Kristian_Fulton.jpg

Kristian Fulton

The Tennessee Titans 2022 offseason can be labeled many things, but boring isn’t one of them.

From adding Robert Woods and Austin Hooper, to A.J. Brown forcing his way out of Nashville and the Titans drafting his replacement in Treylon Burks 18th overall, or Ryan Tannehill and Taylor Lewan opening up about their mental health struggles following Tennessee’s playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, there’s been plenty of intrigue.

After rookies reported to Saint Thomas Sports Park on Saturday, and veterans reporting to camp Tuesday, below are some of our top storylines to watch during Titans’ training camp:

Are Treylon Burks’ conditioning issues behind him?

Every year, there seems to be one offseason topic that local and national media run into the ground (see Julio Jones trade). This year, it was Treylon Burks and AsthmaGate.

The problem started early when Burks failed to finish either practice during rookie minicamp and he was also limited during practices and drills at OTAs. Then Burks’ head coach at Arkansas, Sam Pittman, exacerbated matters when he recently admitted the rookie wideout was out of shape during his college days.

Already under a microscope, it appears Burks is trending in the right direction, however, according to ESPN’s Dianna Russini. If Burks shows up fit, banks some reps with the first-team offense and actually finishes practices, he will likely earn some slack until the preseason.

“I’ve heard he’s in shape, I’ve heard he’s lost weight, I’ve heard there’s been so much growth already,” Russini recently said on The Athletic Football Show. “And this is an organization that … I don’t want to say doesn’t like to share positive stuff, but they’re not quick to go there. The stuff I’ve been getting from some people, and some low-level people too is that he’s working out tons, he dropped the weight, he’s good to go.”

How much will Tim Kelly affect Titans’ passing game?

If Titans head coach Mike Vrabel wasn’t a loyal guy, Kelly could very well have been Tennessee’s offensive coordinator this year.

The Titans offense regressed mightily in Todd Downing’s first year as offensive coordinator and, for whatever reason, he didn’t trust Ryan Tannehill much to pull the trigger on passes that went beyond the chains. Tannehill had the second-worst yards per completion of his career (10.5) and his seven yards per pass attempt was his lowest mark since his third year in the league. 

The main underlying issue with Tennessee’s offense last year was its predictability. Conversely, defensive backs and fans alike could sniff out running back and bubble screens with ease, and suddenly the Titans’ passing offense wasn’t much of a threat.

But as passing game coordinator, Kelly should open up Tennessee’s offense and maximize Tannehill’s skillset. When Kelly was the offensive coordinator in Houston, the Texans ranked 13th overall in 2019 and 2020 with a competent quarterback under center (they fell to 32nd last year with Tyrod Taylor and rookie Davis Mills taking over for Deshaun Watson).

Under Kelly, Houston led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.9) and yards per completion (12.6) and had the seventh-most first downs via pass (222) in 2020. In 2019, the Texans ranked 14th in yards per completion (11.5) and 11th in first downs via pass (203).

Kelly also thrives in an area in which Tennessee struggles — early-down passing. Tannehill ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in completions, passing yards and yards per attempt on first down last year.

How big of a role will Chig Okonkwo have as a rookie?

At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, Okonkwo is a quick, physical tight end built in a similar mold to former Titan Jonnu Smith. Like Smith, Okonkwo has the benefit of spending his rookie season learning from an established Pro Bowl veteran and easing into the fold. 

Okonkwo and Hooper play a different style of game, but both serve as complementary pieces to the offense. The third-round rookie is a speedy, pass-catching target who excels with the ball in his hands and after the catch, while the latter is known for his blocking, route running and prowess on play-action passes.

Smith was targeted 30 times during his first year, bringing in 18 receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns, and accounting for 20 percent of Tennessee’s tight end targets. A similar target share plus steady red zone usage seem like reasonable expectations for Okonkwo this season.

Is the defense ready to join the NFL’s elite?

Tennessee took a big step forward in Shane Bowen’s first official season running the show, finished 12th in total defense (329.8 yards per game), and ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing defense (second, 84.6 yards allowed per game), third-down defense (sixth, 36.7 percent), scoring defense (sixth, 20.8 points per game) and sacks (ninth, 43).

The unit played its best football down the stretch, finishing with the best run defense (64.6 yards per game) and third-best overall defense (277.4 yards allowed per game) over the final eight weeks of the year.

The front seven remained intact, led by the three-headed monster of Harold Landry, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons, who combined for 29.5 sacks and 100 QB pressures last year.

Zach Cunningham and David Long present a clear upgrade over Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown up the middle of the field, and Tennessee has the makings of what could be one of the best young secondaries in the league with Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley, Elijah Molden and rookie second-round pick Roger McCreary.

If the defense plays at the level it did last year, there’s no reason why Tennessee can’t be a top-10, or even top-five unit.

Are previously injured players 100 percent?

Derrick Henry, Bud Dupree, Farley, Taylor Lewan, Robert Woods, and Rashad Weaver. The Titans’ have six potential starters either actively rehabbing an injury or coming off an injury-shortened season last year.

While Henry offseason workout videos have become a tradition in this city, he’s had a much quieter summer this year than in years past. The 28-year-old tailback disclosed that he has been “training like crazy” since the season ended, working on his stamina and taking care of his body as he begins his first training camp following a serious injury. If he’s to be taken at his word, Henry should be full-go come Week 1.

It’s a good sign that Woods, who was running on the side and training with strength and conditioning coach Frank Piraino during OTAs, wasn’t on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list to start camp. For the first time in his NFL career, Woods will be the featured receiver in Tennessee and a mentor of sorts for Burks. Unlike Brown last year, Woods has some help in the passing game with Burks, Hooper and Okonkwo.

Like Woods, Farley was not on the PUP list to start camp either, which can only be good news for his recovery. This isn’t the first time the 23-year-old cornerback has worked his way back from an ACL tear. But this time, Farley credited the injury for helping hm become “mentally better” than he’s ever been. Farley stated he’s worked on his strength and fitness over the summer, which in turn, helped him ease back into training. Without Jackrabbit Jenkins, the Titans need Farley to not only be healthy but to lockdown the No. 2 CB job behind Fulton.

Dupree and Lewan both showed clear signs of distress coming back from ACL tears in 2020. Limited to 11 and 13 games, respectively, both have put more distance between themselves and their knee surgeries and should be at or close to 100 percent heading into September. 

Weaver missed most of his rookie season after being placed on injured reserve in late September. He played just 12 defensive snaps and registered two tackles, but if healthy, he could be an unexpected boost to the pass rush.

Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_