NASHVILLE, Tenn. ⏤ When Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel evaluates the players on his team, age is just a number, he said.
“We have no plans on however old someone needs to be to play or not to play,” Vrabel said. “If you’re 35 and can help us win, you’ll play. If you’re 20 and can help us win, you’ll play.”
Far too often, though, it seems like the Titans do have some kind of unspoken minimum age⏤or, more specifically, experience level⏤that’s required to play significant snaps on offense and defense.
That’s because, on balance, the team tends to set the “can help us win” barrier entirely too high, often preventing rookies from playing when they’d likely be able to contribute in a meaningful way if given the opportunity.
The Titans need to alter that mindset if they want to succeed throughout the 2021 season.
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) October 7, 2021
What do Titans cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins, linebacker Rashaan Evans and right tackle David Quessenberry have in common?
For starters, none of them are playing very well.
Quessenberry has been a big part of Tennessee’s pass-protection woes, Evans frequently runs into the wrong gap on run plays, and Jenkins has allowed numerous chunk plays in the passing game.
Those three players are also connected by the players beneath them on the depth chart.
Jenkins, Quessenberry and Evans are all playing ahead of highly-drafted rookies⏤ specifically, the Titans’ top three picks from the 2021 NFL Draft: CB Caleb Farley, OL Dillon Radunz and LB Monty Rice.
Those three rookies, each selected within the top 100 picks of the draft, have puzzlingly remained entrenched as sparingly used depth pieces despite the struggles of their veteran counterparts.
To be fair, Farley hasn’t been active since Week One and missed over two weeks of practice because of a shoulder injury, but Titans still wouldn’t have let him see the field very much if he were healthy, in all likelihood.
After all, the Titans only allowed Farley to play eight snaps in that Week One game, all of which came after Tennessee had already been trounced by the Cardinals.
Even so, Farley, the Titans’ 2021 first-round pick, has a better chance of playing meaningful snaps in the near future than Rice or Radunz, though that’s mostly by default.
He practiced fully on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and he appears ready to go for the Titans’ upcoming game in Jacksonville on Sunday despite the valuable time he missed.
“If he’s got to play, he’s got to play⏤that’s how it goes,” defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said.
“If you’re available and on the active roster, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
At the very least, Farley will be active for Tennessee on Sunday. The same can’t be said about Radunz.
Tennessee has relegated Radunz, drafted as a tackle in the second round, to being a third-string guard.
Even with Quessenberry’s struggles and the Titans’ inability to protect QB Ryan Tannehill, who took seven sacks on Sunday against the Jets, Radunz isn’t seeing the field anytime soon, though the Titans do seem to like the progress he’s making.
“He’s working really hard at his craft,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “He’s been picking the brains of the veterans to learn and absorb as much as he can. He’s got a great attitude. He’s hungry to learn.”
That leaves Rice, who, though not as far behind the eight ball as Radunz, is still not very close to it.
Tennessee’s coaching staff does like what Rice has been able to do on special teams.
“Monty Rice has showed up on special teams,” Vrabel said.
“Didn’t see it in Training Camp, but saw it the last couple of games…Those are positive things, and I always tell them that most of the linebackers in this league learn confidence and understanding about playing in this league from special teams.”
That’s a far cry, though, from declaring Rice ready to contribute on defense.
UPDATE: Tennessee placed Brown on injured reserve Friday because of a knee injury. All the more reason for Rice to get a shot.
There are plenty of examples beyond the Farley/Radunz/Rice trio, in recent years, of rookies who barely got a chance to play for the Titans.
Elijah Molden has been relegated to the bench after starting the first two games of the 2021 season, RB Darrynton Evans hardly played even when he was healthy down the stretch in 2020, and the team asked very little of first-rounder Rashaan Evans in his inaugural campaign.
There’s something to be said about not overwhelming rookies and easing them into the NFL, but there’s a big difference between easing a rookie in and coddling them.
The Titans don’t coddle their rookies, but they do veer in that direction, at times.
Is it possible that all of these rookies just aren’t that good? Maybe, but probably not.
Here are better questions to ask:
Could Rice be an improvement over Evans? Could Farley be better than Jenkins? Would Radunz be a step up from Quessenberry?
Perhaps, but the Titans won’t ever find out if they don’t let them play.
That’s why Tennessee needs to pull the trigger and give their highly-drafted rookies a chance.
They don’t need to play every snap or even, necessarily, start, but they should be given a chance to help the team win.
- Radunz image: Jason Getz/USA Today
- Rice image: Dale Zanine/USA Today
- Farley image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today