Titans coach Mike Vrabel taking 'callus' approach to avoid injuries (again) during offseason workouts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- New Tennessee Titans linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair noticed the messages on the walls when he walked into the team facility for the first time. One, in particular, stood out.

"They had a sign on the wall that was talking about expectations," Al-Shaair said. "In the expectations, you see conditioning as one of them. You're just like, 'Ah, that looks good.' But, conditioning here, it's real. We're doing a lot."

The conditioning work is being done with an eye on the injury bug that has ravaged the Titans over the past two seasons.

In 2021, the Titans used an NFL-record 91 different players. Tennessee followed up with 86 last season.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel identified two different approaches Tennessee has considered to break the trend of extensive injuries.

"Do you want to be a blister, or do you want to be a callus?" Vrabel asked after the season in January. "Do you want to keep working through every day and get your volume up, so that you can withstand the volume and the rigors of the season? That would be a callus.

"Or do you want to be a blister and feel some discomfort, pull back, wait until you feel good, then come back, do it for a couple of days, and you're going to keep feeling that way?"

In more simple terms, sometimes teams work to get guys in shape by doing just enough, then they scale it back to avoid injuries. Whereas other teams keep pushing beyond the limit to build that callus -- a tough mindset.

New offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill believes the physical, grind-it-out style the Titans have is more fitting for the callus approach. The challenging workouts are designed with the hope that going the extra mile in conditioning now will allow the Titans to go longer than their opponents during the season.

That wasn't the case last year, especially on offense when the Titans averaged an NFL-worst 5.5 points per game in the second half. By contrast, Tennessee's offense averaged a league-high 14.9 second-half points in 2019, and its 14.2-point average was fifth in 2020 before dropping to 10.8 in 2021.

How are the Titans working to get better?

"Everything is speed off the ball," Brunskill said. "How fast can we get into the defense with no false steps? Conditioning helps with that, it helps us work our tempo."

Al-Shaair says he has seen a lot of growth physically, as the 25-year-old feels it has been a long time since he was in this kind of shape.

The same can be said for second-year wideout Treylon Burks, who is expected to be the team's No. 1 receiver this season. Burks had a rough start last year when he didn't make it through the first day of rookie minicamp because of complications with asthma.

The offseason conditioning is critical for Burks, who remained in Nashville to train.

"My biggest thing was not repeating what I did last year coming into the offseason," Burks said. "That's why I've been here. Just making sure that I'm running in the heat so when I do get that feeling, I know how to control it now."

Burks added that he has been working with Titans director of sports medicine Todd Toriscelli and running with the strength coaches in addition to tweaking his diet. Burks was noticeably more confident when he spoke to the media Tuesday. A video of the workouts on the Titans' team site showed Burks pushing the other receivers and finishing the drill.

The team sled relay races are one of the things that Brunskill has enjoyed the most.

That's natural for an offensive lineman. But for a quarterback -- especially one who has been the team's starter since 2019?

"We're doing the sleds, and I see Ryan [Tannehill] -- who's played 12 years in this league -- doing the same thing I'm doing," Al-Shaair said. "It's a different mentality. You understand how it translates."

Al-Shaair added that the approach to conditioning is different from anything he has done before as he heads into his fifth season in the NFL, joking that at times he has asked himself, "What the hell is going on?"

New Titans cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting agreed.

"We come out here and work hard every day doing a lot of things other teams aren't doing at this time," said Murphy-Bunting, who helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win a Super Bowl in the 2020 season. "We're pushing sleds on Mondays! You come out here, and it feels like you're working for something."

It seems the Titans players are buying into Vrabel's callus-building approach even if it comes during the voluntary portion of workouts. The next step for the Titans will come Tuesday, when they hit the field for OTAs.