What to Watch for Training Camp 2018: By Alex Abernathy and Eli Hiskey
The Titans start training camp this Thursday, July 26 at St. Thomas Sports Park and the buzz has us just as excited as you. Before the Titans hit the field this week, we’ve gone ahead and picked out certain aspects that should be of the utmost interest as two toned blue prepare for the 2018 campaign.
Eli’s Four Focal Points
Jonnu is in prime position to be the heir apparent to Delanie Walker, and his presence is going to make the post-Walker transition, whenever that may be down the road, a smooth one. Last season he managed 18 receptions and 2 touchdowns, and only looks to grow as a player. Playing behind Delanie is allowing him to develop without being forced to shoulder too much of the load, but he’s still going to get enough action to make an impact. Heading into his second year, Jonnu Smith is going to be a legitimate weapon for Mariota and this Titans offense. Delanie Walker is still the clear number one, but Jonnu adds depth to the position and with a young receiving corps, Mariota may look to spread the wealth around the group and Jonnu has the skill set to be a key member of that group. Last season, LaFleur was able to up the numbers for nearly every receiver and tight end on the Rams, and I expect the same to be true for Jonnu’s numbers this year. Keep an eye on him this training camp, because I expect 4 or 5 touchdowns this season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his reception total nearly double.
Robert Spillane is an undrafted linebacker out of Western Michigan, and his great work ethic turned some heads during OTAs and minicamp. During the one on one tackling drills, with punishment to the losing side being given out, the defense was chanting Spillane’s name, hoping to get him out there, confident he’d make the play. Because that’s what he does… he’s a hard worker who can consistently make the plays he’s expected to make. At Western Michigan, he was a two time 2nd team All-MAC selection, and throughout his career he came up big when Western Michigan needed him most. For example, his junior year he forced a fumble on the goal line with under two minutes left to preserve a win vs Northwestern. In the MAC championship that same year, he had a game-sealing interception with under a minute left. Spillane is gritty, and that’s exactly what you want from someone battling for a roster spot. Keep an eye on #42 this training camp, and let his work ethic blow you away.
Tajae Sharpe is coming off a season spent on the sidelines as he battled back from a foot injury suffered during the preseason. He’s been healthy all of camp so far this year, and that’s huge for the Titans. With an incredibly young receiving corps, its vital that players with experience are able to show up and perform. He had strong performances throughout OTAs and minicamp, and look for him to build off them in training camp. He had 522 yards and two touchdowns his rookie campaign, and I expect those numbers to take a sharp(e) upturn this season as his role increases. He’s battling for the slot position, and he provides a little something different than other receivers competing for the role. He’s bigger, and his sure hands and pinpoint route running are going to be key for him to establish himself in that role.
David Fluellen, Akrum Wadley, Dalyn Dawkins
The battle for the 3rd running back spot behind Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis is going to come down to the wire. All 3 backs possess qualities that give them legitimate shots at claiming the spot. Akrum Wadley, the undrafted rookie free agent from Iowa, was one of the most elusive backs in college football last year. He brings speed and shiftiness in a small stature, and he can be into the second level of the defense in the blink of an eye. David Fluellen has been in the league a few years, and made an impact in the preseason last year with a game winning touchdown vs the Panthers. He may have the edge heading into camp because of his multiplicity, he was able to make an impact on special teams last year with almost 300 special teams snaps in 2017, with 9 tackles. Dayln Dawkins is another undrafted rookie free agent, and speed is his strong suit. He has a similar style to Wadley, and it will be interesting to watch as the three compete. In this style of offense, being able to catch out of the backfield is a vital asset for a running back, so whichever of the three is able to make the biggest impact in the pass game could be the one that gets that slight edge over the others. Another key factor is if you can perform on special teams. Fluellen has shown that, and that’s somewhere Wadley and Dawkins can attempt to find a spot, as any signs of being able to play in multiple spots is a huge asset for someone battling for a roster spot.
Alex’s Four Focal Points
Veasy is an undrafted free agent wide receiver out of Cal. At 6 foot 3 inches, 221 pounds, he is built to be an NFL wide receiver. When watching him catch balls or run routes, he probably won’t stand out right off the bat. But the upside to Veasy is not his talent level right now, but his incredible potential. He only played baseball in high school until he hit a 6 inch growth spurt going into his senior year and decided to play football. Only being a one year player, he didn’t receive much attention coming out of high school, but landed at NAIA school, Faulkner. From there he transferred to Itawamba Community College where he was cut, then went out west to Golden Coast CC. There, he gained attention from 17 division 1 programs and wound up being a stand out receiver at Cal. In just 6 years, Veasy has gone from not playing football, to being at an NFL training camp with a serious chance to make the roster. He may not be an immediate impact player, but his ceiling is too high to ignore.
Jayon Brown had a rookie campaign that makes Titans fans eager to see what year two has in store. Playing in every game, working primarily as the nickel linebacker, Jayon is looking to increase his role even further in 2018 and already looked to have taken the appropriate steps in OTA’s and Minicamp to accomplish that goal. The reason he is on the “What to Watch For” list though is not because of any stats or physical ability. Jayon Brown has more fun than any other player on the field at practice. Any notion that NFL players only care about the paycheck and that the love of the game is lost in the money can be refuted by watching Brown run around the field in jubilation after a touch tackle in 7 on 7. He sings, he dances, he locks in and plays football when he needs to and the 23 year old never stops smiling. For anyone planning to attend training camp along with a youth football player, show them number 55 and they’ll see someone who leaves no doubt about his love for football.
Many thought Josh Kline would be a questionable return to the Titans this season, but Jon Robinson and the new coaching staff thought otherwise as they signed him to a 4-year, $26 million deal this offseason to bring him back as the team’s right guard. According to offensive line coach Keith Carter, despite Kline being a slightly smaller guard, he has enough quickness to benefit the team with the different looks they’re going to be giving on offense this year. With Conklin and presumably Lewan both missing the beginning of training camp, when watching the O-line, Kline is a player to keep an eye on to see how his speed as a guard fits the new scheme.
Rashaan Evans/ Harold Landry
This doesn’t need a ton of explanation. The two rookie linebackers are both looking to make an immediate on this defense. Evans is looking at a chance to start right away while Harold (Honor) Landry is probably looking at a backup role this season while being groomed to be an eventual starter. Both players will have to accomplish similar goals out of the gate though. They both need to get a full grip on the playbook and once that happens, it will allow them to play fast without having to think and then we should expect to see exponential growth from both of them. At practice this Saturday when the pads first come on is when we the real measuring stick will come out and we can see where they stand. All in all, this training camp will be the first glimpse of what could be a dynamic linebacker duo for years to come.
Coach Mac’s Special
One of the biggest aspects Titans Radio color analyst Coach Dave McGinnis wants everyone to look for as training camp gets rolling is the progression of play-calling during the team periods. He points out that this offense is completely quarterback driven so as Marcus Mariota gets a better grasp, the play calling during team periods will continue to get more and more complex. The offense Matt LeFleur is installing is one that has evolved as it’s been passed down from coach to coach, from Mike Shanahan to Gary Kubiak, to Jay Gruden, to Sean McVay, now down to LeFleur. The situations where playcalling is going to be most interesting to watch are going to be the “run-pass conflict” downs, such as a 2nd and 7 or a 1st and 10, where the offense can truly do either. This opens up the offense to a number of play-calling options, whether it be screen passes to stretch the defense horizontally, or play action passes to stretch them vertically. This is a situational based offense that adapts to the down and distance, making it extremely versatile and difficult for defenses to read.