NASHVILLE – When it comes to preseason football, a player’s performance on special teams speaks volumes.
That was the message Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel sent Monday as he looked ahead to his team’s 2022 preseason opener, Thursday at Baltimore.
“Special teams are a large part of the game,” Vrabel said. “They set the table for what we’re trying to do on offense and defense.
“Also, we’d like to have some guys that can send messages – with physicality, with speed, and with toughness.”
While the decisions about who will start at right tackle (Dillon Radunz and rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere each are getting a look) or whether Caleb Farley or rookie Roger McCreary is the better option as an every-down cornerback are interesting, they are not make-or-break situations. Regardless of who gets the call at those spots, each of those players will be on the regular-season roster.
The real drama comes with the choices coaches make to fill the final few spots among the available 53. For those players, it is the difference between playing in the NFL and being forced to bide their time on the practice squad or to start over – if possible – with another team.
Often, the ability to contribute on special teams is the deciding factor. The fifth inside linebacker, for example, might never see the field on defense but he can expect to be a part of the coverage and return units. A wide receiver who can race down the field and make a tackle as a gunner on punt coverage has an advantage over a guy who has good hands.
“It’s an opportunity to change momentum, to create momentum,” Vrabel said. “… So, I’m excited to see us go out there and play and to see guys that can return kicks and see who can cover kicks. That will be a large part of the evaluation.”
A look at some players to watch on special teams during the preseason:
• Trenton Cannon, RB: A free-agent addition this offseason, Cannon has seen more action on special teams than on offense over four seasons with four different clubs. He has been productive as a kickoff returner and as a part of coverage units. Chances are franchise officials envision him as part of the 53-man roster, but he hardly is a lock. There are three other running backs and one fullback who, if they stay healthy, will make it, and one of those backs – Dontrell Hilliard – also can return kickoffs and can fill an important role on the punt team. If Cannon does not play up to his reputation, it could lead to someone at a different position taking his spot.
• Joshua Kalu, S: His special teams responsibilities increased every year during the three he spent with Tennessee (2018-20). But in 2021, he was with the New York Giants and spent the entire campaign on injured reserve. A late addition to the current offseason roster, he is no better than fifth among the safeties. The Titans kept just four at the position on the roster last season. So, of Kalu is going to convince them to add one, it will be because he is a factor on pretty much all of the special teams.
• Joe Jones, ILB: There is an opportunity right now for a number of players at this spot to show what they can do on defense. Monty Rice remains on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and Dylan Cole is currently sidelined by a minor injury. But anyone who expects to have a spot behind starters Zach Cunningham and David Long must be able to contribute in the kicking game. Jones has played five years in the league (four with Denver, one with Tennessee) and 95.5 percent of his playing time has been on special teams. He will have to show he can continue to do what he has done if he is going to stick around a while longer.
• Mason Kinsey, WR: The Division III product has spent most of his two years in the league with Tennessee but has played in just one regular-season game. His chances to have a role on offense this season diminished when Kyle Philips was selected in the fifth round of the draft (both are slot receivers). Thus, if Kinsey’s professional breakthrough is to happen here, it will be on special teams. He is the only player listed on this week’s unofficial depth chart a both punt returner (second, behind Philips) and kickoff returner (third). His speed is what has allowed him to get to this point. It’s time to show he can put it to good use and be an explosive returner for a team that has said it wants to be better in that regard.
• Shakur Brown, CB: Added after the start of camp to fill the opening created by Buster Skrine’s retirement, Brown has caught the attention of coaches and earned some notable opportunities in recent practices. He played nine games in the spring with the Pittsburgh Maulers of the USFL and looks like he has more football in him. Still, this is a team that has drafted five cornerbacks in the last three years (four of them in the first three rounds) and has some veteran depth options if it chooses to go that way. Brown has yet to appear in an NFL regular-season contest. In order for him to do so, it will be as a special teams player first and a part of the defense later, if at all.