VOL. 42 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 22, 2018
5 questions to ponder before Titans’ camp
By John Glennon
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive guard Kevin Pamphile gives the Titans options at guard and tackle, both of which he can play. He could be called upon if Taylor Lewan’s holdout extends into the season or if Jack Conklin needs more time to recover from knee surgery. -- Jeff Haynes/Ap Images For Panini
In a little more than a month, the Titans will take the field for their first training camp under head coach Mike Vrabel.
There’s an air of anticipation surrounding the team as it’s coming off back-to-back winning records for the first time since 2007-08.
But there’s also the uncertainty of how long it will take the Titans to master the schemes of its new coaching staff.
Here are five key questions facing the Titans as they prepare for that first training-camp practice on July 26:
Will changing Marcus Mariota’s stance pay dividends?
One of the more intriguing storylines of this offseason has been quarterback Marcus Mariota’s efforts to change his base – his stance prior to throwing the football.
The Titans’ new coaching staff and Mariota agreed that Mariota sometimes – especially when pressured or moving in the pocket – used too narrow a base, his feet too close to one another before he threw. He then had to spread his feet out again before throwing, meaning it took a split second longer to complete the entire process.
Titans quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara says the change to a wider base was more of an enhancement for Mariota than it was a major overhaul.
“If you throw from a certain position in a perfect environment when your feet are right, why be narrow and then have to get to a position of throwing?” O’Hara asks. “Time is so valuable when you’re in the pocket and you’re on the platform trying to deliver the ball with the speed of the game.
“It’s just a slight improvement we’re trying to make with Marcus. So far, so good.”
Mariota felt he made progress with the new stance during OTAs and mini-camp.
“Absolutely, it’s something that I’ve really kind of stressed, even before OTAs started,” Mariota adds. “It’s nice to be able to come out here and to see it when you’re going through plays. It’s easy when you’re out there and you can do it during a drill, but once things are flying around and you’ve got to go through (a) progression, (it’s different).
“Being able to see how my body reacts, and seeing that I do have that base, it gives me confidence to continue to work on it.”
How are the team’s top two draft picks progressing?
Much is expected of the Titans’ top two draft picks – inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and outside linebacker Harold Landry – after the the team traded up to select both.
Vrabel says he likes Evans’ work ethic, his enthusiasm for learning and his leadership skills, but that Evans still has plenty of work ahead of him if he wants to become a starter.
“I think he’s got a lot to learn,” Vrabel continues. “I think he’s conscientious. He’s not where he needs to be to start for our defense and that’s OK. We haven’t played a game yet.
“Whether it be Rashaan (Evans) or Harold (Landry), as long as these guys are coming out each day and they’re getting better at something, that’s what we’re worried about and I think they have. I think he’s improved but we all have a long way to go.”
Landry will be counted on to bolster the Titans’ pass rush after totaling a combined 21.5 sacks during his final two seasons at Boston College.
Landry is learning, among other skills, to vary his pass-rushing moves. He relied primarily on his speed around the edge – along with the “rip-and-dip” move – to attack quarterbacks in college, but will need to bring more to the table as a pro.
“You have to have your go-to, don’t get me wrong,” Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen points out. “But I think in this league, the athleticism of the tackles and everything those guys are taught (makes a difference), especially the guys that have played a long time in this league.
“They have their tricks, too, so just being able to throw something else at them, have a change-up here or there, that’s something (Landry) definitely needs to work on.”
Can the wide receivers overcome their lack of experience?
As matters stand now, three of the Titans’ top receivers – Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe – have just one year of experience each. And all three will be learning a new offense under Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
Sharpe caught 41 passes as a rookie in 2016 (he missed last year due to injury), Davis snared 34 last season and Taylor caught 16 last season.
Will they be ready to make more contributions in the coming season? Expectations are highest for Davis, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Vrabel says it’s no easy task for receivers to transition from the college ranks to the NFL these days.
“I think the coverages change in the NFL,” Vrabel explains. “I think there’s so many more coverages that teams run. You look around college, some teams will just be a ‘cover-four’ team, or some teams are just ‘cover-two.’ (The wide receivers) kind of know exactly what they’re getting, as opposed to when they get into the NFL, there could be a number of different coverages and a number of different disguises.
“I think that as a receiver, you go from knowing exactly what coverage you’re going to get to, ‘Man, I don’t know,’ a couple strides into my route.”
To give the receivers a boost, Mariota plans to gather the group at some point in the coming weeks, going over routes, working on timing and crafting chemistry before training camp begins.
How good can the Titans’ secondary be?
For the first time in a while, the Titans will go into training camp with their secondary looking like a real strength.
The biggest change during the last couple of years has been at cornerback, where the Titans have added key free agents Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, as well as draft pick Adoree Jackson. Another young drafted cornerback, LeShaun Sims, has made significant progress in two years and should make some key contributions as well.
Vrabel liked what he saw from this group in OTAs and mini-camp.
“I go home and I think, ‘I really hope they’re this good,’” Vrabel says. “It’s tight coverage.
“Here’s what I like. I like when I see individual drills and then I watch practice and I see the same drill, the same movement in the drill translate in practice, whether that be a pass-rush drill, a blocking drill, a coverage drill, a break-and-drive drill.
“Then I know we’ve got the right staff, that we’ve got the right guys that are trying to give players skills needed to win in football, to do their job, to give them confidence to do their job. I have seen that and we need to continue to see that.”
Then there’s the safety position, where Kevin Byard tied for the NFL lead in interceptions last season (eight) and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition.
“I think success breeds success,” Titans defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs says. “They want to get better. They’re hungry for it.
“I don’t find anyone comfortable with where they are. I find everyone really passionate about getting better, which is exciting. That’s what I see in Kevin.”
Will Taylor Lewan be on the field for the start of training camp?
Lewan surprised many by skipping the Titans’ mini-camp last week.
Whether the move was his idea or – more likely – his agent’s, it was designed to send a message to the team’s front office that contract talks weren’t progressing fast enough.
Lewan is entering the fifth and final season of his contract.
There’s no question the Titans want to re-sign the two-time Pro Bowler. But given the fact this contract may make Lewan the NFL’s highest-paid left tackle, it’s one that could take some time to craft.
It’s not a catastrophe if Lewan isn’t on the field immediately at the start of training camp, but it does become a concern. Remember that Lewan, like the rest of the team, is learning a new offense, so every day’s practice is valuable.
In addition, his absence would soon become a distraction, especially given the fact the Titans’ other starting tackle – Jack Conklin – is recovering from ACL surgery and may well start training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
Dennis Kelly is obviously the team’s third tackle, but another player worth remembering is Kevin Pamphile, who was signed by the Titans as a free agent. He’s versatile enough to play both guard and tackle, and Pamphile has plenty of experience – 33 NFL starts, including 29 the last two seasons in Tampa Bay.
“Yeah, someone like him, who’s so flexible, he’s definitely a big security blanket,” Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter notes.
“He can go in and play both guards, both tackles. And so that’s a big plus for us, and then, he still has an opportunity to compete inside and see how far he can take it.”
Adds Vrabel: “The more positions you can play up front the better, because you get thin on gameday, really (you have) seven or eight offensive linemen on game day. His versatility has certainly shown up, and he’s made his presence known.”
Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.