NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans kick off the regular season on Sunday at Miami.
Here's a look at six things standing out about the Titans at the start of the work week:
On the mend
Midway through the preseason, the Titans were a banged-up football team. Unfortunately, the Titans lost some players who won't come back, including safety Johnathan Cyprien, cornerback Tye Smith and linebacker Nate Palmer on defense/special teams. But when the Titans started preparation for the Dolphins on Monday, some key cogs were on the practice field, from Delanie Walker to Malcolm Butler to Brian Orakpo to Rishard Matthews to Jack Conklin to Derrick Morgan. Of course some questions remain, especially surrounding Conklin and Morgan. But things are definitely looking up.
Marcus Mariota was once again voted as a team captain by teammates, who've seen the fourth-year quarterback develop from a leadership standpoint. I've noticed Mariota taking charge more than ever in group settings, beginning with on-field huddles before games. I know some folks who have always been in the middle of those gatherings, and they couldn't recall Mariota's vocal presence in those previously. Tight end Delanie Walker is a tone-setter with his actions, the same way defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and an even more vocal Wesley Woodyard, the team's defensive captains, handle themselves. The selection of Daren Bates by his teammates shows what they think if his effort on special teams.
When the Titans made just four selections in the 2018 NFL Draft, it led to the assumption more undrafted free agents might end up sticking on the 53-man roster. And, well, it happened. Four undrafted rookie free agents stuck, including receiver Cameron Batson, linebacker Sharif Finch, defensive lineman Matt Dickerson, and offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie. The youngsters worked hard for their spots, displaying a "chip-on-the-shoulder" approach. The Titans have plenty of it -- as of September 3, 17 of the Titans on the team's 53-man roster went undrafted. That's a big number.
The Titans hit the road on Sunday, and they'll face a Dolphins team that's expected to be improved in 2018. It's the start of a tough stretch of games. After Miami, the Titans will face a Texans team that welcomes back quarterback Deshaun Watson, before a stretch of five opponents that either went to the playoffs or finished with a winning record a year ago – the Jaguars (10-6, AFC title game), Eagles (13-3, Super Bowl champs), Bills (9-7, playoffs), Ravens (9-7) and Chargers (9-7). The players and coaches are locked in on Miami. But I can't help but think: What's on the horizon makes Sunday's game even more important.
Questions at OLB
I kicked off this six-pack discussing the improved health of the team, and it's true. But one area remains a bit of a concern – outside linebacker. Orakpo said on Monday he's ready to "rock and roll," but Morgan remains a question mark, and rookie linebacker Harold Landry is dealing with the ankle injury he suffered against the Steelers. Coach Mike Vrabel said on Monday "that's one position that we'll continue to evaluate." The Titans traded for versatile linebacker Kamalei Correa last week, and he'll likely be counted on, along with Aaron Wallace. In the heat and humidity in Miami, the team would love to employ a pretty good rotation.
Regular season feel
The locker room – and practice field – felt empty on Monday, and that's usually the case the first day after cuts. The team went from 90 to 53 players over the weekend (plus 10 practice squad players), and the thinning out process always serves as a reminder the season is upon us. The mood at Saint Thomas Sports Park was different at the start of a practice week that ends with a regular season game, and everybody could feel it. "There's excitement," safety Kevin Byard said. "Everyone has a pep in their step, and everyone is ready to go. Guys are ready for Week One."