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From 90 to 53: Evaluating the Titans roster after the first week of training camp

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Taking an inventory on what we know about the Titans 2019 roster so far.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Training Camp Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

On August 31st at 4:00 PM Eastern, all 32 NFL teams will cut their rosters from 90 to 53. There are almost always some surprises on cutdown day. How many predicted the inclusion of Anthony Firkser, Cameron Batson, Matt Dickerson, and Aaron Stinnie last year? Even the day before the rosters were announced, you couldn’t find a single roster projection — including mine, I went 47 of 53 — that had even two of those four included.

We will see if we can do better here this year, but I mention that because it shows that nothing is as set in stone as you might believe at this point. There is plenty of time for players to make moves up and down the depth chart between now and the end of the month, but let’s take a quick look at where things stack up as things stand today.


Quarterback

Projected Starter: Marcus Mariota

Backups/Depth: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside

Some of the most encouraging news from camp to this point has been the play of Marcus Mariota. The enigmatic fifth year quarterback has been very sharp in practice by all accounts. The QB-controversy-that-never-was hasn’t developed into anything more than a figment of the imagination of a few despite generally positive reviews of new backup Ryan Tannehill.

From a roster standpoint, there is only one real question here: will the Titans decide to keep two or three quarterbacks on the 53? With Mariota and Tannehill both sporting checkered injury histories, it would make some sense for Logan Woodside to get a long look as a potential third quarterback. Woodside spent some time on the Titans practice squad last season and earned some praise from Mike Vrabel for his work at rookie minicamp, but he is going to need a strong camp and preseason to force the team’s hand to keep him on the 53 instead of trying to sneak him back on the practice squad.

Roster Projection (2): Mariota, Tannehill


Running Back

Projected Starter: Derrick Henry

Backups/Depth: Dion Lewis, David Fluellen, Jeremy McNichols, Dalyn Dawkins, Alex Barnes

Like quarterback, there is a very clear pecking order here with Derrick Henry expected to be the lead back — once he returns from a minor calf strain — and Dion Lewis spelling him and handling most of the passing down duties. David Fluellen has added some additional bulk this offseason to get his weight close to 240 pounds and prepare him for a role as the Titans primary fullback in addition to his special teams duties.

Those three are almost certainly going to be on the roster, but things get much murkier after that. The Titans only kept three backs last year so there is no guarantee that a fourth spot will even be available, but I’d argue that Fluellen’s shift to fullback — a role the team filled with a tight end (Luke Stocker) last year — makes it more likely that we see an extra back make the roster. After all, if something happens to Henry or Lewis, will Arthur Smith really want to lean that heavily on the remaining back and/or move Fluellen out of his role at fullback?

The current top candidate to be that fourth back — if the Titans do keep one — seems to be Jeremy McNichols. It’s been a tumultuous first two seasons for the former fifth round pick. He’s bounced on and off five different NFL rosters after being released by the Bucs — the team that drafted him — on an episode of Hard Knocks after a preseason filled with “too many mistakes” according to former coach Dirk Koetter. McNichols earned some praise from Mike Vrabel recently and offers a diverse skill set thanks to his pass catching ability. I still believe there will be an Alex Barnes push at some point, but for now I’d give that fourth spot to McNichols.

Roster Projection (4): Henry, Lewis, Fluellen, McNichols


Wide Receiver

Projected Starters: Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, Tajae Sharpe

Backups/Depth: A.J. Brown, Taywan Taylor, Cameron Batson*, Darius Jennings, Kalif Raymond, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Cody Hollister, Jalen Tolliver, Tanner McEvoy, Papi White

*Placed on Injured Reserve.

This might be the most interesting group on the entire roster. Corey Davis and Adam Humphries are having strong camps and appear to be poised to take on large roles in the passing game in 2019. A.J. Brown going down on day one of camp with an injury makes it hard to tell where he might slot in, but he’ll obviously have a roster spot as a second round pick just a few months ago. My guess is that we see Brown become the third “starting” wide receiver — joining Davis and Humphries — at some point this season, even if it doesn’t happen before Week 1.

For now, Tajae Sharpe gets that starting nod. He’s had a nice training camp by all reports — which is nothing new for Sharpe — so now the question is whether he can translate that to regular season action.

Behind Sharpe, but still very likely to make the roster is Taywan Taylor. The speedy-but-mistake-prone receiver continues to frustrate with drops, but what he adds to the offense with his ability to threaten the back line of opposing defenses is worth a roster spot. Taylor’s efficiency numbers when he’s been on the field and when he’s been targeted have been excellent despite the drops. Last season he ranked 27th out of 107 qualifying receivers in PFF’s Yards Per Route Run metric which simply measures how well a player translates opportunity to production. The players directly above and below him were Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin. I’m not going to suggest that he’s anywhere near the player that those two are, but Taylor is more productive than he gets credit for among the Titans fan base.

Beyond those five guys things get interesting. It seemed like Cam Batson was trending towards being the favorite to grab a potential sixth wide receiver spot before breaking his collarbone. With Batson on IR, I see this as a three player competition between Darius Jennings, Kalif Raymond, and Anthony Ratliff-Williams. All three of those players have experience working in the return game which seems like it would be a requirement for a WR6 on this team. Jennings figures to be the favorite given his experience and his excellent work in the return game last year, but don’t rule out the other two just yet. I’ve been impressed with both Raymond and Ratliff-Williams in practices.

Roster Projection (6): Davis, Humphries, Sharpe, Brown, Taylor, Jennings


Tight End

Projected Starter: Delanie Walker

Backups/Depth: Jonnu Smith*, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser, Cole Wick, Parker Hesse, Ryan Hewitt

*Currently on Physically Unable to Perform list.

Delanie Walker’s return brings some stability back to this group, but with Jonnu Smith remaining out while recovering from a torn ACL, it’s still hard to know exactly how the Titans would like for this unit to operate. For now, we are seeing Walker as the top option — as expected — with Pruitt serving as the top blocking option and Anthony Firkser coming on when the team wants a better pass catcher on the field.

Smith suffered a torn ACL on December 6th while blocking for Derrick Henry’s historic 99-yard run — it was reported as a sprained MCL at the time, but it now seems like that reporting was incorrect — and is still working to get medically cleared to practice. If Smith is able to return prior to the start of the regular season, it would seem to put some pressure on Pruitt and Firkser. I think both those guys can still make the roster even with a healthy Smith, but suddenly they’re competing against depth numbers at other positions as well.

Hewitt has some NFL experience and would appear to be the primary competition for Pruitt’s spot as the blocking tight end. We will see if he or one of the other tight ends can make a push in camp.

Roster Projection (4): Walker, Smith, Pruitt, Firkser


Offensive Line

Projected Starters: Taylor Lewan*, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Kevin Pamphile, Jack Conklin

Backups/Depth: Dennis Kelly, Jamil Douglas, Corey Levin, Aaron Stinnie, Nate Davis, Austin Pasztor, Tyler Marz, Hroniss Grasu, David Quessenberry, A.T. Hall, Cody Conway

*Expected to begin the season with a four game suspension due to testing positive for a banned substance.

Lewan’s suspension adds some additional intrigue to this position group. While he won’t take up one of the 53 roster spots during his suspension, his absence still must be considered when the Titans make their decision about who to keep at the end of the month.

I think it’s fair to call Lewan, Saffold, Jones, Conklin, Kelly, and Davis as stone cold locks to make the roster. Davis is included in that group simply because the team isn’t cutting a third round pick before his first season unless he’s a total disaster, which he hasn’t been to this point.

Last year, the team kept nine offensive linemen — with Jack Conklin taking up one of those spots despite being injured as the team chose to keep him off the PUP list — so that leaves either two or three spots remaining for Kevin Pamphile, Corey Levin, Aaron Stinnie, Jamil Douglas, and Austin Pasztor. The big question when considering who might get those spots comes down to what the Titans contingency plans are if either Kelly or Conklin were to go down with an injury in the first four weeks of the season. In camp the team has slotted Pasztor as the first team tackle when those guys have been out, but it’s also possible that we could see guys like Pamphile, Saffold, or Stinnie slide outside if needed. Saffold and Pamphile both have NFL starting experience at both tackle spots and Stinnie spent most of his college career as a left tackle before transitioning to guard with the Titans. I’ll be interested to see if we see any of those guys get some reps at tackle as a potential contingency plan if the team chooses not to keep Pasztor.

Roster Projection (9*): Lewan, Saffold, Jones, Pamphile, Conklin, Kelly, Levin, Stinnie, Davis

*This will only count for 8 during Lewan’s suspension. When he returns, I’d expect the team to release one of these linemen to make room for him on the 53.


Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Jurrell Casey*, Jeffery Simmons*

Backups/Depth: DaQuan Jones, Brent Urban, Austin Johnson, Matt Dickerson, Braxton Hoyett, Frank Herron, Isaiah Mack, Amani Bledsoe

*Currently on Physically Unable to Perform list.

This is another spot that is tough to truly gauge right now because of injuries. We know that Jeffery Simmons will almost certainly start the season on PUP, keeping him from counting against the 53-man roster numbers. Jurrell Casey is expected to be back before the start of the regular season.

The rotation on the defensive line is pretty clear among the players that are practicing right now. DaQuan Jones is getting most of the first team snaps at nose tackle with Brent Urban and Matt Dickerson flanking him. Austin Johnson also rotates in with that first group. Beyond those four it seems that Frank Herron and Braxton Hoyett are the next guys up with the second team unit.

Matt Dickerson is a guy that we should be keeping an eye on. He’s added some bulk since last season — jumping from a reported 292 pounds to 308 pounds this offseason — and was rewarded with one of the coaching staff’s four offseason awards for his work in the weight room. Dickerson has worked pretty high in the rotation so far in camp and has looked good doing it.

The team kept five defensive linemen last year and I think they’ll roll with five this season as well (not including Simmons on PUP).

Roster Projection (6*): Casey, Simmons, Jones, Urban, Dickerson, Johnson

*This will only count for 5 if Simmons starts the season on the PUP (which seems highly likely).


Outside Linebacker

Projected Starters: Harold Landry, Cameron Wake/Sharif Finch

Backups/Depth: Kamalei Correa, D’Andre Walker, Derick Roberson, Gimel President, LaTroy Lewis

The Titans have a clear top three at outside linebacker so far in camp. Harold Landry is set to be the team’s top edge rusher this season and is dominating the first team snaps at LOLB. On the opposite side, Sharif Finch and Cameron Wake have been rotating in the first team defense. All three of these guys are going to play a lot this season. Kamalei Correa is next in line.

All four of those guys seem pretty set to make the roster. The team kept six here last year so I would imagine that at least one, if not two, of the remaining guys end up making the 53. D’Andre Walker is probably the most likely given the draft capital invested in him, but I wouldn’t rule out Derick Roberson or Gimel President either. This will be a spot to watch in preseason to see if one of these guys can make an impact like Finch did last year.

Roster Projection (6): Landry, Wake, Finch, Correa, Walker, Roberson


Inside Linebacker

Projected Starters: Wesley Woodyard, Jayon Brown/Rashaan Evans

Backups/Depth: Daren Bates, Riley Bullough, David Long, Nigel Harris

The top three at inside linebacker are outstanding as solid veteran Wesley Woodyard is joined by rising stars in Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans. The snaps are already going to be stretched thin among that group so it’s hard to see anyone else really breaking into the rotation without an injury opening the door.

However, the Titans still figure to keep at least one or two more guys as key special teamers and depth. Daren Bates would be the frontrunner among the remaining group. He’s been one of the top special teams contributors on the team for the past two years.

Last season they kept five here and I would view Riley Bullough and David Long as the primary competition for that last spot if they keep that many again. I’ll give the nod to Long for now because of his upside and potential on special teams.

Roster Projection (5): Woodyard, Brown, Evans, Bates, Long


Cornerback

Projected Starters: Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler

Backups/Depth: LeShaun Sims, Tye Smith, Joshua Kalu, Kenneth Durden, Kareem Orr, Mike Jordan, D’Andre Payne

Like inside linebacker, there is a clear top three here. Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler form one of the more talented trios of cornerbacks in the NFL and figure to dominate the snaps on the Titans defense when they’re all healthy. LeShaun Sims continues to improve heading into year four. He’s one of the better backup corners in the league and figures to provide excellent depth again.

Tye Smith was largely expected to be the fifth corner last season before suffering a season ending injury in training camp. He’s picked up where he left off in 2019 though, starting camp strong and asserting himself as the favorite for that fifth corner spot again.

Guys like Kenneth Durden, Joshua Kalu, and Kareem Orr will all be trying to push for a spot, but I have them on the outside looking in for right now.

Roster Projection (5): Jackson, Ryan, Butler, Sims, Smith


Safety

Projected Starters: Kevin Byard, Kenny Vaccaro

Backups/Depth: Amani Hooker, Dane Cruikshank, LaDarius Wiley, JoJo Tillery, Jonathan Crawford

The Titans starters at safety are locked in with both Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro getting new contracts this offseason that will keep them here for several more seasons, but fourth round pick Amani Hooker is already pushing for playing time as a third safety. He’s a lock to make the roster and will likely see the field a good bit during his rookie season.

Dane Cruikshank figures to slot in as the fourth safety in the rotation as well as serving as a special teams ace once again. LaDarius Wiley appears to be the fifth safety right now and I’m going to include him here, but I could see them using this “extra” spot elsewhere.

Roster Projection (5): Byard, Vaccaro, Hooker, Cruikshank, Wiley


Specialists

Projected Starter: Ryan Succop*, Brett Kern, Beau Brinkley

Backups/Depth: Austin Barnard

*Currently on Physically Unable to Perform list.

No surprises expected here. The Titans appear set to keep the same trio of specialists they’ve used since 2014. Ryan Succop is currently on the PUP list, but Mike Vrabel indicated this week that he fully expects him to be ready for the regular season.

Roster Projection (3): Succop, Kern, Brinkley


Borrowing from Joe Lunardi’s “Bracketology” terminology, here are my “Last Four In” and “First Four Out” on my current projections.

Last Four In: McNichols, Jennings, Wiley, Roberson

First Four Out: Douglas, Pasztor, Raymond, Woodside

All of this can change rapidly over the next month as players move up and down the depth chart, but I think this is a pretty accurate representation of where things stand today. What would you change about my projected 53?