We are under ten days until the Titans — and every other NFL team — have to cut their roster from 90 players to 53. As usual, there are plenty of guys that seem like locks to make the team and a few that seem like locks to get cut. However, it’s a lot more interesting to consider the guys in between that are still battling for one of those 53 coveted spots.
I believe there are 41 stone cold locks to make the roster on August 31st barring injury:
QB: Mariota, Tannehill
RB: Henry, Lewis, Fluellen
WR: Davis, Humphries, Brown, Sharpe
TE: Walker, Smith, Pruitt, Firkser
OL: Lewan*, Conklin, Saffold, Jones, Pamphile, Davis, Kelly
DL: Casey, Simmons, Jones
OLB: Landry, Wake, Finch, Correa
ILB: Evans, Brown, Woodyard
CB: Butler, Ryan, Jackson, Sims
S: Byard, Vaccaro, Hooker, Cruikshank
SP: Succop, Kern, Brinkley
*Lewan and Simmons will not count against the initial 53-man roster due to starting the season with a suspension (Lewan) and on the PUP (Simmons).
After removing Lewan and Simmons from the equation, that leaves 14 spots available for the 25 players below. It’s certainly not guaranteed that those 14 spots will be filled exclusively by players currently on the roster either. The Titans pro scouting department is currently scouring tape of other preseason games to see if there are any talented players on the bubbles of other rosters that they might want to pick up if they’re released. Offensive tackle seems like the most likely spot for the Titans to look elsewhere, but almost every NFL team is looking for tackles so they’ll have some competition.
Predicting who the team might pick up from other rosters is pretty much impossible, so let’s take a look at some of the guys currently with the Titans who have a chance to fill those 14 spots.
Logan Woodside, QB
Case For: The case for Woodside is simple. The Titans have two quarterbacks who have struggled to stay healthy up to this point in their careers ahead of him and both of those passers are playing on expiring contracts. The team is highly unlikely to bring back both Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill so Woodside has a real path to a backup spot in 2020 if he impresses this season and continues to progress.
Woodside was excellent against the Eagles, flashing an NFL quality arm and making some plays with his legs as well. Mike Vrabel and quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara have had nothing but praise for the second year signal caller’s work all offseason. Should the injury bug bite Mariota or Tannehill again, Woodside would be nice to have around to serve as a functional backup who already knows the offense and there is a real chance that the Titans won’t be able to sneak him onto the practice squad.
Case Against: The Titans have other players that they could use that roster spot for who contribute on special teams and/or have a higher ceiling at their respective positions than Woodside does. After all, if it comes down to Woodside getting significant snaps during the season, things have gone horribly wrong for the Titans season.
Woodside also came back to earth a bit against the Patriots, going just 4 of 13 for 72 yards, and while he’s clearly an upgrade over Luke Falk — who somehow got scooped up by the Dolphins when the Titans tried to sneak him onto the practice squad last year — it’s at least possible that they could get Woodside through waivers. After all, he was a guy that Jon Robinson found available as a free agent after losing Falk last season. There is little doubt Woodside is a better QB today than he was a year ago at this time, but I don’t know that he’s shown enough to have teams clamoring to claim him and put him on their 53-man roster.
Jeremy McNichols, RB
Case For: McNichols has been outstanding in preseason action, running for 57 yards on 14 carries while adding 3 catches for 24 yards and a touchdown through the air, and has done enough in practices to earn semi-frequent reps with the Titans first team offense. His rushing stats would be even better if not for a couple nice runs that have been called back for penalties that didn’t directly impact the result of the play.
The former fifth round pick for the Bucs has a unique skill set. He started his college career at wide receiver before transitioning to running back, but the pass catching chops still show in his game. He’s also done well in pass protection in preseason action.
There is a certain level of truth to the idea that you can find running back talent “off the street” during the season if injuries strike — think about what C.J. Anderson did for the Rams down the stretch last season — but McNichols’ skill set as a potential three down back is a little more rare. Additionally, if the team likes him as a potential Dion Lewis fill in, there is a possibility that they could consider moving on from Lewis next offseason — clearing over $4M in cap space in 2020 and 2021 — and plug the much cheaper McNichols into that third down spot.
Case Against: Some will likely take issue with me including Fluellen as a “lock” above, but I just can’t see a scenario where he isn’t on the roster. Paul Kuharsky reported earlier this week that Fluellen had a minor knee surgery, but could be available as soon as the Titans Week 1 opener against the Browns. Frankly, if the Titans didn’t plan on keeping Fluellen around, they likely would have already released him or moved him to IR to clear a roster spot since it sounds like he’s not likely to get back on the practice field before cut down day. It’s no secret that Flu is a favorite of Mike Vrabel’s and he has been earmarked for an increased role playing some fullback and H-back this year. He’s going to be on the roster.
That means that McNichols has to convince the Titans to keep four running backs, a number they’ve rarely carried in recent years. Given the limited number of spots on an NFL roster, it’s hard to keep a fourth back if that player isn’t a key special teams contributor. We’ve seen him get some run on special teams in preseason action, but I’m not sure I’d consider him a plus on those units at this point.
Akeem Hunt, RB
Case For: As a guy that got added to the roster midway through camp, Hunt came in as a longshot, but quickly grabbed Mike Vrabel’s attention. The head coach complimented Hunt’s speed and seemed very impressed by his outstanding play in kick coverage Saturday night. He looked pretty good running ball as well, rushing 4 times for 23 yards in limited action.
As mentioned above, special teams is the key to making the roster as a fourth running back and while I’d still be relatively surprised if Hunt made it, he’s at least earned himself a closer look in these next two preseason games. It will be interesting to see if he gets some looks as a kick returner as well. That’s something he’s done at the NFL level in previous stops which gives him just a little more value, even if he doesn’t end up supplanting Jennings as the primary returner.
Case Against: He’s currently RB5 at best when all the backs are healthy so it would honestly be pretty shocking if he made the roster. Similar to McNichols, Hunt would have to convince the Titans to keep four backs which is a tough task in itself, but he’d also have to convince them that his special teams ability is more valuable than McNichols’ running/receiving skill set.
Darius Jennings, WR/KR
Case For: Jennings continues to work relatively high in the receiver rotation, occasionally getting work with the first team group. However, his biggest claim to a roster spot comes from his special teams work. He led the NFL in kick return average last season, including a touchdown against the Dolphins. His ability to give the Titans good starting field position consistently and avoid terrible mistakes in the kicking game has value.
Case Against: Jennings only returned 22 kickoffs last year and the team does not use him on punt returns, so while his return ability is nice, it’s a pretty minor role in the grand scheme of things. How much is 1.4 touches per game really worth?
There are also other players on the roster that are capable of returning kicks — Dion Lewis, Kalif Raymond, and Adoree’ Jackson have all done it at the NFL level before — so it’s not like the Titans would be putting a completely unproven commodity back there. If the Titans believe other receivers are better on offense or offer more long term upside as a pass catcher they could decide that is more valuable than a better kick returner.
Taywan Taylor, WR
Case For: No player is deeper in the dog house with Titans fans than Taylor... BUT there are some things that he does well. No Tennessee receiver is better at getting behind opposing defenses — a valuable skill for an offense that features plenty of receivers that excel underneath like Humphries and Walker, but few who can consistently threaten vertically. Taylor also remains one of the better route runners on the team.
While the drop issue is certainly frustrating, I believe there is a lot of truth to the argument that drops are frequently overrated as a problem with a player. I don’t think he is ever going to become DeAndre Hopkins when it comes to making tough catches, but Taylor’s specific issue appears to be as much mental as it is physical. The body catching and unnecessary jumping for passes that could be caught in stride suggest some confidence issues for the former third round pick as he heads into year three.
Despite the drops, Taylor was one of the Titans most efficient passing targets last season. He led the team’s receivers in Yards Per Route Run, narrowly edging Corey Davis and nearly doubling Tajae Sharpe’s rate of production. Taylor also led the team in yards per target (again, even with the drops) and only the infrequently used Darius Jennings and Cameron Batson had better catch rates than Taylor’s 66.1% number (this is simply catches divided by targets, not the percentage of catchable balls that were hauled in). Simply put, passes to Taylor yielded better results on average than passes to any other receiver.
Taylor isn’t on an expensive contract either. His cap hit for 2019 is just $1M so cutting him in favor of another receiver doesn’t offer much financial relief. That means the question of Taylor versus Jennings, Raymond, or any other receiver ultimately comes down to who the better receiver is and I think that is clearly Taylor, even with the drops.
Case Against: The knock on Taylor is obviously his reliability. His inability to make contested catches and the frequency with which he botches the easy catches makes it tough for Mariota and the offense in general to rely on him in big spots. The reinforcements at the receiver position this offseason — giving a pretty hefty contract to Adam Humphries and drafting A.J. Brown in the second round — would seem to indicate that the franchise isn’t thrilled with what they’ve seen from Taylor to this point and it’s hard to blame them.
While he can contribute on special teams, I don’t think I would call him a plus in that department which is less than ideal for a WR5 or WR6 on a roster.
Kalif Raymond, WR
Case For: The case for Raymond is primarily based on his versatility. The Titans have lined him up in the slot, out wide, and at kick and punt returner throughout camp and preseason action. That kind of wide ranging skill set is what you would typically love to have in a depth receiver on a 53-man roster. His 4.3 speed makes him dangerous with the ball in his hands and, in theory, a potential deep threat for the offense to use in specific situations.
Case Against: The case against Raymond is pretty easy at the moment. He can return kicks, but not as well as Jennings. He can bring a much needed vertical threat to the offense, but not as much as Taylor does. That leaves him on the outside looking in to me.
Ryan Hewitt, TE/FB
Case For: Hewitt is primarily a blocking tight end and the Titans have used him extensively at fullback with David Fluellen sidelined with a knee issue. If Fluellen isn’t ready to go by Week 1, Hewitt could get the call to play that role until Flu comes back.
Case Against: The only real reason to keep Hewitt would be if the Titans A) believed that Fluellen wouldn’t be able to play by Week 1 and B) felt that going a week or two without a dedicated fullback on the roster wasn’t an option. I have to think the team could get by using Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt, or Anthony Firkser in that role for a week or two while they wait on Flu to get healthy. It’s hard to see them keeping five tight ends or letting Pruitt or Firkser go to make room for Hewitt.
Jamil Douglas, G/C
Case For: Douglas has spent most of camp competing for the open starting spot at right guard so it’s clear the team likes him to some degree. He’s got some position flexibility as we’ve seen him line up at left guard, center, and right guard at various points throughout camp.
Case Against: He’s just not very good and at 27 years old it’s not like there is a ton of untapped upside either. Douglas has been far too leaky during preseason action.
Corey Levin, C
Case For: Levin has arguably been the top performer among the center/guard group this preseason outside of Rodger Saffold and Ben Jones. He’s a guy who has shown steady improvement since coming into the league as a sixth round pick out of UT-Chattanooga in 2017 and I’m sure there Jon Robinson would love to see him develop to the point that they could move on from Ben Jones’ expiring contract after this season and make Levin the starting center for 2020 and possibly beyond.
Levin has drawn praise from Vrabel for his improved knowledge of the game and ability to get the offensive line in the right protections during camp. I don’t think the Titans would be in bad shape if Levin had to start some games at center.
Case Against: Mike Vrabel has commented recently about Levin being a center “who needs to have the ability to play guard” which suggests that he’s not completely happy with his ability to slide outside to guard currently. Positional flexibility is critical for the offensive linemen vying for the OL7, OL8, or OL9 spots like Levin and it seems like the team views Douglas as more flexible right now.
Austin Pasztor, T/G
Case For: The Titans need a backup tackle to serve behind Dennis Kelly and Jack Conklin for the first four weeks while Taylor Lewan serves his suspension. Austin Pasztor is theoretically a tackle. He also has gotten some work inside at right guard so he offers some flexibility there.
Tyler Marz, T/G
Case For: The Titans are undefeated with Marz in the starting lineup (1-0). Tackle wins!
Aaron Stinnie, G
Case For: Stinnie spent all of last season on the 53 man roster after going undrafted out of James Madison. Offseason comments from Mike Vrabel, Taylor Lewan, and others paint the picture of Stinnie as a quick study who is always on his P’s and Q’s in the classroom.
In preseason action he’s mostly avoided disaster, allowing just one pressure on forty pass blocking snaps and grading out above average in the run game.
Case Against: While Stinnie has mostly avoided being noticed in a bad way during the preseason, he’s also failed to be noticed in a good way. Worse, he’s not pushed his way into the conversation for what is a very open right guard competition, remaining exclusively with the second team offensive line unit since a one day cameo with the ones early in camp. Stinnie also hasn’t gotten any work at center so position flexibility isn’t working in his favor here either.
Isaiah Mack, DL
Case For: Mack has become a preseason fan favorite thanks to several impressive splash plays, including a sack against the Patriots last weekend. The UDFA from UT-Chattanooga was a productive college player, tallying 8.5 sacks as an interior defensive lineman during his senior season.
His size and skill set hint at shades of Jurrell Casey — that’s a big comparison and to be clear, I’m certainly not saying that he is going to become anywhere near the player that Casey is. However, the flashes of ability to get to the quarterback from the interior of the defensive line make him intriguing as a developmental prospect.
Case Against: Mack might get caught in a bit of a numbers game. Outside of Casey and Jones — and Simmons, who should start the season on PUP barring a big surprise in his recovery from ACL surgery — the Titans have a handful of options on the defensive line. Each one brings a little something different to the table.
It will be tough to justify keeping too many “extra” defensive linemen on the roster. It’s a position that isn’t generally very good on special teams, and the Titans usually only have two or three defensive lineman, at most, on the field at the same time. Strong camps from Urban, Johnson, and Dickerson will make this a tougher climb for Mack than the preseason performances might suggest.
Amani Bledsoe, DL/EDGE
Case For: Bledsoe has attracted the eye of the Titans coaching staff in camp, rising to earn first team reps last week in both practices and the preseason game. He flashed a little bit during the team’s first preseason game against the Eagles, grading out as the team’s top defender according to PFF.
One of the big selling points for Bledsoe is his ability to play some snaps as an edge rusher, particularly in nickel fronts. The Titans haven’t gotten a fifth outside linebacker to emerge just yet, so Bledsoe could function a bit as a hybrid defensive end. He also just happens to be one of the youngest players on the roster at just 21 years old, so there could be some upside to be developed here.
Case Against: While he played well against the Eagles in preseason Week 1, he struggled a bit when given first team reps against the Patriots. Like Mack, Bledsoe finds himself in a bit of a numbers crunch on the defensive line. Can he beat out one of Johnson, Urban, or Dickerson along with Mack for a spot or force the team to keep six here?
Austin Johnson, DL
Case For: Take the disappointment of where he was drafted out of the equation here. Johnson clearly hasn’t lived up to his billing as a 2016 second round pick, but that’s water under the bridge at this point. All that matters today is whether he’s one of the five best defensive linemen on the team.
After a disappointing 2018, Johnson has seemingly bounced back, putting together a strong training camp and has drawn praise from Mike Vrabel for the steps he’s taken this offseason. As much as I like Mack and Bledsoe, I don’t think they’ve done enough to pass Johnson on the depth chart.
Case Against: If things were close between Johnson and a guy like Mack or Bledsoe, the Titans could save a little bit of cap space — roughly $1M — if they were to keep one of them over the former Nittany Lion. Heading into year four, it seems unlikely that we are in for a huge leap in performance, so if you can get an adequate fill in from a cheaper player with more upside it could be worth making the move.
Brent Urban, DL
Case For: Urban knows Dean Pees’ defense after playing under him for the majority of his career with the Ravens. He rejoined his old mentor in Nashville this offseason and brings a little different skill set to the table on the Titans defensive line. His outstanding length at 6’-7” tall helps him be a menace to opposing quarterback passing lanes as he demonstrated during practice sessions with the Patriots. Getting tipped or batted balls at the line of scrimmage is an undersold element of playing defensive line and he’s good at it.
Case Against: It would be a pretty big shock if the Titans didn’t end up keeping Urban, but it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility. His contract only has $250,000 of guaranteed money so it’s not like the team is financially committed to keeping him.
I think Urban is too good a fit on this defensive front to leave off the roster, but if the team is trying to get Mack and/or Bledsoe on the 53, he could be a surprise casualty.
Matt Dickerson, DL
Case For: Dickerson made the initial 53-man roster last year and stuck around all season after going undrafted out of UCLA. Heading into year two, he’s added about 16 pounds to his 6’-5” frame and earned one of the coach’s offseason awards for his work getting ready for the season.
He’s also put together a nice preseason and earned some reps with the first team defense at times throughout camp.
Case Against: Dickerson isn’t as experience as guys like Johnson or Urban on the defensive line and he has some competition from this year’s UDFA class in Mack and Bledsoe. If the Titans coaching staff believes those young guys can provide more upside than Dickerson, he could find himself an odd man out.
Derick Roberson, OLB
Case For: After losing fifth round pick D’Andre Walker to a season ending injury, this position group got a little thin. Harold Landry, Cameron Wake, Sharif Finch, and Kamalei Correa seem like locks, but after that things get dicey. This team kept six outside linebackers initially last year, so I think it’s fair to say they’d like to keep more than four around this year.
Roberson hasn’t done much in his preseason snaps, but he’s flashed at practice a few times and has gotten some work with the second team defense. He’s also a guy who can contribute on special teams which would be an important role for a fifth outside linebacker on this roster.
Case Against: Roberson has been virtually invisible in two preseason games despite plenty of snaps in each. The Titans can also get some edge snaps from a guy like Bledsoe (if he makes the roster) or Rashaan Evans if they needed to in a pinch which helps ease the number they need to keep at outside linebacker.
Daren Bates, ILB
Case For: Bates has been core special teams player for the Titans each of the last two seasons, finishing second in special teams snaps in 2017 behind Brynden Trawick and then leading the team in 2018. The addition of those two players in free agency before the 2017 helped transform a special teams unit that had been among the very worst in the NFL into a top half of the league type unit. The 2018 Titans finished eighth in PFF’s special teams rankings.
Special teams play matters and Bates has been a big part of a noticeable improvement in the third phase. While you’d certainly rather not have to use him at linebacker, his experience level helps him, particularly when the other options at inside linebacker behind Evans, Brown, and Woodyard are mostly raw, young players who have little to no NFL game reps under their belts.
Case Against: Bates isn’t very good as a backup linebacker and ran into some off the field issues this summer when he got charged with marijuana possession in Sumner County. That’s obviously not something that rises to the level of a cut-worthy offense, even for a fringe roster guy, but I’m sure the team wasn’t thrilled with it.
The other good reason for the team to consider moving on from Bates is his cap charge. He’s set to count $2.4M against the salary cap for the 2019 season, but the Titans could save roughly $1.5M if they decided to keep other players on the bubble.
David Long, ILB
Case For: I think Long is going to make the roster. Generally draft picks — even late round ones — get a longer leash than others when it comes to developing. I don’t think the former Mountaineer is ready to be put in a spot where he might be forced to play a lot of defensive snaps, but he could help the team right away on special teams thanks to his instincts and open field tackling ability.
Those instincts earned Long some praise from Vrabel this week, particularly when it comes to his work on special teams. My guess is that both Long and Bates end up making it, but Long’s cheap four year contract is an attractive asset if the Titans believe he can turn into a high quality special teams player in the near term.
Case Against: Its hard to make a case against Long, but if I had to, I’d point out that he’s pretty raw as a linebacker. While he flashes around the ball a lot on defense, he’s a little on the reckless side of things when it comes to his approach. If the Titans were to run into injury problems at the position, I suspect that opposing offenses would target Long aggressively right away.
Tye Smith, CB
Case For: Smith was pretty good in spot duty during the 2017 season and was set to make the roster last season before a training camp injury ended his season before it began. The long, physical corner has had a nice camp and, like a few others on this list, benefits from a strong background in special teams work.
The Titans signed him to a one-year contract earlier this offseason to keep him around rather than letting him test restricted free agency so it’s clear the team likes him. He’s regularly worked with LeShaun Sims as the primary corners for the second team defensive unit in camp and preseason.
Case Against: If the Titans keep Sims and Smith as their CB4 and CB5 on the roster, they’ll enter 2019 with just two of their top five corners signed past the end of the season (Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson). Keeping a younger player like the two I’m about to bring up, could give them more long term stability at the back end of this position group.
Kareem Orr, CB
Case For: Orr has had a very impressive camp after earning a spot on the 90-man roster as a tryout player at rookie mini-camp. He’s frequently made plays on the ball and generally looks like he belongs on an NFL roster.
A highly touted recruit coming out of high school, Orr got on the field early at Arizona State, registering 6 interceptions as a true freshman. He transferred to UT-Chattanooga to be closer to family for his junior and senior years, eventually finishing with 12 career interceptions after tacking on 4 as a senior at UTC. The ball skills that helped him force turnovers in college have translated to the NFL practice field as Orr has frequently been seen making plays on passes in camp.
There is another upside to keeping Orr on the roster. As an undrafted player, he would be signed to a standard entry level contract for a non-draft pick, essentially making the league minimum for three years before reaching restricted free agency in year four. It’s a very team friendly deal with little in the way of guaranteed money.
Case Against: Orr is the least experienced of the top seven options at cornerback and he hasn’t really gotten significant snaps on special teams during the preseason, something you’d expect to be a must if a guy is going to be the fifth or sixth corner on an NFL roster. The two guys he’s directly in competition with — Smith and Durden — both have gotten more work with the top special teams units.
Orr has been good in camp, but I am pretty sure the Titans could get him through waivers onto the practice squad. That’s ideally the spot that I think he winds up for them.
Kenneth Durden, CB
Case For: Durden has good length and has been with the Titans since last year’s training camp so he knows the defense. Along with the other corners competing for this spot, he’s had a nice camp even if his name doesn’t draw as much buzz as a younger guy like Orr.
Durden has graded out as the Titans top special teams player through the first two preseason games and his tough, physical style of play suits work in that phase perfectly.
Case Against: At 27 years old, Durden isn’t likely to reach much higher than his current level of play moving forward.
Joshua Kalu, S/CB
Case For: Versatility. Kalu has played both corner and safety for the Titans since arriving as an undrafted rookie last year. Being able to serve as depth at multiple positions is a huge plus for his case to make the 53-man roster.
He’s also got some special teams value, grading out as the Titans third best teams player behind Durden and running back Akeem Hunt so far this preseason.
Case Against: Kalu has struggled a little bit in coverage during preseason action. It’s a small sample size, but he may need to flash a little more on the back end of the next two exhibition games.
LaDarius Wiley, S/CB
Case For: The undrafted rookie from Vandy has been solid in camp and preseason action and seems to be making the most of his opportunity to learn under Byard and Vaccaro. Like the other UDFAs on this list, he would be cheap and under team control for a long time if the Titans believe he’s a potential contributor moving forward.
Case Against: He doesn’t offer the versatility of some of the safeties above him on the depth chart and hasn’t been given a lot of opportunities on special teams in preseason action.
I realize I probably sounded like a broken record talking about special teams in each of those blurbs above, but there is a reason for that. These guys are all fighting for spots on the back of the roster and those spots are almost always players that need to contribute on special teams to take that burden off your starters on offense and defense. Teams can only have 46 active players on game days so versatility is crucial as well.
Out of this group, I think the “safest” are Brent Urban, Austin Johnson, Matt Dickerson, Tye Smith, Darius Jennings, and David Long. Most of these guys could be considered locks depending on who you ask, but I felt there was at least enough ambiguity to list here.
The Titans have particularly tough decisions to make on the defensive line and at cornerback, where I believe they’ve got more roster-worthy players than they have open roster spots. On the other end of that spectrum are the offensive line and outside linebacker positions. Those are two spots that I could see Jon Robinson shopping for in the waiver market after other teams begin to cut their rosters down.