TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW: SAFETIES
Offseason developments: The Titans parted ways with veteran Kenny Vaccaro, who remains a free agent. The move opened the door for rapidly improving Amani Hooker to slide into a starting role opposite Kevin Byard, who is now headed into his 6th NFL season. Hooker lost weight, and he looked sleeker in offseason workouts. The Titans signed veteran Matthias Farley, formerly with the Colts and Jets, and then drafted Oregon defensive back Brady Breeze. Maurice Smith signed a futures contract with the Titans after spending time on the team's practice squad last year, and he competed during the offseason.
In the spotlight: Byard. The former MTSU standout led the team in tackles in 2020 with a career-high 111. He was fourth on the team in passes defensed during a season when the team won 11 games, and the AFC South, for the first time since the 2008 season. But when the season ended, Byard said he felt he could have, and perhaps should have, done more. And he used that feeling as his motivation during an offseason when he said goodbye to three other veterans in the secondary – cornerbacks Adoree' Jackson, Malcolm Butler and Vaccaro. Byard took part in OTAs and the team's minicamp this offseason, when he worked with plenty of new faces around him. His communication was good. The Titans are counting on him to regain his Pro Bowl form this fall.
Battle to watch: Back-up spots. With Byard and Hooker in line to start on the back end, the spots behind them are up for grabs. Cruikshank is in a position to seize one. Heading into his fourth NFL season, Cruikshank has impressed coaches with his work ethic, and he's now in a position to carve out a role for himself in situational packages on defense after working primarily on special teams his first three seasons. Farley, a savvy veteran, adds value because of his experience on special teams. Breeze will aim to put himself in a position to stick on the roster himself by showing he can contribute early on special teams. Smith's experience will put him in a position to compete as well.
Keep an eye on: Hooker. Despite starting just three games in 2020, Hooker tied for the team lead with four interceptions, and he tied for third with eight passes defensed. The fourth-round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft did it by using good instincts while making plays on the football. In a new-look secondary, Hooker is now in a position to really establish himself as a playmaker. By design, Hooker lost some weight this offseason. He said he feels faster, and the quickness should help his range even more. Hooker also looks like a guy who is ready to take advantage of his big opportunity.
Next up: Special teams.