Plenty of attention is rightfully being paid to the Titans’ new offseason acquisitions. But the return of key injured players shouldn’t be overlooked.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Titans fans are understandably excited about the fresh faces they’ll see on both sides of the ball this year.
Running back Dion Lewis brings speed and versatility to the backfield, cornerback Malcolm Butler adds veteran experience to the secondary, and rookie linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry call to mind visions of battered quarterbacks.
But it’s worth remembering the Titans should also benefit from at least three “additions” of a different sort, players who will return to the roster after missing all of – or at least a good chunk of – last season due to injury.
Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe fell by the wayside before the 2017 season even began, linebacker Aaron Wallacewas on injured reserve after just two games and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones was lost heading into the final quarter of the regular season.
All three had already shown signs they could make an impact, and all three are still young enough to have plenty of upside, which is good news for the Titans looking ahead to the coming season.
We’ll first take a look at Jones, who seemed to be coming into his own as the 2017 season wore on.
He’d notched a combined nine tackles and 3.5 sacks in the Titans’ back-to-back AFC South victories over Indianapolis and Houston, but suffered a season-ending biceps injury against the Texans.
The Titans were 8-4 and had allowed just two teams to rush for more than 100 yards when Jones was in the lineup. But without the 6-4, 322-pound force, the Titans went 2-4 in their next six contests – including the playoffs – and allowed three of those six opponents to run for more than 100 yards.
“He was playing really, really well at that time,” Titans defensive lineman Austin Johnson recalled. “It’s really tough to see anyone go down at any point. But he was playing the run well, pass-rushing well, doing everything well.”
The Titans clearly valued Jones, illustrated not only by the fact they didn’t allow him to hit free agency, but also by signing him to the kind of deal reserved for impact players.
Then there’s Wallace, who started to show flashes of interesting potential during the 2017 preseason as he readied for his second NFL season. He produced a nice strip sack in a contest against Carolina, for instance, leading to the Titans’ game-winning touchdown.
But perhaps even more important is Wallace’s versatility, which is just as important to Titans coach Mike Vrabel as it was to his predecessors here.
Wallace played 39 special-teams snaps in the first two regular-season games before suffering a back injury last year, one of the highest figures on the team. In addition, Wallace is flexible enough – and smart enough – to play both outside and inside linebacker if called upon.
Plenty of attention will naturally be focused on Evans and Landry in the lead-up to this season, but a healthy Wallace should bolster the linebacking corps as well.
“It was really tough last season, any time you have surgery and have to miss a lot of the year,” Wallace said. “But it was (good) for my health in the long run. My back was really hurting. I’ve had a lot of time to kind of prepare for this season, so that’s kind of what I’m looking forward to.”
The third key return from last season’s injured reserve list is Sharpe, who missed all of his second season in the league after undergoing a couple of foot surgeries.
Interestingly, the wide receiver position appears more open this season than last – when veteran Eric Decker was on the squad. Sharpe has seen plenty of reps during OTAs, which makes sense considering Rishard Matthews is really the only Titans receiver who has proven himself over the years.
Critics of Sharpe will say the former fifth-round pick cooled during his rookie season of 2016, after beginning the year with an impressive 14 catches for 157 yards in his first three games.
But the bottom line is that Sharpe still finished with 41 receptions that season, second-best among the Titans’ wide receivers in 2016 and seventh-best among all NFL rookie wide receivers.
Who’s to say what an offensive makeover – and a sprinkling of Matt LaFleur magic – might mean for his career?
DaQuan Jones, Aaron Wallace, Tajae Sharpe. All three were gone at the end of last season, but none should be forgotten.
— Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.