackson
  • LeShaun Sims
  • Tye Smith
  • Joshua Kalu
  • Kenneth Durden
  • Mike Jordan
  • Kareem Orr
  • D’Andre Payne

Locks: Butler, Ryan, Jackson, and Sims

Obviously, the top three are pretty locked in as your starters at the two outside spots and nickel heading into 2019. It’s hard to see anyone breaking through to put one of those guys on the bench barring injury.

Sims is a lock to make the roster as he will finish out his four year rookie contract this year, an impressive feat for a sixth round draft pick. He’s a good special teams contributor and has proven to be an extremely reliable backup. The Titans are fortunate to have such a solid fourth option at corner.

Bubble: Smith, Kalu, and Durden

Smith seems to be the clear favorite to take the fifth corner spot. He played well in 2017 when he saw some real action towards the end of that season. After missing 2018 with an ACL injury that was suffered in training camp, he’ll be looking to hold off the guys that filled his spot while he was out in Durden and Kalu.

Longshots: Jordan, Orr, and Payne

These three would all be upsets if they made the roster. Jordan has spent a couple years bouncing around practice squads after going undrafted out of Missouri Western State in 2016. Orr and Payne are both undrafted rookies.

Orr is somewhat interesting as a guy that was once a Freshman All-American at Arizona State thanks to six interceptions. He finished his college career at UT-Chattanooga and won a spot on the Titans 90-man roster with a good showing at rookie mini-camp.

Number Kept in 2018: 5

Safeties (7)

  • Kevin Byard
  • Kenny Vaccaro
  • Dane Cruikshank
  • Amani Hooker
  • Damon Webb
  • LaDarius Wiley
  • JoJo Tillery

Locks: Byard, Vaccaro, Cruikshank, and Hooker

Byard and Vaccaro are locked in as the starters after the latter earned a nice new contract extension in March. Byard is likely going to get a new contract of his own in the very near future.

Cruikshank established himself as a core special teamer in his rookie season and that alone will keep him around on the roster. He fills the role vacated by former Titan Brynden Trawick. He will be hoping to prove himself as a capable backup on defense as well.

Hooker, the Titans fourth round pick, has already created some serious buzz at OTAs. He’s drawing great reviews and seems to be trending towards becoming the steal that everyone expected him to be coming out of the draft. He’s going to make the roster. The only question is how much he gets on the field this fall. I wouldn’t rule out a fairly significant role for him on defense.

Bubble: Webb

Webb is a guy that was a highly thought of undrafted free agent this time last year and he managed to stick around on the Titans practice squad for all of the 2018 season. That experience certainly gives him a leg up on newcomers Wiley and Tillery as they vie for a spot on the 53-man roster. Webb was a highly productive college player under Titans secondary coach Kerry Coombs at Ohio State and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him make the roster at the end of camp.

Longshots: Wiley and Tillery

Wiley and Tillery are both undrafted rookies who made it out of rookie mini-camp so the team has at least some interest in them. These guys are going to be competing with Webb for that fifth safety spot or the possibility of the Titans keeping a sixth corner instead.

Number Kept in 2018: 5

Specialists (4)

  • Brett Kern
  • Ryan Succop
  • Beau Brinkley
  • Austin Barnard

Locks: Kern, Succop, and Brinkley

No surprises here. This trio has been locked in since the team added Succop in 2014. Kern remains a Pro Bowl level punter while Succop and Brinkley are both solid.

Bubble: None

Longshots: Barnard

Barnard spent camp and preseason here last year and will be back for another run this year, though I don’t think he’s a real threat to make the team.

Number Kept in 2018: 3

The Titans are at 90 today, but they’ll have to get down to 53 by 3:00 PM Central on August 31st. Based on my evaluation above, I think there are 40 guys who appear to be virtual locks to be among those 53. That leaves 13 free spots for guys that are on the bubble or even longshots to come in and grab.

This is a pretty competitive roster at this point. To some degree, there is going to be competition for spots at nearly every position even if many of the starting jobs are relatively locked down. If I had to pick a way too early 53-man roster today, this is what I’d go with:

  • QB: Mariota, Tannehill
  • RB: Henry, Lewis, Fluellen, Barnes
  • WR: Davis, Humphries, Brown, Taylor, Sharpe, Batson
  • TE: Walker, Smith, Pruitt, Firkser
  • OL: Lewan, Saffold, Jones, Pamphile, Conklin, Kelly, Levin, Davis, Stinnie
  • DL: Casey, Jones, Urban, Johnson, Dickerson
  • OLB: Wake, Landry, Finch, Correa, Walker
  • ILB: Woodyard, Brown, Evans, Long, Bullough
  • CB: Butler, Ryan, Jackson, Sims, Smith
  • S: Byard, Vaccaro, Cruikshank, Hooker, Webb
  • ST: Kern, Succop, Brinkley
  • PUP: Simmons

I didn’t pick a lot of major upsets here, though I suspect we will see one or two before the actual roster comes out. I usually prefer to pick those after I get my eyes on these guys in person at training camp though. Who do you think ends up being the surprise inclusion or exclusion when the Titans cut to 53?