Titans getting production from their 10 rookies this season
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jack Conklin has started the first 13 games this season at right tackle for the Tennessee Titans. It is what everyone in the organization expected from the team’s first-round draft pick.
For the Titans, Conklin is one of five of their draft picks to start at least once this season. When defensive back Kalan Reed took the field last week, he became the 10th and final member of Tennessee’s 2016 draft class to play at least one game — and they are one reason why the Titans find themselves tied atop the AFC South with three games left.
Everyone in Tennessee is feeling good about themselves right now, and there’s plenty of credit to go around for the optimism. But most agree, it starts with first-year general manager Jon Robinson — who helped find the kind of players the Titans coveted.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said they were looking for tough dependable players who would take advantage when given an opportunity.
“And they all have at some point,” Mularkey said Thursday. “I don’t know if there’s another class I’ve been around that has done that. They’re not extensive, but when some of them have had a few chances, they’ve played well.”
Conklin came in as the eighth pick overall out of Michigan State , selected to fill a specific need on the offensive line. Derrick Henry, a Heisman Trophy winner and record-setting running back at Alabama, has started twice playing behind DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s second-best rusher with 1,135 yards.
Kevin Byard intercepted 19 passes at Middle Tennessee, and the first player taken in the third round has started four games at safety. Tajae Sharpe, the first player taken in the fifth round out of Massachusetts, has started nine games and ranks fourth with 36 catches for 464 yards.
Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie said Conklin and Sharpe not only have improved tremendously but been big additions. Though he didn’t want to get too far ahead of himself with adulation.
“We’ve got a lot of football left,” Robiskie said. “They’ve been improving. Just keep improving for us.”
Kevin Dodd, the 33rd overall player, now is on injured reserve. But the linebacker from Clemson started one of the nine games he played. Defensive lineman Austin Johnson, another second-round pick from Penn State, has played seven games. Guard Sebastian Tretola, a sixth-round pick from Arkansas, has appeared in only one game.
Releasing veteran cornerback Perrish Cox on Nov. 28 opened up more opportunity for cornerback LeShaun Sims, their second pick in the fifth round out of Southern Utah. In a 13-10 win over Denver , Sims broke up a pass to Demaryius Thomas in the end zone on third-and-goal at the Tennessee 4 to open the fourth quarter and helped defend Thomas on an incompletion the next play.
The defensive back credited veteran safety Rashad Johnson for watching tape with him and helping him take what he had seen into practice. It also doesn’t hurt having Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback himself, as defensive coordinator.
“Whatever he says you try to write it down and memorize it, take it to your game, because he’s a Hall of Famer and you want to get there one day,” Sims said.
Even linebacker Aaron Wallace, Tennessee’s seventh-round pick out of UCLA, got his first career sack last week helping hold Denver to a late field goal.
The Titans (7-6) visit Kansas City (10-3) on Sunday, and Chiefs coach Andy Reid said getting that many rookies ready to play in their first season is tough, something Mularkey and his coaches have done well.
“Just go right down the list of coaches,” Reid said. “You’ve got an all-star coaching crew, and they’re good teachers. That’s why those guys are able to do that.”
Notes: DL Jurrell Casey (sprained foot) and LB David Bass (groin) were limited Thursday. DL Karl Klug (Achilles) and LB Sean Spence (ankle) did not practice.
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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker