2021 Tennessee Titans training camp preview: Will kicking issues be solved this season?
By the early fourth quarter of the 2020 season opener, a Monday Night Football showdown against the Denver Broncos, Stephen Gostkowski had missed four kicks for the Tennessee Titans – three field goals and an extra point. Disaster was unfolding for one of the best kickers of his generation.
The four-time Pro Bowler didn’t appear to have any more confidence.
“Since he missed that third field goal, Steve Gostkowski for most of the time has been by himself, at least 15-20 yards away from everyone else,” ESPN’s Lisa Salters said on the broadcast, reporting from the sidelines. “He threw the ball holder down on the ground in disgust. Obviously, frustrated with himself. You have to wonder what’s going through his head right now.”
More than 13 minutes later, with 17 seconds left in the game, Gostkowski was a hero. He drilled the game-winning, 25-yard chip shot to beat the Broncos.
That’s been the Titans’ kicking game the last two seasons: a rollercoaster. It’s a ride Tennessee would like off of.
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As training camp nears, the kicking concern remains for the Titans’ special teams unit, which has ranked among the league's worst since 2019. Tennessee ranked 28th in the NFL last season in special teams DVOA, a team efficiency metric, according to Football Outsiders. It was 29th in 2019.
Can the Titans push their kicking woes aside in 2021? What will the rest of the special teams unit look like?
Here's a breakdown of the specialists, in the first of a three-part training camp preview series:
Gostkowski is no longer in the picture. The Titans have Tucker McCann, a 2020 undrafted rookie who was on Tennessee’s practice squad last season, and Blake Habueil, a 2021 undrafted rookie, set to battle it out for the kicking job in 2021.
There’s uncertainty here. The Titans made the fewest field goals and had the worst field goal percentage in the NFL in 2019. In 2020, they endured a dramatic ride with Gostkowski (who did play better late in the season, for the record). Instead of investing in a reliable, veteran kicker for 2021, Tennessee is set to have an unproven NFL kicker.
A lot can change between now and Week 1, but McCann may have the advantage in winning the kicking job. Not only was he in the Titans’ organization last season, but he kicked the ball more in college than Haubeil (84 field goal attempts and 187 extra-point tries for McCann; 57 field goals and 146 extra-point tries for Haubeil) and he has a longer career best on field goals (57 yards for McCann; 55 yards for Haubeil). McCann went 3 for 3 on field goals of at least 50 yards at Missouri. The Titans like the strength McCann has in his leg.
Haubeil, though, did have higher field goal percentage in college than McCann (80% to McCann’s 72.6%) and was a perfect 146 of 146 on extra points at Ohio State.
The Titans signed All-Pro longer snapper Morgan Cox, a Collierville native, during the offseason. It may be the most underrated move general manager Jon Robinson made since the 2020 season ended.
Cox, who played all of his 11 seasons with the Ravens after going undrafted in 2010 after serving as a deep snapper for the Tennessee Vols, is one of the NFL’s most accurate long snappers – a four-time Pro Bowler and a 2020 first-team All-Pro selection. His precision could help stabilize the kicking game.
The position became an obvious issue last season, when Titans’ longtime long snapper Beau Brinkley miscued in the kicking and punting game in consecutive games, leading to his release after Week 8. Matt Overton took over for the final nine games. But the success ex-Titans kickers had elsewhere in 2020 also suggested long snapper was at least part of the problem.
Cairo Santos and Ryan Succop combined to go 5 for 15 (33.3%) on field goals for Tennessee in 2019. In 2020, they both starred for other teams. Santos hit a career-high 93.8% of his field goals with the Bears, who re-signed him to a three-year deal worth $9 million. Succop hit 90.3% of his field goals in the regular season and 100% in the playoffs (9 for 9) for the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Injuries may have played a role in the Titans’ kicking struggles the last two seasons – Succop in 2019 spent 10 games on injured reserve; Gostkowski in 2020 joined Tennessee after hip surgery the previous year – but it’s also possible that the long-snapping play needed to be more consistent. That’s what Cox’s signing symbolizes.
With Kalif Raymond leaving in free agency, wide receiver Cameron Batson and running back Darrynton Evans are the top options at returner.
Batson was second to Raymond last season with 11 kickoff returns for 231 yards (21.0 yards/kickoff return). His speed and shiftiness has been an asset to the Titans on both special teams and offense.
Evans, meanwhile, was the third option at kick returner last season (nine kick returns, 206 yards), but led the team in yards per kickoff return (22.9). Healthy now, Evans could be in for a big season on special teams. He had three kick-return touchdowns at Appalachian State, a program record.
Brett Kern, a 2019 first-team All Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler, returns as punter and is under contract through 2023. He missed three games last season with a wrist injury, an absence that saw Tennessee use two different punters - Ryan Allen and Trevor Daniel, who had disastrous results.
James Smith, an undrafted rookie from Cincinnati, is Kern’s backup entering training camp.