Walking off Atlanta’s field following his first NFL preseason game, Tennessee Titans running back Mekhi Sargent threw a sweaty arm around general manager Jon Robinson.
“Can we practice tomorrow?” asked Sargent, moments after he’d carried 16 times for 58 yards. “I’m ready to go.”
Said Robinson: “Mekhi, you’ve got to get a day off.”
Sargent’s motor never stopped running throughout training camp, whether in practice or in three preseason contests – where he led the Titans with 49 carries for 187 yards and a touchdown. His reward? A well-earned spot on the team’s 53-man roster, even if Sargent’s position might be tenuous when Jeremy McNichols returns from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
The addition of Sargent, even if temporary, added to what is a very significant undrafted free-agent presence on the Titans’ roster. A surprising 24 of 53 players (45.3 percent) on Tennessee’s initial 53-man roster came into the league undrafted. That’s noticeably higher than the NFL overall, as undrafted players constituted only 24 percent of all league rosters as of Wednesday, per Spotrac.
“That’s the type of guys we have in the locker room,” Robinson said of Sargent. “Guys that love ball and want to come to work every single day and commit themselves to helping their teammates win.”
Just how important are undrafted free agents likely to be to the Titans’ efforts this season?
Eight might be defined as Titans starters, including defensive linemen Teair Tart and Denico Autry, tight end Anthony Firkser, tackle Kendall Lamm, fullback Khari Blasingame and all three specialists, punter Brett Kern, kicker Sam Ficken and long snapper Morgan Cox.
The other 15 Titans who didn’t hear their name called on draft day: Sargent; tight end Tommy Hudson; wide receivers Marcus Johnson, Chester Rogers, Cam Batson and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine; outside linebackers Derick Roberson and Ola Adeniyi; inside linebacker Nick Dzubnar; defensive lineman Anthony Rush; cornerbacks Breon Borders and Chris Jones; safeties Matthias Farley and Bradley McDougald; offensive linemen Aaron Brewer and Daniel Munyer.
One could make a pretty convincing case, unfortunately for the Titans, that the team did a better job in 2020 of finding undrafted talent than it did with its six draft picks.
Tart, for instance, played over 150 defensive snaps in his seven games, Westbrook-Ikhine played more than 150 snaps on both offense and special teams, and Brewer played more than 150 snaps on offense. Meanwhile, only two Titans draft picks from 2020 – Fulton and Jackson – played more than 150 snaps on offense or defense.
It is to be determined whether Sargent will follow in the productive footsteps of the 2020 trio, but we do know the Titans couldn’t say enough good things about him throughout camp and the preseason. The former Iowa standout followed up the impressive Atlanta performance by carrying 16 times for 78 yards against Tampa Bay, and added 17 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown against Chicago – showcasing a physical style that belied his 5-foot-8, 200-pound frame.
Just for good measure, Sargent threw in a couple of special-teams tackles during the preseason – tied for second-most on the team.
“I saw a guy who when we handed him the ball, he was decisive as a runner, he hit the hole, he tried to run through contact when somebody tried to tackle him,” Robinson said. “We scored a touchdown, and he was in there. He went and lined up on the kickoff team, ran through whoever was trying to block him and tried to smoke the guy with the ball. I think when you have that approach to your position, to the game of football, it certainly made my decision and Mike’s decision a lot easier, to keep a guy like that around.”
He should feel right at home among his many undrafted teammates.