It’s always a challenge to know just how much to take away from a preseason game, especially when it comes to a player making his NFL debut.
With that said, things couldn’t have gone any better for Tennessee Titans defensive back Elijah Molden, who got his first taste of professional action in the team’s 34-3 drubbing over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night. He was Tennessee’s standout defender, playing in 76% of the team’s defensive snaps while totaling a team-high eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one pass breakup, one forced fumble, and one sack. His performance earned him an elite 90.3 grade from PFF.
We weren’t the only ones to notice the 5-foot-9 Molden over the weekend. Kansas City Chiefs star defender Tyrann Mathieu, who is no stranger to being labeled “undersized” himself, also appreciated Molden’s NFL debut from afar. It’s rare to see a player like Mathieu be so quick to compliment a rookie that isn’t on his team, but he clearly couldn’t help himself.
The burden of improving a Titans defense that was one of the worst units in the league last season will largely fall on the shoulders of several new faces, including prized free-agent signing Bud Dupree and rookie cornerback Caleb Farley. Could the weight of those expectations also fall to a third-round rookie in Molden?
A dynamic and versatile defensive back out of the University of Washington, Molden has routinely impressed at training camp this summer. Much like he did in college, Molden has relied on his high football I.Q. and competitiveness to make splash plays in the secondary, something that was especially evident on this standout play during his first preseason game.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel usually tries to refrain from dishing out too much praise to rookies, but even he couldn’t hold back when asked about Molden’s first showing.
“Molden showed us a lot of things last night,” Vrabel said. “He displayed a high knowledge level at that nickel cornerback position. The more he played, the better he got.”
It’s obviously early. It will take more than a handful of plays at practice and during the preseason for Molden to earn quality playing time in Tennessee. When everyone is healthy, the Titans are expected to trot out the trio of Janoris Jenkins, Farley, and Kristian Fulton as their three cornerbacks in nickel looks. Breon Borders and Chris Jackson will also compete for snaps.
However, the Titans aren’t afraid to get creative with their personnel. Although they’re not similar in stature, Molden reminds me a little of Amani Hooker, another Titans defender that forced his way onto the field as a rookie in three-safety looks thanks to his ability to wear multiple hats on defense.
Molden’s path to success in his rookie campaign is one that’s easy to envision. He’s not far down the pecking order on the Tennessee depth chart and, as he’s done all summer long, he should continue to turn heads with his play. While opposing offenses will focus on the likes of Dupree, Harold Landry, Kevin Byard, and Jeffery Simmons, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Molden join that list before the season’s end.
Expectations for Molden will jump considerably after Saturday night’s performance, but he’s the type of player that welcomes the spotlight. Molden has yet to be truly tested by NFL first-teamers but looked like a perfect fit for the Titans’ slot-corner position.