NASHVILLE — Rodger Saffold compares what the Tennessee Titans face on the offensive line to riding a bike. The linemen know what to do, and it's time to get back to work.
It's a big difference from this time a year ago.
The Titans spent their 2019 training camp preparing to play the first four games of the regular season without left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was suspended four games after testing positive for a banned substance, while left guard Saffold was getting used to being with a new team and offense after spending the first nine years of his NFL career with the Rams. Tennessee also was looking for a new right guard, and the lack of work together showed during a 2-4 start with plenty of blame to go around.
Now the Titans have everyone available, and their offensive linemen wants to start this season the way they finished 2019 by blowing open big holes for running back Derrick Henry, who led the league in rushing last season with 1,540 yards on 303 carries for averages of 102.7 yards per game and 5.1 per carry.
Saffold (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) said it's much easier now if only because he has more work beside Lewan (6-7, 309).
"We get to start off on the right foot from the beginning," Saffold said Friday in a video conference call. "I know what the coaches want from me. I know what they're looking for, as far as speed wise. And it's just going to help our entire offensive line all around because now we have a bunch of veterans that know what's going on with the offense, and we can help out the younger guys when they need to come along."
The Titans return four of five starters from the line that helped Henry put together a dominant stretch that extended from the end of the regular season into the playoffs. The group also helped protect Ryan Tannehill, who took over the starting role in October on his way to the league comeback player of the year honor and a Pro Bowl appearance as the NFL's leader with a 117.5 passer rating. Both of those players received new contracts in the offseason.
The line does have to replace right tackle Jack Conklin, who left as a free agent and is now with the Cleveland Browns. But veteran Dennis Kelly (6-8, 321), who filled in for Lewan at left tackle during his suspension last year, is expected to start at right tackle until Isaiah Wilson (6-6, 350), a first-round draft pick out of Georgia, earns that job.
Lewan talked during the offseason program about being a team leader. He was their first-round pick at No. 11 overall out of Michigan in 2014, but in November 2015 he had his captaincy stripped by Mike Mularkey, the team's interim coach at the time. The Titans made Lewan the highest-paid tackle in the NFL in July 2018.
Now a three-time Pro Bowl selection, Lewan said the line's continuity and closeness as a unit is huge after the NFL's offseason programs were forced to go virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lewan said he can talk comfortably to Saffold, center Ben Jones (6-3, 308) or assistant line coach Keith Carter.
"The closer you are, the more you understand your teammates and how their personalities work, it's easier for us to all push the cart in the direction we want to go," Lewan said. "We want to repeat and do better than we did last year."
Another advantage for this group is being in the third season of the offense first installed in coach Mike Vrabel's debut season.
"We know the offense," Lewan said. "You can put up a plan, 95% of guys will be able to rattle off the keys of that play, what the scheme is and everything. But now it's about fine-tuning those details, and I think that's a really big deal for us, being in the third year of this offense."
Nate Davis (6-3, 316) is the youngest on this experienced line going into his second season after being a third-round draft pick last year.
Vrabel said this is a group the Titans have a lot of confidence in, especially after how the linemen improved throughout the year. The coach said that was a major part of the Titans' success in reaching the AFC championship game last January.
Their knowledge of the offense means there's room for improvement with quicker recognition of calls and how to adjust to defenses.
"We have to take a mentality and a mindset that you're going to start back over with the insulation, not going to gloss over anything too quickly," Vrabel said. "But I'm hopeful that the group in there can continue to play at a high level and give us a chance to be successful offensively."
Kelly has been demonstrating leadership in a different way as the Titans — and the rest of the NFL — try to prepare for and play a season during the pandemic. He is the team's player rep for the union, and teammates said he takes the role seriously.
"I think Dennis would be an unbelievable dictator in any country, the way he's been handling the mask thing," Lewan joked. "And so, although it's been very annoying, he's doing a good job, and I hate even saying that out loud. Dennis is a really good friend of mine, so I hate doing the boy compliments.
"But Dennis and I actually got into it about me, and my mask was below my nose. So he made sure and told me the protocols of what to do. And so he's been doing a good job. He's definitely not worried about being annoying in that sense, which is good."
Titans safety Kevin Byard isn't complaining about the fact that Kelly has been a stickler for details when it comes to the new health and safety procedures.
"We're all getting used to these new rules and protocols and wearing a mask and stuff like that," Byard said. "I think it's good."