NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans came within a game of reaching the Super Bowl last season. But the next time they take the field, they'll be missing several important players.
Three of the five captains the team elected before the 2019 season won't be back. Replacing multiple captains is one thing, but doing it during an offseason with little structure and when a lot of training will be eliminated makes it much tougher.
Over the past couple of years, linebacker Wesley Woodyard and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey were called upon to lead the Titans onto the field when they were on the road. Both are now gone, as is quarterback Marcus Mariota, who also was a captain last year.
#Titans will have to find two new captains to lead them onto the field. Jurrell Casey and Wesley Woodyard togther held that role for quite some time. Casey was traded to Woodyard's former team (Broncos) and Woodyard is an unrestricted free agent. pic.twitter.com/XWW1rrcVD7— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) March 18, 2020
"In 47 years of coaching, I have never respected a player more than I do Wesley. Never," former Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees said last season. "I’ve been around a lot of great linebackers and a lot of great people and a lot of great players -- he has my utmost respect.
"Wesley may be the best pro I've ever been around. He's great for the younger guys in the room and a great role model for all of the guys on that defense."
Younger players such as linebacker Rashaan Evans leaned on Woodyard to help them digest Pees' scheme and play faster. Things clicked for Evans when he took over as the starter in place of Woodyard last season. Evans was credited with 111 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and he had a 53-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Without much of an offseason, it will certainly be more difficult to replace leaders such as Woodyard. Players create bonds during meetings, organized team activities, minicamp and some of the other gatherings leading up to training camp. Those times are when leaders emerge.
Given the unprecedented circumstances with social distancing that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, some of the meetings will shift to a virtual setting. Coach Mike Vrabel believes there is still an opportunity for players to step up as leaders.
"I would love to empower the players to come up with a time that they’d like to meet. Our coaches are going to be available, I’m going to be available, so that would be the first way," Vrabel said via conference call. "I’m speculating that we’re going to start the offseason program remotely and what that may look like. So that would be the first thing, to have those players at that position come up with a time that they would like to meet."
Beyond the captains, the Titans lost some key veterans. Tight end Delanie Walker was a team captain in 2018 and remained a leader in the locker room last season. He was a mentor to fourth-year tight end Jonnu Smith, who stepped in as the starter in 2019. Walker was released in March to save cap space.
Casey had a similar relationship with Jeffery Simmons, last year's first-rounder who experienced his first NFL training camp last season. The two players spent extensive one-on-one time together in August while they were both rehabbing knee injuries. Simmons got to watch film with Casey and better understand the techniques he was being taught from conversations with the veteran defensive lineman. Smith is going to miss Casey's presence, as well.
Nothing but love big bro I never will forget those long talks we had. You gave me more advice about this league then you can imagine. Best of luck brother it was a hell of a ride playing with you @Jurrellc— Jonnu Smith (@Easymoney_81) March 18, 2020
Losing defensive back Logan Ryan, an unrestricted free agent, would be another blow. The eighth-year defensive back broke down the DB group and offered words of encouragement or wisdom before the players went onto the field every game. The Titans also relied on Ryan as a key communicator on the field.
The Titans didn't just lose players; they had turnover in the coaching ranks too. The Titans' young group of inside linebackers won't see the return of position coach Tyrone McKenzie, who joined the Detroit Lions. Jim Haslett, a longtime defensive coach and former head coach, was brought in to replace McKenzie. They also lost last year's DB coach, Kerry Coombs, who returned to Ohio State as defensive coordinator.
And then there's Pees, who retired after those 47 years in coaching -- including the past two seasons in Tennessee. Pees' responsibilities could fall on Vrabel's shoulders. It will be a challenge, but general manager Jon Robinson said during his conference call that he is confident things will work out.
"This leadership thing; some guys are going to have to take on a little bit more," Robinson said. "But we feel really good about the guys we have in the locker room being able to do that."