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This Receiver Took a Different Route

Saturday's NFL divisional playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals will feature some high-profile wide receivers -- and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine.

NASHVILLE – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine readily admits it. He had a Plan B.

His first choice was to play football for a living, but he was not convinced it would happen. It did not help that he was not selected in the 2020 NFL Draft following a productive career at Indiana University.

“There was a time I was interviewing for jobs while finishing up my senior year at IU where [I thought] I just have to have that backup,” he said. “You never know what is going to happen. But I knew I was going to have an opportunity and just figured I would make the best of what I have. That’s really all I could ask for – to have this opportunity.”

To say that he has made the most of it would be an understatement.

There were 35 wide receivers selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, and the Titans did not take any of them. Instead, franchise officials covered their bases with four undrafted players at that spot (they did not sign more than two at any other position). Krisitian Wilkerson (Southeast Missouri State) has appeared in four games with the New England Patriots, and Mason Kinsey (Berry College) made his NFL debut with the Titans this season but has not seen the field since. Kyle Williams (Arizona State) has never played in a game.

Westbrook-Ikhine, on the other hand, has played 30 out of a possible 33 games and has progressed from a special teams performer to a role player on offense to his current role as a significant contributor in the passing game. He was the Titans’ second-leading receiver this season with 38 receptions for 476 yards and four touchdowns. In the three games A.J. Brown spent on injured reserve, it was Westbrook-Ikhine who played more snaps than any of the team’s other wide receivers.

Only 19 of wide receivers drafted in 2020 have caught more passes through their first two seasons than Westbrook-Ikhine, who has 41 for 509 yards and four touchdowns. Just 14 have more touchdown passes.

“There’s definitely times I’m sitting at the house and I kind of realize the position I’m at and the blessing I have to be on this team (and) have a role – a solid role – on this team,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “Yeah, I’m definitely proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

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That road from obscurity to importance makes Westbrook-Ikhine the exception Saturday when the Titans host the Cincinnati Bengals in a matchup that features a handful of sure-things – or as close to it as you can get.

Combined, the offenses include two wide receivers who were top 10 overall picks – Tennessee’s Julio Jones (sixth, 2011) and Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase (fifth, 2021) – and three others who were second-round selections – Tennessee’s A.J. Brown (2019) and Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins (2020) and Tyler Boyd (2016).

All of them have lived up to expectations. Jones, Brown and Boyd have multiple 1,000-yard seasons to their credit, and Jones is one of the NFL’s all-time leading receivers. Higgins topped 1,000 receiving yards for the first time this year, and Chase set an NFL rookie record with 1,455 this season.

Westbrook-Ikhine won’t be mentioned in the same breath as any of them anytime soon, but – in the most literal sense – he absolutely is in their league.

“We have always had confidence in (Westbrook-Ikhine),” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I think he has developed. … He blocks for us. He plays on special teams. He knows multiple positions. Those types of players are very valuable to a team.”

Even if they are not obvious choices from the outset.

Or, if they question whether they belong every now and then. Westbrook-Ikhine, for example, admits to occasional insecurity about his career choice.

“I feel like that’s just a natural human thing,” he said. “Doubt creeps in at times. I feel like it kind of shows its head when you play poorly because there’s doubt in your mind. I just have to kind of roll with those punches and realize what God put me on this earth to do – this gift and talent he gave me – and try to use it to the best of my ability.”