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AP file photo by Gregory Payan / Tennessee Titans radio announcer Mike Keith, a former Chattanooga resident, believes the Titans and the Atlanta Falcons both made intriguing moves during the past few days as the NFL's new business year got started despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mike Keith earns his money talking about the Tennessee Titans, something the former Chattanooga resident has done well enough over the past 22 National Football League seasons to be named Tennessee's sportscaster of the year 11 times.

And the coronavirus willing, the "Voice of the Titans" will add to both those totals later this year, when the NFL is scheduled to begin its 101st season.

But while Keith is, as expected, high on the Titans' recent free agency moves — assuming the players in those deals pass their physicals, which the coronavirus pandemic has delayed — he's also impressed with what the Tennessee Valley's other favorite pro team, the Atlanta Falcons, has done over the past few days regarding next season and beyond.

"Start with (pass rusher) Dante Fowler," Keith said of the former Los Angeles Ram. "He's explosive, can play the run. He's a guy who could have a massive year."

Keith is equally impressed with the other ex-Ram grabbed by the Falcons in former Georgia Bulldogs star Todd Gurley. The 25-year-old running back has rushed for more than 5,400 yards and totaled 58 touchdowns in his first five NFL seasons, all of them with the Rams, who moved back to the Left Coast from St. Louis after his rookie year.

"Playing with (quarterback) Matt Ryan and that offense should really help him," Keith said. "And because he can catch the football, Gurley will be a three-down back for the Falcons."

Then there's 26-year-old tight end Hayden Hurst, traded by the Baltimore Ravens to Atlanta. A prep product of Bolles, the private school in Jacksonville, Florida, that produced baseball Hall of Famer and all-time Atlanta Braves great Chipper Jones, Hurst once signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $400,000.

Later giving up baseball for football, he walked on at South Carolina, where he caught at least one pass in every game he played his final two seasons for the Gamecocks before turning pro.

"He's really good," Keith said. "Very athletic. Great pickup after they lost Austin Hooper to free agency."

Still, Keith, who spent much of his childhood in East Brainerd, only watches the Falcons from afar. He sees the Titans up close and personal nearly every day from the franchise's headquarters at Saint Thomas Sports Park just north of downtown Nashville.

Of the long-term signing of quarterback Ryan Tannehill last week, Keith said: "We all loved (former Titans starting quarterback) Marcus Mariota, and I think he'll do well with the (Las Vegas) Raiders and (coach Jon) Gruden. But the difference in last year's 2-4 start and getting within one game of the Super Bowl was making Ryan Tannehill the starting quarterback. Twenty-two touchdowns to six interceptions speaks for itself."

As for placing the franchise tag on running back Derrick Henry after his All-Pro season in which he led the NFL in rushing with more than 1,500 yards, Keith said: "This is a push of the pause button. This gives them four months (until July 15) to negotiate a long-term deal. It's not necessarily over just because he's tagged."

Even if Titans general manager Jon Robinson can't work out a longer deal, Henry will be guaranteed a 2020 salary of $10.2 million.

Yet Keith believes all of this — the trading of nine-year defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, the release of tight end Delanie Walker, losing offensive tackle Jack Conklin to free agency — points to Robinson's genius.

"Jon's always one, two, three steps ahead," Keith said. "He wants flexibility. This is what he promised: an offseason of retooling the roster."

Like anyone emotionally invested in the Titans, Keith knows the changes can be difficult on the fan base, especially where the popular Casey and Walker are concerned.

But he also knows that under Robinson's watch, the Titans are one of but four NFL teams to post winning records each of the past four seasons, along with the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks.

"If I've learned anything in 23 years here, it's that sentimentality doesn't factor in," Keith said. "It's all about winning the Super Bowl. What do we have to do to hold up the Lombardi Trophy? Look at Kansas City last year. They changed defensive coordinators (from Bob Sutton to Steve Spagnuolo). They changed players. It upset some of their fans initially. But look how it turned out. Look at San Francisco. They were 4-12 a year ago and came within a few minutes of beating KC to win the Super Bowl.

"Jon's committed to putting together a team here that can win the Super Bowl. I've become a big believer in TIJ: Trust in Jon."

A glimpse into Robinson's mindset: During this past weekend's "Official Titans Podcast," available on the team's website (titansonline.com), Keith and Amie Wells discussed Robinson's recent moves, including adding former Atlanta Falcons pass rusher and former Times Free Press Best of Preps speaker Vic Beasley.

Keith likened the GM's yearly plan to putting together a puzzle with roughly 70 pieces _ 53 players for the active roster, 10 for the practice squad and seven on injured reserve.

"I talked to him a few months ago about this and how some pieces stay on the board and some come down," Keith said. "Jon said, 'No, all 70 pieces come down, then you rebuild it.'"

Added Wells, "So he's starting from scratch every year."

In a way, we may all be starting from scratch before the threat of COVID-19 disappears. Sports may finally become what it always should have been, to borrow a line from Keith, "a little bit of a respite from the real world."

But he also said of Robinson's GM strategy, "He takes the long view."

As we move forward in the real world during these tragic times, taking the long view wouldn't be the worst strategy to adopt concerning life in general these days.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

 

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