NASHVILLE – It was not a memorable training camp for rookie Dez Fitzpatrick. Unless, of course, one defines that word more by problematic than pleasing recollections.
The first of the Tennessee Titans’ two fourth-round draft picks last May, Fitzpatrick looked overwhelmed from the start -- unsure of his responsibilities, unclear how important it was to contribute without the football in his hands, and – all too frequently – unable to hold on consistently when that ball came his way.
The overall performance was enough to prompt coach Mike Vrabel, during one particularly exasperated moment, to note that Fitzpatrick needed to show “a lot more” following the team’s first preseason contest.
It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the Titans, who had several experienced receivers under contract, cut the 6-foot-2, 208-pound wide receiver before he played a single regular-season game.
They weren’t done with Fitzpatrick, though, as evidenced by the fact that general manager Jon Robinson – sensing there might be untapped potential – signed him to Tennessee’s practice squad. It has been for the most part an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation ever since for Fitzpatrick.
Suddenly, however, it looks as if a rookie resurrection is at hand – a resurgence at the very least.
On Tuesday, the same day the Titans released veteran receiver Josh Reynolds, the team chose to protect Fitzpatrick on the practice squad. That marked the first time this season Fitzpatrick had been among the four practice-squad players singled out in that manner. Other NFL teams can’t poach Fitzpatrick onto their 53-man rosters this week.
The designation is not necessarily a guarantee he’s on the verge of being activated to the 53-man roster, but it does show the Titans value Fitzpatrick. And Reynolds’ release seems to increase Fitzpatrick’s odds of earning that long-awaited call-up to the 53, or at least an addition to the gameday roster.
“There’s some momentum there,” Vrabel said of Fitzpatrick’s progress. “(During the lead-up to Week 8), he was show-team player of the week on offense and on special teams. That’s a two-for-one (special), and those are hard to come by.
“I think that that’s something we have to continue to take advantage of, and try to find roles for him, and have him keep working like everybody else that’s either on our roster or on our practice squad. That’s our challenge.”
Vrabel isn’t the only one who’s taken note of Fitzpatrick’s improvement on the practice squad. The same goes for starting safety Kevin Byard, who sees plenty of Fitzpatrick each week when the rookie is simulating opponents for the show team.
“Absolutely (I’ve seen progress),” Byard said. “He’s one of the hardest guys to cover on the scout team. Vrabel is always talking about guys on the practice squad improving, improving. He’s definitely been the most improved over there -- just route craft, getting confidence in what he’s doing. He’s making some really good catches out there in practice. So, I’m excited to see him improve.”
The Titans’ 2021 draft class hasn’t been very productive. Two picks – cornerback Caleb Farley and edge rusher Rashad Weaver – are out for the season due to injury. Another, wide receiver Racey McMath, is on injured reserve. Three more -- offensive lineman Dillon Radunz, linebacker Monty Rice and safety Brady Breeze – have played sparingly. Cornerback Elijah Molden is the only one of the picks that has played in all nine games this season.
So, the possibility that Fitzpatrick sees some action this season would be a boost, especially considering the Titans traded away three draft picks to move up 17 spots and pick him.
Some NFL analysts considered Fitzpatrick as a later-round pick, but the Titans liked what they saw. In four years at Louisville, he caught 154 passes for 2,589 yards (16.8-yard average) and 21 touchdowns. Those figures included a 2020 total of 43 catches for 833 yards (19.4-yard average) and three touchdowns.
It’s not about the past anymore for Fitzpatrick, though. It’s about the future.
“I’ve definitely seen Dez improve,” safety Amani Hooker said. “He’s way more confident. He just had to be out there and had to go against the guys, and he understands he can make certain plays and do certain things. Just because you’re a rookie doesn’t mean nothing. He’s been doing that the last couple weeks and improving a lot.”