TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW: SPECIAL TEAMS
In camp: P Brett Kern, K Ryan Succop, P Austin Barnard, Returner Adoree' Jackson, Returner Michael Campanaro, Returner Dion Lewis, Returner Akrum Wadley, Returner Rico Gafford, Returner Cameron Batson, Returner Taywan Taylor, Returner Nick Williams. Long snapper Beau Brinkley.
Offseason developments: Kern earned Pro Bowl honors after a season when he led the NFL with a career-high and franchise-best 49.7 gross average and a career-best and franchise-high 44.6 net average. Succop signed a new contract with the team following a year when he made 31 of 33 field goal attempts. The Titans added Barnard as an undrafted free agent, and he'll get some opportunities in the preseason. A host of players will compete in the return game alongside Jackson, from veterans to rookies. Eric Weems, in the mix a year ago, wasn't re-signed. Campanaro, formerly of the Ravens, will be among those in the competition in the return game. He returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown last season.
In the spotlight: Jackson. A first-round pick by the Titans in the 2017 draft, it didn't take Jackson long to get noticed in the return game a year ago. He took flight on a return in the season opener against the Raiders, and generated memes because of it. Jackson ended up returning 25 kickoffs for a 23.1-yard average in 2017, and he returned 34 punts for an 8.5-yard average. How much will Jackson be used in the return game in Year 2? Well, I suspect he's still the guy to beat on punt returns. But in an effort to lighten Jackson's load (he played the second-most snaps in the NFL in 2017), don't be surprised if someone else handles kickoff returns.
Battle to watch: Kick coverage. Yes, this is more of a facet of the game than a position battle. But changes are coming to NFL kickoffs in 2018, and it's going to be interesting to see how it impacts the game, and personnel used on Sundays. Gone are the days of "running starts" on kickoffs. A new rule, designed to reduce major collisions and concussions, restricts the blazing start. Wedge blocking is also a thing of the past. The Titans have some special teams aces, especially guys like safety Brynden Trawick and linebacker Daren Bates, on kick coverage. But the new rules will be worth watching on kickoffs, starting in preseason games, to see how players adjust.
Keep an eye on: Gafford. At this point, he still has to be considered a long shot to make the roster, considering he's battling at one of the most talented position groups on the team (cornerback). But Gafford has been scrappy when he's gotten snaps on defense this offseason, and he's blazing fast. How fast? He was clocked at 4.22 at his Pro Day at Wyoming, which was the fastest on campus time of any player in the country this offseason. Gafford will get an opportunity in the return game, and he could get himself noticed – in a hurry. He's a guy who could be a surprise in camp.