NFL roster spots are for the great or versatile

Friday, September 10, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 37

Titans wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick proved being a fourth-round pick doesn’t guarantee a job.

-- Photo By John Amis | Ap

I first heard the term, “the more you can do,” from the late Floyd Reese, former Titans general manager, when I first started covering the Titans and the NFL.

Now a quarter century later, you’ll still hear that phrase spring forth from the Titans administration, including current general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel. It came into play again last week when roster cuts were finalized.

It basically comes down to this: When the roster is trimmed from 90 players in summer camp to 53 for the regular season, you have two options if you want to be part of that 53. You can either be:

• Really good at what you do (think Derrick Henry running the football, A.J Brown and Julio Jones catching it or Brett Kern punting it), or

• Versatile enough to find work on special teams and at multiple positions.

It also helps your chances if you are well versed in the nuances of the game.

And that is a big reason you saw the Titans decide that fourth-round pick Dez Fitzpatrick – waived last week in final cuts – would likely be better off starting his NFL career on the practice squad to get more time for seasoning and development than taking up one of those valuable backup roster spots on game days.

Fitzpatrick’s own position coach, Rob Moore, perhaps put it best when emphasizing how important things like special-teams roles are to young players who are not expected to contribute as starters.

“If we’re having a special teams meeting, and you’re in the receiver room with me and your name’s not A.J. Brown or Julio Jones, that’s not a good sign,” Moore says.

It’s a harsh, valuable lesson for the rookie from Louisville who was expected to come in and contend to be the Titans’ fourth receiver, even after the trade for Jones in June. But the more he pressed and struggled in camp, and failed to make a mark on special teams, the more it gave opportunities for journeymen like Marcus Johnson and Chester Rogers to pass him on the depth chart.

It also explains why bottom-of-the-roster guys like Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Cam Batson got the nod over a more heralded draft pick like Fitzpatrick.

“Some players, it takes them longer to transition to the pro game. We’ve seen that with a lot of guys,” Robinson says of the decision on Fitzpatrick. “There’s a lot of guys that have started working and building to try and improve their skill set, which is what we expect of Dez. I challenged him to come in every single day and work to be better. He knows what the expectation level is.

“I now the capabilities that he’s capable of. The only one that can change that is him. We’re excited to keep working with him on practice squad.”

Vrabel had a similar and more open assessment as to why Fitzpatrick didn’t make the cut.

“Same thing that always goes from my standpoint is how much can they do? How many positions can they play? How do they perform? Special teams is certainly something, whether they can return or whether they are two or three or even a four-phase special team guy,” Vrabel offers.

It is certainly something that those who beat out Fitzpatrick for a roster spot understood.

“I realized it as soon as I was coming undrafted that if you’re an undrafted guy, then I’ve got to make my pay on special teams,’’ says Westbrook-Ikhine, a second-year pro from Indiana. “That was something I knew I was gonna have to do.”

The willingness to learn is key.

“I didn’t have a ton of experience with it in college, but I was ready to learn and get coached and work at it,” Westbrook-Ikhine adds.

Batson agrees, winning the fight for a roster spot yet again, despite his limited size and credentials.

“The biggest thing is you can’t control anything besides your play and what you do on a day-to-day basis. So, every day you just have to take one foot in front of the other, keep going out there and pushing regardless of the circumstances,” Batson says.

And now, with his draft status just a memory, Fitzpatrick begins his NFL life at a crossroads, knowing the Titans believe the skillset is there. But it is up to him to refine his game in a number of areas to bring more consistency and more versatility.

“We have had conversations with Dez, and just the consistency, the willingness to play without the football in your hand,” Vrabel says. “It is what you are going to have to do to play receiver, is be able to go and do things without the football in your hand and also then be really good when you are running routes and catching the football.

“We have had conversations with Dez, we will continue to have conversations, continue to coach him and we will see where it all goes as the season unfolds.”

Terry McCormick publishes and appears 2-4 p.m. weekdays on the George Plaster Show on WNSR-AM 560/95.9 FM.