NFL players find themselves in the middle of training camp right now – a true drudgery for everyone involved. The same offensive players go up against the same defensive players on a daily basis and each day begins to look much like a replay of the day before. Many teams will spice up their mundane schedules by practicing at an alternate location and some teams will partner with another NFL team for a joint practice. This has a way of breathing new life into players that are getting worn down.
On August 6th the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons converged on the fields of Coahulla Creek High School in Dalton, Georgia for one of those unique practice opportunities. What follows is a list of impressions from a Titans fan.
As you drive down a country road in Georgia, you see fields and woods… fields and woods… fields and woods, and then a sea of cars lined up neatly in rows. The people of Whitfield County came out in full force to support this NFL practice effort. There were police involved for traffic control, a fleet of Whitfield County school buses shuttling fans to the practice area, and even a local boy scout troop helping with the parking. It was nice to see such support from the community.
When you get to the fields, the football field is manicured and prepared, but there is also a baseball field on the side that has been turned into a 50-yard football field. When practice begins, the Titans offense is playing on the baseball field against the Falcons defense, while the Titans defense is playing against the Falcons offense on the football field.
This was the scene when my wife and I showed up to watch the practice. I had my notebook handy for notes, and my wife was prepared with a camera at the ready. After badgering her into playing fantasy football with me last year, Nate Washington quickly became her favorite player. She says, “He’s the one player I picked all by myself.” Many thanks go out to my wife – Tara Ward – for all photographs shown in this article.
The Titans show up in buses and take their places on the field. The first thing that is amazing is the relative sizes of these athletes. For some, like rookie TE Taylor Thompson and G Steve Hutchinson, you are just amazed at how large they are. Then there are others like CB Ryan Mouton and WR Nate Washington that just look like normal men that are in really good shape. The field is full of men of all shapes and sizes.
The next thing that is striking is the visible difference between the veterans and the rookies. The veterans have a quality of professionalism that shines through – while the rookies look like rookies. The maturity and the confidence from guys like Nate Washington, Matt Hasselbeck, and Steve Hutchinson is a great influence on the team as a whole. Do not discount the value of good veteran leadership. They bring up the level of the rest of the team.
10 Observations from when the play began…
10. Michael Preston and Chase Deadder are names to be ready for in preseason action.
When the receivers were stretching together at the beginning, two bodies stood out because of their height and wing-span. Michael Preston is a 6’5 UDFA (undrafted free agent) that spent last year on the practice squad, and Chase Deadder is a 6’4 UDFA from this year.
These guys look like they are a head taller than the other receivers, so when bodies start flying and the QB is searching for an outlet in desperation, they are good candidates for a jump ball. I saw both of these guys make some good catches, and I expect to hear their names during the preseason.
They will both be trying to impress someone enough to give them a crack at regular-season play. Unfortunately for both of them – I do not think there will be room on the 53-man roster when the preseason concludes. Both look like great practice squad material.
9. Jamie Harper looked awfully good.
After Chris Johnson got his reps, Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper split the leftovers at RB. It was admittedly a small sample size to make a declaration like this, but I think Jamie Harper could beat out Ringer to be Chris Johnson’s backup.
Harper looked very tough and rugged as a power runner, and he made spin moves and finished runs with authority. Ringer seemed to have trouble breaking free from traffic. Chris Johnson is a speedster and he needs a guy like Harper to complement him out of the backfield.
8. Kendall Wright struggled with jump balls.
It’s a lot of pressure to be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. That pressure was turned up even more on Kendall Wright when Kenny Britt got in trouble recently. He will be leaned on early and often.
We may need to pump the brakes a bit and let Wright develop. During individual WR drills (with no defender covering) Wright slipped and fell once and dropped a pass on another. Then when the real reps began in 11 on 11 drills, he was targeted with two balls, both potential TDs, that ended up as Falcons INTs. He will be great, but fans should remember that every rookie has a learning curve.
7. Center was a problem.
The Titans tried to find a new center this offseason looking at several veterans that were on the free agent market. One by one, they all walked away to other center-needy teams. I don’t know a Titans fan that was excited about another year of Eugene Amano, and due to a triceps tear, we don’t even have him.
Enter William Vlachos – UDFA from Alabama. I watched him get a shot running with the second-team O-line. William Vlachos was the center for the NCAA National Champions last year, and he signed with the Titans at the conclusion of the 2012 draft. When he came in to play, the first play resulted in a fumbled snap, with the subsequent play resulting in Jake Locker getting sacked. I am not convinced that Vlachos is big enough to make the transition from college to the pros – so I am anxious to see what other options may turn up. This will be an ongoing issue for the Titans.
6. Creativity with fullbacks?
Being a veteran myself, I am intrigued by the Titans two “Mack Truck” Fullbacks. Quinn Johnson served in the Marine Corps, and Collin Mooney served in the Army. Not only are both of these guys big and thick – they can run and catch the ball if their number is called.
I looked up at one point and saw Collin Mooney lined up outside at WR. Rather than block, when the ball was snapped, he took off running a route down the sideline.
If you could get the ball to either of our fullbacks with some open space to run, they would be tough to bring down. I like using the fullbacks to open holes for the running game, but I also like to see a little creativity in using them to move the chains.
5. Chris Johnson looked fantastic.
NFL fans are a fickle bunch. Chris Johnson held out last year looking for his big pay day, and he eventually got it. Unfortunately his production took a dive following his huge pay day and fans have opinions and conspiracy theories to explain it. He went from being feared and respected to being doubted and even cast aside by some. Yesterday he looked electric on the field with some explosion in his legs. I think Titans fans have a lot to look forward to from Johnson this year if today was any indication.
4. Jared Cook was a great option – Taylor Thompson was quiet.
Jared Cook was a reliable target today. He made one especially beautiful diving grab on a Matt Hasselbeck throw. We may see something special out of him this year.
Taylor Thompson is a rookie that some have looked at as having ‘Rob Gronkowski upside’. He is physically gifted as he looked like one of the biggest guys on the field (see photo to your left). He is also mentally sharp from everything I have heard. Today, he did not factor into the offensive attack. I think he will be quiet this year but will learn and be ready for a break out in 2013.
3. Marc Mariani had great route running.
Marc Mariani is almost solely thought of as a great special teams talent, but he looked great as a receiver today. When the receivers were running routes, he had the best footwork of the group. When he ran routes in the middle of the field, he seemed to get swallowed up in the traffic, but on the outside he made some great plays. He made for a reliable target and seemed to gain the confidence of his quarterbacks as the practice wore on. I am very impressed with his improvement as a receiver.
2. Nate Washington was by far the best Titans receiver.
If I had to describe Nate Washington today, I would say “smooth”. He did not look cocky – but he played with a confidence that was inspiring. He caught over the shoulder passes at the sidelines, passes thrown over the middle, and passes that made him dive for the ball. It didn’t look like there were any routes that that would cause him to struggle. At every challenge, he came up with the ball. Kenny Britt is super-talented and Kendall Wright has a great future ahead of him, but when the chips are down, the Titans know who they are throwing to – and that is Nate Washington.
1. Matt Hasselbeck looked better than Jake Locker.
At every turn, I have been a proponent of handing the reins over to Jake Locker. After watching practice today, I am not so sure.
When Hasselbeck came onto the field, the Titans would look controlled, and they would gain chunks of yards as they moved quickly down the field. His first series went all the way to the goal line only to be intercepted on a jump ball to Kendall Wright, and his second series stat line was 3/3, 55 yards, TD to Damian Williams.
Locker just didn’t have the same level of success. The offense would gain yards, but not in chunks. They seemed disjointed and confused at times. Where Hasselbeck would go 3/3, Locker would be more like 4/7 and run out of time on his 2-minute drill. To put that into perspective, when Matt Ryan and the Falcons came to the baseball field, he began by going 1/1 with a 55 yard TD to Roddy White on his first pass.
I think I could be swayed to believe that Hasselbeck is the right choice to open the season as the Titans starting QB. Maybe Locker can start later, but I now think Hasselbeck gives the Titans their best chance to win football games. The Titans have a brutal opening 4 games, and the veteran is consistently showing his worth.
I was impressed with the Titans and the Falcons. They played well, and they looked like they had fun doing it.
If you have any specific questions that aren’t addressed here, feel free to hit me up on twitter @titanchaps or email me at email@example.com
God bless and Go Titans,