NASHVILLE – If Dillon Radunz is to be the Tennessee Titans’ starter at right tackle, he’s going to have to prove – more than anything else – that he can handle pass-protection duties at the position.
The evaluation of Radunz so far through training camp – and in a small preseason sample – looks much the same as it did during his rookie season: The 2021 second-round draft pick can be an effective run blocker, but still needs work when it comes to consistently protecting the pocket.
“I think he’s doing a nice job in the run game,” offensive line coach Keith Carter said Monday. “In drop-back protection, as always with all of our tackles, it’s (about protecting at) the top of the pocket. That’s where (pass-rushers) are really good defensively and they get paid a lot of money. It’s just keeping his feet alive and staying in phase. But he’s making strides and we’re happy with where he’s coming.”
It was no secret that Radunz came into the NFL with a much more significant background in the running game than the passing game.
In his sophomore season at North Dakota State, Radunz started at left tackle on a team that led the Missouri Valley Conference with 286.2 rushing yards per contest. A year later, the Bison were even better on the ground, setting a school record with 4,601 rushing yards – the fourth-best total in the Football Championship Subdivision.
That helps explain why he – during his 124 offensive snaps in 2021 – fared alright in the Titans’ run attack, grading out at 57.3, per Pro Football Focus.
“I absolutely loved run-blocking at North Dakota State, obviously,” Radunz said. “Here, they just do it a completely different way and I was able to learn that, and hopefully I’m implementing it on the field a lot, doing it the Titan way. I’m loving that so far this camp.”
But the Bison averaged just 19 pass attempts per game during Radunz’s two full seasons, giving him limited experience in that department.
That lack of pass-pro background was likely a reason Radunz earned a PFF pass-blocking grade of just 39.5 during his rookie season. He allowed two sacks, three quarterback hits and three hurries in just 59 pass-blocking snaps.
Radunz’s limited playing time – just seven snaps -- in last week’s preseason opener against Baltimore painted a familiar picture: In his three run-blocking snaps, Radunz posted a 71.3 PFF grade, and in his four pass-blocking snaps, the grade was just 33.2.
It’s worth remembering this is the first stretch of time Radunz has focused solely on playing right tackle, after playing the left side in college and a variety of spots last year. But it’s also worth pointing out that rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere, a third-round pick, is making the switch from left tackle in college to right tackle in the pros as well – and that Petit-Frere has already improved to the point of challenging Radunz for the starting job.
“We’re competitors, so we always love competition,” Radunz said. “Obviously in the back of my mind, I’m like, `I want to play, like, give me the job,’ stuff like that. That’s always going to be there. But it’s been a fun competition. He’s a great kid.”
The next time Radunz and the Titans take the field, they’ll be practicing against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that totaled 47 sacks last season – the seventh-most in the league. Radunz could be facing the likes of Shaq Barrett (10 sacks in 2021), Anthony Nelson (five sacks in 2021), William Gholston (4.5 sacks in 2021) and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (four sacks in 2021).
It will be a huge opportunity for Radunz to show he’s made strides where he most needs to -- in pass protection.
“Just like any offensive lineman, you’re just trying to keep your feet in phase, keep your shoulders back, strike with your hands, wide hands, stuff like that,” Radunz said. “Everybody who’s good at pass-blocking has a good base all the time, no matter what position they get themselves in. So I’m just focusing on that, and keeping the feet in phase.”