NASHVILLE – To say that Mason Kinsey is not the same player he was two years ago would be an understatement.
Then, he was an undrafted rookie out of a Division III school (Berry College) that never had sent a player to the NFL. He was a wide receiver with obvious physical gifts – elite speed, in particular – but had no meaningful experience against the caliber of competition he suddenly faced every day in practice.
Kinsey brought a wide-eyed, kid-in-a-candy-store vibe to the field that made him the kind of underdog fans like to love but did not exactly mesh with the egos and achievements of those who took a much more traditional route.
“He’s come a long way in that regard,” Tennessee Titans wide receivers coach Rob Moore said. “I think he understands that survive in this league, there’s a certain amount of professionalism that you have to have to sustain the success that you need. I think he’s figured that part out.”
It also would be inaccurate, though, to say that the 23-year-old has established himself as an NFL player, or that he is certain to stick with the Titans once the current training camp and preseason are complete.
“He’s in for the battle of his life right now,” Moore added.
The first obvious signs of Kinsey’s progression came last year during the preseason when was the team’s leading receiver with 14 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. That was more than twice as many receptions and yards as anyone else had in those three tune-up contests.
It was a clear indication that he could produce against NFL-caliber talent in game conditions as opposed to 2020, his first year, when the preseason was canceled due to COVID-19 issues. All he did during the regular season was practice – he spent time on two teams’ practice squads.
Kinsey’s most important step then came last October when he was a gameday addition to the active roster for the Titans’ Week 7 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. He played just three snaps on offense and two on special teams in his NFL debut – a 27-3 Tennessee triumph that, to date, remains the totality of his official experience.
“It was exciting,” Kinsey said. “Got the opportunity. I didn’t get a lot of snaps, but I just tried to make the most of it. It was a blessing for sure, just being out there and seeing all the people in the stands. It was awesome. So, it definitely gave me a little bit of motivation coming into camp this year.”
This year’s draft provided additional motivation.
The Titans selected UCLA wide receiver Kyle Philips in the fifth round. The two have similar builds – Kinsey is 5-foot-10, 202 pounds, Philips is 5-foot-11, 189 pounds – and both have skillsets consistent with what teams want in slot receivers. Each also doubles as a punt returner.
Given the realities of roster building and Tennessee’s affinity for bigger wide receivers who also can make a difference as blockers in the run game, the chances that Kinsey and Philips both make the 53-man roster at the start of training camp are nearly non-existent.
“That’s what this busines is about – it’s about competition,” Kinsey said. “They’re going to make every room competitive, and I do whatever I can to help Kyle. It’s not like I don’t like Kyle or I think it’s this rivalry. That’s the job – to come in and compete.”
One thing Kinsey has in his favor is experience, limited though it is in his case.
Even though he has appeared in just three preseason contests and one in the regular season, he has been practiced with and against NFL players for all but three weeks over the last two seasons. When the Titans cut him at the end of the 2020 preseason, the Patriots immediately signed him to their practice squad. When New England released him a month later, it took just three weeks before the Titans put him on their practice squad, where he remained to the finish. Each of the last two Januarys, Tennessee quickly locked him up with futures contracts, which allowed him to be involved in all offseason work.
Along the way, he developed a deeper understanding of the offense that, he says, allows him to play “faster, a little bit more comfortable.”
“His work, his dedication to learning this offense – not just the slot receiver, but to be able to plug and play anywhere – his versatility and dependability has been impressive over the years,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “He came in here a couple years ago and he was just a bull in a china shop. Now, he’s starting to figure out where he fits in the scheme, and how he can help and take advantage of opportunities.”
Now, he must find a way to stick around for another season.
“You’ve got to come in here thinking like, ‘Someone’s here to take my job,’” Kinsey said. “And I think that goes for everybody on the team. No matter where you’re at, what position, how many years you’ve been in the league, you’ve got to come in thinking, ‘Somebody else is coming in trying to take the job that I want.’
“Every year it’s live or die.”