Making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent proves to be a difficult mountain to climb for most. Still, we get a handful of success stories that can’t help but pull on your heartstrings on a yearly basis. There may be one of those feel-good moments currently emerging in Nashville.
Tennessee Titans running back and 2021 UDFA Mekhi Sargent is turning heads and catching the attention of those who matter the most.
“He’s running the ball well and finding a role for himself on kickoff coverage,” head coach Mike Vrabel said.
It doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re aware of how Vrabel often tries to refrain from heaping too much praise on rookies, it speaks volumes about the impression Sargent has left on his head coach. It makes sense, too. Sargent has been the Titans’ best running back through two preseason games.
The 5-foot-9 undrafted tailback out of the University of Iowa has been one of the team’s standout performers this summer. Admittedly, as someone who covers the team closely, I would have given Sargent less than a 5% chance of making the final roster at the time of his signing. After all, he was joining a position room that includes a 2,000-yard rusher, a sophomore third-round pick, and two proven veterans.
Forget all of that. If you asked me the same question today, that number has risen exponentially.
Sargent has impressed both as a runner and on special teams. He’s provided an unexpected jolt of excitement in Tennessee's backfield. Sargent has led the team in rushing in both exhibition games, totaling 147 yards and a touchdown on a team-leading 34 touches. His performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 of the preseason was especially eye-opening. Sargent ran for 78 yards on 16 carries, good for an average of an impressive 4.9 yards per carry. Sargent also scored a touchdown on his lone reception of the game, a nifty little grab on fourth-and-1.
This was supposed to be a preseason dominated by second-year running back Darrynton Evans, a dynamic ball-carrier out of Appalachian State who was limited to just 16 touches a year ago due to injury. With superstar running back Derrick Henry sitting out the preseason, Evans was in line to receive the bulk of the work. It wasn’t to be, as injury reared its head once again when Evans left the team’s first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter with a knee injury. Evans’ status going forward is unknown, but he hasn’t taken the field since.
It would be a stunner to see Evans not make the final roster, but his injury opened the door for a trio of running backs who were originally vying for the RB3 role to receive more touches, both in the preseason and at practice. It’s an opportunity that Sargent has really taken advantage of.
As mentioned, Sargent has been competing for a roster spot with a pair of veteran backs in the form of Jeremy McNichols and Brian Hill. Both players have been shockingly disappointing through two exhibition games. McNichols entered the summer as the favorite to land the No. 3 job due to his ability in pass protection and familiarity with the team and playbook after spending portions of the 2019 and 2020 seasons in Tennessee. McNichols has disappointed with just 11 yards on 10 attempts through two games. Hill hasn’t fared much better, equaling 74 yards on 22 touches. Neither player has looked explosive with the ball in their hands.
The stark differences in production between Sargent and the team’s veteran options have left Vrabel and Co. with a dilemma. The team may never admit it, but they certainly expected McNichols or Hill to earn a roster spot this summer. Meanwhile, neither player has done enough to prove themselves worthy of taking up a spot on the 53 while being vastly outperformed by the surprising Sargent.
Will Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson be willing to take a chance on a rookie UDFA that has clearly outperformed his veteran counterparts? We can’t wait to find out in a few days.
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