Sports, Thrill of Victory

Talented rookies bring optimism for Titans future

There is no doubt that rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe has been a bright spot for the Titans in the preseason. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

In recent history the Tennessee Titans have missed on a number of Draft picks.

In fact, as far back as 2011, the team has selected the following players who did not live up to expectation:

QB Jake Locker (Round 1, 2011); LB Akeem Ayers (Round 2, 2011); CB Coty Sensabaugh (Round 4, 2012); WR Justin Hunter (Round 2, 2013); CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Round 3, 2013); LB Zaviar Gooden (Round 3, 2013); RB Bishop Sankey (Round 2, 2014); QB Zach Mettenberger (Round 6, 2014); WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Round 2, 2015); and LB Deiontrez Mount (Round 6, 2015), among others.

Hunter and Sankey are still with the team, third stringers at their respective position. The remaining players have been traded or released.

There is no doubt that rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe has been a bright spot for the Titans in the preseason. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

There is no doubt that rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe has been a bright spot for the Titans in the preseason. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Not all selections have been poor. Through the past five years the Titans drafted DT Jurrell Casey (Round 3, 2011); OG Chance Warmack (Round 1, 2013); OT Taylor Lewan (Round 1, 2014); LB Avery Williamson (Round 5, 2014); and QB Marcus Mariota (Round 1, 2015).

However, these ‘hits’ are few in comparison to the ‘misses,’ and five years of unsuccessful Drafts in Tennessee have culminated in consecutive seasons with three or fewer wins.

Prior to his election in 1984, Ronald Reagan aired a political campaign commercial with the opening line, “It’s morning again in America.” The phrase was a metaphor for the country’s upward trajectory after the economic recession and Great Inflation of the 1970s.

This phrase can be applied to the Titans, who have not surpassed an 8-8 record since 2008 when Kerry Collins, Chris Johnson, and company lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.

“It’s morning again in Tennessee.”

A new breath of light peeks upon the Titans’ organization thanks to free agent acquisitions, changes in ownerships and personnel, facility renovations, and above all, an impressive 2016 Draft class, which appears to contain more ‘hits’ than ‘misses.’

Let’s highlight the success of the rookies to date, as they give us Titans’ fans a reason for optimism and a hope for morning again in Tennessee.

RB Derrick Henry and WR Tajae Sharpe

According to Pro Football Focus, running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe are the top graded rookies this preseason by position. Sharpe shares his title with receiver Tommylee Lewis of the New Orleans Saints.

Through three preseason matchups, both Henry and Sharpe have impressed.

Henry has 27 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He averages 5.7 yards per carry — an honest average, meaning Henry truly gains around six yards per rush attempt — since his longest run of 16 yards generates a weak skew.

Derrick Henry has been impressive during the Titans' preseason thus far. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Derrick Henry has been impressive during the Titans’ preseason thus far. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Sharpe has caught 9-of-12 targets for 160 yards and six first downs. Among all Titans’ receivers, Sharpe is the most targeted during the preseason, particularly on third downs when Mariota is under center.

Henry is currently second on the depth chart at running back, behind free agent acquisition DeMarco Murray, while Sharpe is set to start at receiver opposite of Rishard Matthews.

OT Jack Conklin

The Titans’ headlining Draft acquisition at No. 10 overall, Jack Conklin and news regarding Conklin have ironically been quiet during the offseason in Tennessee.

However, at offensive tackle — a position where mistakes are more commonly noticed than strong play — a lack of news is good news.

Conklin has been the Titans’ starting right tackle during the entire offseason and through three games of the preseason. He has earned the admiration of left tackle Taylor Lewan, since the two played at rivaling colleges Michigan and Michigan State; the praise of coach Mike Mularkey and offensive line coach Russ Grimm; and a starting role on the Titans’ front five for the upcoming season.

Conklin is the third offensive lineman the Titans have selected in the first round of the Draft during the past three years. Warmack was a first round selection in 2013 and Lewan in 2014. 

S Kevin Byard

After the Draft, Byard made an immediate impression among Titans’ personnel, as the former MTSU safety proved to be one of the most knowledgeable rookies off the field.

Coach Mularkey said of Byard after his first day of practice in rookie minicamp: “We are pretty extensive in our defensive calls with coach LeBeau, and when we did work out with Kevin and sit down with him, he was easily the best on the board in being able to retain (information) and shoot it back at us, and it is evident out here he is very comfortable doing that.”

Byard continued to impress during the offseason, which earned the rookie playing time at safety and kick returner during the preseason. He intercepted Chargers’ quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the Titans’ first preseason matchup and earned a promotion from third-string to second-string safety, ahead of Marqueston Huff, after the Titans’ third preseason matchup.

LB Kevin Dodd

Dodd unfortunately missed most of the offseason as he recovered from preventative surgery on the fifth metatarsal of his right foot.

The former Clemson linebacker made his debut in the Titans’ preseason win over the Oakland Raiders, and Mularkey was pleased. Although Dodd was not in football shape and although he made one tackle in 26 snaps, his effort was evident, earning a promotion from third-string to second-string linebacker.

“I saw some things with Dodd,’’ Mularkey said. “He’s a big body. I liked how relentless he was and he was trying to do everything the right way. … For the first time, I was pretty pleased.”