NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The gauntlet. The crucible. A baptism by fire.

Pick your favorite term to describe a difficult challenge, and it will encapsulate what the Tennessee Titans‘ defensive backs have endured and will continue to endure during Training Camp.

Just about every day so far during 2021 Training Camp, the Titans’ young group of DBs has had to face either A.J. Brown or Julio Jones in practice, and it hasn’t exactly been easy.

“Those guys don’t come out here and play around, they really come out and compete,” CB Chris Jackson said. “It’s a great challenge every day.”

Though practicing against that caliber of receiver—a rising star in Brown and a future Hall-of-Famer in Jones—has likely led to some frustration on the field and perhaps even some mild embarrassment in the film room, it will prove to be an invaluable experience for the Titans’ defense.

“That’s great for us because we get to see our guys against two of the best receivers in the league, and many teams don’t have that ability,” Titans cornerback coach Anthony Midget said. “We can have that and practice against those guys every day to see where we are against those guys.”

“WE’RE TRYING TO GET THEM BETTER”

Following a season in which the Titans’ corps of defensive backs struggled mightily, particularly on third downs, general manager Jon Robinson completely overhauled the unit during the 2021 offseason.

2020 starters Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, Kenny Vaccaro and Desmond King found their way to new teams.

New pieces Jackrabbit Jenkins, Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden found their way to Tennessee.

Kristian Fulton and Amani Hooker, depth players for the Titans in 2020, found their way to presumed starting roles.

While that personnel turnover was certainly warranted, it’s left the Titans with a lot of newness and unfamiliarity in the secondary. It’s also left them with a lot of inexperience; Fulton has just six NFL games under his belt, Hooker has never been a full-time starter, and Farley and Molden are rookies.

That’s why facing Jones and Brown is such a benefit for the Titans’ DBs.

Any defensive back group would be lucky to face top-notch receivers each day in practice, but the Titans’ DBs are especially needy of a challenge.

The group’s youth and newness put them behind a long road to getting on the same page—something the group needs to do quickly.

There’s no better way for a unit to get sorted out and for young players to grow than battling the best of the best, especially when those elite players are focused and intent on helping their other-side-of-the-ball teammates improve.

“Each and every day, we’re trying to get them better and us better at the same time,” Jones said.

“I DO THAT EVERYWHERE I GO”

The benefit of being teammates with Jones and Brown goes beyond just what happens between the whistles on the practice field for the Titans’ DBs, though.

Tennessee’s defensive backs, particularly the young ones, are in a unique position to use their star wide-receiver teammates as sounding boards.

That’s something Jenkins, formerly teammates with Michael Thomas on the Saints and Odell Beckham Jr. with the Giants, has found valuable during his 10-year NFL career.

“I do that everywhere I go,” Jenkins said. “I just want to learn, and you can never be too old to learn. Picking receivers’ brains and letting them come ask me questions, I feel like that helps the team overall.

“It’s valuable because he’s telling me what I’m doing wrong and what I’m doing right, and I’m telling him what he’s doing wrong and what he’s doing right.”

Young NFL players can certainly learn a lot from the veterans at their own position, but it makes sense that players at the position opposite to theirs on the line of scrimmage can also offer plenty of wise counsel.

A good wide receiver certainly knows as well as anyone what coverage tactics do and don’t work for defensive backs in the same way that an offensive lineman knows what works and what doesn’t from pass rushers.

Peering into that knowledge base, especially when it’s stored in the brain of a top-flight NFL player, can be a valuable experience for an NFL player.

It certainly was for Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who used teammate TE Mark Bruener as a sounding board during his days as an outside linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Going against him for four years and being as close to Mark and his family as I was certainly helped me become a better outside linebacker,” Vrabel said.

“The more that you can understand what the guy’s job is that you are going against, might make it better for your matchup. If I know how the offensive line is coached or I know how the tight ends are coached as an outside linebacker, maybe that can help me.”

The Titans’ defensive backs, including former All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, are already taking advantage of that opportunity.

“We just have different discussions about how to make a play better, or what I can show him or what he can show him to make his job harder or my job harder,” Byard said.

“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to get better. It’s not about trying to win ballgames in Training Camp, it’s about getting better.”

Lucky for Byard and his teammates in the secondary, Jones and Brown are more than willing to help.

Jones, still a newly-minted member of the Titans, said that, while he hasn’t had conversations with his DB teammates just yet, those moments will come.

And while Brown said he’s too competitive to be helping DBs in practice, he will help them out inside the building.

“Off the field, I’ll talk to them. On the field, I hate them,” Brown said.

The Titans’ defense, dismal in 2020, needs all the help it can get for a rebound during the upcoming season.

At least some of that help will come from a duo of first-class receivers, something probably no other defense in the NFL will be able to say.

Cover image: George Walker IV/The Tennessean