AFC South: Tennessee Titans

Mock drafts will surrender to the actual draft on May 8. It's still a long wait.

In his first two mocks, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had the Tennessee Titans taking Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan at No. 11. In Kiper's third draft he changed the selection to Anthony Barr, the UCLA linebacker.

Outside of running back, which the Titans won't be drafting in the first round, they have no glaring need.

But there are a number of spots where they can get better, deeper and/or younger -- including outside linebacker, on the defensive line, inside linebacker, tight end, tackle and cornerback.

In Kiper's mock draft 4.0 he has the Titans taking ...

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Chris Johnson has found a new home, and it’s with the New York Jets.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reports it’s a two-year deal. ProFootballTalk says it has "a base value of $8 million, with another $1 million available in incentives based on yardage." I still want to see the guarantee and the structure to have a real sense of it. Johnson was due an $8 million base salary this year with the Titans before they cut him.

He could be great for the Jets. If Johnson plays well there, keep in mind it doesn't mean he would have played well in Nashville.

I see two big questions ahead for him.
  1. How does he react to what’s likely to be a reduced role? He was THE centerpiece of the Titans' offense for the bulk of his time in Tennessee. Will the Jets be selling him as that or giving him a narrower role and not talking constantly about their desire to give him 20 carries a game? The role is likely to be narrower, and he’s a guy who understandably wants the ball and enjoys NFL stardom. He’s been a good teammate, though not necessarily a great team guy. What direction do things go with that?
  2. How does he handle the New York press when things don’t go well? Fair or not, a good share of Jets fans will view him as an offensive savior. If he averages 3.9 yards a carry as he did for the Titans last year, if he fails to break an occasional tackle in the backfield, if he suggests the negative issue is with the offensive line or play calling, a giant press corps will be more difficult for him to deal with than our small group in Nashville ever was.
New coaches get a two-week head start on NFL offseason programs and a bonus three-day voluntary minicamp during the offseason.

Ken Whisenhunt doesn't view that as time that will help the Tennessee Titans get ahead. He sees it as time the Titans need to catch up, and not enough that they will be caught up once it's over.

“We’re behind,” Whisenhunt said in this piece by David Boclair of the Nashville Post. “This extra two weeks is good but we’re way behind. I mean, we’re putting in a new offense and a new defense and we haven’t done anything with these guys before. We don’t have a 16-game season under your belt where you can look at cut-ups and talk about plays that you’ve run.

“We need the two weeks and hopefully that can help get us going.”

Players got their iPad playbooks at the start of the week.

Cornerback Jason McCourty said he would hurry to learn his to get on the same page with his coaches as quickly as possible and so he can be a resource to younger players looking for guidance.
We pushed this week's chat from Thursday to Friday.

But I know you are encouraged because, let's be honest, once this bad boy rolls to a close your weekend officially begins.

So, head over here, throw your best questions at me -- anything Titans, anything beyond -- and we'll mix it up for a quality hour.

I might even have a good band recommendation.

See you shortly.
The Tennessee Titans have the 11th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft after finishing 7-9 in 2014. The big need is running back, but he won’t arrive in the first round.

The Titans have a plan going forward with Jake Locker as their starting quarterback. They aren’t in dire need at any position, and have a lot of freedom in the first round, so I could see them taking a linebacker, a defensive lineman, a cornerback, a tight end, a receiver or even an offensive tackle.

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As Chris Johnson leaves Nashville and the Tennessee Titans prepare for life without their durable running back, it's time to reconsider the idea that he always ran against loaded fronts.

It's simply overstated.

ESPN Stats & Information tracks runs against a loaded box. That's any run front where the offense has fewer players available to block than the defense has in the front.

Any team or player claiming he faces loaded boxes "all the time" is exaggerating by a great deal, unless by "all the time" he means "less than a quarter of the time."

During Johnson's six seasons with Tennessee, among backs with at least 500 carries, veteran Thomas Jones faced the most staked boxes -- on 23.7 percent of his carries.

Johnson tied for 13th with Marion Barber, Arian Foster and Clinton Portis. Those four faced loaded fronts 17.5 percent of the time since the 2008 season.

Let's dispense with the idea that CJ, or any back, is constantly running into loaded fronts.

Also, the whole benefit of drawing extra defenders into the box is that it helps open things up downfield.

Tennessee was hardly a big downfield passing offense during Johnson's time with the team.

Here is an interesting piece by Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report on what level of threat CJ will provide a new team at this stage.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the last two seasons, Jake Locker has suffered shoulder, hip and knee and foot injuries that have cost him 14 of 32 starts.

There was a fluke element at play, for sure.

But it also showed that Locker lacks a certain quarterback trait that the best guys have: a knack for not getting hurt.

It sounds a little crazy to suggest there is such a thing, I know. But the best quarterbacks in the NFL find ways to stay in the lineup. And for Locker, or any other young guy, to have a chance to become a consistent, quality starter, he’s got to develop it.

“I think there is part of it that’s what you do in the offseason,” Locker said. “I’ve felt that I’ve always taken pride in keeping myself in good shape, keeping myself strong and setting myself up to best prevent those things. But sometimes, it’s outside of your control and there is nothing you can do about it.

“I think that continuing to follow that same path of keeping myself in shape and strengthening my body is going to be important for me. But at that point, once I get an opportunity to go out and play, it’s not worrying about that and just playing, What happens, happens.”

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he doesn’t know if staying healthy at quarterback is a skill.

“There are definitely some things with Jake that I think we can talk about with him being a little bit smarter,” Whisenhunt said. “Not lowering his shoulder and running a guy over. Now, let’s face it. If it’s fourth-and-1 and you’ve got to get the first down, this is football there is no substitute for that so you’ve got to do those things.

“But if it’s third-and-25 and he’s going to have a gain of 2 yards, then there is a time there – and I know I’m overdramatizing it – but there is maybe a time when you can scale that back. And those are things that we can talk about. But it’s a violent game, it’s a competitive game, and those high-level guys, they’re competitive.

“I guess the long answer to that it, we’re certainly going to look at that and try to make it more judicious in some of the physical plays that he makes.”

The shoulder injury was from a sack where Locker failed to adjust the protection and got buried when he didn’t feel Glover Quin coming in Houston. The knee/hip came on an incomplete pass when Locker was hit by Jets tackle Muhammad Wilkerson. The foot injury came on an option run against Jacksonville.

If Locker is going to successfully change his image as injury prone, he’ll have to do part of the work by developing a better feel for staying out of dangerous situations.
Some key numbers from ESPN Stats and Info on Chris Johnson, who was released by the Titans on Friday:

Four-digits: Johnson's current streak of six straight 1,000-yard seasons is the longest active streak in the NFL. No one else has a current streak longer than three years. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch have done it the last three seasons.

Two thousand: Johnson is one of seven players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. The list: Eric Dickerson, 2,150 yards in 1984; Adrian Peterson, 2,097 in 2012; Jamal Lewis, 2,066 in 2003; Sanders, 2,053 in 1997; Terrell Davis, 2,008 in 1998; Johnson, 2,006 in 2009; O.J. Simpson, 2,003 in 1973 (14 games).

Bell cow: Since 2008, Johnson had 69 percent of the Titans' rushing yards. That's the highest percentage of his team's rushing yards of any player in the league. Peterson had 66 percent for the Vikings, Matt Forte had 63 percent for the Bears, Maurice Jones-Drew had 59 percent for the Jaguars and Steven Jackson had 58 percent for the Rams.

Losses and no gains: Johnson has been tackled for a loss or no gain on 410 rushes since he entered the NFL in 2008, the most during that time

YAC: Since 2009, only Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson -- who were both more than 30 years old during the stretch -- averaged fewer yards after contact than Johnson.

The list: Jones, 1.23; Tomlinson, 1.42; Johnson, 1.45; Ray Rice, 1.47. (Minimum 500 rushes.)

YBC: While Chris Johnson has struggled with yards after contact in the last five seasons, he has the fifth-most yards before contact since 2009. That list: Jamaal Charles, 3.76; C.J. Spiller, 3.35; Reggie Bush, 3.12; LeSean McCoy, 3.12; Johnson, 3.07. (Minimum 500 rushes.)

Runs of 20 yards or more: Johnson had progressively fewer 20-yard rushes in each season since his huge 2009 campaign: 22 in 2009, 13 in 2010, 11 in 2011, eight in 2012, five in 2013.

Against loaded boxes: Johnson runs versus loaded boxes year-by-year: 59 (4.56 average), 68 (5.44), 51 (4.31), 36 (3.42), 46 (7.28), 44 (3.91). That's 44 of 279 in 2013 or 16 percent.
Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster visited with me, Chad Withrow and Jonathan Hutton on The Midday 180 this afternoon to talk about the team's decision to cut ties with Chris Johnson.

"There is some sense of relief that we're through it and we're moving forward and I am sure it's the same for him," he said.

He also said the team never got to the point where it offered a reduced deal.

I think it's safe to presume that between agent Joel Segal's tone in a meeting at the combine and Johnson's comments to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean about not taking a pay cut, the Titans figured it would have been fruitless. And I'm not sure they wanted him at even a reduced price.

"I don't know that we ever got into solid numbers on those things," Webster said.

Other topics:

On the timing: The Titans had to do their due diligence. Ultimately, they weren't able to make a trade.

"In the end I had told Chris and Joel that once we exhausted those options that we would move on and that's what we did," he said.

On evolving running back economics: "For whatever reason, the way offenses are going right now, the use of the multi-runner backfield as opposed to just having the one guy has changed the economics of things. And I think you can even look to the draft and see what's happened to the running back position in the draft. Very few, if any, will go in the first round this year. So that has changed.

"The league is a little different now in how they value the position. So I think those running backs that signed the big contracts are a little bit the victims of the circumstances at this day and time."

Will the Titans definitely be drafting a running back: "We will definitely look at that position in the draft."

On the interest level: Webster said there were points in time during the process where he thought the team had a chance to get a deal done that then didn't work out.

"There was a market and there were times I felt good about it," he said.

Johnson as a player now: "I think Chris still has a lot left … . I think Chris will have a some good years left in him.

On starting the offseason program Monday without Johnson: "I think it's important for the head coach to start new and be able to move forward. Saying that if we'd have felt that keeping him was the best thing for the franchise, we would have done it. I think it's good for Whiz to be able to start anew with everybody on board and heading the same direction."

On Johnson's health: Webster said Johnson passed his physical Friday and would have been able to participate in organized team activities.

On what they will look to bring in to go with Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster: "I think moving forward we're going to look for another back with just some all-around ability, with size and speed, some explosiveness and possibly one that could stay on the field all three downs.

On how the draft class rates: "I think it's good. I don't think there is necessarily that one, the Adrian Peterson of the group that's going to go in the top 10. But there's a lot of depth there, from probably the late first to the fifth."

On confidence he can find a back if they wait until the fourth or fifth round: "I am, yep."

Meanwhile, Johnson issued a statement that he also tweeted:

"I'd like to thank all of my teammates, the fans, the staff and the coaches who have supported me throughout my journey with the Titans. I have grown so much as an individual and as teammate over the past few years, and I am excited about the opportunity to bring my experience and talents to a new organization. I'm looking forward to the next chapter and can't wait to contribute to my new team."
The Titans held on to Chris Johnson until Friday because they felt they had potential to trade him.

At least two teams gave Tennessee a real sense that a deal could be reached. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported four teams were interested, but a source tells me Miami and Buffalo were the teams that came closest to making a move.

Johnson would have had to reduce his contract, which called for base salaries of $8 million, $8 million and $7 million.

I can't envision Johnson wanting to go to Buffalo. Choosing to hit the open market instead of facilitating a trade there would be an understandable move.

The Dolphins and Miami might be attractive. But if he didn't like the Titans' offensive line in transition, the shakeup the Dolphins have undergone hardly suggests a line that will have jelled by opening day.
He ran for 2,006 yards in 2009, which is an incredibly difficult feat.

Chris Johnson worked awfully hard to accomplish that.

But he also allowed it to sort of swallow him up. In many ways, his identity is CJ2K.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson had the worst per-carry average (3.9 yards) of his career in 2013.
Two thousand yards became something he couldn’t help but bask in well after the 2009 season was over. He set it as a goal, time and time again. He deemed himself not just as a running back but a playmaker, and used that to get a giant contract.

The trouble was, those monster plays became less and less frequent.

The blocking got worse and the play calling became more questionable, and Johnson was quick to point that out and slow -- and by slow, I mean we're still waiting -- to say "my bad" and take any blame himself.

When his coaches early last season said he was taking plays designed to go outside and turning them inside, he basically denied it.

On Nov. 14, 2013, he scored a chugging, twisting 7-yard touchdown in a loss to the Colts at LP Field.

It ranked as an uncommon effort, and when he was asked about it after the game he said he'd had few chances to make such a play over the course of the season.

There was his failure, in my eyes.

Through that game, he had 168 carries. He saw few chances at high-effort, big-play runs in 168 carries? He finished the season with 279 carries and he had a very low percentage of those kinds of runs.

I think he came to believe things were going to be easier than they were in reality. He talked of 2,000 yards and his TV race against a cheetah and that speed, that speed, that speed.

Paired with his occasional criticism of his blocking and the offense's play calling, it hardly smacked of accountability.

Somewhere along the way, he could have said, he should have said, "There are multiple issues with the run game, but I'm the guy with the ball in my hands and I have to figure out how to do more while the other people involved work on their elements."

That he was incapable or unwilling to see things that way keyed his downfall with the Titans. Well, that and a combination of a 3.9-yard average and that scheduled $8 million salary.
The Titans will be drafting a running back. Once they part ways with Chris Johnson, the position will qualify as their biggest need as they seek a draft pick to put into a committee with Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster.

One element of that draft need we haven’t covered yet is how few teams need a back.

I was part of a conversation with Mel Kiper Thursday and he could only cite three teams he felt have a strong need: the Giants, Dolphins and Titans. Most teams looking for a back are looking for depth more than for a No. 1.

In his Grade A mock draft , Kiper lists three, four or five “top needs” for each team in the league. It’s 130 needs in total, and he lists running back once -- for Tennessee.

“Every year we say this, every year there are third- to sixth-round running backs that are outstanding,” Kiper said. “And this year more than any other, because there is not going to be a first-round running back. There are not many teams now that need a running back. What, three to five, maybe, that could take a running back within the first four rounds? So you’re going to get some really good ones available on Day 3.”

I asked Kiper if the Titans don’t take someone like Tre Mason or Carlos Hyde in the second round and wait until the fourth or fifth round to grab a back, who he viewed as a good fit with Greene and McCluster. (The Titans do not have a third-round pick.)

“I would say Andre Williams, Boston College," Kiper said. "He doesn’t catch the ball well, but he’s an outstanding runner and he’s got a lot of talent and had a tremendous year. As a pure runner, Jeremy Hill from LSU. If you want a kid who’s a tremendously talented runner, he obviously played quarterback in that running offense at Georgia Southern, Jerick McKinnon.

He also mentioned Devonta Freeman of Florida State and Charles Sims out of West Virginia.

A skilled runner who doesn't catch well sounds like a guy who could work for Tennessee. Since that's McCluster's forte, the Titans could be patient in that department with Williams.
The Tennessee Titans have the 11th and 42nd picks in the NFL draft in the first and second rounds, respectively. They finished 7-9 in 2013 and let coach Mike Munchak and the bulk of his staff go.

Under new CEO and team president Tommy Smith, general manager Ruston Webster has more power, and the two teamed up to hire Ken Whisenhunt as the team's third coach since the organization came to Tennessee in 1997.

Mel Kiper's fourth 2014 NFL mock draft Insider is out on ESPN Insider today. It's a Grade A draft in which he doesn't try to project picks -- instead he picks as if he is each team and makes picks he would give an A grade.

If he's the Titans, he goes a different direction than he and most prognosticators have been projecting.

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The Tennessee Titans open their offseason program on Monday, and we’ve discussed how and why that should amount to a deadline for the Titans to act with regard to Chris Johnson.

The running back is scheduled to make $8 million this season, he’s coming off a career-low 3.9 yards per carry and since the season ended and the team replaced coach Mike Munchak with Ken Whisenhunt, it has offered no indication Johnson will be part of things going forward.

On SiriusXM NFL Radio on Wednesday, Johnson's agent, Joel Segal, said he spoke to the Titans.

“I think it’s a matter of time before Chris won’t be with the Titans, I just don’t know when,” he said.

I don't rate that as giant news. But he did say publicly what we've been saying for quite some time, so it qualifies as noteworthy.

The Titans have held out for about as long as they can to try to get something in a trade, a move that would have had to come with a reduced contract.

Johnson is about to be on the market. Segal has found new homes for Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson, and will soon be taking calls on another high-profile client.

It’s time for the Titans to make the move. Monday is a milestone, as Whisenhunt and his staff get to see their players for the first time.

It needs to be about who’s in line to be part of the 2014 Titans, not about who’s not.

When the Titans drafted Kenny Britt 30th overall out of Rutgers in 2009, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was in love with the receiver’s physicality.

The ability to get off a jam at the line of scrimmage is difficult in the NFL, and if you can do that, Dinger said, a lot of things open up to an offense.

Now Britt will have a chance to do that for the guy Heimerdinger was coordinator for, Jeff Fisher. Britt struck a one-year deal with the St. Louis Rams.

At his peak, Britt did great work beating press coverage and beating people down field. He beat Arizona when he leaped and pulled in a last-play 10-yard touchdown in the 11th game of his career. He had a brilliant game his second season with seven catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns against Philadelphia.

He opened his third year with big back-to-back games for 136 yards and two touchdowns at Jacksonville and 135 more and a touchdown against Baltimore.

But a week later, he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee against Denver. In 26 games over two seasons after his return in 2012, he went for 143 yards once and his second biggest receiving total was 67 yards.

Last year, after a solid camp where he looked poised to break out as he headed toward free agency, he wound up in the doghouse of Mike Munchak and Dowell Loggains over early drops and penalties.

Munchak and Loggains were fired after the season. Ken Whisenhunt hired John McNulty as his quarterbacks coach. McNulty coached Britt at Rutgers, but even with a likely ally on the Titans staff, Tennessee showed zero interesting in bringing Britt back.

He caused the team a lot of headaches with a bunch of off-the-field stuff. While he claimed to be an innocent victim, often targeted by police, he was simply around trouble too much.

He was unhappy with a coaching staff that was unhappy with him, and while he didn’t cause a stir, he didn’t set a great example either. Playing great or getting benched, he was typically laughing and seemed to be having fun.

While that’s probably preferable to moping, it didn’t cast him in a good light to much of the Titans fan base when it was paired with Sunday struggles.

I don’t know that Titans brass particularly cared about that part of his demeanor.

The Titans have spent two of their last four highest drat picks on receivers, with Kendall Wright in the first round in 2012 and Justin Hunter in the second round in 2013.

The arrival of those guys made it pretty clear Britt wasn’t a long-term Titan.

His poor final season absolutely ensured it.