I don’t want to alarm you, but we have a real(ish) football game to talk about.
The 2019 Tennessee Titans will hit the field in Philadelphia to take on the Eagles Thursday night at 6:30 Central Time for their first of four preseason games. Last year’s preseason opener against the Packers featured just one drive for Marcus Mariota and the starters on offense and I would expect the top unit to get a similar amount of work in this game.
A few guys that we know we won’t see are Jeffery Simmons, Jurrell Casey, Jonnu Smith, and Ryan Succop who all remain on the PUP list. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown also fall into that category. Neither player has returned to practice since going down with injuries during the very first practice of camp — though Brown, in particular, seems close to coming back — and it would be irresponsible to just toss them out there in a preseason game without any build up on the practice fields.
Players who have sat out recent practices this week like David Fluellen, Frank Herron, Nate Davis, D’Andre Walker, and Derick Roberson and older vets like Cameron Wake, Delanie Walker, Rodger Saffold, and Wesley Woodyard could sit out as well. While the live reps are valuable to the young guys in this group like Davis, Walker, and Roberson, the team is better off focusing on getting those guys healthy so they can return to full participation as soon as possible.
This won’t be the game to make snap decisions about how good the team is going to be this season (though I know that won’t stop the overreaction train from leaving the station). A good way to put this into perspective is to think about the Titans first drive of the 2018 preseason against the Packers. Marcus Mariota and the first team offense marched down the field and scored a quick touchdown on a nine play drive keyed by a 38-yard reception by Nick Williams and a 4-yard touchdown reception by Darius Jennings. Williams ended up getting released by the Titans mid-season after failing to make even one reception in regular season action and Jennings finished the year without a single regular season touchdown catch. That preseason drive was most certainly not a preview of what was to come for the 2018 season and we shouldn’t assume that this year’s first drive will be either (good or bad).
The main goal of preseason work should always be to have a clean operation with minimal mental mistakes, and most importantly, get out healthy. Beyond that, coaches want to see if players can take the things they’ve been working on in practice and meeting rooms and translate them in a game situation. It can be a good opportunity for players deeper on the roster to grab some attention and build a case for a spot among the 53.
With that in mind, here are some of the things I’ll be looking for on Thursday night.
What do the offensive line combinations look like and how do they play?
There are a lot of moving parts here. With Taylor Lewan’s looming (likely) four game suspension, the team has been working Dennis Kelly as the first team left tackle, trying to get him as many reps as possible in the position he will he asked hold down early in the season. I’d expect that to continue Thursday night.
The biggest question, however, remains the starting right guard spot. The Titans have tried out a bunch of different combinations here during camp already and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we saw them shuffle the deck during the game to get a few different guys some reps with the ones. It’s a wide open competition that seems to have at least five players involved.
Kevin Pamphile is the most experienced of the group and the guy you’d still have to call the “favorite” to win the job. He’s started 35 career games, including two for the Titans last season. I’d expect him to get the first snap Thursday night.
It’s hard to pick out who might be second in line after Pamphile. Jamil Douglas is listed second at right guard on the recently released depth chart. He’s a guy that’s gotten a longer look than most had expected prior to this offseason, but he appears to be firmly in the mix now. Other guys that have been given opportunities with the top unit in camp are Aaron Stinnie, 2019 third round pick Nate Davis, and Corey Levin (who would play center and bump Ben Jones to right guard).
It’s too bad that Davis seems unlikely to play. He seemed to be building a little momentum in camp and he’s a guy that needs as many live reps as possible to get comfortable with what the offense is asking him to do.
However, I’ll be interested to see how guys like Douglas, Stinnie, and Levin play in a live game situation, particularly against a front as talented and deep as the Eagles. Philadelphia’s second unit on the defensive line is as good as the first unit for some NFL teams, featuring former high level starters in Vinny Curry and Timmy Jernigan alongside two talented younger players in Hassan Ridgeway and my 2018 draft crush, Josh Sweat (who has been generating some buzz in camp). The Titans first and second team lines are going to be in for a big test in Philly.
It’s difficult to really evaluate line play at camp practices because of some of the contact rules and the fact that it’s simply hard to see clearly what’s going on in the interior so I’m excited to get into the tape after this game and really study how the offensive line — particularly the right guard spot — is looking heading into the season.
Can Marcus Mariota get on the same page with his receivers early?
It’s unclear how much — or even if — the first team offense will play Thursday night, but if we do get to see Marcus Mariota, Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, Delanie Walker, and Tajae Sharpe on the field together for the first time, it would be nice to see them clicking early. Last preseason we saw several instances of Mariota and his receivers not being on the same page. It’s likely that the majority of those issues were simply growing pains from the install of a brand new offense, but that’s an excuse they don’t have this year.
Arthur Smith is a new offensive coordinator, but he seems to be leaving the bones of Matt LaFleur’s offense intact. The language of the offense remains the same and many of the same concepts will be used. Don’t get me wrong, Smith will be putting his own spin on things as a playcaller and adding new wrinkles, but this isn’t a total rebuild like the transition from Terry Robiskie to LaFleur was. The result has been a much cleaner operation in camp this year and you’d like that to carry over to the preseason as well.
Davis has been the star of Titans training camp through the first ten practices, making eye-popping catches regularly and generally looking the part of a bonafide WR1. Adam Humphries, Tajae Sharpe, and Marcus Mariota have had strong camps as well so there is certainly room for some optimism with regards to the Titans passing offense, but the early momentum needs to continue and this is the first opportunity for this group to show what they can do in a game situation.
Unfortunately, it’s looking like we are going to have to wait at least another week to see the preseason debut for several Titans rookies. First round pick Jeffery Simmons remains on PUP and will likely not make an appearance in two tone blue until late in the regular season at the earliest. Second round pick A.J. Brown has been out since the first day of camp with a leg injury, and while he appears to be getting close to a return, it’s not going to happen Thursday night.
Third round pick Nate Davis has missed the last few days of practice with some sort of issue so he should be considered questionable at best and fifth round pick D’Andre Walker was held out of yesterday’s practice so it’s unclear if he will get a chance to play either. Even my favorite UDFA rookie, edge rusher Derick Roberson, missed practice Tuesday and might not get a shot to play. I’m still holding out at least some hope that those three might be able to get out there, but it’s not looking great as of this writing.
That leaves fourth round safety/slot corner Amani Hooker (37) and sixth round linebacker David Long (41) as the only two draft picks likely to play Thursday night.
Hooker was a considered a steal in the draft by many and the early returns from the practice fields are trending in that direction. He’s been seen working with the first team defense at times as part of the Titans big nickel and big dime packages and has drawn plenty of praise from Mike Vrabel for his ability to pick up the defense quickly and not repeat mistakes. I would expect the former Iowa star to see the field a lot both Thursday night and during the regular season so I’m excited to see how he plays in game action.
Long is competing with veterans Daren Bates, Riley Bullough, and Nigel Harris for either one or two roster spots at inside linebacker behind Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, and Wesley Woodyard. The hard-hitting linebacker from West Virginia was known for his instincts and toughness in college so I’d suspect that he’ll be the kind of guy that will thrive in a live tackling situation like preseason.
There are also some undrafted rookies to keep an eye on. The Titans kept four undrafted rookies last year — Cameron Batson, Aaron Stinnie, Matt Dickerson, and Sharif Finch — and have several former UDFAs around the roster, including Adam Humphries, Malcolm Butler, and Wesley Woodyard among others. Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel have proven that draft status doesn’t carry much weight when it comes to selecting the “right 53” for the roster so these guys have some real opportunity to make a splash here.
The two UDFAs on the top of my list right now are edge rusher Derick Roberson from Sam Houston State and wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams from North Carolina. Roberson, as mentioned above, may not play in this game after being held out of practice on Tuesday, but Ratliff-Williams figures to get plenty of work. He’s a dynamic athlete with outstanding ball skills and his ability to contribute on special teams makes him a threat to sneak onto the back of the Titans 53-man roster.
Wide receiver Papi White (80), tight end Parker Hesse (49), defensive linemen Braxton Hoyett (97) and Isaiah Mack (79), cornerback Kareem Orr (32), and safety LaDarius Wiley (30) are all guys that I want to see in action as well. They’ve each flashed at moments in camp and figure to see a lot of playing time against the Eagles.
How do the new quarterbacks look?
Last season we got “treated” to 34 pass attempts from Blaine Gabbert and Luke Falk combined during preseason game number one. Neither guy managed to move the offense convincingly and I was fighting the urge to claw my eyes out by midway through the fourth quarter.
This season Titans fans will get to see those snaps go to Ryan Tannehill and Logan Woodside. Tannehill rates as one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL and given how he’s looked in camp to this point, I’d expect to see a much more competent performance from the offense when he’s in the game.
I’m also at least somewhat intrigued by Woodside. He spent part of last season on the Titans practice squad and received some praise from Mike Vrabel for his work helping coaches install the offense to newcomers during rookie minicamp. Unlike Falk, Woodside has a live arm and occasionally looks like an NFL quarterback in practice. A strong preseason performance from him could force the Titans to keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, but most importantly, I just want to watch competent offensive football for four quarters.
Can young defenders take the next step?
I’m not sure how much we will see of Harold Landry and Rashaan Evans given their importance to this defense, but Thursday night will be our first glimpse of what those second year players are going to look like in 2019. Expectations are sky high for both and early reports from camp haven’t given any reason to pump the brakes on their respective hype trains.
Outside of those top picks from the 2018 draft, the Titans have several other young players who are looking to build on their work from last season. Defensive lineman Matt Dickerson and outside linebacker Sharif Finch were undrafted rookies scratching to make the roster this time last year. Now they’re both closer to cracking the starting lineup than getting cut. I want to see if those guys can make a leap from year one to year two.
Just like the other side of the ball, the Eagles are absolutely loaded on the offensive line. Among their expected second team line, you’ve got a 2019 first round pick in left tackle Andre Dillard, a guard who has 101 career NFL starts and was a starter for them as recently as last year in left guard Stefen Wisniewski, and a right tackle that started for them in the Super Bowl two years ago in Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Guys like Finch and Dickerson will get a good test against whoever they matchup with in this one.
You could lump Adoree’ Jackson into this category too. He’s been solid in his first two seasons, but has yet to really break into the top tier of NFL cornerbacks. After spending much of the offseason trying to pick the brain of his teammate Logan Ryan, I’m interested to see if Jackson can find another level to his game. If he can, that just makes an already dangerous defense even more formidable.
Will a viable fourth running back emerge?
The Titans only kept three running backs on the roster for most of last season and if they stick with that number this year we know exactly who those three will be: Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis, and David Fluellen. However, with Fluellen picking up some additional responsibilities as the team’s primary fullback, I could see a scenario where they decide to have a fourth ball carrier around this season.
Right now, you’d have to call Jeremy McNichols the clear favorite to push for a fourth running back spot on the roster. The third year pro spent part of last season on the Titans roster and is having a nice camp so far. He offers a tantalizing skill set as a wide-receiver-turned-ultra-productive-college-running-back that once made him a #DraftTwitter darling. With Henry and Fluellen likely to miss this game with injuries and Dion Lewis being an established veteran who doesn’t need a ton of reps, I’d expect to see quite a bit of McNichols early in Philadelphia.
Dalyn Dawkins and undrafted rookie Alex Barnes should also see plenty of work in this game. I was high on Barnes coming into camp, but left the practices I’ve watched underwhelmed by him (a sentiment shared by many in Titans media). That being said, if there was going to be a time for the 6’-0”, 226-pound back to start making a move, you’d expect it to be when tackling goes live.
A Johnathan Cyprien reunion
The Eagles signed the former Titans safety late last week and he is expected to suit up Thursday night. We are just over one year since his season ending ACL tear in training camp prompted Jon Robinson to go scoop up Kenny Vaccaro. After a great first season in Tennessee, Vaccaro got a brand new contract this offseason to be Kevin Byard’s partner in crime deep in the Titans secondary. Cyprien saw the other side of that coin, getting released just two years into a four year contract.
I’ll always appreciate Johnathan Cyprien for two things though. First, the Titans never make the largest playoff comeback by a visiting team in NFL history without his contribution in that game — and I’m not just talking about the big hit on Travis Kelce... Cyp was really good throughout that game. Second, the way he handled his injury situation and the team bringing in a guy like Vaccaro — who was clearly a threat to take his position from day one — was first class. He didn’t pout, he attended meetings he didn’t have to, he even spent extra time with Vaccaro trying to get him up to speed quickly. In short, he was a model teammate and leader.
Cyp was a popular guy in that Titans locker room, especially among the secondary. I’d expect him to get a warm welcome from his former teammates Thursday night. Just stay away from Walker and Firkser, Cyp.