For Josh Malone, Tennessee Titans not just a homecoming. It's a 'special opportunity' | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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I’m not picking on Mel Kiper Jr., or throwing a big ol’ stone from my glass house. Plenty of takes I’d love to have back.

Having said that, here’s one from 2017 that ESPN’s iconic NFL Draft guru would probably want back, too:

“I really like Cooper Kupp but would have gone with Chris Godwin or Josh Malone before him,” wrote Kiper in giving the L.A. Rams the lowest post-draft grade in the league that year.

The Rams’ third-round selection of Kupp has worked out pretty well. He was the AP's offensive player of the year in 2021. Godwin, who went 15 picks later, has also built a stellar pro career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And then there’s the other wide receiver Kiper would have drafted ahead of Kupp.

Our player, as it were.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Josh Malone (86) pulls in a catch during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Perhaps it still says something about Gallatin’s Josh Malone that he carried such high expectations out of the University of Tennessee. Even as he hasn’t yet met them in the NFL as a fourth-round pick, it shows the kind of upside that could still be there as the former Station Camp star works to jumpstart his career with his hometown team.

The Tennessee Titans signed Malone in February, making five teams in less than five years – not counting those last season that worked him out but didn’t sign him.

A shot with the Titans hits differently, though, for Malone. Not only is it the franchise he grew up supporting. It is "still home," he said. It's close to family still in Gallatin and the Nashville area.

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“This is a special opportunity,” said Malone, cooling down after a Titans OTA practice last week. “The opportunity to come back home and play doesn’t come around every day, especially in the professional ranks. I was blessed enough to go to Tennessee and get the opportunity to play for the home-state school, and now I get the opportunity to play for the pro team in the hometown.”

Malone arrived as a well-known receiver, but a roster longshot nonetheless. He hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2020, having bounced between two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, who drafted him, to two more with the New York Jets and two other practice squads.

He figures to have a legit opportunity with the Titans. They need receiving depth, which is the case for them every offseason, basically. Last season, free agents like Marcus Johnson and Chester Rogers made the roster and contributed.

Why not the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Malone?

While his paltry NFL production (only 11 passes caught in four seasons) is concerning, memories of Malone’s final season with the Vols – 50 receptions for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns – still linger as an example of the potential that hasn’t yet been realized in the pros.

Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone finds running room against Georgia on Saturday.

“It’s nerve-wracking. It’s frustrating,” Malone said of staying positive while waiting for NFL opportunities. “But it’s all about perspective. … I just want to show that I can do my job and I can my job at a high level. I just want to carve out a role.”

Over in Knoxville, the Josh Heupel era has introduced a stronger brand of offensive football, so much that it’s easy to forget the Josh Dobbs era at quarterback in which Malone once excelled.

“We had an explosive bunch at school,” Malone said. “What we were doing up there, we were having fun. I can’t even imagine what numbers we would put up in that offense.”

Like most people, Malone was “impressed” by Heupel’s first season. But being back in the state, he is also hearing “a whole bunch of hype” and expectations building back for his old program.

He’s more cautious. He doesn’t want to say something to add to the hype. He said he just wanted to see the Vols keep taking steps.

Such an approach, in some ways, can be applied to his own football journey.

“Most of the people that know me know what I can do,” Malone said. “I just want to continue to keep improving and keep showing people I can play. That’s really about it. People’s expectations, I don’t really think about other people’s opinions. I just want to control what I can control."

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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