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Titans Training Camp Preview: What to watch for as Mike Vrabel’s second training camp opens next week

The nightmare that is the NFL offseason is nearing its end. FOOTBALL IS (ALMOST) BACK!

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NFL: Tennessee Titans-Training Camp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We did it! We survived another NFL offseason!

Yes, I know that preseason is still almost three weeks away and we still have close to two months until regular season action starts, but I always consider the opening of training camp as the real beginning of football season. We will start to get real practice reports — you’ll be able to find those here — and real sound bites from coaches and players. Depth charts will begin to come into focus. Hype machines will crank up. Sleepers will emerge. People will wildly overreact to one video clip of one rep in practice.

The Titans training camp begins with rookies, quarterbacks, and players who carried an injury designation at the end of minicamp reporting on Monday. The rest of the veterans will report on Thursday and the Titans will have their first open practice for fans to attend on Saturday.

So what can we expect to find out at training camp?

Last year around this time we were about to find out that Kevin Dodd was not reporting to camp and apparently no longer interested in being a professional football player. We were also about to learn of the fact that Rishard Matthews was starting camp on the PUP list with a mystery injury that ended up costing him most of camp.

On a positive note, we were about to get to know the names of guys like Sharif Finch — though if you were reading Music City Miracles you had already heard of him — and Anthony Firkser. Two players who went from relative obscurity to significant contributors on the 2018 Titans.

Training camp is a beautiful time of year. It’s the time when all things seem possible for not only all 32 teams, but for all 90 players on each team’s roster.

For fans, training camp is about getting answers to some of the questions they’ve been stewing over ever since the end of the NFL Draft (and getting autographs). So what are some of the questions that we can expect answers to over the next few weeks?

How are injury recoveries coming along?

Injury information is sparse in the offseason, but here are some guys that we know for sure will be reporting Monday with the group that carried an injury designation at the end of minicamp:

  • Delanie Walker, TE (leg)
  • Jonnu Smith, TE (knee)
  • Adoree’ Jackson, CB (foot)
  • Jack Conklin, RT (knee)
  • Jeffery Simmons, DL (knee)
  • Dalyn Dawkins, RB (unknown)
  • Ryan Succop, K (unknown)

Obviously there are some pretty big names on that list and it’ll be interesting to get an official update on their status. There have been some pretty vague “reports” floating around that Smith, Walker, and Conklin “may or may not” be placed on the PUP list to start training camp. None of those reports were definitive though, and as I pointed out regarding the Walker situation last week, being on the PUP at the beginning of training camp just isn’t a huge deal. The designation simply notes that the player is not yet cleared for practice. When the player is cleared, they are taken off the list and can jump right in like nothing happened. The PUP rule that requires a player to miss a minimum of the first six games of the season applies only if they are listed on PUP when the regular season begins.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Jonnu Smith is one of several Titans whose injury status will be of interest to fans on Monday.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There are a few others that could be joining them as early reports due to injuries on Monday, including A.J. Brown, Jurrell Casey, Logan Ryan, and Anthony Firkser. Each of those guys have at least been dealing with an injury at some point during the offseason program so they could be asked to report early, though I think it’s unlikely that any of those guys miss significant time in camp unless they’ve had a setback during their time away from the team.

Mike Vrabel proved to be especially cautious with training camp and preseason injuries last year, often opting to sit a guy for an extra day or two rather than risking a setback by bringing them back early. He also likes to use planned days off to manage the work load on older players like Walker or “high power output” players like Corey Davis. Don’t be surprised to see the likes of Walker, Davis, Casey, Ryan, Wesley Woodyard, and Malcolm Butler given a few maintenance days here and there.

The only player that we know for certain won’t be available in training camp is first round rookie Jeffery Simmons. Based on the timeline of his injury and others who have come back from similar situations, I believe there is a good chance that we see Simmons make his Titans debut sometime between Week 8 and Week 12.

It’ll be interesting to see what the early injury prognosis is for each of these guys.

Which position battles should we be keeping an eye on?

There aren’t a ton of starting jobs up for grabs as the Titans head into 2019, a testament to the continuity and talent Jon Robinson has brought to the roster Tennessee. The team returns nine starters on both sides of the ball, with the departures being Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Quinton Spain, and Josh Kline. Out of those four, only Spain could be argued to be a net positive impact in 2018. Here are some of the spots that we should be watching as camp starts next week.

Right Guard

Let’s start with the most glaring battle. Veteran utility lineman Kevin Pamphile and third round pick Nate Davis figure to be the two favorites to land Josh Kline’s old job, but there are some intriguing dark horse candidates as well in Aaron Stinnie and Corey Levin.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp
Nate Davis is hoping to be a day one starter at right guard.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

I covered my thoughts on this battle in depth here, but the short version is that I think Pamphile should be considered the favorite. The Titans are in win-now mode and rookie offensive linemen — especially those taken outside the first couple rounds of the draft — are often liabilities early in their careers. Pamphile has NFL starting experience, is a scheme fit athletically, knows the offense from his time here last year.

Camp should give us some hints about how much of a position battle this will really be and where guys are in the pecking order.

Right Tackle

Its hard for me to really call this a position battle, because realistically this is Jack Conklin’s job to lose in my opinion. I don’t subscribe to the revisionist history going around that Conklin wasn’t actually good in 2016 and 2017. Even if you don’t buy the idea that he should have been selected All-Pro in 2016, he was among the top five to ten right tackles in the league both seasons by virtually any account, regardless of how much “help” he got from the offense.

Obviously Conklin struggled in 2018, but given the context, I’m not sure we should’ve expected anything more from him. He was coming off a torn ACL and returned just eight months after the surgery to an offense he had never played in before without the benefit of OTAs or training camp or preseason. Conklin was clearly not right physically after rushing back and he left the season with a new knee injury, one that he’s still dealing with as recently as minicamp. He needs training camp as much or more than almost any veteran on this roster so it is pretty important that he get healthy in time to get some real work done.

The Titans are fortunate to have the league’s best backup tackle in Dennis Kelly waiting in the wings if Conklin either can’t get healthy or continues to struggle. Kelly was a monster in relief duty last year, finishing the season as the 18th highest graded tackle in the league according to PFF. There is little doubt that he could step in and be a capable starter, even if he doesn’t have the upside that Conklin does.

If Conklin misses a significant amount of time at the start of camp with the knee injury, things could get interesting here. One of the keys to having a great offensive line — besides having five freakishly strong and athletic 300-pound men — is having great cohesion and communication among the group. Understanding what the player next to you is likely to do in different situations is critical to success up front. For that reason, it’s important that Conklin be able to get reps next to whoever ends up winning the job next to him. If he can’t be available, that would give Kelly a real crack at turning this into a contest.

Wide Receiver

The Titans enter 2019 in pretty good shape at the receiver positions for the first time in ages. We know that Corey Davis is chiseled in stone at one of the starting spots and we know that free agent addition Adam Humphries is set to be the primary slot receiver. What we don’t know is who will join them most often in three wide receiver sets.

I say “most often” here, because unlike the offensive line spots, receivers will rotate in and out throughout the game. This position battle is more about establishing a pecking order for snaps and targets.

The fan favorite will certainly be second round pick A.J. Brown. There are many who felt he was the best wide receiver in the draft and he’s certainly made a good first impression, spending much of OTAs and minicamp following Corey Davis around and putting in extra work before and after practices.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Will A.J. Brown make an instant impact as a rookie?
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe will certainly have their say in this competition, at least early on. Taylor’s speed and ability to get behind the defense — something no other Titans receiver has proven capable of with any sort of consistency — means that he’s likely to retain some sort of role in this offense. Sharpe’s role as a third down safety blanket is more directly threatened by the presence of Brown, whose sure hands and contested catch skills should make him a prime target on football’s most important down. However, Sharpe earned some praise for his work in the offseason and figures to remain in the mix here.

Watching where these guys slot into rotations during camp will give us a good idea of where they stand.

Who is on the roster bubble?

The Titans will have to cut their 90-man roster down to the “right 53” as Vrabel likes to call it by 3:00 PM Central Time on August 31st. That means that at least 37 of the players that are preparing for camp open next week will end up getting some difficult news by the end of next month. It’s the harsh reality of professional sports.

I put together a full 90-man roster breakdown last month and projected who I thought would make the final 53 based on what we knew at that point. There weren’t a whole bunch of surprises on my list — I wasn’t really aiming for a hot take when I put it together — but I’m sure that will change as camp opens up and players begin making moves up and down the depth chart. I don’t think anyone had Anthony Firkser, Aaron Stinnie, Cameron Batson, Matt Dickerson, or Kenneth Durden penciled into their 53-man roster projections at this time last year.

It’s really hard to project who those surprises might be because, as it turns out, surprises are often surprising, but let’s give it a shot anyway. Here are some players who are candidates to be surprise cuts or surprise keeps when roster cut down day comes.

Possible Cut: Darius Jennings

The one player that I got the most feedback about in my 53-man roster projection last month was me leaving Darius Jennings off the team. I had Batson taking the sixth wide receiver spot and kick return duties. I understand why some view Jennings as a lock. He did lead the NFL in kick return average last season, including taking one to the house in the season opener against Miami.

Jennings is a good kick returner. The problem — for me at least — is kick returners just don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, especially when that player doesn’t perform a significant role on offense or defense and doesn’t return punts. Jennings had 22 kick returns in 2018. That’s a little less than one and a half touches per game.

Despite his undeniable success with those 22 touches, the Titans as a team still finished 22nd in the league in average starting field position overall. The fact of the matter is that the NFL’s rule changes have marginalized kickoffs and kick returns to such a degree that even the best in the league can barely make an impact on the team’s overall success. To me, Jennings’ kick return ability has to be viewed as the cherry on top, not the sundae. If one of the other receivers has a better sundae, I think you go with them.

His primary competition seems to be second year pro Cameron Batson. Batson is a guy that I’ve liked going back to last preseason. His speed is elite — timed in the low-4.3s at Texas Tech’s pro day last spring — and he was productive in his limited opportunities in 2018. He has return experience from his time in college and he looked good as the pimary kick returner for the Titans during the preseason last year. Despite his gaffes as a punt returner on Thursday Night Football, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get another look there as well.

Ratliff-Williams is the other guy to keep an eye on here. The undrafted receiver out of North Carolina was electric as a kick returner in college and offers more upside as a pass catcher than Jennings. He reportedly turned in a few spectacular catches in OTAs, something that he made a habit of as a Tar Heel as well.

Anthony Ratliff-Williams seems to have a knack for the spectacular catch.

I’m leaning towards the Titans keeping six receivers heading into the season. That’s the number they kept last year and with a deeper, more talented group, it’s hard for me to see them deciding to keep less than that. The battle for that sixth and final spot should be a fun one and I wouldn’t be shocked if Jennings is the odd man out.

Possible Keep: Alex Barnes

I’ve covered my affinity for Barnes in depth here, but the short version is that he’s an elite level athlete who was highly productive in college and runs with a level of physicality rarely seen in modern football.

Barnes is a well-rounded back who can both run between the tackles with power and be an above average pass catcher out of the backfield. It’s hard to really get a read on running backs in training camp due to the lack of tackling that goes on, but he will be high on my list of players to watch in preseason action.

I feel like the team has plans to use David Fluellen at fullback this season — why else would they ask him to gain “16 or 17” pounds? Last year the Titans used Luke Stocker in the fullback role and kept four tight ends on the roster. If Fluellen is filling that role this year, might we see the Titans keep four backs? I think there is a pretty good chance, and if they do, I like Barnes as the best bet to grab that spot.

Possible Cut: Tajae Sharpe

I know that I’ll catch some heat from the considerable Tajae Sharpe Fan Club for this, but I really don’t think it’s an ironclad lock that he ends up making this roster. Let me be clear here... I am not saying I expect Sharpe to be cut, I am saying that it’s possible.

The most likely scenario is that he is one of the team’s five best receivers and he makes the roster as a rotational player. However, I say there is a non-zero chance of him getting cut — or traded perhaps — because he doesn’t offer any special teams value and for a guy that is, at best, the fourth best wide receiver on the roster, that’s less than ideal. To me, Sharpe is pretty clearly the fifth best receiver on the team. I think he will make it, but it might be closer than some expect.

Possible Keep: Derick Roberson

Roberson, like Barnes, is another UDFA that I’ve had my eye on for a while. He was once a top 100 high school recruit who started his college career at Texas, but injuries early in his career set him back on the depth chart and eventually led him to transfer to FCS-level Sam Houston State where he racked up an eye-popping 15 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 5 forced fumbles in just 11 games.

In addition to the prolific production Roberson brings an explosive athletic profile, running a 4.58-second 40 at his pro day at 6’-3” and 247 pounds. It’s fair to question the level of competition, but I can’t help but be intrigued by a guy with this combination of traits and production.

Derick Roberson has a fascinating combination of production and athleticism.

His ability to contribute on special teams — something that he did even as a full-time starter in college — only boosts his chances of sneaking onto the back of this roster. Roberson is among my favorite sleeper picks heading into camp.

What are the biggest questions that training camp and preseason might start to answer?

1. Who starts on the offensive line?

We’ve covered the two biggest parts of this equation above, but the Titans have two offensive linemen who are locked in beyond any shadow of a doubt: Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold at left tackle and left guard. They’ll need to find the best three to round out the starting five out of a group that includes Ben Jones, Corey Levin, Hroniss Grasu, Kevin Pamphile, Nate Davis, Aaron Stinnie, Jamil Douglas, Jack Conklin, and Dennis Kelly. Hopefully they figure out their best combination sooner rather than later.

2. Who returns punts and kicks?

The Titans have a mix of guys with varying experience returning kicks and punts. Darius Jennings, Adoree’ Jackson, and Dion Lewis all have NFL experience returning kickoffs with Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Kalif Raymond, and Cameron Batson bringing some college — and preseason in Batson’s case — experience to the table. Adam Humphries also has six kick returns in his career so he wouldn’t be a total newcomer to the role.

Punt returners with NFL experience include just Jackson and Adam Humphries, though Batson did — poorly — attempt to return a few last year. Guys like Raymond and Amani Hooker have some college experience with it as well.

I tend to side the group that prefers return specialists to be just that — specialists — not players that the team is relying on as key contributors on offense or defense. The changes to kickoff rules and improvements in directional punting has made it tougher and tougher for return men to make a big impact on the outcome of games. Last season saw the lowest number of both kick and punt returns per game in NFL history. Even when punts were fielded, returners saw the lowest average yards per return the league has seen since 1972.

The answer to this question has never mattered less in NFL history. With that in mind, I struggle to see the value proposition in risking injury to a key starter like Jackson or Humphries back to field kicks or punts. I’d much rather see someone like Batson or Ratliff-Williams take this job and run with it.

3. How much will Arthur Smith’s offense look like Matt LaFleur’s?

This might be the most important and interesting question surround the 2019 Titans. We know very little about what an Arthur Smith offense might look like. He’s coached in the NFL under a wide variety of offensive-minded coaches during his career, including Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey, and Matt LaFleur in the NFL and Houston Nutt and Frank Cignetti in college.

We do know that Smith is keeping the language of LaFleur’s offense, and based on the comments from his introductory press conference, it sounds like that’s the scheme that he plans to favor the most.

However, I’d expect Smith to put his own twist on things and I’m interested to see what that looks like. We should start getting some hints as training camp and preseason action gets underway.

4. Who are the primary third down pass rushers?

The Titans used a wide array of blitz packages to get to the quarterback in 2018 and were pretty successful with that. Tennessee allowed the 11th lowest third down conversion rate in the league — usually a pretty good indicator of effective pressure — and were 14th in sack percentage despite a set of edge rushers that really struggled to get home. Harold Landry led all Titans edge rushers with just 4.5 sacks and starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined for just 2 sacks total all season.

I’m sure Dean Pees would like to be less reliant on the blitz to create pressure in 2019 and I’m interested to see what his third down rush packages look like early. I would imagine you’d see Jurrell Casey, Cameron Wake, and Landry as staples in that group, but who is the fourth? I would suspect that Jeffery Simmons will become the answer to that question once he recovers from injury, but for now will it be Sharif Finch? Brent Urban? Rashaan Evans? There are plenty of interesting options, but I don’t know that I’d call any of those an obvious favorite.

5. Are the Titans going to give Derrick Henry a “bell cow” workload?

The Titans ended 2018 with Derrick Henry on fire, gaining 625 yards and scoring 8 touchdowns over the final five weeks of the season and causing me to rename the year’s final month “D-Henber”. All of the soundbites coming from the coaching staff seem to lean towards a plan to pick up where they left off with Henry acting as the feature back and Dion Lewis acting as more of a third down back.

It’s hard for me to imagine the Titans going back to a 50-50 split of carries after seeing what Henry can do in this offense once it started to click.

Will Kevin Byard get Jon Robinson’s annual Big Training Camp Contract Extension™️?

Each of the last two years, Titans GM Jon Robinson has opened camp by handing out a major contract extension to a deserving veteran player.

In 2017, it was Jurrell Casey signing a four-year, $60.4M contract extension on the eve of training camp.

In 2018, it was Taylor Lewan signing a five-year, $80M contract extension during the second day of training camp.

This season it seems that Kevin Byard is the player most likely to be hosting a payday press conference, though it’ll be tough for him to live up to Lewan’s.

It does seem to be Robinson’s preferred time to finalize big contracts and it makes a lot of sense. Giving a big contract to a player who has performed and gone about his business the right way sets a great example for the team and reinforces the notion that guys who work hard and play well will be rewarded. It also gives the team a chance to celebrate and come together as they get set to put in some hard work in camp.

Byard is as deserving as his two predecessors. He leads the NFL in interceptions over the past two seasons with 12 and has become one of the very first names mentioned when people discuss the best safeties in the NFL. Byard is also a notoriously hard worker and a leader in the locker room. At just 25 years old and a crystal clear injury history, there is no reason to worry about any decline in the near future. That’s especially true when you consider that Byard’s greatest asset is between his ears. His mind for the game and zeal for tape study will help him age gracefully.

Don’t be surprised if the Titans make Byard the highest paid safety in NFL history, just as they made Lewan the highest paid offensive lineman in league history this time last year. Spotrac is currently projecting a five-year, $70M deal ($14M AAV) with $25M guaranteed at signing and I think that’s about right.

The Titans also signed a couple other smaller extensions around the start of training camp last year, extending Delanie Walker for two more years and adding a team option year to Rishard Matthews’ deal. I think there is a chance that we see at least one more extension beyond Byard’s given all the contracts that are due to expire after this season. The top candidates would be Derrick Henry, Marcus Mariota, Logan Ryan, Ben Jones, Jack Conklin, LeShaun Sims, and Dennis Kelly. All of these situations are complicated for one reason or another, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t see at least one of these guys get a new deal. I just don’t know which one I’d say is the most likely of the bunch.

Five players I’m most excited to watch

1. A.J. Brown

Wide receivers, quarterbacks, and corners are the most fun positions to watch in training camp. Combine that with Brown being the team’s top healthy draft pick and you have a recipe for my attention. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s an odd mix of a 6’-0”, 226 pound frame with 4.49 speed and legs the size of tree trunks.

Seeing Brown work against the Titans cornerbacks will give a better feel for just how soon he might be able to become a significant contributor on offense. His tape showed a guy that had outstanding natural athleticism and feel for the game. I’m hoping to see that in action.

2. Adam Humphries

Excuse me for having two receivers at the top of my list, but when you follow a franchise as receiver starved as the Titans have been, it’s hard not to get excited about promising new talent. Humphries is just that. While he won’t blow you away with size or speed, he’s an extremely precise route runner with the quickness to separate in short areas. That skill set is usually good for some “oohs” and “ahhs” during 1-on-1 periods against the corners.

3. Harold Landry

It’s pretty hard to really evaluate offensive linemen or defensive linemen/edge rushers in a training camp setting, but Landry is one of the freakiest athletes on the team and that tends to show up. If I was handicapping the Titans offseason awards — the coaching staff will select three to four offseason MVPs based on improvement and work ethic shown over the offseason within the first couple days of training camp — Landry would be one of my favorites. Mike Vrabel has mentioned Landry constantly working out at the team facility and him having to be “kicked out” because of CBA rules.

He’s one of the most talented players on the team and one of the most important. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what kind of improvements he’s made since we last saw him.

4. Cameron Wake

I’m double dipping at a position again, but I think you’ll forgive me. Wake has been one of the league’s elite pass rushers for more than a decade now, and despite his advanced age, he’s still going strong. He’s known for his intense diet and exercise regiment that has kept him effective well past the expiration date for most pass rushers.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp
Cameron Wake is still terrifying quarterbacks at age 37.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Wake has finished inside the top ten of PFF’s Pass Rushing Productivity metric for the past seven consecutive years, including a second place finish in 2018. Call him washed up at your own peril.

5. Marcus Mariota

File this under obvious, but no player will have a bigger bearing on the success or failure of the 2019 Titans than Mariota. Heading into his fifth season there are still opinions about him that range all across the board and for good reason. Mariota has managed to show just enough flashes of prodigious talent to keep the optimist believing, while also being inconsistent enough that the pessimist can dig in their heels. His stats can be manipulated to “prove” both sides correct and so can his tape.

That’s what leaves me so baffled when it comes to this player and I feel myself arguing against both sides. I’m not the type to try to be first to a take. I don’t think there are any prizes for being the first on or off a bandwagon (if there are, please let me know). Even if I do have a knee-jerk reaction, I like to keep an open mind towards people’s ability to change. Marcus Mariota has changed and unchanged my mind many times over the course of four years and the result has landed me somewhere in the middle of this seemingly never ending debate about whether he is or isn’t a franchise quarterback.

What I do know as we head into year five is that the 2019 Titans represent the best supporting cast — on paper — of any team Mariota has had since coming into the NFL. I’m excited to see what he can do with it.