NASHVILLE – Amidst the wreckage of the Tennessee Titans’ lopsided loss on Monday night was a high-contrast comparison of the team’s two most recent first-round draft picks.
The play of rookie wide receiver Treylon Burks, the 18th overall pick in this year's draft, was one of the few bright spots, something fans can cling to as a sign of progress.
The same can’t be said, however, for cornerback Caleb Farley. The team’s 2021 first-round selection suffered through another bumpy performance in what may as well be considered a rookie year for him.
Burks made an immediate impression on Monday, looking very much like former Titans receiver A.J. Brown when – on Tennessee’s first offensive play – he grabbed a play-action pass over the middle and turned it upfield for a 14-yard gain.
That play sparked the Titans on their only scoring drive of the night.
It wasn’t the only highlight for the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Burks, who also hauled in a 16-yard pass during the second quarter, which allowed the Titans to convert a third-and-14 and move into Buffalo territory. In 25 snaps – third-most among receivers behind Robert Woods (37 snaps) and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (34) – Burks finished with four catches on six targets for a team-best 47 yards.
Burks’ receiving grade of 78.0, per Pro Football Focus, was the Titans’ best, and it came in part because he averaged four yards after the catch. His numbers appear especially encouraging given the amount of time he missed during the offseason, due to conditioning and asthma issues.
“He did some good things,” coach Mike Vrabel, not one for over-complimenting rookies, said Tuesday. “We need to continue to work on some things as well. I think there were good efforts from pretty much everybody. There were just not enough of them. We didn’t just get going or didn’t play the game complementary enough, obviously.”
Through two games, Burks now ranks fourth among NFL rookie receivers in targets (11), catches (seven) and yards (102). His numbers are comparable to the ones Brown recorded in his first two games as a rookie in 2019, when the second-round pick caught six passes for 125 yards.
Assuming Sunday’s game against Las Vegas is more competitive, it’s reasonable to expect Burks will get more reps than he did against the Bills, when he sat out some of the late going because of the large deficit.
Burks is, after all, tops among NFL rookie receivers when it comes to yards per route run (3.4-yard average) through two weeks. So more snaps might well inject a little more playmaking ability into the Titans’ offense.
“I think he’s trying to play faster,” Vrabel said. “He’s playing bigger. He’s got to play through contact more. They were on him pretty tight there on the backside. Ryan tried to come to him.
“He’s trying to run. He’s been good with the football as far as tracking and trying to go get it. So we’ll see where it goes this week and what his opportunities are.”
On the other side of the ball, however, Farley was more apparent for bad plays than good – with two in particular standing out.
The most noticeable was when Farley lost one-on-one coverage against reserve Bills receiver Jake Kumerow, surrendering a 39-yard gain in the second quarter. Four plays later, Farley looked lost in coverage near the goalline, when he failed to travel across the end zone with Stefon Diggs, surrendering a four-yard touchdown catch.
It was a reminder of the work Farley still has in front of him, after sitting out his final year of college (2020) due to COVID concerns and playing just 60 defensive snaps before tearing his ACL in 2021.
“I think there’s a lot of new experiences (for him),” Vrabel said. “I think there’s a lot of things that are coming to him. There are some good plays and some plays he’d like to have back. I think it’s just a continual process of playing and understanding what happens in this league.”
Is it reasonable to expect that the 6-foot-2, 197-pound Farley, despite his lack of playing time over the past couple of years, should be performing better at this point – simply because of his athleticism and raw talent?
The question has to at least be raised after Farley surrendered four catches on six targets against the Bills. He gave up 68 yards (17 yards per catch), three first downs and the touchdown. His PFF grade on Monday was just 44.0, third-lowest among the nine defensive backs the Titans used – though ahead of Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard (42.8).
What was also concerning about Farley’s play is that the Titans appeared to sit him – at least for a bit – following the series in which he allowed the two high-impact plays. That meant more snaps and more responsibility for the likes of undrafted free agent Tre Avery and 2020 seventh-round draft pick Chris Jackson against Diggs and company.
Especially with top cornerback Kristian Fulton sidelined with a hamstring injury, the Titans would benefit greatly if Farley could speed his learning curve, playing up to the level of draft expectations sooner rather than later.
“I don’t have great expectations for anybody,” Vrabel said. “The expectations are the same, that they come in and they work, they prepare, they give us everything they have and they try to execute their job and their role.
“So I think that seeing Caleb, … I think there were some good plays and some plays that have to be better. But that goes with a lot of guys.”