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Seven takeaways from the Titans initial 53-man roster and practice squad

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A few truths were revealed as the Titans made cuts.

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans have made their cuts and are now set with the 53 players they will start the 2019 NFL season with on the active roster and the 10 that will make up the practice squad. In getting from 90 to 53, we learned a few things about Jon Robinson, Mike Vrabel, and the Titans as a franchise. Here are the seven most noteworthy things I’m taking away from this process:

1. The Titans really liked the roster of players they had in camp.

Jon Robinson was not awarded any waiver claims — we do not yet know if he put in any — and filled nine of their ten practice squad spots with players they had in camp. That tells me that they felt pretty good about the guys they had here over the summer.

One of the Titans roster cuts — center Corey Levin — was claimed on waivers by the Broncos, team dealt another player — receiver Taywan Taylor — for a seventh-round pick prior to the cut deadline, and they have two players that will be a part of the roster — Taylor Lewan and Jeffery Simmons — that aren’t currently counting against the 53 man roster. In total, that means the Titans had 57 players in camp that will start the season as part of NFL rosters and another 9 that will be on a practice squad (possibly more if guys like Jeremy McNichols, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Kenneth Durden, and LaDarius Wiley catch on somewhere).

Whether that faith in their own pays off will remain to be seen, but I’d say it’s generally a good sign when your GM doesn’t feel the need to feast on table scraps from other teams.

Good teams often make a habit of casting off more usable talent than they take on during the waiver process on cut down day. The Titans don’t quite have the roster depth that teams like the Patriots, Rams, and Eagles do yet, but they’re in better shape in spots 48 to 53 than they’ve been in a long time.

2. When Mike Vrabel speaks, we should listen.

Jeremy McNichols captured the hearts of Titans fans everywhere thanks to his strong preseason performances, but was ultimately left off the final roster, losing the fourth running back spot to Dalyn Dawkins. McNichols was one of just three misses on my final 53-man roster projection — pats self on back furiously — and I’m mad at myself for not seeing the signs. Every time Mike Vrabel was asked about McNichols’ excellent preseason performances, he would always downplay it. His sound bites would go something like this (paraphrasing):

Reporter: “Mike, McNichols’ long run against the Eagles really sparked the offense early. Can you talk about what he’s done in camp so far?”

Vrabel: “That play was perfectly blocked. To be honest, McNichols probably got the minimum of what he should have there.”

It went along these lines every time McNichols came up. The head coach would often bring up special teams and how he needed to see something from his running backs there if they wanted to make back end of the roster. I actually had McNichols off my final 53-man roster in my rough draft with the reasoning that I felt Vrabel was going out of his way to pump the brakes, but when I woke up the morning the article posted I talked myself out of it and put him in. Next time, I’ll listen when Vrabel gives a hint like that.

3. Not all QB carousels are created equally.

There was a lot of talk about whether or not the Titans would keep three quarterbacks on the roster due to Logan Woodside’s strong preseason. The thinking among media and fans was that if Luke Falk could get claimed on waivers, surely Woodside, who was light years better than Falk was last year, would be picked up by a rival team.

I waffled back and forth on this subject quite a bit myself. Woodside showed well and has upside as a long term backup, but no team truly wants to use a roster spot on a third quarterback.

The Titans bet on being able to get Woodside through waivers despite losing Falk last year and they were right. They’ll be able to continue their young quarterback’s development without using a valuable roster spot on him. Where Woodside’s journey with the Titans leads remains to be seen — that’s really true for all three of the team’s quarterbacks right now — but having a possible backup option for the 2020 season with experience in the offense is definitely a good thing.

4. The Titans defensive line depth looks better than expected.

Entering training camp I think it’s fair to say that the defensive line — outside of four-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey — was one of the bigger roster questions on the team. That question can’t truly be answered until the regular season starts, but things are looking better on the defensive front now than they were a couple months ago.

DaQuan Jones developed a close friendship with Harold Landry this offseason as both players stayed in Nashville and spent a lot of time working out together at the team facility. The results were good for both players. Landry showed up to camp noticeably bulked up and flashing more power to go with his speed rushing bread and butter. Jones was selected by the coaching staff as one of four offseason award winners — joining Marcus Mariota, Matt Dickerson, and David Fluellen — and turned in an outstanding camp.

Brent Urban is expected to round out the starting defensive line at the 5-technique spot across from Casey when the Titans are in their base defense. His length at 6’-7” and 300 pounds brings a different element to the front. Urban flashed early in camp as a disruptive force and he’s very good at getting his big paws up in passing lanes to bat down or tip throws at the line of scrimmage.

Behind that group, Austin Johnson had a good camp and drew unsolicited praise from Mike Vrabel for his improvement. Matt Dickerson joined Jones among the coaching staff’s picks for offseason awards after packing on 16 pounds of bulk to better compete in the trenches during his second season as a pro. The biggest surprise, however, was the emergence of undrafted rookie Isaiah Mack from UT-Chattanooga. At 6’-1” and 299 pounds, he’s a bit of a Jurrell Casey lookalike and he played a little bit like Casey during the preseason, using his lateral quickness and hands to beat blocks and make plays in the backfield.

Then you have the glowing reports about Jeffery Simmons’ recovery from Mike Vrabel last week. Simmons ultimately landed on the NFI list as expected — meaning that he will be unable to practice or play until Week 7 at the earliest — but it seems increasingly likely that we will see the 19th overall pick of the 2019 draft this season, possibly even in that early Week 7 or Week 8 timeframe. It goes without saying that a healthy Simmons would be a massive boost to the Titans defense, even if he starts off in just a rotational role to ease him back in.

Obviously, there are still plenty of “ifs” with this group. If Jones, Johnson, and Dickerson can translate strong offseasons into regular season results. If Mack can be disruptive against first team offensive lines like he was against backups in preseason. If Casey and Simmons can put their respective offseason knee issues behind them. However, I think this group is trending up right now and that’s very good news for the Titans defense.

5. The Titans gave up on two 2017 draft picks.

One of these was a slow build. The other was very abrupt.

Taywan Taylor struggled in 2018 after a relatively promising 2017 season. As camp opened on the 2019 season, no player was under the microscope more than the former Western Kentucky star. Unfortunately, the same issues that plagued him last year continued to pop up in camp and preseason action — body catching, dropped passes, poor ball tracking, and an inability to stay on the same page as his quarterback.

Despite a few bounce back practices after that awful preseason opener against the Eagles, Taylor continued to fall down the depth chart. When he didn’t enter the game against the Steelers until after Darius Jennings and Kalif Raymond, it became apparent that his roster spot may be in jeopardy and, ultimately, Jon Robinson made the tough decision to move on from a guy that he traded up to pick in the third round just a couple years ago.

Even as someone who believes that the ability to create explosive plays and threaten a defense vertically is crucial to offensive success, I can’t argue too much with the decision to cut bait now. Taylor’s confidence appeared to be waning and with Adam Humphries and A.J. Brown being added this offseason, it was clear that he was no longer viewed as a long term piece of the Titans offense. A fresh start may be beneficial for all parties.

The other player the Titans gave up on was far more abrupt from the outside looking in. Corey Levin had served as the team’s backup center for the last two seasons. In 2018, he started one game at left guard when Quinton Spain was out with an injury and came in at halftime at center with Ben Jones sliding to guard to replace an ineffective Spain later in the season.

It seemed as if Levin was trending towards a trajectory that could see him in the mix to join the starting lineup as soon as this season. However, despite an open position battle at right guard that Levin was expected to compete for — either directly or by bumping Ben Jones from center to guard — he failed to generate much interest from the coaching staff as the team zeroed in on Kevin Pamphile and Jamil Douglas after Nate Davis went down with an early injury in camp.

Levin played pretty well in preseason, though there were some problems with high snaps that popped up more often than you’d like to see (at least three in the first two games by my count). A chance to take snaps with the first team never materialized and Vrabel made comments to the press about Levin being a center that needed to learn how to play guard. It’s important to remember when discussing decisions like Douglas over Levin that the limited preseason snaps that fans get to see are just a sliver of what the team is evaluating. Months worth of work on the practice fields and in meeting rooms likely outweigh that preseason work by a pretty substantial margin. Ultimately, the Titans decided they didn’t like what they were seeing from Levin. Instead of setting him up to inherit the starting center position from Jones next season, they decided to move on and pay the premium to keep Jones as their pivot for the next two years.

It will be interesting to track the careers of Levin and Taylor from this point forward. Can Taylor regain his confidence and unlock his tremendous potential with a fresh start? Will Mike Munchak turn Levin into a starting center in Denver? One thing we know for sure... Jon Robinson does not hesitate to cut bait on a draft pick or signing that is trending in the wrong direction.

6. The Titans offensive line depth isn’t great.

While the defensive line is looking like it’s in better shape than we thought entering camp, the offensive line depth has gone the opposite direction. Taylor Lewan’s suspension is the biggest part of this equation. Removing the best player from any team’s offensive line is going to have a big impact. The Titans are fortunate to have Dennis Kelly as a high quality backup, but it’s also not fair to expect him to step in and look like the three-time Pro Bowl tackle he’s replacing.

That also means that instead of being off the roster, David Quessenberry will operate as the swing tackle for the first four games. Quessenberry was good in preseason work, but he was also almost exclusively playing with, and more importantly, against the threes. His selection to the 53-man roster felt more like an indictment of what Austin Pasztor and Tyler Marz put on tape during camp than anything else. I’d suspect he will quickly be waived upon Lewan’s return unless there is an injury to a tackle between now and Week 5.

Elsewhere, Kevin Pamphile “won” the right guard battle and is in line to start Week 1 against the Browns, but it’s not like he ran away with the job. That spot looks like the weak link on the Titans roster that we all thought it might be.

The good news here — besides the fact that Jack Conklin looks like Jack Conklin again — is that help may be on the horizon. Obviously, getting Lewan back in Week 5 will be a huge deal. His presence, especially when slotted next to someone like Rodger Saffold, makes the Titans far more dangerous on the ground and through the air. We also saw third round rookie guard Nate Davis return to practice in a full capacity today. As Mike Vrabel said during his post-practice press conference, “you can’t make that time up” so I wouldn’t expect the former Charlotte 49er to push himself into the starting lineup immediately. However, if he can supplant Pamphile at some point during the season, that would be encouraging news for both his development and the ceiling for the performance of this offensive line.

One point that needs to be made about the offensive line is that weak spots in the starting five aren’t unique to the Titans. Despite the (extraordinarily expensive) addition of Laremy Tunsil, the Texans are still starting a very poor right tackle, raw rookies at both guard spots, and an average to below average center. The Browns offensive line that the Titans will face in Week 1 features Greg Robinson at left tackle, Eric Kush at right guard, and Chris Hubbard at right tackle. Robinson is massive bust of a draft pick who finished tied with Tyler Marz as PFF’s 84th best tackle in 2018. Kush is a career backup who is most famous for his love of tank tops on the Rams season of Hard Knocks. He checked in two spots below Josh Kline as PFF’s 68th ranked guard. Hubbard is also a career backup who tied with Ereck Flowers as PFF’s 56th best tackle in his first year as a full time starter.

Having a below average — or even flat out bad — starter somewhere in your offensive line is the norm, not the exception. The Titans starting five, even with Lewan out, should be good enough to function at a league average level. When their star left tackle returns, it has a chance to be really good.

7. The Titans have an affinity for undersized players at the skill positions.

Two of the more surprising players to make the 53-man roster were the 5’-7”, 183-pound Dalyn Dawkins and the 5’-8”, 182-pound Kalif Raymond. They join the 5’-8”, 195-pound Dion Lewis and the 5’-10”, 180-pound Darius Jennings as some of the smallest players on the roster. The practice squad also features the 5’-9”, 163-pound Papi White while the 5’-8”, 175-pound Cameron Batson remains on the team’s IR list.

According to mockdraftable.com — a website that compiles combine measurements over the years — shows that three percent of all NFL players are 5’-9” or below so the fact that the Titans have five of these guys on the roster is a rarity. In the modern NFL where teams want to space the field and trying to create mismatches, it’s possible that these undersized guys represent a market inefficiency.

After all, smaller players like the 5’-10”, 185-pound Tyreek Hill, the 5’-10”, 185-pound Antonio Brown, the 5’-11”, 198-pound Odell Beckham, the 5’-10”, 183-pound Brandin Cooks, and the 5’-10”, 183-pound T.Y. Hilton represent five of the top ten totals in receiving yards since 2016. I’m not suggesting any of the Titans undersized skill players are going to become the next Tyreek Hill obviously, but it is interesting to me that Jon Robinson seems to be gravitating towards this type more than most.