NASHVILLE – The first indications of the benefits of an open date in the schedule were apparent Monday when Tennessee Titans players and coaches returned to work.
Franchise officials designated three players on injured reserve for return to practice. The three – wide receivers Julio Jones and Racey McMath, and safety Dane Cruikshank – remain on injured reserve but now enter a 21-day window during which coaches and medical staff can evaluate their fitness during workouts. It is possible that one or more could be added to the active roster ahead of Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Those guys have been working extremely hard to get back, which is what we ask of everybody that isn’t participating. I felt like the training staff, the weight staff, everyone involved [and] those particular players worked extremely hard.”
A look at the three players designed for return to practice on Monday:
JULIO JONES, WR
(on injured reserve since Nov. 13)
Jones has missed the last three games, the minimum required for a stint on injured reserve, but in his first season with Tennessee has yet to play three full games in a row. His longest run of relatively good health was at the start of the season when he played in two-plus games before a hamstring injury sidelined him late in a Week 3 victory over Indianapolis. The hamstring, which first was an issue during training camp, has continued to be a problem, and the move to injured reserve seemingly was a last-ditch effort to get him back to 100 percent.
Key stat: 16.0 – yards per reception. Among Titans players with at least 10 receptions, he leads the team in that regard. A.J. Brown is next at 13.4.
What his return might mean: It is clear the Titans did not trade for the Julio Jones who averaged 103.8 receptions over a six-year period from 2014-19. He has, however, shown that he can be a downfield threat, which is something the offense desperately needs. If all he does is force opponents to cover him deep down the field it should create room for guys in the short and intermediate areas, where they have had trouble getting open lately.
DANE CRUIKSHANK, S
(on injured reserve since Nov. 13)
Cruikshank started four times in five games beginning in Week 3 when Amani Hooker had some injury issues of his own. In three of those games, he set career-highs in tackles capped by eight in the Week 7 triumph over Kansas City. It was a significant step forward for a player who was almost exclusively a special teams performer in his first three seasons.
Key stat: 6.3 yards allowed per target. Among the players who have started at safety this season, that is the best. By comparison, Hooker and Kevin Byard each have allowed an average of 7.8 yards each time opponents have thrown in his direction.
What his return might mean: Cruikshank is no threat to replace Hooker as a starter, but a third safety who can play on defense will give coaches options in terms of personnel packages to contend with multiple-tight end formations or running backs who present problems in the passing game.
RACEY McMATH, WR
(on injured reserve since Oct. 8)
Among the players with the potential to return from injured reserve, none has been there longer than McMath, the seventh-round draft pick out of LSU. He played in the first four games and got more playing time on offense than expected when Jones and Brown were dealing with concurrent hamstring injuries. McMath has been out with quad issue.
Key stat: 1 – target as a pass receiver. He has yet to notch his first NFL reception.
What his return might mean: He immediately will give the special teams a boost, particularly as a gunner on punts. He and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine filled those roles early, but McMath could spell Westbrook-Ikhine, who is now a much bigger part of the offense than early in the season. On offense, McMath won’t command the respect of Jones, but he has the size and speed to run downfield routes and at least attract a little attention.