The Tennessee Titans are now less than 24 hours away from reporting to their most anticipated training camp in recent memory. A big reason for the newfound anticipation is the influx of new faces at the team facility.
At the top of the list is this year’s rookie class, and the majority of them figure to play a huge role on both sides of the ball this season.
Today we’ll discuss some key rookies to watch throughout training camp.
Jack Conklin – Tackle
After trading away the number 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, the Titans packaged some of their “extra” picks to move back into the top ten, and selected Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin 8th overall.
Byron Bell started at right tackle for Tennessee in 2015, but was lost for the season after suffering a freak ankle injury during mini camp this offseason.
As a result, any thought of bringing the rookie along slowly was thrown out of the window. Now penciled in as the day one starter, the former Spartan must adapt quickly to the pro game.
Tennessee looks to become a run-dominant, ball control offense this season, and oh…by the way, controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk has made no secret of the fact that keeping her prized possession franchise quarterback upright is of grave importance….to everyone that bears that responsibility.
Just ask former head coach Ken Whisenhunt…but I digress.
Conklin enters training camp under a tremendous amount of pressure. The Titans have invested first round picks on offensive linemen three out of the last four years, and his predecessors did him no favors by underachieving thus far.
And he will certainly have his hands full in camp because the Titans have a formidable veteran-laden defensive line that was 8th in the league in yards allowed per rush last year.
If Conklin can handle that line over the next several weeks then he should be good to go for the regular season.
Derrick Henry – Running Back
The bruising Heisman Trophy winning back will not only be one of the most watched rookies by Titans fans and the local media, but he will also be one of the national storylines throughout training camp.
After punishing would-be tacklers and leading the nation in yards after contact last season at Alabama, Henry will now attempt to…at the very least…steal carries from newly acquired veteran running back DeMarco Murray.
The rookie hasn’t played a down of professional football yet and has already earned a nickname as one half of “Thunder and Thunder”. Henry will be heavily counted on this season to execute Tennessee’s vision of becoming an exotic smash mouth offense this season.
His development is a critical factor in that vision coming to fruition.
Tajae Sharpe – Wide Receiver
The fifth round pick out of the University of Massachusetts was also tops in the nation last year, leading all collegiate receivers in catches in 2015 (111).
Sharpe had an impressive rookie camp, and followed that up with an even better showing against the veterans during mini camp. So much so that he ended camp running with the first team offense.
Keep an eye on Sharpe during training camp, because you could be looking at a surprise starter when the Titans open the regular season at home against the Minnesota Vikings.
Kevin Dodd – Defensive End
Tennessee used one of their three 2nd round picks on defensive end Kevin Dodd, who had a breakout season in 2015 with 60 tackles and 12 sacks for the Clemson Tigers.
The last time we saw Dodd on a football field he was barreling through Alabama’s line with ease…to the tune of seven tackles and three sacks in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Preventative offseason surgery caused Dodd to miss OTAs, and it is still unclear when he will make his debut in Titan blue.
When he is healthy and ready to go, which Tennessee hopes is sooner rather than later, he will be a key cog on an already stout d-line.
Austin Johnson – Defensive Tackle
One thing that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau loves to do is to send fresh bodies at you in waves up front, which makes Johnson worth watching throughout training camp.
Johnson is big and athletic, and made his name as a premier run stopper at Penn State. He has a bevy of veteran defensive linemen ahead of him on the depth chart, but should find his reps increasing as he progresses this summer.
Kevin Byard – Safety
Like Johnson, the rookie safety out of Middle Tennessee State University will enter camp looking up at proven veteran teammates on the depth chart, but the Titans didn’t draft him in the third round to be a proverbial cheerleader.
Byard has excellent ball skills (4 ints last year) and can cover space in a hurry (4.6 40 time)…traits that are essential in a LeBeau scheme that blitzes a ton.
He will also get his fair share of reps during training camp and preseason games, and looks to be the next man up should anything happen to starters Da’Norris Searcy or Rashad Johnson.