Who is behind Derrick Henry?
But what about beyond Derrick Henry? When #22 went down last year, the run game remained viable, mainly because opponents clamped down on the passing game and made the team one-dimensional. The Titans found ways to win, but the offense wasn’t nearly as effective.
Last season’s post-Henry workhorse, D’Onta Foreman, is now a Carolina Panther. He was a joy to watch in a Titans uniform, and I wish him nothing but success in Carolina however his absence clears the way for new running mates in the backfield.
Dontrell Hilliard returns with half a season and an offseason with the team under his belt. While he shouldered less of the load than Foreman in relief of Henry, Hilliard also made an excellent accounting of himself. He gained 350 yards on just 56 attempts, working out to a fantastic 6.3 yards per pop.
Who can forget Hilliard’s 68-yard jaunt to paydirt against the Patriots last season? He proved to possess soft hands, adding an additional 19 receptions for 87 yards. The yardage works out to only 4.6 yards per reception, but the Titans’ passing game was anemic at that point.
The offense played primarily with backups everywhere and opposing teams took advantage of the Titans’ misfortune by condensing their defenses and forcing the skill position players to make defenders miss. When Hilliard got blocking, he took advantage of it.
While often overlooked by the casual fan, executing the pass-blocking schemes at a high level can mean the difference between making a roster and not. It can also determine playing time once you make it. Hilliard seemed to pick up on that part of the game and execute it well. It doesn’t hurt his chances to make the roster that Vrabel likes veterans who have proven they can perform on the field.
Speaking of veterans, the Titans acquired Trenton Cannon in the offseason from the San Francisco 49ers. Cannon’s role in the running game in previous stops with the Jets (who drafted him in the 6th round of the 2018 draft out of tiny Virginia State), Panthers, Baltimore Ravens, and 49ers has been limited. He’s amassed only 150 rushing yards and 20 catches in his career.
But Cannon has carved out his niche as a kick returner and was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate last season after returning 16 kicks for 328 yards and a 20.5 average. He’s also been effective as a tackler on special teams. This could be his ticket onto the roster, but his chances could come down to the numbers game.
Would they be comfortable with Cannon as a ball carrier if the team cuts Hilliard? If someone else flashes an ability for returning kickoffs or excels at both kickoffs and punts, I don’t know that Cannon sticks on the roster.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Hilliard maintaining his roster spot is Jordan Wilkins. The Tennessee Titans nabbed Wilkins in December of last year. He played in the season finale against the Texans, carrying 1 time for 0 yards, but that lack of production on one carry doesn’t tell the complete story.
Wilkins has gained 951 yards in his career on 195 carries, averaging 4.9 yards per tote. He’s added 35 catches and 233 yards in his 4 seasons since being drafted in the 5th round by the Colts in 2018. He and Hilliard will likely compete for a third running back role.