This time last year, discussions were being had about whether Dez Fitzpatrick would be left off the Tennessee Titans 2021 roster.
Fast forward 365 days, and the second-year wideout seems to have as good a shot as any to lock down a roster spot and carve out a clear role for himself in a crowded Titans receiver room.
“It starts in the meeting room with [quarterback Ryan Tannehill] knowing that I know my assignments to the T,” Fitzpatrick said at the start of camp. “Him knowing that when I go out there, I’m supposed to be in the right spot at the right depth and make a play once the ball is in the air.”
What plagued Fitzpatrick the most during his rookie year was perhaps his inability to string together consistent days. He showed flashes at varying points during training camp last year but seemed to struggle with the entirety of what the Titans require from their receivers beyond simply catching the ball — route running, blocking and contributing on special teams.
General manager Jon Robinson even chalked it up to Fitzpatrick simply needing more time to adjust to the pro game.
But as the Titans get into the heart of training camp and the preseason, Fitzpatrick has been — more often than not — noticeable for the right reasons. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel credited his year on the practice squad for helping him understand the ins and outs of life in the NFL.
“As you transition from a rookie in your second year, you start anticipating things a little bit more, understanding the system a little bit cleaner, [which] provides that opportunity to be more consistent,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said.
Added Fitzpatrick: “It’s completely different than last year. I have a year underneath my belt, staying on top of the details, knowing what the team keys are and how we as Titans should play.”
It’s clear from Fitzpatrick's performance the last two weeks of practice and from Tennessee’s 23-10 preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens what the Titans envision his role being.
Against the Ravens, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound wideout was targeted three times in the red zone on Tennessee’s final drive. In the team’s first practice following the Ravens loss, Fitzpatrick caught a touchdown from Logan Woodside during 7-on-7 drills, and he later hauled in a 38-yard touchdown reception during a two-minute drill from Ryan Tannehill.
“We targeted him down there; I wanted to see him in the red zone, a big body, an athletic guy,” Vrabel said.
“… It was good to see down there in close quarters, in the redzone and going and attacking the ball. We know how contested and tight those windows are going to be. It was good to see him do that.”
If there were a time for Fitzpatrick to really establish himself in the passing game, it’s now.
There are still some questions that need answered at the top of the depth chart with Robert Woods, Tennessee’s presumed No. 1 WR, coming off an ACL tear and rookie first-round pick Treylon Burks dealing with his share of drama since rookie minicamp.
The receiver the Titans seem to have the fewest questions about is Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who had a solid 38-reception, 476-yard, four-touchdown season last year.
Racey McMath has looked sharp over the last two weeks, presumably asserting himself as the team’s top vertical threat, while Kyle Philips has repeatedly torched defensive backs on the regular. Mason Kinsey is also battling for a potential sixth roster spot as well.
Beyond Woods, Burks and Westbrook-Ikhine, how the rest of the depth chart shakes out is anyone’s guess.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_