The Athletic | Joe Rexrode

 

MyCole Pruitt slammed into Jacksonville linebacker Telvin Smith, Derrick Henry cut off Pruitt’s back at the 2-yard line, and Pruitt drove and pancaked Smith with such force that Smith actually landed on his back at the 27-yard line before Henry got there on his way to a 99-yard touchdown.

Anthony Firkser saw man coverage from New England safety Terrence Brooks on the first play with Brooks on the field in place of the injured Patrick Chung, deked him, cut inside and clutched a Ryan Tannehill pass in the end zone.

Kalif Raymond did the same a week later in Baltimore, laying out on a 45-yard grab, after selling Marlon Humphrey on an out route and blazing behind the defense.

Three touchdowns that reside in Titans lore. Three players any team in the NFL could have had. One front office that has made that a habit. And if there’s a secret to the successful unearthing of overlooked talent – 31 Titans who saw game action in 2019 originally entered the NFL as undrafted free agents, second-most in the league – Jon Robinson isn’t sharing it. He won’t underrate it, either, even though the draft and significant free-agent signings take up almost all of the discussion around a GM and personnel staff.

“Our charge is to use every mechanism possible to add players that can help us win,” Robinson told The Athletic. “Certainly the draft is a pretty glamorous, I would say, player acquisition period. Same with the free agency period. But the depth of a football team and some pretty key pieces, though they may not be in the limelight, can come via trade, waivers, practice squad promotions. And we tell all the players the same thing: ‘We don’t care how you got here or where you came from. All that matters is how you take advantage of the opportunity.’”

Many have, which is credit to them but also to a staff that has detected brief, elusive, subjective indications of value in several players who might otherwise be working regular jobs right now. That can be expanded to staff discussions on larger decisions on high-profile players with a ton of film available, such as the ones that led to the Titans acquiring Ryan Tannehill in the 2019 offseason. The common thread is seeing value where others don’t. That’s not to say anyone in the room suggested Tannehill would quickly overtake Marcus Mariota, reset the trajectory of the 2019 season and lead the NFL in passer rating while earning himself a four-year, $118 million deal.

“(Tannehill) was just a matter of us sitting down as an organization and trying to improve the backup quarterback position,” said Ryan Cowden, Robinson’s second in command as VP of player personnel. “And then you just never know.”

This administration of player procurement has been wrong plenty, too, and as this 2020 season of massive expectation approaches, it’s possible this team’s top free-agent signing and top three draft picks won’t contribute in the Sept. 14 season opener at Denver. Second-round cornerback Kristian Fulton and third-round running back Darrynton Evans might if they can get past undisclosed injuries that cost them big chunks of preseason camp. Outside linebacker Vic Beasley, though, hasn’t passed a physical and looks like a potentially disastrous acquisition, while first-round offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson doesn’t appear close to starting, which raises the question of a team foregoing instant impact after reaching an AFC title game. This is a “win now” season that will hinge in part on the high-profile decisions. Jadeveon Clowney Watch will intensify this week, and the Titans have a need for him.

But there’s a foundation of consistency as well, and it helps explain why just three NFL teams — the Patriots, Chiefs and Eagles — have both a better regular-season and postseason record than the Titans’ combination of 36-28 and 3-2 in the past four seasons under Robinson. Players who were passed up or discarded by other teams, who are poised for varying roles in 2020, provide a collective, intangible charge to the locker room. This is what Robinson wants. It’s what every team wants, really.

“The guys know how much we busted our butt to get here, so there’s a respect, an excitement when we contribute,” Raymond said.

“When all 53 are doing something,” Cowden said, “it’s a pretty cool thing.”

Tannehill, who looks poised for a big season, is obvious; the Titans traded receiver Dorial Green-Beckham to the Eagles for backup tackle Dennis Kelly in 2016, to the puzzlement of many in Nashville; they may have been lucky that Kenny Vaccaro was sitting there when starting safety Johnathan Cyprien got hurt two years ago, but he was; they gave the Ravens a sixth-round pick for Kamalei Correa; they signed kicker Greg Joseph off the Panthers’ practice squad; same with fullback Khari Blasingame, off the Vikings’ practice squad; they got special teams ace Chris Milton off waivers; Cody Hollister, who has a shot to make the roster as a receiver, was found in a rookie tryout; and Rashard Davis, competing with Hollister to make the roster as a receiver, was signed to the Titans’ practice squad in November of 2019 after spending time with two other teams.

Three players whose names are locks to be on the 53-man roster when it is released Saturday help explain best how the Titans navigate the scrap heap.

A call from the plane ride home

Pruitt does not fall into the undrafted free agent category. The Vikings took him in the fifth round in 2015 after a record-breaking career at Southern Illinois. Pruitt finished as the Missouri Valley Conference’s all-time leader in receptions (211), yardage (2,601) and touchdowns (25) for tight ends and was named the league’s best ever at the position as part of its 30th anniversary celebration.

“I came into the league thinking, ‘I’m gonna catch passes, I’m gonna score touchdowns, I’m gonna do all these things,’” Pruitt said.

Instead, he bounced around after catching 10 passes as a rookie. He was demoted to the practice squad in 2016, signed by the Bears late in that season, then waived by the Bears in the 2017 preseason. Over the next 14 days, he went from Bills’ practice squad to waived by the Bills to the Texans’ practice squad. It was there that Vrabel, Bill O’Brien’s defensive coordinator, noticed potential in Pruitt as he worked against Texans defensive regulars. He also noticed a player who had lost some confidence.

“He could tell I was kind of down in the dumps a little bit, not being brought up on the active roster,” Pruitt said of Vrabel. “He pulled me aside one day and was like, ‘Keep grinding, keep working, an opportunity is going to come.’ And then it turns out he’s the one who gives it to me.”

Fast forward to Vrabel’s debut as Titans head coach, a 27-20 loss at Miami on Sept. 9, 2018, delayed by the threat of lightning and lasting seven hours, eight minutes. The worst part of the longest NFL game on record was the broken ankle suffered by star tight end Delanie Walker. That meant the rest of the room – Jonnu Smith, Luke Stocker and the surprise of camp, Firkser – would move up a spot. And it meant the later-than-expected trip home would include a scramble to find a fourth.

Vrabel threw in his endorsement of Pruitt.

“I felt like Pru had some versatility, I felt like I knew him, knew who he was,” Vrabel said.

“We got him on the phone on the plane home,” Robinson said of Pruitt’s agent, Harold Lewis.

“He was basically like ‘Yeah, they need an answer pretty quick,’” Pruitt recalled of Lewis. “Within the next 30 minutes, I was talking to Ryan Cowden, setting up a flight for me for the next morning to Nashville.”

NFL rules then, unlike now, allowed teams to match the salary offer of a team trying to sign one of its practice-squad players to an active-roster contract. So a player could potentially decide to stay if he feels an opportunity to move up is close. But this was an easy decision for Pruitt. He had no such inclinations, and the potential to play three games on an active roster and earn credit toward the NFL pension was the key attraction.

That’s often top of mind for players working on the fringes of the league.

“It’s absolutely huge,” Pruitt said.

To earn the pension, a player must be credited for three seasons. He must be on the active roster or injured reserve for three games to earn a credited season. Pruitt at that point had credit for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, but he was active for just one game in 2017 and could have been like a lot of players in this league who don’t quite get to three seasons of credit. When he got to Nashville the next morning, Vrabel was not waiting with another pep talk.

“Just be ready to work,” Pruitt recalled of Vrabel’s message, and he was, and by the end of the season he had 15 games under his belt, just nine catches but a whole bunch of important blocks.

“He’s played on the line of scrimmage, he’s played off the ball, and he handles a lot,” Vrabel said. “He’s a smart player. He’s a player that doesn’t get overwhelmed and can handle his assignments.”

And a player who had to realize that what he was in college was not going to translate perfectly to the NFL. Some don’t figure it out until it’s too late, or don’t get an opportunity to apply the lessons. Pruitt has become a technician as a blocker — the 99-yard Henry touchdown is a stunning highlight for him, too — and he still has sure hands when those opportunities arise.

“I had to accept that identity change and go into it wholeheartedly,” Pruitt said, which reiterates something that can’t be repeated enough in a story about discovering players in the NFL.

“We can identify traits and makeup, but ultimately it’s on them,” Cowden said. “It really is the players. Not to diminish the way we’ve acquired them.”

There’s certainly no diminishing the resources and hours that go into the process…

The jolt guys like Raymond, Pruitt and Firkser can give to a locker room should not be overlooked. Nor should a quality foundation of depth, especially in a season played in a pandemic.

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