NASHVILLE – Chig Okonkwo can laugh about it now.
With a year under his belt, the Titans tight end has more confidence, more familiarity with the offense, and more trust from those around him – including coach Mike Vrabel.
"It's a lot different now," Okonkwo, flashing a big smile, said of his growing relationship with Vrabel. "Now we come in and we smile, we shake hands every day, and we're laughing and stuff.
"As a rookie, even if you do it right, you did it wrong. It's no more of that. It's a lot more fun with him now."
Okonkwo by no means is relaxing.
But it's clear he learned from the tough love.
During the course of the 2022 season, Vrabel occasionally offered some pretty blunt assessments of areas where Okonkwo came up short, even after seemingly solid performances.
For the most part, Okonkwo had a successful first year in the NFL. In fact, Okonkwo was named to the Pro Football Writers Association's All-Rookie team.
At the end of last season, Okonkwo discussed his relationship with Vrabel, and how he managed to take the constructive criticism in stride.
"He'll tell me, he's only going to coach me as hard as he cares," Okonkwo said of Vrabel. "I know when he is pushing me and he is looking at every single rep I am doing, I just embrace it. He doesn't want me to be a terrible player. He wants me to become the greatest player that I can become. So, for me, I always keep that in the back of my mind and don't let anything he says get under my skin. I know he wants me to be great, and I know he is not doing this to make me feel bad. He just wants me to be a great player."
Heading into his second season, Okonkwo is able to appreciate Vrabel's approach even more.
He's even told younger players, like rookie tight end Josh Whyle, it's a lot about paying dues with Vrabel.
"I talked to them, and I was saying: With (Vrabel) you have to earn it," Okonkwo said. "It doesn't matter how good you are – he doesn't care. You have to show him first; you have to earn it.
"And with them I always say: Don't let the talk get in your head. That's what he does to all the rookies because he wants to get you prepared for the NFL. I would say, just understand the message and not the delivery, and they'll be fine."
A fourth-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft out of Maryland, Okonkwo finished the 2022 season with 32 catches for 450 yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into Year 2, Okonkwo is focused on getting better.
He knows his head coach and plenty of others are counting on him.
"I know my role on this team," Okonkwo said. "I know that I have a big role on this team this year and I embrace that, because that's the player I want to be. I want to be a great player. So, I know my role on this team – to lead the tight ends, to be the guy in that room, and I am ready to do that.
"(As for production) I just want to go out there and play with confidence, and we'll see what the numbers say at the end of the year."