There were times during training camp when Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard – at the behest of coach Mike Vrabel – remained silent in the seconds leading up to practice.
The intention was to push teammates to step up and fill the void.
So we asked Byard on Monday who stood out in defensive communication, making sure the players were properly lined up before the snap? His response was surprising, given that Byard was made a rookie.
“I was impressed with Elijah Molden, who is just a rookie, who goes out and learns a lot about defense,” said Byard. “He does a good job of communication. You can tell he’s not a guy you really have to talk to a lot about and stuff like that. He was really good for the play.
With the Titans set to face the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday’s season opener, Molden looks far and away the most NFL-ready rookie in the Titans’ 2021 draft class.
A reason for this? Almost exclusively a nickel cornerback at the University of Washington, Molden – a third-round pick taken 100th overall – carried those same skills into his first NFL training camp. He was relied on as a communicator for the Huskies, which only increased his comfort level in this role with the Titans.
“In Washington, defense goes through the nickel,” Molden said. “So I was comfortable communicating. It’s similar here … I think everything I’ve learned (in Washington) is fundamental to playing in the NFL.
But Molden’s preparation goes beyond conversation.
In the Titans’ second preseason game – against Tampa Bay – Molden also showed his ability to go after the quarterback, registering a sack and pressure during 11 blitzes, according to Pro Football Focus. It wasn’t something Molden did so often in Washington, because he hadn’t bagged there in four seasons. But an effective blitz from the nickel position would be a big boost for the Titans, who collected a total of 8.5 sacks from nickel wedge Logan Ryan in 2018 and 2019.
“I always felt like I could (blitz),” Molden said. “It’s something I’m really looking to improve on, and we’re doing a good job coaching him here. I think it’s just a different way of disrupting offense, which is close to my heart.
More importantly, Molden has been overall good in coverage. He allowed seven assists on nine targets, per PFF, but those catches resulted in an average gain of just 4.3 yards. Molden was unable to complete more than nine yards in two preseason games.
“You can tell he had a dad (Alex Molden) who played in the league,” Byard said. “You can tell by his wisdom, the instincts he plays with.
“We’re going to need him to play a lot of ball for us, big ball for us. So I’m delighted to see him and see how he’s progressed.
From what he’s shown so far, it looks like Molden will be able to contribute right away.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 8 (On a scale of 1 to 10).
Here’s a look at how the rest of the Titans’ rookie class can contribute:
Caleb Farley, CB (first round, 22nd overall): It was understood when the Titans picked Farley that he would have more work ahead of him than the average first-round pick. He has excellent physical tools, but the 6-foot-2, 197-pound Farley missed the offseason and part of training camp with a pair of back surgeries between his last varsity game and the draft. He’s also pulled out of his 2020 season at Virginia Tech due to COVID-19 issues and – just for good measure – he only played two years as a college cornerback.
Coach Mike Vrabel confirmed on Monday what was already clear, that Farley will not be starting in the first game of the season. Because as impressive as his athleticism is, Farley is still working on his playing skills in this position.
“Just because you run fast and have good athleticism – it’s a good start – but you have to play with technique and fundamentals, and understand what attacks are trying to make you, how they are trying to attack you,” Titans said secondary coach Anthony Midget. “So that part is just as important as the athleticism for the post, understanding how it’s going to be attacked and the technique and the fundamentals for playing the post.”
Titans general manager Jon Robinson added, “It’s understanding leverage. It’s understanding where your help is if you have help with security, or if you have people inside you, you can push those roads there to your inner help. It’s learning these things, learning the techniques that we teach.
Farley’s reps increased in training and in preseason games as his health and conditioning improved. There’s no reason to think Farley won’t continue to improve as the season progresses, but he’s not quite there yet.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 5.
Dillon Radunz, (second round, 53rd overall): It was an interesting first training camp and preseason for Radunz. He was chosen as the right tackle of the Titans’ future. But he saw a lot of action on both the right guard and the right tackle, getting 55 right guard snaps in all three preseason games and 137 right tackle snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That seemed like a lot to put on the plate for a rookie, one trying to make the jump from North Dakota State to the Championship Soccer Subdivision – and one whose varsity team only played one. only game last season.
“I think it will benefit him in the future,” said offensive line coach Keith Carter. “But at the start, it’s definitely more difficult. He did a great job and didn’t complain at all. He’s taken a billion reps and he’s still fighting. So the volume of reps and on top of that the multiple positions is definitely a challenge, but I think he keeps making progress and responds to the bell and isn’t complaining.
Radunz won’t be in the starting lineup against the Cardinals. It’s not the end of the world, as the Titans have seasoned veterans who can fill the role. But there are unanswered questions: how long will it take him to fight for a starting place? Is he progressing fast enough? And how difficult is this transition from a lower division college to the NFL?
“He got better with his hands,” said Robinson. “He has to learn to continue his length and to rely on his technique. This is the great thing with offensive online play.
“When you find yourself in a precarious position as an offensive lineman, (the NFL) defensive linemen aren’t the ones you played against in college. You can’t just try to manhandle or maim someone because you’re bigger and stronger than them. These guys you are up against are the same size and bigger, if not stronger, than you. We must therefore focus on this technique.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 5
Monty Rice, ILB (third round, 92nd overall): Rice didn’t necessarily have much fanfare, but he had a solid preseason, leading the Titans with 13 tackles. He’s also gotten a fair amount of special team work, averaging 13 snaps per game in that category, and that role is expected to continue into the regular season as well. Barring injury to Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown or David Long, Rice may not have to produce much in defense. But he has shown so far that he can be a contributor when called upon.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 6.
Dez Fitzpatrick, WR (fourth round, 109th overall): Fitzpatrick turned out to be far more of the project than the team had expected when they traded 17 spots to select him. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Fitzpatrick looks in the game, but sometimes seemed out of date during his first NFL training camp, which is a big reason he became Robinson’s choice. the most drafted not to make the first 53 men. listing. He’s now part of the practice squad, where he should have ample opportunity to polish his game. Vrabel cited the need for Fitzpatrick to dramatically improve his game without the ball in his hands, which included running. on foot and blocking the race. Fitzpatrick played 115 preseason snaps, catching three of four targets for an average gain of 19.3 yards.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 3.
Rashad Weaver, OLB (fourth round, 135th overall): Weaver had a scorching start to the preseason, when he filled the stat line in Atlanta, totaling three tackles, 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and one pass defended. He wasn’t as visible in the second and third preseason games, combining three tackles and one pass defended – while playing 56 snaps against Tampa Bay and 27 against Chicago. Weaver showed some versatility, swinging between the edge and the defensive tackle. He also had 10 combined presses from the quarterback during the preseason, per PFF, an encouraging sign as he’ll likely see a fair number of shots as Bud Dupree comes back to full health.
The 6ft 4in, 259lb length of the Weaver can be a big plus in rushing the passer. But he understands that his height can sometimes hurt him if he doesn’t use the right technique.
“For me it will be the same answers for a while on what to work on – just that level of pad,” he said. “Being a tall guy, it’s easy for me to get up there and look into the backfield, not to focus on what’s in front of me. In college you can do it and get away with it. Here you can find yourself in bad positions.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 6.
Racey McMath, WR (6th round, 205th overall): McMath’s early days of training camp were so impressive that his teammate AJ Brown compared him to Julio Jones. That’s roughly when things started to go sour for McMath, whose progress and momentum quickly slowed down. He’s only played one preseason game – the first – and hasn’t caught any of the passes thrown in his direction for 39 snaps. McMath entered the COVID list on August 28 and was released on September 3. Honestly, however, McMath has always seemed more of an intriguing training team prospect than an immediate contributor. He had only played 18 games at LSU and recorded 33 catches.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 3.
Brady Breeze, S (sixth round, 215th overall): It’s hard to say much about Breeze because we’ve seen so little of it during camp and during the preseason. An ankle injury limited him to seven preseason game snaps – one in defense and six on special teams. He was placed on the injured list last Friday, which means he will miss at least three games. Add the fact that Breeze has pulled out of its 2020 season in Oregon due to COVID concerns, and it seems unlikely that it will make much – if any contribution – in the 2021 season.
Beginner Readiness Assessment: 2.