WHO: Tennessee Titans
WHERE: Nashville, Tenn.
WHEN: Tuesday, Aug. 7
HOW: Flight from Kansas City to Nashville
Marcus Mariota and the first-team offense was breaking the huddle midway through practice as Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard stood together in the defensive backfield.
Vaccaro, signed to Tennessee just three days prior, had his right arm draped around Byard’s shoulder as they assessed the formation. The two saw where tight end Jonnu Smith was lining up, and Vaccaro tapped Byard on his left side to go play man-to-man against Smith in the box while he stayed up high.
Byard followed Smith in his route, didn’t react to a headfake, saw Mariota’s ball coming slightly behind Smith and stepped up to make the interception. The play happened because of Byard’s football knowledge, but it also happened because he and Vaccaro are already communicating on the same page after just two full practices together.
“This is training camp, and I can understand that this guy just got here and he’s been out for pretty much six months,” Byard says. “He was in for pretty much 10 plays almost and getting a lot of conditioning in. It’s one of those deals where hey man I’ll cover him man-to-man and I’ll let you be in the post on this play. Kind of give him a little breather. It’s taking care of our teammates.”
Vaccaro appreciated the slight breather and promised to get him back the next day.
“With KB’s versatility, me and him are going to do a lot of different things. In New Orleans I would come down and guard tight ends and receivers. I’ve done a lot of that. Well in this scheme we’re going to play [both positions] a lot of time. So I do want the post work, but I did go about 8-10 plays straight by myself so I was just like… he likes getting the work and I told him next practice I’ll come down and play man. A lot of teams don’t have that versatility.”
Byard, who earned first-team All Pro honors last season when he picked off eight passes and totaled 87 tackles for the Titans, has taken a leadership role in the backend, head coach Mike Vrabel said. A six-year veteran, Vaccaro has welcomed any tips he can get after an unusually long unemployment period for someone with his resume.
Vaccaro is the latest safety to be signed after the market crashed for players of his position. Morgan Burnett hopped on with the Steelers quickly into free agency, but the spring turned into summer before guys like Tre Boston and Vaccaro found jobs. And Vaccaro is in Nashville only because Johnathan Cyprien tore his ACL last week. The Titans put out feelers to Vaccaro and Eric Reid, the latter of whom had trouble getting from New York to his workout due to inclement weather.
“I guess for the last 5–6 months, every single one of my friends and loved ones asked when am I going to sign. It was probably the most stressful offseason,” Vaccaro says. “At the same time I put in a lot of work and I came in in shape and ready to go. When you look back on it you’re just thankful. I started for five years and all of a sudden it’s like, do we not need safeties anymore?
“It’d be different if I got drafted first round and I was a bust and didn’t get my fifth-year option picked up. That means you’re just not good enough. But everything, I can go back to media outlets and coaches talking to the media about me. It just didn’t add up to be honest. But at the same time, it’s in the past.”
Vaccaro has been getting up around 5:30 a.m. each morning to study the playbook and get prepared for the Titans’ first preseason game Thursday night against the Packers. In his first practice with Tennessee over the weekend he was already getting first-team reps with Byard and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson. Monday, Vaccaro got nearly all the first-team reps at strong safety.
“Everything is earned, not given,” Vaccaro says. “A little bit [surprised] but at the same time I’m thankful for it. I can’t say, no I need to be in the back watching.”
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: Titans secondary coach Kerry Coombs is a hoot. At the start of camp he broke the huddle and, at a full sprint, raced former Titans safety and current coaching intern Michael Griffin to the next field to start individual drills. He leads a group of defensive backs that make up one of the league’s best secondaries. Their motto “my man catches no balls,” a.k.a. MMCNB, is catching on around Nashville. Plus, they’re living it.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: I heard that the Titans defense had been winning most of the practices at camp, and certainly the defense won on this day. Mariota and the first-team offense looked good in the red-zone drills but little else. Is it a harbinger of things to come? I’m not ready to say that because of three things. First, this offense under Matt LaFleur is new, and it takes training camp (at least) to get it down. Secondly, the offense—like many, but this especially—is predicated on the run opening up the pass. Well, you can’t exactly run the way you want at camp practices against your teammates. And finally, Mariota was without former first rounder Corey Davis (undisclosed injury) and has been without likely No. 2 WR Rishard Matthews all camp. At best, he’s throwing to Delanie Walker, Dion Lewis and his third-best receiver. But watch how this offense works in exhibitions as it gets healthy and as Mariota gets more comfortable in the scheme.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: On the initial depth chart that Vrabel has said time and again not to put much stock into, Wesley Woodyard and Will Compton are the starting inside linebackers. They may very well be the Week 1 starters in the 3-4 defense, but first-round pick Rashaan Evans has four exhibitions to prove his worth. Inside backer is a difficult place for a rookie to immediately start, but Compton is only on a one-year deal in Tennessee and Evans is clearly the future.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: I promise you I’m not a music snob. Every team has a different idea of when the play music, what kind of music and how loud they play it. In Nashville, the music was … not what you’d expect to hear at any NFL practice. I didn’t get every song the Titans played at practice, but here are the ones I captured (and yes, I needed Shazam to help me on some country tunes): “Walking in Memphis,” “Dixieland Delight,” “Wal-Mart Parking Lot,” “Burning Bright,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Slide,” Simple Man,” Genie in a Bottle,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Check Yes or No,” and my personal, never-before-heard-at-an-NFL-practice song “I Can Only Imagine.”
PARTING THOUGHTS: In March, Deion Sanders appeared to refer to Byard as a “fan” on Twitter when Byard questioned how the all-time great didn’t include the two first-team All Pro safeties in his list of top safeties in the league. Byard later said he had screenshot the tweet and made it the lockscreen on his smart phone.
Q: I’m sure you’ve been asked about it, but is that tweet still your lockscreen?
A: “Nah it was just kind of an in-the-moment type of deal. I was kind of surprised and kind of shocked at it but at the end of the day, I let that go months ago. It was motivation at the time and it reminded me that even though I made All Pro, a lot of people still don’t know who you are. You still have a lot to prove and a lot of work to do. That’s the mentality I took going into my offseason training. That kind of motivated me to keep grinding and put in more work than I put in the previous year.
Q: That sort of reminds me of the Kanye line “some of my plaques, they still say Kayne.” Do people still get your last name wrong and not know who you are?
A: “It’s TV announcers and coaches and everybody. It’s something that I don’t really care about anymore. At the end of the day guys know. You can say my name wrong or whatever but when we step on this field, you’re going to give me that respect. And I’m going to earn it. I’m not just going to ask for it. I’m going to earn that respect.”