Can rookie Dez Fitzpatrick step up for Tennessee Titans amid wide receiver injuries?

Ben Arthur
Nashville Tennessean

Dez Fitzpatrick couldn’t crack the Tennessee Titans’ initial 53-man roster. 

Now, he’s needed to help keep the wide receiver room in working order.

Amid mounting injuries, the rookie fourth-rounder has been thrust into a critical role for the Titans (8-3), who face the red-hot New England Patriots (7-4) at Gillette Stadium on Sunday (noon CT, CBS). 

The injury bug that has altered the 2021 Titans has tested the depth at receiver. Julio Jones was placed on injured reserve Nov. 13 and can’t return until after the bye. A.J. Brown’s status this week is up in the air with a chest injury. Marcus Johnson was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday. 

Fitzpatrick is positioned to get more opportunities. 

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The former Louisville standout, who signed to the active roster the same day Jones was placed on IR, led Titans receivers with 64 snaps (79%) in Sunday’s loss to the Texans. Fitzpatrick had three catches on six targets for 35 yards and his first career touchdown. 

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing said he’s looking for consistency with Fitzpatrick, like all his players. Two of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career-high four interceptions last week came targeting Fitzpatrick, who appeared to run the wrong route on one of them. 

“Dez did some good things (on Sunday),” Downing said. “The consistency is what we’re chasing: being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there is something you need to do repeatedly to build confidence with the quarterback. … I expect him to continue to grow with more opportunities.”

Tennessee took the risk of losing Fitzpatrick, a fourth-round pick it traded up for, when it left him off the initial active roster. But the team got him back on the practice squad after he cleared waivers. 

Fitzpatrick had struggled in training camp and the preseason, when coach Mike Vrabel put him on notice by saying he needed to “show us a lot more.”

He spent the first two months of the season on the practice squad, where the Titans saw improvement. Safety Kevin Byard said he became a matchup problem for the defense. Fitzpatrick was named scout team player of the week on offense and special teams earlier this season. 

“I’ve seen him grow every week,” receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine said. “On practice squad, (he was) making plays against our defense and you see that confidence building in him … I’m excited to see that same confidence show in a game-time situation.”

After Brown, Tennessee has just three receivers on its active roster: Fitzpatrick, Chester Rogers and Westbrook-Ikhine, who had a career-high 107 receiving yards against the Texans last week. 

For reinforcements, the team signed veteran Golden Tate and Austin Mack to the practice squad Tuesday. The 33-year-old Tate, a Hendersonville native and Pope John Paul High School alum, is a three-time Pro-Bowl receiver who won a Super Bowl with the 2013 Seahawks. 

“It’s hard, no doubt about it,” Tannehill said of the rotating cast at receiver. “We have to communicate really, really well. Be on the same page in the film room and the installs and make sure we are communicating everything clearly. Communicating exactly what I am expecting. If we do get some full speed reps, taking advantage of every rep we get.”

Ben Arthur covers the Tennessee Titans for The USA TODAY Network. Contact him at barthur@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @benyarthur.