Of all the Tennessee Titans' goals this season, this one is the most important | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Is it possible to preempt injuries on the football field? Amani Hooker thinks so.

The Tennessee Titans’ safety has that on his mind. His weight-room workouts, he said, have been “a lot of injury prevention stuff” this offseason. Instead of focusing on larger muscles via exercises like squats, he has tried to work on small muscles.

In his joints. His ligaments. His knees. His ankles. His feet. His hands. His shoulders.

Hooker brings up the topic easily. That's encouraging. The Titans haven't had the luxury of denial. They had a problem. They needed to admit that in order to fix it.

While Hooker's exercises are individual, the theme is universal for this offseason.

“Last year,” Hooker said, “a lot of guys went down.”

No kidding.

That the Titans set a new NFL regular-season record by using 91 players last season – losing every key offensive player at one time besides quarterback Ryan Tannehill – was oddly a point of pride for a team that went 12-5 anyway, leaning on Derrick Henry for the first half the season and a much-improved defense the rest of the way.

That was then

As much as you applauded the Titans’ resourcefulness and resiliency, you had to admit it was ridiculously fortunate they were. Last season defied the odds too much to ever expect it could happen for any NFL team – and that includes the Titans again.

They must stay healthier in 2022. And they know it.

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Look at some of the veterans the Titans cut loose this offseason: Julio Jones. Rodger Saffold. Jackrabbit Jenkins. Jayon Brown. Marcus Johnson. Darrynton Evans. Some awfully good players in that group who happened to be injury risks, either because of their history or age or both.

Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said during organized team activities this week that the voluntary practices have become much different than earlier in his Titans career. Whereas it once was about pads and hitting, under Coach Mike Vrabel it has become more about fine-tuning details in jerseys and shorts with limited contact.

“Making sure that guys are staying healthy,” Lewan said. “We overcame a lot last year in injuries. I know that’s everyone’s goal is to stay healthier this year.”

The injury bug was so pervasive with last season’s Titans, though, that you couldn’t just shrug shoulders and attach it to bad luck. It demands genuine scrutiny. You have to wonder how much of it could have been prevented.

You wonder about the impact of COVID restricting the Titans' work in recent years.

You also wonder about last season’s training camp, when too many Titans starters – mostly on offense – sat out too many practices. In Tampa last August, you couldn’t help but notice that the Buccaneers had Tom Brady throwing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski on one field. The Titans had Tannehill with a B-squad of linemen and wide receivers on the adjoining field.

Wasn’t just for those joint Bucs practices, either. Plenty of others were also that way.

And it mattered in Week 1. The Titans’ offense looked an unpolished mess against the Arizona Cardinals, unable to find a rhythm or protect Tannehill in a blowout loss. While the offensive production improved, all the injuries and missed practice time did not.

This is now

And you have to wonder, at least a little, about how many Titans have not been with the team and sitting out OTAs in recent weeks. Too many to name, frankly, including basically every starter in the defensive front seven.

For the record, I don't think it's a big deal about a player missing OTAs until it affects his performance during the season. I'm also not alarmed by every practice absence. Some are strategic.

Henry, for instance, didn’t break his foot halfway through the season because he spent training camp working on the side. That wasn’t lazy. It was smart. 

Football coaches face a fine line each preseason. Demand too much of players and you're tempting injury and fatigue. Too little, and a team won't be ready.

But the Titans spent much of last season managing soft-tissue injuries like hamstring pulls. Collectively, it suggested a lack of conditioning as much as it did the wear and tear of playing tackle football.

Even the serious injuries. First-round cornerback Caleb Farley had the misfortunate of tearing his ACL, but that was after he had been limited throughout the preseason by a back injury -- which predated the draft – that slowed his initial development with the Titans.

Farley’s knee is still healing as he has been practicing during OTAs, and “You just see how quickly his body developed when he was able to have somewhat of an offseason,” said Vrabel. “… He doesn’t look like his jersey is hanging on a coat hanger.”

“Now every time I see (Vrabel) in the facility,” Farley joked in reply, “I try to give him a good, firm handshake, let him know I’m there.”

Farley, in some ways, is emblematic of the Titans team. So much talent and potential in spite of his struggles with injuries. Can he stay healthy?

Can this team?

These are questions more for the fall than early June. 

Addressing them now, however, isn’t hurting anyone.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.