Malik Willis

Rookie QB Malik Willis could get quite a few snaps Thursday night in Baltimore for the Titans.

It takes about one series of preseason football to jog the memory that it is preseason football, and doesn’t resemble the regular season very much at all.

The anticipation and build-up for many with the return of football usually creates that false sense of hype, which is usually followed by looking for things to keep you entertained from the game for four full quarters.

I’ll be honest here. I watch preseason football that involves the Titans. It’s my job. I’m not going to sit through much of a Bears-Jets preseason game.

But in the interest of looking for interesting situations in the Titans preseason opener Thursday night at Baltimore, here are five storylines to focus on, some of which will carry you deep into the second half, which is what you want.

Malik Willis' NFL debut

Chances are, Ryan Tannehill won’t play in this game. Logan Woodside is likely to operate the offense for at least the first half, before things are turned over to the Titans’ rookie option at the position. Willis should be fun to watch, judging from what he did at Liberty. How highly playing at that level translates to the NFL for Willis, who has been busy digesting as much of the Tennessee playbook as he can while adjusting to things like operating a huddle and being under center, is worth a look.

The Titans want Willis to continue improving his timing, and have talked about his footwork. From the casual observer’s eyes, it also appears that the team has adjusted Willis’ throwing motion too, having him go more over the top, which is important for a 5-10 quarterback from the pocket.

Here’s the thing to remember: No matter how Willis does in preseason, he is still very green. The Titans will go as far as they can based on Ryan Tannehill, not Malik Willis. WIllis is potentially the quarterback of the future, and he could be really good, but the Titans are not planning to hand him the keys to the offense in 2022. To do that would mean they are joining the Texans and Jaguars in a complete rebuild. So, Titans fans, when you watch Willis, enjoy his play and dream of what might be two or three years down the line with him.

See who steps up at receiver

Tannehill’s pass-catching corps is almost completely new with Nick Westbrook-Ikhine the only holdover with any measurable contributions from last year. Don’t expect to see Robert Woods playing as he is coming off an ACL, but the Titans need some of the young receivers who have flashed in practice to translate that to the game. Keep an eye on rookies Treylon Burks and Kyle Philips, who have had their moments on the practice field. Also, second-year man Racey McMath has made big improvement in practice. Others who need to be seen to contend for a roster spot - Mason Kinsey, Josh Malone, Dez Fitzpatrick - also can help their cause on special teams. More on that in a minute.

In the trenches

Lots of people, including the Titans coaching staff, will be paying close attention to the right tackle battle between Dillon Radunz and rookie NIcholas Petit-Frere, who in recent days has claimed his share of the first-team reps in practice. The preseason game will be the first measuring stick, but how these two fare in the joint practices with Tampa Bay and Arizona the next two weeks could be the deciding factor. As for the left guard battle, Aaron Brewer thus far has not really been challenged by Jamarco Jones. Could it be that Radunz could get into the competition there, if Petit-Frere claims the right tackle job?

Watch the special teams

The best way for undrafted rookies and street free agents to earn a spot is to shine on special teams, whether that is making a tackle on punt or kickoff coverage or making a nice block on a return. And of course, avoiding penalties there is key as well. Sure, a 50-yard run is nice for a fourth-string running back in the fourth quarter of the game, but coaches are more likely to notice a good block or tackle on a kickoff when grading who needs to be on the final 53-man roster.

Punter battle?

Speaking of special teams, could Brett Kern finally be challenged? Kern is the longest-tenured Titan, but his net punting average slipped a bit last season. He has changed his eating habits apparently and is ready to fend off undrafted rookie Ryan Stonehouse, who has a strong leg and might at least earn a spot on the practice squad, just in case Kern misses any time, something that has happened the past two years.