NASHVILLE – David Long Jr. paid his dues during his rookie season with the Titans, doing the dirty work on special teams while waiting for his turn to take on a bigger role on defense.
When the opportunity came, Long, the son of a former professional heavyweight boxer, came out swinging.
Long started at inside linebacker in the team's playoff win at Baltimore, and he played well. It helped cap off a year Long finished in fine fashion.
Looking back, Long said the experience gave him added confidence heading into Year 2 in Tennessee. Long played 54 total snaps against Baltimore.
"It helped it a lot," Long said after Sunday's practice. "I just know as much time I got to be out there, to see how the game goes and as far as how I play with my teammates and communication, as long as I was in there and feeling it, I felt like as the season went on, it got better. At the end, I feel like with opportunities presented, I made the best of those. Coming into year two, I just know what to work on and with a new (inside linebackers) coach, Jim (Haslett), that's my guy. I've been learning a lot from him to take my game to the next level."
A sixth-round pick of the Titans in the 2019 NFL Draft out of West Virginia, Long tallied eight tackles, including two tackles for a loss, in 14 games during the regular season in 2019.
While filling in for an injured Jayon Brown against the Ravens, Long racked up eight stops, including five solos. In the team's three playoff games, Long had 16 stops and two tackles for a loss, which came in the AFC Championship Game at Kansas City.
Long will provide depth and competition behind starting inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Brown in 2020, and he'll also have a chance to work in certain packages on the defense, along a role on special teams.
Evans, for one, has been impressed by Long, a 5-foot-11, 227-pounder who amassed 252 tackles, 14 sacks and 40 tackles for a loss at West Virginia. Long's father, David Long Sr., by the way, went 12-5-2 as a heavyweight boxer and he once fought future world champ Deontay Wilder.
"I think David Long is one of those guys, you tell him to do something and he's going to do exactly that," Evans said. "I just remember him taking that even bigger step in his game in those playoff games. I saw him really grow in a matter of a game. How he came from the regular season to the playoffs when Jayon got hurt, I saw him take a totally different step in his game. Just for me, seeing that, I know that he can be as good as he wants to be.
"What I've learned, too, in the NFL you don't have to be the biggest and strongest guy in the NFL to be able to be successful. If you understand the game, if you know where things are going, if you know when things are going to happen, you can be up there with those elites. He's a guy that's very intellectual to be able to understand some of the things that we're throwing at him during the season, because it was a lot of stuff, definitely a lot of stuff. For him to be able to do that on a big stage the way he did it, for me, I'm proud. I never had that situation where I was a rookie where you go into the playoffs and it's a totally different type of atmosphere. It's a totally different level of intensity. He held his own for a fact."
Haslett, a veteran coach who is in his first year with the Titans, has already been impressed by his pupil
"I think David is a good football player," Haslett said. "He did a good job when he played, he's very instinctive, he's got short-area quickness. There's some things that he can get better at. I think we can improve everybody in certain areas."
Long spent most the offseason in Nashville, working on his game, his conditioning, and his diet.
He's eating fewer carbs, and after working with some of his teammates, he believes he's much better prepared mentally and physically at the start of his second NFL camp.
When he watched tape, he found areas he wanted to improve, from being better in coverage to just developing a better understanding of the defense.
"I feel like a lot of the stuff I was doing out there (last year) was just kind of second nature, see ball, get ball," he said. "But as far as now, I just want to put a lot of stuff together and just be way better than I was last year."
Long plans to keep watching teammates Evans and Brown.
And when he gets opportunities again in 2020, he wants to take advantage of them once again.
Along the way, Long said the inside backers are also looking out for one another.
"Of course, Rashaan and JB (Jayon Brown) are a lot more vocal," Long said. "I try to get (help others) in there, but I'm still learning myself. I feel like (Rashaan and Jayon) have done a nice job of getting rookies adjusted. Nick (Dzubnar) comes here, he's been in the game a long time, so he can get his one, two here and there, so I feel like everybody's doing a great job just coaching up each other. Not only worried about ourselves, but also making sure the guy next to us is getting better every day, too."