Tajaé Sharpe & Kevin Byard: The Titans’ Hidden Gems

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (17) catches a pass during NFL football practice Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (17) catches a pass during NFL football practice Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It’s always said that a team should be considered successful at drafting players not when their early-round picks succeed, but when they’re able to find the “hidden gems” of the middle to later rounds. In the first two rounds, the Titans were able to add four very talented players to their roster; RT Jack Conklin (who I had the pleasure of meeting last week), OLB Kevin Dodd, DT Austin Johnson, and RB Derrick Henry. However, more impressive to many in the sports world, including myself, are two of the Titans’ later picks, safety Kevin Byard and receiver Tajaé Sharpe. 

Ever since watching a bit of film, and hearing what a few draft experts had to say about the two, I asked myself a question; why on God’s green earth did these two players last as long as they did on draft day? The reason is pretty simple; many general managers and scouts look for physical freaks from large, well-known schools. If a player consistently dominated their competition in college, a scout will naturally feel better about their chances to transfer their dominant athleticism to the professional game. While this theory has definitely rung true its share of times with players like Julio Jones (Georgia), Cam Newton (Auburn), Tyrann Matthieu (LSU), and Jamaal Charles (Texas), it has plenty of exceptions. Antonio Brown, for example, was a sixth round pick out of Central Michigan. He never had sprinter speed, but was known for his agility and ability to make people miss in the return game. Now, he’s the best receiver in the NFL, and nearly impossible to cover.

Kevin Byard and Tajaé Sharpe fit that mold; overlooked because of their lack of explosiveness and the fact that they didn’t go to big schools. Like Brown, they may not turn out to be the best of their respective positions, both have the skill-sets to have extraordinary success in the professional game. To learn more about each player, I went to the people that know them the best. No, not their parents, but their coaches.

S KEVIN BYARD (Rd. 3, pick 64 overall)

For Titans fans, Kevin Byard is a bit of a hometown hero. Byard attended school at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, a city in Tennessee about forty-two minutes away from Nissan Stadium. Before the draft, Byard was analyzed as a player who was interception savvy, but lacked the speed and tackling ability necessary to be a safety at the professional level. Byard wasn’t invited to the combine, but put the doubts about his speed to rest at his Pro Day, running a 4.44 40 yard dash. 

Ever since joining the Titans, Byard has turned heads. He’s had an incredible  camp, and could very easily beat out veteran Rashad Johnson (another big school guy, Alabama) for a starting spot at safety sometime this year. In his preseason debut against the Chargers, Byard intercepted Zach Mettenberger (another big school guy, LSU) by diving forward and making a clean catch on an inaccurate pass. Byard has also returned a few punts during the preseason.

Scouts and general managers from thirty-one other teams likely overlooked Byard’s ball hawking abilities because that term can be slightly overused, and defenders who focus their game solely on the instinctual ability of making plays on the football can become exposed (anyone watch Tashon Gipson play last year?). I talked to Byard’s defensive coordinator from MTSU, Tyrone Nix, about this issue. “The thing that sets Kevin apart,” he said, “is that he understands how to attack the ball on top of having outstanding ball-hawk skills. His skill-set allows him to play both a ‘centerfield’ role or play as a traditional strong safety, and do both extremely well. I know without a doubt that Kevin will EAT at the professional level and bring the Titans accountability.”

WR TAJAÉ SHARPE (Rd. 5, pick 140 overall)

It absolutely blows my mind that Tajaé Sharpe lasted until the fifth round. Through only two preseason games, Sharpe has shown the ability to run crisp routes to get open against NFL cornerbacks, cleanly catch the football whenever it’s thrown to him, high-point the ball in the air to make athletic catches, and cleanly field & return punts and kickoffs. Usually when a receiver is able to do all of those things, he goes in the top half of the first round. Not Sharpe, though. 

The thing that is most incredible to me about Sharpe is that he has shown absolutely zero deficiencies developmentally. Usually a rookie receiver runs poor routes and struggles to get open against professional defenders because he is ultimately too concerned with being a threat downfield (DGB, anyone?). Sharpe is the complete opposite. The only visible issue with Sharpe’s game is his lack of speed, an attribute that modern scouts put way too much emphasis on. As a result of that, and the fact that he played for the University of Massachusetts (UMass) a technically sound and hard-working player dropped to the fifth round. 

As big of a debacle as I see this being for NFL scouts of each team, I figured surely Sharpe’s coaches at UMass, the men who watched him work and prepare week after week, would feel even more strongly about it than me. I was correct in my assumption. I spoke with Sharpe’s wide-receiver coach from UMass, Spencer Whipple, who had nothing but incredibly positive things to say about the young talent. “Tajaé will be will be successful in the NFL because he has an unbelievable football I.Q. and  great awareness. He picks up concepts very quickly, can adjust to defenses, and catches the ball extremely consistently. The terminology we use at UMass on offense stems from the systems that our head coach, Mark Whipple, was in during his time in the NFL.” I followed up by asking Coach Whipple to give me one word that describes what Tajaé Sharpe brings the Tennessee Titans. “Reliability. His preparedness and hard work allowed us to use him in multiple packages in the game plan every week.”

Another reason Titans fans should be excited about Tajaé Sharpe is how well he’s being received by his teammates, most notably Marcus Mariota. Veteran Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker had high praise for the rookie following the Titans’ second preseason game, saying “When we need somebody to make a play, we can always count on him to be in the right spot.”

So what can we conclude from studying Sharpe and Byard? A few things:

1. Big School vs. Small School Often Means Nothing

Why didn’t anyone have an issue with the Philadelphia Eagles selecting Carson Wentz, a small-school kid from North Dakota State, with the second pick of the draft? Because he has the skills to be a productive NFL quarterback. Why isn’t anyone concerned about taking David Johnson in the first round of fantasy drafts, even though he’s only in his second year and attended Northern Iowa? Because he’s an explosive and powerful workhorse out of the backfield. 

While I will admit that the quality of competition a player faced in college should be given some merit, it shouldn’t be given near the amount of merit that it is given. Just ask the scouts who drafted Trent Richardson (Alabama), Jamarcus Russell (LSU), and Blaine Gabbert (Missouri). 

2. Physical Attributes are Overrated

Yes, players like Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, and Patrick Peterson are freakishly athletic and the best at their respective positions in the NFL (yes, I’m aware Calvin Johnson is now retired), simply being a great football player in gym shorts doesn’t translate to success on Sunday’s. The Titans’ second round pick last year, Dorial Green-Beckham, was touted as having physical abilities similar to those of Calvin Johnson, but didn’t last more than a year with the Titans due to his slothful approach to preparation and sometimes pathetic route running. Alternatively, Julian Edelman, an unexplosive 5’9” white guy, is a technician of the game, and one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets.

3. Jon Robinson Is an Innovator

In an NFL that rarely sees big ticket trades, Jon Robinson has completed many. Since taking over the Titans’ GM spot in January, Robinson has traded for DeMarco Murray, traded away the first overall pick of the draft, traded up on draft day to select Jack Conklin, traded up on draft day to select Leshaun Sims, and traded away Dorial Green-Beckham. His draft class, though, is what should be turning heads. Two of Robinson’s picks, Derrick Henry and Tajaé Sharpe, rank in the top five of Pro Football Focus’ preseason player grades. Additionally, Jack Conklin has been very solid at right-tackle thus far, and Byard, as I mentioned earlier, has an athletic interception.

Unlike many modern scouts, Robinson clearly doesn’t get overly excited when he sees a player outstanding athleticism from a school in the SEC or another prominent Division I conference; he likes players who are well skilled at their craft. Sure, it’s exciting when a speedy receiver torches a corner for a long touchdown, and when a quarterback is able to consistently escape the pocket and run the football, but athleticism doesn’t come close to being all that’s needed for NFL success. Jon Robinson isn’t afraid to draft players from small schools who aren’t freak athletes, and it’s paid off through two weeks of the preseason. Let’s hope the success sustains itself.

Luke Worsham on Twitter: @luke_worsham

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