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Front Page - Friday, September 8, 2023

Youth, new names dot Titans roster as season begins

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) calls a play during a preseason game against the New England Patriots Aug. 25. Tannehill will work behind a revamped offensive line to start the season. - Photo By Wade Payne | AP

You’ve undoubtedly heard the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Evidently, judging from the roster moves made by the Tennessee Titans this off-season, things were broken.

There is always turnover on an NFL roster. In any given season, a roster is usually changed by about 25% to 30%. The salary cap, injuries and other factors simply dictate that this is the way business is done in the NFL.

But of the 53 players currently on the Titans opening roster, 24 of them were not with the club last season, meaning 45% of the roster has changed since the end of the 2022 season.

While stalwarts like Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Kevin Byard and Jeffery Simmons are all still around for another go, there are plenty of new faces, ranging from big free agent catches like DeAndre Hopkins and Arden Key, all the way down to unheralded rookies like Matt Jackson and Otis Reese, who caught the Titans’ attention on special teams enough to buck the odds to earn a spot.

“I think that was the No. 1 thing coming in here and being in this role was to address the things that we felt needed to be addressed. I felt like we did that,” says Titans general manager Ran Carthon, who was hired in February. “Again, the work’s not done. So we’ll continue to do that. ... I’ve challenged the pro department to continue to look for guys that we like that maybe we thought would get claimed and ended up on somebody’s practice squad.

“So we’ll continue to work that, and I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot more about different moves that we’ll make throughout the coming weeks,” Carthon states. “But that’s our goal. Our job every day is to find the best people to bring here.”

Starting lineup-wise, the Titans still have major question marks at offensive line, which got a complete makeover with four new starters, none of whom were on the roster a year ago, and a fifth (Aaron Brewer), who shifts from left guard to center.

At receiver, things look much brighter than a couple of months ago, provided Hopkins still has gas in the tank. Hopkins caught 64 passes for 717 yards in his suspension-shortened season with the Cardinals last year, but will have to transition to a “run-first” system under first year offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.

Overall, the Titans look like a team that, if everything breaks right health-wise and the club can avoid the serious injuries that have overwhelmed it the past two years, they can perhaps be better than many expected just a few months ago.

A young man’s…team?

Call this endeavor a soft rebuild – relying on veterans and hoping and praying that they stay healthy while going young in a number of areas regarding depth.

How young? Try 11 rookies young. All six members of the Titans 2023 draft class will start the season on the 53-man roster, and five undrafted players will make their debut as well.

“I don’t think we even looked at it that way,” Carthon says. “I think those guys earned their spot. I think if you turn on the tape and you watch them, not only in the games but you guys were here at practice, and I think all those people that made it made plays and did things in practice where they earned their way.

“Nothing truly was given to anybody,” he adds. “You guys know how Mike (Vrabel) is and how he goes about business. So all of those guys, whatever the number was, they earned their way and they just made it easy to make the decision.”

Vrabel admits there will be a big adjustment period for so many rookies, especially if they are forced into meaningful snaps on offense or defense due to an injury to a starter.

“The biggest thing is just continue to try to talk to them about whether they’re, let’s say, on the offensive package or the show-team, how critical those show-team reps are for their development, for them to improve,” Vrabel says. “Trying to talk to them about preparing as a starter each and every day that they come in here, the work that they’re going to have to put in, how they’re going to have to work harder now that they’re here than they did to try to get here. That’s the whole goal.

“But, once the season starts, there’s not that many reps,” he points out. “There’s not as many reps as there were in training camp. So, trying to use our show-team opportunities to really improve and develop.”

Of course, part of the reason for so many rookies and so many new faces on this Titans roster is the failures of the 2020 and 2021 draft classes to produce enough top-line talent.

Those players, who would be in their third and fourth seasons in the league, by and large didn’t pan out. Kristian Fulton is the only draftee remaining from 2020 (plus undrafted finds in Teair Tart, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Brewer).

There is a little more left from the ’21 class, but it is still very telling that only three of eight draftees will start the season on the 53-man roster. Four players from two years ago have already been cut, and Caleb Farley is on PUP due to back surgery.

So as much out of necessity as anything, the Titans have had to rely more on rookies, comb the waiver wire and add in free agency to try and pick up the slack.

The interesting part for this season will be seeing how well this cobbled together roster can hold up.