Titans' newly acquired free agents 'grateful' for new beginnings, opportunity

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans general manager Ran Carthon's first free agency period didn't include any splash player acquisitions. In fact, the veterans who were released, specifically Taylor Lewan, Bud Dupree and Ben Jones, were the moves that provided the biggest flash.

That's not to say Carthon hasn't made moves to better Tennessee's roster. It seems the approach that Carthon and the Titans took this year is to add low-cost veterans who are searching for an opportunity to prove themselves as starters.

It's a bold strategy.

So far, Carthon has added six veteran free agents at various positions of need. Combined, they have 131 total starts.

Offensive lineman Andre Dillard was the first signing by the Titans. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Dillard with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2019 draft with hopes of him becoming their future left tackle.

Dillard was projected to be the starter in 2020, but a torn bicep landed him on injured reserve. Jordan Mailata showed promise in place of Dillard and was named the starter in 2021.

Although Dillard is capable of playing multiple positions, he said his goal is to take over at left tackle. Dillard came to the Titans because of the chance to become a starter.

"I knew I wanted a fresh start after my four years with the Eagles," Dillard said. "It feels like they really believe in me here, and I believe in myself, my abilities. This is a place where I can come and help the team and grow as a player and person."

Interior offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill has the most starts (42) of the group. Brunskill comes over from the San Francisco 49ers, with whom he started 17 games at right guard in 2021. The 49ers used a rotation of Brunskill and rookie Spencer Burford at right guard last season. Brunskill had a 70.2 run block win rate at that position; whereas, the league average was 70.6, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Brunskill has also started games at left guard, tackle and center. He said he believes his ability to play all five positions should give him a chance to play in an offense that focuses on running the ball, something every offensive lineman loves.

"They like to run the damn ball," Brunskill said. "I like to run the ball. At the end of the day, I just want to go play football, so whatever position I can go out there and play on, I'll play. The versatility was the big thing, to be able to take advantage of that is one thing they brought up."

On the other hand, inside linebacker Luke Gifford doesn't have any career starts. Gifford spent the past four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He was stuck behind some of the league's best in Leighton Vander Esch and Micah Parsons.

Gifford was a special teams ace in Dallas, where he led the team in tackles in punt and kick coverage. But Cowboys coaches felt Gifford was more than capable of handling an increased role on defense if called upon.

"I know that wherever I go, my role will be to dominate on special teams first," Gifford said. "I'll do whatever I can to help the team. Hopefully, that's a little bit of linebacker here and there. The opportunity to do more on defense is definitely something I wanted to do, and this is a good place to do it."

The Titans were left with a void at inside linebacker after David Long Jr. signed a two-year, $11 million contract with the Miami Dolphins. Carthon acted quickly by signing inside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair to a one-year deal worth up to $5 million three days later.

Al-Shaair had 31 career starts in four years with the 49ers, including 22 over the past two seasons. The 49ers had one of the NFL's top defenses with inside linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner.

We got a glimpse of Al-Shaair's potential as a starter when a groin injury landed Greenlaw on injured reserve. Al-Shaair stepped in and posted 102 tackles, nine for a loss, two sacks and two quarterback hits in 13 starts.

"I'm grateful to be able to come in here and show everybody what I bring to the table," Al-Shaair said. "When I was in San Francisco, I was a part of one of the best defenses in football for a long period. When you have that type of bond with everybody, it makes it hard when you gotta leave. But at the same time, just for the development of my career and where it's going, this is the best thing for me."

Outside linebacker Arden Key might be the biggest impact signing for the Titans. Being able to take an impact player from a division rival in the Jacksonville Jaguars makes the move a double bonus for Tennessee.

Key posted 32 quarterback hits, 11 sacks and 10 tackles for loss as a situational pass-rusher over the past two seasons with the 49ers and Jaguars. The sixth-year veteran is banking on being able to extrapolate his success in a limited role over a larger chunk of snaps as a starter for Tennessee.

"Since I've been in the league, I've been a third-down guy," Key said. "Haven't really had the opportunity to come out and play a lot of first and second down or even the opportunity to start. Coming here, I have that opportunity to start and show my talent."

Signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting continues Carthon's opportunistic theme. Murphy-Bunting started 31 games over the first three years of his career, including eight starts during the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning team in 2021.

The path to a starting role for the Titans isn't as defined for Murphy-Bunting as it is for the other free agents the team signed. Cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Roger McCreary started most of the games last season and will likely enter camp as the starters this summer.