Tennessee Titans have too much riding on Treylon Burks to not be concerned | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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First-round receiver Treylon Burks was on the field for an entire Tennessee Titans practice Wednesday. He made it all the way to special teams at the end. That was good.

Burks ran routes and did things receivers do without any obvious limitations, other than maybe a missed rep here and there. Good.

This was noteworthy progress, clearly. Previously, there were obvious limitations. With media present, Burks appeared to have trouble breathing and had to sit out drills during rookie minicamp and then again in last week’s OTA practice. That was bad.

And menacingly so. Maddeningly.

For this team and what that player is supposed to mean at that position, all this has been poking at a bruise for the Titans. Not just because of the lack of production from recent draft picks or the A.J. Brown trade. It’s that Brown, too, was often hurt and out of practice. It’s that Julio Jones got up slowly one day last August and wasn’t right for the rest of the season.

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“I definitely learned last year you don’t want to bank too much on a certain personnel grouping because you don’t know who’s going to be available,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said Wednesday.

Indeed, that’s the Titans' offense of late: Rich in ability, poor in availability.

And then Burks – the offense’s next great hope and the receiver drafted to replace Brown – shows up unable to work full practices? Yeah, that is concerning.

I'd like to tell you otherwise. That it was only May. That it’s not worth worrying about.

But that's a lie and you'd know it. This is worth worrying about, I'm afraid, and not just for the short term.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Treylon Burks (16) watches drills during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Out of shape?

Burks, by the way, could have cleared this up with reporters on Wednesday – he was asked about his conditioning and needing an inhaler at one point – but he didn’t. 

Instead, he basically said nothing. He sure didn't say what I'd have most liked to hear, at least, which would have been a firm and confident rebuttal, insisting that nothing will come of any of this. That he's fine and raring to go.

Burks didn't do that. He never denied his “setbacks,” mind you. He just didn’t specify what they were. He said, "I don't really worry about them at all, honestly," but at the same time, the topic was so weighty that he dared not lift it alone. He kept referring questions about his health issues – whatever they might be – to Mike Vrabel, who we all know won’t discuss them, either.

A lack of transparency in this instance isn't wise. Secrecy suggests legitimacy and seriousness. It'll keep this going, inviting skepticism and speculation about attitude or asthma or allergies or something even worse. 

Meanwhile, I’m a firm believer the simplest explanation is often the correct one.

Why not just say Burks needs to get in shape? 

SI.com’s Albert Breer has reported that Burks “had trouble keeping his weight down through the pre-draft process” and  “labored to get through” private workouts with teams. That wasn’t ground-breaking, though. At SEC Media Days last summer, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman brought up conditioning when asked about his star receiver.

“What he needed to do to become a standout, an unbelievable player, is get in better shape, and we talked to him about that,” Pittman said. “Just going out there and hunting them hogs wasn't really getting him in the greatest shape in the world. He had to do more than just that.

“He has done that. He's lost some weight. He looks good. He's more confident, things of that nature.”

As a postscript to this, Pittman told reporters after the regular season that Burks “matured this year, I thought, a lot as a competitor. I thought he competed very, very well. Very hard.”

Without delving too far into Arkansas' weeds, I’ll just ask: How often have you heard a major-college football coach praise a player for having “competed very well?" Isn’t that a baseline expectation in the SEC? To mention maturation in such a context sounds like coach speak for finding passion. For getting after it. For having football mean something to you.

As for that bruise, Titans fans? Yup, still poking it.

A special talent

Pittman is a good college football coach. He has repeatedly proven he knows how to get the most out of players, even reluctant ones. As Arkansas' coach but also at Georgia, where he was once the offensive line coach and made a first-rounder out of an offensive tackle named Isaiah Wilson.

Tell me that’s not a coincidence to send shudders down your spine, Titans fans?

After that subpar 2020 draft and the fiasco with Wilson, who flamed out after one season, the Titans talked about finding and pursuing talented prospects who loved football and the grind that accompanied it. For the most part, they've done that. 

Burks shouldn't be doubted just because of Wilson – or any past Titans foibles that have nothing to do with him.

If Burks can’t cut it with the Titans, it won't be a lack of opportunity. It’ll probably be because he proves unwilling to do extra work away from the field that he’s going to have to do – and keep doing – to stay in shape as an NFL receiver. That's not just now. It'll be always for him.

Burks is a big, sturdy, grown man. You see how easily he'll add weight to his 6-foot-2 frame if he’s not vigilant. He’s exceptionally skilled, though, to be that big, and that’s what makes him special – potentially an “unbelievable player,” as Pittman put it.

NFL history, however, is full of high draft picks who thrived in college – when programs held them accountable every hour – and then flopped in the free time and financial windfall of pro ball.

“Can’t” and “won’t” are very different things, though both get revealed quickly in this league. In watching Burks’ highlights from Arkansas, I didn’t see much “can’t.”

At this year’s combine, NFL Network analyst Lance Zierlein said Burks was his top-rated receiver “by far,” but he dropped him after a lackluster workout in Indy. “I saw what might be construed as a lack of preparation,” Zierlein said at the time. “That’s the big concern.”

Now it's the Titans’ concern, and it's not going away soon.

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

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