It is not common for an NFL team to bring back a former player once that player has left. The primary goal of roster turnover is to get younger.
That does not mean it never happens.
The Tennessee Titans, for example, have turned to former players on occasion for any number of reasons, from the desire to recapture past glory to the peace of mind that comes with a proven performer.
An opportunity exists right now to do it again.
Earlier this week, the Kansas City Chiefs released wide receiver Tajaé Sharpe, which means he now has failed to catch a pass for two franchises since he left the Titans a little more than a year ago. Sharpe played four games for the Minnesota Vikings in 2020 before he was released and then finished the campaign on Kansas City’s practice squad.
Given that Tennessee looks to be far from settled at wide receiver, franchise officials ought to at least consider the idea of a return for the 2016 fifth-round pick. After all, the roster includes two established wide receivers (A.J. Brown, Josh Reynolds), two draft picks (Dez Fitzpatrick, Racey McMath) and a collection of veterans with varying experience who contributed little – if anything – in 2020 (Cameron Batson, Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson, Cody Hollister).
“There’s a lot of things about player acquisition that go into it,” coach Mike Vrabel said early in the offseason during a season ticket holder event. “What’s best for your football team? Cost basis is also a part of it. The fit is a part of it. And then need – what you need, what you feel like your team needs.”
Given his inability to catch on with the Vikings and Chiefs, Sharpe’s market value never has been lower. In 2019, his last season with Tennessee, he was the primary backup at all three wide receiver spots, which means he knows the offense. He also was particularly effective on third down and close to the goal line, two areas that can decide a game. Plus, he is 6-foot-2, 194 pounds and is willing to be physical, which is consistent with that the Titans want at that position.
It could be that Sharpe’s best days are really behind him, but it also seems likely that Tennessee could do worse than him in an attempt to beef up the wide receiver room.
A look at some notable players who have returned to the Titans after time away:
• Jevon Kearse, defensive end (1999-03, 2008-09): “The Freak” took the league by storm and helped the Titans reach Super Bowl XXXIV when he set an NFL rookie sack record with 14 1/2 in 1999. He remained highly productive through his first three seasons (he made the Pro Bowl every year) then left as a free agent in 2004. He spent four years with Philadelphia before he returned. Kearse played all 16 games but had just three and a half sacks in his first year back (2008). In 2009, he lost his job as a starter after four games and was scratched more often than not the rest of the way.
• Justin McCareins, wide receiver (2001-03, 2008): During an extended period when the Titans struggled to find productive wide receivers in the draft, McCareins was something of a revelation. He improved steadily over three seasons and in 2003 was the second-leading receiver with 47 catches, 813 yards and seven touchdown receptions. He came back in 2008 after four seasons of steadily declining numbers with the New York Jets and was fifth on the Titans (third among wide receivers) with 30 catches for 412 yards with no touchdowns in what turned out to be his final NFL season.
• Perry Phenix, safety (1998-00, 2001): A hard-hitting safety who made the roster as an undrafted free agent, Phenix led the Titans in special teams tackles in his second season and played 47 out of a possible 48 games over three years. Tennessee drafted a pair of safeties in 2000, and the next year traded Phenix to Carolina just before the roster was reduced to the 53-man limit for the 2001 season. He was with the Panthers and Cleveland Browns briefly before the Titans re-signed him due to injuries that decimated the secondary. He appeared in 12 games and started 11 that season. He was the third-leading tackler with a career-high 87 but was not re-signed in 2002.
• Marc Mariani, wide receiver/returner (2010-13, 2016): A seventh-round pick, he was a member of the All-Rookie team and a Pro Bowler as a return man in 2010. He never carved out a role for himself as a receiver, and injuries sidelined him for all of his third and fourth seasons. The Titans never successfully replaced him during the two years he spent in Chicago (2014-15), so they brought him back in 2016 to serve as their primary return man. He was reliable but not nearly as explosive the second time around, which was his final NFL season.
• Will Compton, inside linebacker (2018, 2020): He was a prominent free agent addition in 2018 but ultimately served as a depth guy and special teams performer, and the Titans allowed him to leave in free agency the next year. They brought him back late in the 2020 training camp to provide some insurance for the defense. He started the first game after Jayon Brown was injured but quickly returned to a role player when David Long took over that spot. He actually played more snaps on defense last season (124) than he did in 2018 (79) and made 14 tackles, three more than he had two years earlier.
• Robaire Smith, defensive tackle (2000-03, 2006): There were questions about his work ethic when the Titans selected him in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, but over time he established himself as an aggressive, physical member of the defense who became a full-time starter in his fourth year, when he made 73 tackles and had four and a half sacks. He went to Houston as a free agent in 2004 but was cut just before the start of his third season there. Tennessee re-signed him and he picked up where he left off in 2003 (76 tackles). He once again left as a free agent, and he finished his career with four seasons in Cleveland.
• Gary Anderson, kicker (2003, 2004): He was 45 years old and retired, or so he thought, when Joe Nedney was injured in the 2003 opener. With lofty aspirations, Tennessee convinced Anderson to suit up for a 22nd NFL season and he made 87 percent of his field goals and made a decisive kick in a wild card victory at Baltimore. Unimpressed with Aaron Elling’s Week 1 performance in 2004, the Titans turned to Anderson again, and he answered again. This time he made just 77 percent of his field goal tries for a team that finished 5-11.
• Neil O’Donnell, quarterback (1999-02, 2003): He was invaluable as Steve McNair’s backup for four seasons, but the Titans decided to go younger and cheaper when they elevated Billy Volek to that spot in 2003. O’Donnell went almost the entire season without a contract, but Tennessee pulled him off the street in Week 16 after Volek was hurt. McNair was injured the next week, and at 37 years old O’Donnell completed 18 of 27 passes for 232 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a 33-13 season-ending victory over Tampa Bay.