NASHVILLE – Attendance at voluntary organized team activities during the offseason is always a touchy topic.
Plenty of passionate Tennessee Titans fans (and probably every Titans coach) would prefer that each player participates in every session and takes advantage of every opportunity to improve after last year’s first-round playoff loss.
But the fact is that the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association – through bargaining – arrived at the current setup, which means players can choose their level of offseason participation, aside from teams’ mandatory mini-camps.
So, who was in attendance for the Titans’ OTA session on Tuesday, who was absent and – most importantly – what are the ramifications?
Here’s a look at the status of some key players:
• WR Treylon Burks – Tuesday marked the first time media had seen the Titans’ 2022 first-round draft pick since the team’s rookie minicamp, when Burks twice left the practice field on one day – looking like he was either gassed or having breathing issues. He came back the following day and made it through practice but was not a full participant.
It was more of the same during Tuesday’s OTA session, as Burks was in and out of drills, though he didn’t appear to be struggling the way he did during rookie minicamp.
Has Burks been dealing with allergies?
“I’m not going to talk about allergies to pollen right now,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I think everybody’s got allergies.”
Has it been just a matter of conditioning with Burks?
“Just the reps that we put him in there, I don’t think there’s any limitations right now,” Vrabel said.
That didn’t do much to clear up the situation.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was excited about Burks’ potential, but also noted the former Arkansas star hasn’t been fully available.
“You mentioned Burks, a guy who’s dealing with some things,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “And we’re trying to get him back on the field and get him going. But obviously you see the size, you see the strength. You see him in that (simulated) open-field tackle drill. He’s going to be a one-cut guy. He’s running, he’s big, he’s strong. Haven’t thrown a lot of balls to him yet, but looking forward to him getting back on the field and competing with us.”
• CB Elijah Molden – The starting nickel corner for most of the 2021 season, Molden was not on the practice field for most of Tuesday’s OTA session. He did appear on the sidelines toward the end of the session but didn’t participate in any drills. Instead, Molden did some jogging up and down the sideline.
It’s unclear whether the 2021 third-round pick is dealing with an injury from last season, when he played in 16 of the Titans’ 17 regular-season contests and the playoff game. It’s also possible he may have suffered some type of injury during one of the previous OTA sessions.
VETERAN STARTERS IN ATTENDANCE
There weren’t an overabundance of these, but the group included Tannehill, left tackle Taylor Lewan, center Ben Jones, safety Amani Hooker and linebacker David Long among others.
An eight-year veteran, Lewan explained he was participating in this session of the OTAs for both personal and team reasons.
On the personal front, Lewan wasn’t happy about his 2021, which was his first season following an ACL surgery that limited him to five games in 2020.
“I didn’t run until the middle of June, early July last year,” Lewan said. “That was the first time I started running. So to get out here and be able to do this is fun for me right now. It’s no burden right now. It’s a blast to be out here because it’s something I couldn’t even do last year at this time.”
The 30-year-old who didn’t attend some earlier OTA sessions, also said he wanted to be present now that the rookies are working with the veterans. Lewan made a point during practice of helping some of the younger linemen, like Dillon Radunz (second-round pick in 2021) and Nicholas Petit-Frere (third-round pick in 2022).
“I’m trying to get better, work on my physical strength and my conditioning,” Lewan said. “But at the same time, 11 guys are on the field at one point. Whether it’s helping (Petit-Frere) out with something or Dillon (Radunz) trying to find a role on this team … it’s stepping into a role of leadership that I’ve kind of shied away from for a long time. Being able to help those guys with the knowledge I have, and playing as long as I have at the level I have, I think it’s important for me to be here.
“But it’s not just important for me to be here for those guys. It’s also important to be here for myself at well.”
VETERAN STARTERS NOT IN ATTENDANCE
This list was a lengthy one on Tuesday, and it included the likes of running back Derrick Henry, safety Kevin Byard, linebacker Zach Cunningham, edge rusher Bud Dupree, edge rusher Harold Landry, right guard Nate Davis, tight end Geoff Swaim, and defensive linemen Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons.
Vrabel walked the line as he addressed those absences, noting he and his staff would love the opportunity to teach players, but stopping short of calling out players for missing voluntary sessions.
“I think it’s critical anytime we have an opportunity to coach the guys out on the field,” Vrabel said. “That’s our job. We feel strongly in the job we can do to coach and develop players and to teach them.
“When you’re working or conditioning on the first couple phases with three or four other guys, you tend to go a little harder. (But) I know that everybody that’s not here, they’ll be in shape, they’ll be conditioned and they’ll be ready to go. So, do I think it’s important? I always think it’s important when we get to coach players. Because that’s what we do. That’s why we come to work, and I think that the guys are here, they get something out of it.”
PRESENT WHILE RECOVERING FROM INJURY
• WR Robert Woods – The 30-year-old Woods tore his ACL in mid-November with the Los Angeles Rams last season, but he was on the field for OTA sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Woods was wearing a knee brace and was not a full practice participant. But there did not appear to be any sign of a limp as he went through drills, and Tannehill says he already likes what he’s seeing from the nine-year veteran.
“Robert is running a little bit now, so (I’m) getting to see him in some (routes versus air) looks and excited about that,” Tannehill said. “He’s smooth. Really enjoy throwing him the football.”
• CB Caleb Farley – He didn’t play at all during his final season at Virginia Tech in 2020 because of COVID concerns. He had very little offseason leading up to his rookie season because he was recovering from back surgery. And Farley played just 60 snaps in 2021 due the torn ACL he suffered in mid-October. Needless to say, the talented defensive back has a long way to go before he’ll be ready physically and mentally.
But it was promising to see Farley working in individual and seven-on-seven drills (he wore a yellow non-contact jersey) Tuesday, and Vrabel said he has noticed a difference in Farley’s physical appearance after a more active offseason.
“He’s working much like (wide receiver Robert Woods) and just trying to build some confidence and continue that rehab process,” Vrabel said. “You just see how quickly his body developed when he was able to have somewhat of an offseason, whether it be with the back or unfortunately with the knee. He certainly looks different, and it doesn’t look like his jersey is hanging on a coat hanger.”
INJURED, NOT PRESENT
• LB Monty Rice – A third-round pick in 2021, Rice began to see some significant action midway through last season before a serious ankle injury on Nov. 28 brought an end to his rookie year. He’s currently third on the depth chart at inside linebacker, behind Zach Cunningham and David Long. So Rice should get a good chunk of playing time in 2022 if he’s healthy.
But Rice wasn’t on the field Tuesday, so it appears he still has re-hab work ahead of him before he can return to action.
IMPORTANT NEW FACE
• TE Austin Hooper – One key ingredient for the Titans as the team tries to improve its passing attack is Hooper, a six-year veteran who was signed during free agency. He wasn’t overly productive last season in Cleveland, catching 38 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games. But Hooper and the Titans are hoping he returns to the level of previous years, as Hooper has totaled 298 career catches for 3,024 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Hooper knows establishing offseason chemistry with Tannehill is an important step in the right direction.
“I wish there was like a magic pill (for chemistry) or like, go out to lunch or dinner one time,” Hooper said. “But at the end of the day, it’s throwing with him, tight windows, doing my best to make sure he feels comfortable with me.
“Every rep, the sense of urgency you’ve got to have has to be multiplied exponentially. I take that very seriously. (The time) in between special teams and (drills) affords me the opportunity to work with Ryan for those extra 10 to 15 minutes a day. And it may not seem like a lot, but baby steps over 100 days is a lot.”
Added Tannehill: “Hooper is a guy that’s been working with us since I’ve been here. Just that connection is growing. Saw him make some plays today. He’s got some great size and strength and length. That’s definitely a help for him and it will help us offensively.”