NASHVILLE – At some point early in Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, the Tennessee Titans lost an important member of their secondary – nickel cornerback Chris Jackson – to injury.
Instead of turning to rookie Elijah Molden, who’d been the first choice in the season opener at that position, the Titans made a different choice. They moved starting outside corner Kristian Fulton into the slot, a position he’s less familiar with, and inserted Breon Borders into Fulton’s former spot on the outside.
By game’s end, Molden had not played a single snap on defense for a team in need of help at the nickel cornerback.
That’s kind of the way it’s gone for the Titans’ 2021 draft class through the season’s first four games, as the group of eight can be divided into two categories: There are those who’ve made little impact on offense or defense, and those who’ve made no impact at all on those units.
Outside of special teams work, three rookies – offensive lineman Dillon Radunz, wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick and safety Brady Breeze – haven’t played at all. Three others – cornerback Caleb Farley, linebacker Monty Rice and edge rusher Rashad Weaver – have played a dozen or fewer snaps. Molden actually leads the way with 60 snaps on defense, followed by McMath’s 40 on offense.
The situation isn’t much better with the 2020 draft class. only one member of that six-man group – Fulton – has consistently made an impact this season. First-round pick Isaiah Wilson and seventh-rounder Cole McDonald were waived long ago. Third-round pick Darrynton Evans has played in just five games to date because of injury issues. Jackson, a seventh-round pick, and fifth-round selection Larrell Murchison have been steady if not spectacular.
But the lack of contributions from this year’s draft class looked especially glaring on Sunday. Only one member of the group played a single snap on offense or defense. That was McMath, a sixth-round pick who was on the field for 14 offensive snaps. He was not targeted in the passing game.
In some situations, the depth at certain positions has prevented 2021 rookies from seeing significant action. One could argue that’s the case at inside linebacker, where Rice is behind Rashaan Evans, David Long and Jayon Brown. The Titans also have a deep wide-receiver room, which helps explain why McMath hasn’t played much on offense and why Dez Fitzpatrick – a fourth-round pick – is on the practice squad.
On the other hand, the Titans could really use some help from their rookies at thinner positions like cornerback, outside linebacker and offensive line. Whether because of injury or because they’re just not ready, this year’s newcomers have not been able to fill the needs at those spots.
Here’s a closer look at where each of the Titans’ eight 2021 draft picks stands after four contests:
Player: Caleb Farley
Draft pick: First round (22nd overall)
Status: Farley played eight snaps late in the season opener against Arizona. He was a full practice participant on the first day of Week 2 but has been out ever since with a shoulder injury. The absence of practice snaps is especially costly for Farley, who sat out his 2020 season in college because of COVID-19 concerns, and then missed a large chunk of his first NFL offseason recovering from two back surgeries.
It was expected that it might take longer than the average first-round pick for Farley to make an impact, but the Titans could certainly benefit from a player with his athleticism in the secondary.
“I’m sure he’s frustrated, like all these guys when they get hurt,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “He wants to be out there. He wants to work to get better and improve, create his role on this team.”
Bowen stressed the importance of Farley staying focused even while not playing or practicing.
“In the meetings, or whether he’s in the treatment room, watching film, whatever it is, he’s got to stay engaged,” Bowen said. “He’s got to know what we’re doing defensively. He can’t fall behind there. Because this is a growing thing throughout the season and he’s got to learn, continue to learn the game.”
Player: Dillon Radunz
Position: Offensive line
Draft pick: Second round (53rd overall)
Status: Radunz’s only action to date has been 12 special teams snaps Week w against Seattle. He’s been inactive for three of the first four contests. Those figures have to be considered a disappointment, as Radunz was a high draft pick specifically chosen to compete for a starting spot at right tackle.
Certainly no one is writing Radunz off at this early stage of his career, as he played just one college game for North Dakota State, an FCS program, last season. But the fact Radunz isn’t ready at this point was further highlighted against the Jets, when starting right tackle David Quessenberry had a rough afternoon trying to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
If there’s good news, it’s that Radunz’s effort and work ethic are unquestioned.
“I think he’s coming along,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “He’s made of all the right stuff. He continues to get better, and I don’t think it’s super hard to see.
“The way our program and organization is built, we put a lot of stock into those practice reps that he gets, just like everybody else. We watch it with him every week and are constantly evaluating him and stuff like that. So, I think his trajectory is on the right path.”
Player: Monty Rice
Position: Inside Linebacker
Draft pick: Third round (92nd overall)
Status: Rice played five defensive snaps in the season opener. Other than that, he has only seen the field during his 32 special teams snaps over four games. The fact that Rice hasn’t figured much in the defensive rotation isn’t necessarily surprising, as he’s behind three established veterans. It seems that drafting Rice was more about 2022 and beyond than it was about 2021. But if that was the case, it raises the question as to whether the Titans should have been taking a next-year approach on a top-100 selection.
Player: Elijah Molden
Draft pick: Third round (100th overall)
Status: Through training camp and preseason, it appeared Molden was the Titans’ most NFL-ready rookie. After excelling at nickel corner at the University of Washington, Molden looked like he was prepared to do the same for a Titans team that needed help at the spot. But if there was one unanswered question at the start of the regular season, it was how well he’d handle vertical speed at the position – something that’s become more of a challenge for slot corners over the past few years.
Unfortunately for Molden and the Titans, the answer to the vertical speed question was not a good one – not so far, anyway. In his first 50 snaps of the season – over six quarters – Molden surrendered four completions on five targets, for 112 yards, an average of 28.5 yards per catch. Included in that total were touchdown catches of 26 and 63 yards. So Molden, after playing 41 snaps in the opener, got nine snaps against Seattle, 10 against Indianapolis and zero against the Jets.
“There are a lot of ways that you can do your job, and I think that (Molden) probably has to understand what his skillset is and what the other player’s skillset is, and be able to try and disrupt them and find different ways to cover them,” coach Mike Vrabel said.
Added Bowen: “I think always with that position, you’ve got to understand where your help is coming from. More times than not, you’re going to have (help) somewhere. But it’s understanding where the help comes from.”
Player: Dez Fitzpatrick
Position: Wide receiver
Draft pick: Fourth round (109th overall)
Status: Fitzpatrick was the only member of the 2021 draft class not to make the 53-man roster. Even though the Titans were deep at receiver, it wasn’t a good look as Fitzpatrick was exposed to waivers before he was added to the practice squad. This was a player franchise officials had moved up 17 spots in the fourth round to select, surrendering a fourth-round and fifth-round selection in the process. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Fitzpatrick possesses the size and skill set to be an NFL receiver, but the Titans will have to hope they can develop him well enough this season to make an impact in the future.
Player: Rashad Weaver
Position: Edge rusher
Draft pick: Fourth round (135th overall)
Status: The 6-foot-4, 259-pound Weaver was inactive for the opener, played one defensive snap in Week 2, and was on the field for 11 against Indianapolis in Week 3 before he suffered what is expected to be a season-ending leg injury. It was a blow for a team that was thin on the edge. Only Harold Landry and Ola Adeniyi have played all four contests at the position, while Bud Dupree and Derick Roberson have been slowed by injury.
It’s hard to say what might have been had Weaver stayed healthy. But he had flashed at times during the preseason as a pass rusher, and the very fact that he was starting to see the field – on a non-special teams basis – put him ahead of some of his peers in the Titans rookie class.
Player: Racey McMath
Position: Wide receiver
Draft pick: Sixth round (205th overall)
Status: Interestingly, McMath is the only member of the rookie class to play in every game – if special teams are excluded. He got eight offensive snaps in the season opener, one in Week 2, 17 in Week 3 and 14 in Week 4. That said, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound McMath isn’t yet much of an offensive threat, as he’s been targeted just once – unsuccessfully – in those 40 offensive snaps.
“He has a lot of neat physical tools,” Downing said. “He’s a big guy who can run. He’s tough. He’s tenacious. (Wide receivers coach Rob Moore) has been working very, very hard with him, just trying to get some of those techniques down -- some of the things we’ll ask him to do here that maybe he hasn’t done in his receiving past.
“I think he’s coming along well. We’re excited about where Racey’s at, and above all else, his mindset to want to do anything to help this team. That’s a great starting point.”
As expected early in his career, McMath is making much more of an impact on special teams, where he’s played a combined 73 snaps – 61 percent of all the Titans’ special-teams snaps. He needs to excel in this department and grow into his role as a receiver.
Player: Brady Breeze
Draft pick: Sixth round (215th overall)
Status: Breeze has yet to make his NFL debut. We don’t really know much about the 6-foot, 197-pound safety out of Oregon, as he missed a good chunk of training camp and most of the preseason with an injury. The Titans placed him on injured reserve at the start of the season, meaning he had to sit out the first three games. Breeze was designated to return to practice from injured reserve last week, but he’s yet to be activated to the 53-man roster. Based on all the training camp and regular season time Breeze has missed, it would be surprising to see him make much of an impact – other than possibly on special teams – in the foreseeable future. But the Titans must have seen something they liked about Breeze, as they initially kept him on the 53-man roster despite not getting a long look at him.