AFC South: Delanie Walker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every team in every training camp talks optimistically. Every team with a new coaching staff talks about how things are different for the better.

The Tennessee Titans are lowly regarded by plenty of fans and media nationally. But they have a lot going on that they feel those people have not paid attention to.

With Ken Whisenhunt and his staff at the helm, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that doesn’t include some of the powers they faced a year ago and a division with two other rebuilding franchises, they might have a chance to surprise.

."You say each and every year, 'Feels different, feels different, feels different,'" safety Michael Griffin said. "Just, you can see every day, people out there talking, we always have guys picking people up. Each and every day there is competition. There are little side bets here and there -- who’s going to win this period and things of that nature. The whole time we’re all trying to get each other better.

"Again, it just feels so much different in this locker room, and everybody has the same goals in mind, and that’s a positive around here."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Ken Whisenhunt brings a solid résumé and a strong coaching staff to the Titans.
1. Whisenhunt isn’t Vince Lombardi or Don Shula, but the Titans' new coach is a significant upgrade from Mike Munchak, who was unsteady in his first three years as an NFL head coach. Whisenhunt had success in the role during his six seasons in Arizona, and he is a well-regarded offensive mind who will do more with what the Titans have than his predecessors.

Whisenhunt had the connections and the interviewing skills to hire a staff that appears to be filled with strong teachers, including a few quality holdovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is turning the Titans into a less predictable 3-4 and comfortably works his way into different sections of practice when position work is unfolding. I've watched these coaches teach and I've seen them connect with players.

Whisenhunt may field a complex offense that's hard to defend, but he's good at keeping things simple. I don't see any changes in how the Titans function that aren't for the better at this point.

2. The Titans don’t have players the fans are going to pick to captain their fantasy squads, but Tennessee should have a good array of quality weapons on offense. Kendall Wright topped 1,000 yards in his second season, and now the team’s best receiver will be sent on a wider variety of routes, not just inside slot stuff. He's been excellent so far in camp. Justin Hunter is doing better getting his legs under him and is catching the ball more comfortably. He got behind Atlanta's defense a few times in the recent joint practice and should be a constant deep threat. Nate Washington is showing he remains a versatile, productive guy.

Beyond the receivers, tight end Delanie Walker and running backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey will be good pass-catching options. When the Falcons gave the Titans a lot of room underneath, Jake Locker hit McCluster with a pass over the middle, and he had a ton of space to take. The Titans have invested a great deal in their offensive line over the past two seasons. They have one more tackle than they need after signing Michael Oher and drafting Taylor Lewan. There should be better protection for the quarterback and better holes for the running backs.

3. The 4-3 defense in recent years lacked a star pass-rusher on the edge who an offense had to fear every snap. The Titans still don’t seem to have that guy. They have to find him, but even if he doesn’t emerge from this group, the overall production out of the pass rush should be better. Who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage? In the 4-3, opponents pretty much knew. In this 3-4, it won’t be nearly as clear on a regular basis. Jurrell Casey, who notched 10.5 sacks as a tackle last season, will work as an end now. He's worked on speed rushes off the edge as well as his bread-and-butter quick power stuff in camp.

Sure, some good quarterbacks can diagnose who is rushing and who isn’t, no matter the front. But outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck (twice), the Titans don’t face any A-list quarterbacks coming off big 2013 seasons this time around. They don’t see Seattle and San Francisco this season either.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Locker is a really likable guy who works hard, says the right things and desperately wants to prove he is the long-term answer for the Titans at quarterback. But in two seasons as the starter, he's missed 14 games while dealing with shoulder, hip, knee and foot injuries. He's practiced pretty well, but there are plays splashed in that can be killers on a Sunday afternoon.

Getting 16 games out of him is hardly a certainty for the Titans. Even if they do and he fits well with what Whisenhunt is asking him to do, he has not been accurate or poised enough when he has played. He sometimes tries to do too much and isn’t poised under pressure. Though he moves well and is very fast, putting him on the move puts him at more risk of another injury. Behind him are more question marks. Charlie Whitehurst has had no real success in just 13 games in eight seasons and often fails to step into his throws. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a great arm but slipped to the sixth round for several reasons and is rotating with Tyler Wilson as the third-team QB. (Update: Wilson was released Wednesday.)

2. The offensive weaponry looks good, but for those five pass-catchers to give the Titans the nice smorgasbord of options, they need to stay healthy. Also, guys like Hunter (second year), Sankey (a rookie) and McCluster (first year with the Titans and Whisenhunt) need to show that their potential and practice play translate into NFL Sundays in a Tennessee uniform. Wright was the best player on offense last season and should grow more. Can the others become known quantities?

Who is the star of the defense? DT-turned-DE Casey is a strong, quick rusher who was healthy and productive in 2013. He is going to land a big-money contract -- either soon from Tennessee or on the market next spring. There are some nice pieces around him, but the Titans need veterans to have their best seasons and youngsters to emerge, all simultaneously. In Georgia, no defender stood out and regularly gave the Falcons more than they could handle.

3. Forty-seven percent of the current 90-man roster has been in the league for two years or less. Youth is generally good, but it needs to be quality youth and it needs to be surrounded by quality veterans. The Titans lack experience in a lot of spots. There aren't kids in camp who weren't high picks but have forced their way up the depth chart to this point.

Maybe it’s a great mix of players and a good share of the inexperienced people can blossom together. But with new coaches and new schemes, it could be asking a lot for all that to happen in the first season.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJake Locker
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJake Locker needs a healthy season if he hopes to become the long-term answer at QB for the Titans.

  • Locker said he feels more comfortable speaking up and being vocal, and he has shown himself to be more confident in how he carries himself. After one throw that looked to be too long for an undrafted rookie, Locker pointed to tell Julian Horton where he should have gone. He still has bad moments in practice, but the preseason has not started, and he is progressing.
  • The Titans have moved running back Jackie Battle to fullback, where he can offer some needed versatility. He appears to have a sizable lead on incumbent Collin Mooney, who has had, at most, a handful of first-team snaps.
  • Among long-shot late additions, veteran receiver Derek Hagan has been consistently good and Brian Robiskie is also gaining notice. He's competing for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston. Maybe they'll keep six.
  • Sankey is learning quickly how to be a pro, and he has shown a bit of everything the Titans said they expected when they made him the first running back selected in the draft. His first day in pads he looked like an experienced NFL-caliber pass protector. He has good vision and makes good decisions on when to go and when to cut. He also catches the ball well, can run inside and outside.
  • Weakside outside linebacker Shaun Phillips has not worked at all with the first team when Kamerion Wimbley has been practicing.
  • Tommie Campbell was politely mentioned with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as a contender for the starting right cornerback spot that opened when Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay. But it’s a two-man competition, and Campbell has struggled horribly.

Titans Camp Report: Day 10

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
7:17
PM ET
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tennessee Titans training camp:
  • The Titans got no one injured Monday in a joint practice with the Falcons at their facility, always the best development to come out of a preseason practice. Defensive linemen Antonio Johnson and Mike Martin and tight end Dorin Dickerson came in with injuries and didn’t practice.
  • The first fight turned out to be the only big fight. It came as the Titans and Falcons worked on punt returns and Coty Sensabaugh swiped a helmet off Robert McClain and a lot of players from both teams came onto the scene to get involved. It may have settled itself down, but Tommie Campbell came flying in to shove two Falcons, Bernard Pollard got involved and Ri’Shard Anderson came in with helmet in hand and swung it into Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen “We got it over and out of the way and moved on,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We thought it might come, it came early and we settled down.” Whisenhunt doesn’t fine players for practice fights, but Anderson should be fined for a foolhardy and dangerous move.
  • Later, Falcons center Joe Hawley got tossed by officials for his role in a smaller scrap with Michael Griffin.
  • Whisenhunt was audibly upset when Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora hit Jake Locker’s arm on a pass. “He grabbed his arm, he hit his hand,” Whisenhunt said. “Osi apologized. He knows he can’t do that.”
  • Marqueston Huff looked like he’s got the potential to be a quality gunner on punt returns. I saw him quickly burst between Kimario McFadden and Jordan Mabin to get en route in a hurry.
  • On a very early snap in one-on-ones matching Titans defensive backs against Falcons receivers, Jason McCourty was right with Roddy White on a quick throw from Matt Ryan, got an arm in and watched the ball pop loose. Another pass for White with McCourty on him was overthrown. McCourty was very solid in that period. The rest of the defensive backs were not as good. Griffin drew two flags for contact. (Khalid Wooten made a nice play and had a near pick of a Jeff Matthews pass for Tramaine Thompson. I think Wooten is steadily improving though he's not playing against the high-caliber guys.)
  • In one-on-ones, the Titans' offense connected on a big play early as Justin Hunter ran away from corner Robert McClain, collecting a throw from Charlie Whitehurst. Hunter caught another deep one from Zach Mettenberger.
  • Locker didn’t throw deep much, as the Falcons seemed to be offering open stuff underneath far more often. Some plays worked great against it. Locker hit Kendall Wright out of the slot and Wright ran away from Josh Wilson for what would have been a touchdown. On another play, Dexter McCluster worked into open space in the short middle and had a ton of space from there. Whitehurst found room for some shots. One of them connected up the right side with Derek Hagan over corner Javier Arenas and safety Sean Baker.
  • In many practices Locker still seems to have one moment that could be deadly. He held the ball and shuffled left as the pocket began to collapse and threw for Delanie Walker. But Desmond Trufant got to it and dropped what should have been a pick. “For any quarterback, there is always at least one you wish you could have back,” he said when I asked him about that specific play.
  • Both of the Titans' kickers attempted field goals against the Falcons field goal defense from 33, 36, 39, 42 and 46 yards. Travis Coons made them all, Maikon Bonani missed his attempt from 46 wide right.
  • Andy Levitre took three snaps in each team period before rookie Taylor Lewan replaced him. Levitre had his appendix removed on July 24. He still didn’t participate in the high contact one-on-one pass-rush drills.
  • In one team period, the offense worked exclusively in “penny,” its three-cornerback, one-safety package.
  • Falcons receiver Harry Douglas made a catch over Sensabaugh after the Falcons had the Titans jumping around before the snap. Derrick Morgan started with his hand down at left end, stood up and backed out, then returned to his initial position while multiple defenders shouted out multiple signals and waved each other around in what appeared to be confusion.
  • Akeem Ayers made a couple plays, including batting down a pass from Sean Renfree. In one-on-ones he made a great spin move against tackle Lamar Holmes that got him to the quarterback. But in a seven-on-seven period, T.J. Yates threw to running back Devonta Freeman and Ayers had no chance against him in space.
  • Avery Williamson impressively ran step for step with running back Josh Vaughan on a deep route and the pass glanced on the rookie linebacker’s helmet.
  • Moise Fokou worked as high in the linebacker rotation as I can remember, pairing with Zaviar Gooden as the inside tandem with the second team at least some.
  • On a snap where DaQuan Jones and Al Woods were the two defensive linemen, neither put a hand on the ground. The Titans played that one with everyone starting off standing up.
  • On one snap of nickel where nose tackle Sammie Hill came off the field, the standing up, off-the-line outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley actually lined up inside of right end Jurrell Casey.
  • There were a bunch of penalty flags on both sides. The most popular offense was illegal contact by defensive backs. The second biggest was offside. More to come on that
  • It’s always amazing to see how many guys know each other when two rosters of 90 and their coaching staffs combine. Titans linebacker Zach Brown saw Yates and exclaimed, “T.J, what’s up buddy?” Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter chatted with Hagan. Falcons owner Arthur Blank got off his cart to hug Titans tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, who used to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. A lot of it was pre-practice, a lot was during the kicking period when non-special teamers had time to chat. I watched Chris Spencer and Griffin talk with Devin Hester as Pollard shouted to the Titans, “Y'all be careful with making friends right now.”
  • Find pictures at pkuharsky on Instagram.
  • The Titans are off Tuesday, then have an open practice at 9:20 a.m. CT Wednesday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Jake Locker scans the field and runs through his reads, he’ll be picking from a nice smorgasbord of options.

Of the Titans’ top six pass-catchers right now, no two really look alike. That’s a nice feature to have, that variety.

A run through, in roughly their order of importance and quality:

WR Kendall Wright: An excellent slot guy who’s shifty and fast enough to cause problems. Ken Whisenhunt is likely to line him up outside, too, and to send him on more than just underneath stuff. He was dynamic downfield and can add that to his NFL game.

Backup situation: There is no one else like him on this team, though Dexter McCluster and Leon Washington could do a bit of what Wright does.

[+] EnlargeKendall Wright
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsKendall Wright caught 94 passes for 1,079 yards and two touchdowns last season.
WR Nate Washington: Can line up in all three receiver spots. Lacks top-end size or speed, but makes up for it with reliability and craftiness. He’s going to be where he’s supposed to be and looked to be a Jake Locker favorite when the quarterback was healthy last season.

Backup situation: The Titans don't have another all-around receiver who's proven himself over a long career.

WR Justin Hunter: The blazing downfield X receiver who should be threatening and stretching defenses even when the ball is not coming his way. He had a catch in the camp opener Saturday that is the sort the team hopes he can make with regularity -- climbing over Coty Sensabaugh and collecting a pass on the boundary.

Backup situation: No one else among the receivers has speed in the same range as Hunter.

TE Delanie Walker: A tough and athletic tight end who can muscle his way to success. The Titans feel he gives them mismatch opportunities, as he can outrun a linebacker and overpower a defensive back.

Backup situation: Craig Stevens is a better pass-catcher than he was given a chance to show last season, but he's not in Walker's class. Taylor Thompson should be at least OK in the department, but is no roster lock yet.

RB Dexter McCluster: More quick than fast (though he says he’s both), he’s just 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds. He has played more receiver than running back in his first four years in the league. He’ll get shots to lone up in the slot or to motion there, but he’ll come out of the backfield and give the Titans far better receiver skills than Chris Johnson showed in recent years.

Backup situation: Leon Washington can do some of the same things, but doesn't match McCluster's quickness.

RB Bishop Sankey: Projects to be the Titans best all-around back once he learns the ropes. He’s completely comfortable as a pass-catcher, and while not likely as dynamic as McCluster, defenses will have to account for the possibility of him working as a receiver when he’s on the field.

Backup situation: If he went down, McCluster would likely catch even more passes. And Shonn Greene would be expected to do a bit more in the area.

***

“It’s become a matchup game, and you’re trying to create those mismatches,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We have a number of guys that we feel can do that, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get some guys that step up during camp in those backup roles that we have confidence can do that.

“When you get to the season, it’s more about week to week, what their roles are. If we don’t have somebody, then we’re going to lean more heavily on some of the others that we know what they can do.”

“I’ll give you the perfect example. Wide receiver that we had in San Diego last year, Tutu (Seyi Ajirotutu) wasn’t even on our team at the start of the season. We’re playing Kansas City in a critical game late in the year, on the last play of the game in a 2-minute situation as an X, he catches the touchdown pass. You never would have expected that to win the game, but that’s what this league’s all about. He came in, he showed up, earned more trust from the quarterback, and he made a play for us.”

The Titans are going to throw downfield more, and they will be counting on Hunter to make a big contribution as they expand in that department.

That, in turn, will help create opportunities underneath.

“Wideouts may not be wide open down the field, but we can leak out and still make plays out of the backfield,” McCluster said.

In 2-minute drills, Whisenhunt expects McCluster and the backs to be big contributors as well.

“If you’re efficient with that, a lot of times the back is going to make big chucks for you,” Whisenhunt said. “If the down-the-field throws aren’t there, they are playing off coverage, if you can do that it’s big. It takes discipline. But we’re working at it.”

Camp preview: Tennessee Titans

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation's Paul Kuharsky examines the three biggest issues facing the Tennessee Titans heading into training camp.

Jake Locker: It’s now or never for the Titans’ quarterback, at least in Tennessee. The fourth-year quarterback started last season well, then he got hurt, didn’t shine when he came back and ultimately suffered another season-ending injury. Now he’s got his third offensive coordinator in Jason Michael and a new playcaller and head coach in Ken Whisenhunt.

The Titans would love to see him blossom into the player they thought he could be when they tabbed him eighth overall in 2011. But they began to line up a contingency plan for beyond 2014 when they drafted LSU's Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round.

The team declined to execute Locker’s option for 2015, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. He needs to prove himself worthy of a new contract or the Titans will be prepared to go a different direction next season -- or maybe even sooner.

Things are set up for him to succeed with an upgraded coaching staff, a running game that should be better with a committee instead of Chris Johnson’s deteriorating vision, a reshaped defense and what should be a far easier schedule. But plenty of league insiders and outside critics have little faith Locker can be an effective long-term starter on a winning team.

The new 3-4 defense: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton will bring people from different spots and has some rushers who can play as deeper outside linebackers or line up in a three-point stance as if they are defensive ends. We don’t know if they added enough, but out of Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, converted end Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers, there could be ample edge rush.

The team’s best defensive player, DT Jurrell Casey, will now be playing a lot on a three-man line. But the Titans promise his duties will not change much and say he actually will get more one-on-ones -- because offenses won’t be able to help on him before getting to a linebacker who will be at the line of scrimmage a lot sooner.

Horton quickly won the respect of the team based on his fine résumé and calm but purposeful no-nonsense demeanor. He said small guys who can hit and big guys who can run will have a major say in whether the Titans are successful.

Houston and Indianapolis made the playoffs in their first seasons following recent transitions to a 3-4. The Titans know the scheme change doesn’t buy them patience.

Whisenhunt’s weapons: The Titans signed pint-size Dexter McCluster to be a weapon in Whisenhunt’s offense. McCluster played receiver and running back in Kansas City, but the Titans will look to him as part of the backfield committee, where he figures to catch a lot of passes coming out of the backfield.

Bishop Sankey was the first running back taken in the draft and should be a more direct, decisive back than Johnson, though he certainly doesn’t bring CJ’s speed. Shonn Greene will have short-yardage chances. Are those three enough to take heat off the passing game?

The Titans are counting on a big jump from blazing outside receiver Justin Hunter. Kendall Wright was the best player on offense. And while Nate Washington is aging, he has been dependable and productive. Along with tight end Delanie Walker there are options for Whisenhunt to be inventive with, but we don’t know what will work.
The quick conclusion about tight ends and the Tennessee Titans: With former NFL tight end Ken Whisenhunt as the coach, former tight ends coach Jason Michael as the offensive coordinator and former NFL tight end Mike Mularkey as the tight ends coach, we’ll see all sort of clever use of Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens and even Taylor Thompson.

[+] EnlargeDelanie Walker
Mark Humphrey/AP PhotoTight end Delanie Walker warms up during the Titans' organized team activities on June 12.
Said Walker: "We’re going to be very physical, we’re going to play until the whistle blows, we’re going to be very tough in the run game and when the passing game comes to us, we’re going to make plays. ...I see the tight end position being of big impact in this offense."

But in terms of creative use, the Titans' top tight end doesn’t necessarily expect to line up all over the place.

“We’re going to move around, but I think you’re going to see more of Dexter McCluster in that spot,” Walker said. “He’s the Swiss Army knife now for this team. He can play multiple positions, and I think you’re going to see Dexter moving around making great plays for us.

“I see myself as that guy as well, but you’re going to see me on the end of the line more too as well.”

Walker guesses he lined up on the line about 70 percent of the time last year and thinks that number will go up to 80 or 75 percent this year. According to the stats, Walker was actually on the line just over 60 percent of the time last year.

Where Walker lined up last season, from Marty Callinan of ESPN Stats & Information:

Wide: 30 snaps, 4.1 percent
Backfield: 54 snaps, 7.4 percent
Slot: 202, 27.8 percent
Tight: 440 snaps, 60.6 percent

“Our strong point is going to be running the ball, we're going to run the ball this year," Walker said. “And that’s going to help our passing game. I feel like you’re going to see me in the running game blocking more, doing my part to help pen up that passing game.”

Game-to-game matchups mean we’ll see Walker moving around more in some game than others.

He's one of the team's top weapons in the passing game. Mularkey is teaching him to finish blocks in ways he’s never learned before, Walker said.

"The hand technique -- we call it lifting the keg," Walker said when I asked for an example of what he’s learning about blocking. "If you ever had a keg before, you know you've got to get your hands inside and lift it. He’s been teaching us. He’s been teaching us that and stepping on toes.

"Basically you just lift up and you thrust your hip and you want to step on his toes, you want to get as close as you can to him while you’re lifting him up. You never thought of it that way and now it’s set in your mind. I can just do it naturally, that’s something we do every day. I feel like my blocking has been getting better."

I'm all for an increase in his run-blocking role, so long as he's still up near the top of the reception list as well.
Drops are surely subjective. You and I might look at a play and you’d say Phil should have caught it and I’d say he couldn’t have.

ESPN tracks drops and applies a strong benefit of the doubt standard. A drop has to be something quite obvious.

Pro Football Focus breaks down targets into catchable balls, and judges drops more harshly.

Both ESPN and PFF then compute drop rates -- ESPN simply by dividing drops by targets, PRR by dividing drops by catchable balls.

Britt
Britt
By any standard, Kenny Britt had a terrible 2013. ESPN says he dropped four passes, PFF counted seven.

Britt is a free agent, and the Tennessee Titans have no interest in bringing him back. He’s drawn a decent amount of interest and will be a reclamation project somewhere.

Another Titans receiver, Damian Williams, is on the market and looks unlikely to return unless his price drops.

No coach or player is going to say anything more than none is an acceptable drop total. But everyone drops some. Let’s sample three top guys at random just for some context on their ESPN drop rates from 2013: Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was at 5.2, Andre Johnson at 3.4 and Larry Fitzgerald 0.7.

I was spurred to look at the Titans’ drops as PFF has put out stories recently on receiver drops, running back drops and tight end drops.

Here’s how last year’s top pass catchers fared for Tennessee.

.
ESPN fantasy expert Matthew Berry is emphasizing his first rankings of the top 150 fantasy players for 2014 are written in pencil. They'll be erased and rewritten after free-agent movement, the draft and injury updates.

As of now, he's got four Titans on his list.
Check out Berry's whole list here.

The most interesting variable here is with Johnson. My expectation is that he will be cut. Where he resurfaces will have a great deal to do with his ultimate fantasy value.
With the start of the 2014 free agency period less than two weeks away, ESPN.com's Field Yates took a look back at how some of the 2013 free agents turned out.

Walden
Walden
And to no surprise since the Colts were one of the big spenders last year, Yates writes about one of their players.

Unfortunately, though, it's not positive.

Yates has linebacker Erik Walden listed under “Three signings that haven't gone as planned (at least not yet).”

The Colts signed Walden to a four-year, $16-million contract with $8 million guaranteed last offseason. He ended last season with a disappointing 45 tackles, three sacks and a team-high 27 quarterback pressures. Walden's most aggressive play was when he head-butted Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker during a November game. Walden apologized for his actions immediately after the game. He ended up getting suspended for one game.

Walden needs to play better next season in order to prove he was worthy of the contract the Colts signed him to.

"Erik’s a good football player," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said last week at the scouting combine. " I think back to some of the guys we had in Baltimore, the edge-setters. When we went out and find outside linebackers, when we go looking for them in the draft or free agency, the first criteria is they have to be able to set the edge. Erik did a great job of that. Like anybody else, you have your moments. He can set the edge. He has pass-rush capabilities.

" He’d be the first one to tell you he could be better as far as a pass-rusher, and he’ll go to work at that in the offseason. As far as helping us up front and helping our front seven, I’m really pleased with Erik.”

 
[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Patric Schneider"Some of the guys that was the cancer, they really didn't care," Delanie Walker said after the season.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Delanie Walker indicated he thought there was a cancerous element on the Titans during the 2013 season.

After the season he expanded on the idea, saying as the season went south, more guys jumped in the cancer box, not caring about the team's results. He had talked to the players and to coach Mike Munchak about it, getting no results. That made him feel more comfortable talking about it in a radio interview.

I thought he felt he could bring some attention to the issue by discussing it publicly, and that it would help position Ken Whisenhunt and a new staff to solve it.

After the interview, he backed down a bit. He said his initial estimate of six guys was probably high, an exaggeration.

Whisenhunt said he respected Walker's feelings and chatted with him about them, but wants such matters to stay in house in the future.

Sunday at 104.5 The Zone's SportsFest in Nashville, receiver Nate Washington and cornerback Jason McCourty -- both captains of the 2013 Titans -- addressed Walker's comments.

McCourty
Here's McCourty: "The one thing I will say -- and I've talked to Bernard [Pollard] about this as well because I know during the season, him and Delanie were both guys that spoke of cancers on the team and things of that nature -- my feeling is that you never, no matter what you're doing, if you're at work at a regular job or in the NFL or whatever, you're never going to have every single guy in that locker room that whole heartedly believes in the team and everything about it.

"I remember talking to Bernard about the locker room in Baltimore and he said the same thing. You may have a guy out there who could care less if the team wins. Could be a defensive end and all he cares about is getting sacks, but at the end of the day if that guy finishes that season with 15 sacks, he's going to believe that he helped you win. I truly don't believe in that whole 'cancerous' talk. I know those guys have come from different locker rooms and they probably believe in some different things and believe that their way is the right way, but my whole thing is if there are cancerous players, let's have a team meeting, players only, and let's bring those guys out there and let's get it all figured out.

"But to be honest, for me to talk to you guys about cancers in the locker room, it's not going to solve anything. I believe that if we do have cancers, we can figure that out, but I truly don't believe that there are guys that could care less about the team. I think that we could probably get some better guys in at certain positions to help us win and the Super Bowl team would probably say that, the Seattle Seahawks, coming from this year to next year, they could probably get rid of some guys and replace some other guys, so we definitely have room for improvement, I would say that."

Washington
Here's Washington: "Like Jason said, he's talked to Bernard, I've had a couple of conversations with a couple of other teammates, and at the end of the day, we know that Delanie meant well by that statement. Like Jason said, at the end of the day, every locker room in the league is going to have some type of cancer, but I will say that I don't think that we had not one cancer that was going to dictate the outcome of our games, because like you said, we played hard no matter what.

"Every single man on that totem pole played hard. Now whether his habits specifically could be the talent to get us over the bar for that day, that's a totally different story. That's not a cancer, that's him still giving his effort. Like J-Mac said, I just wish, as one of those guys that was in that locker room and heard that statement, I wish that initiative would have been taken up by Delanie during the season. We should have had a players meeting. This initiative should have came from him back during the season when these things were going on, if he thought that that was an issue."

"But the debate didn't come until the issue was brought to the media. That should have been something behind closed doors. If you're married, as a husband, you don't go out and tell the world what your wife did, you understand what I'm saying? That should have been something kept in our locker room with Coach Whisenhunt, with the front offices, if he felt that it should be handled that way. There's not an issue with any of us or Delanie because at the end of the day, we know what he meant. We know exactly where the statement was coming from, so we have no issue with Delanie.

"But like J-Mac said, this is something that when we get back together, in a player meeting, as captains, as being someone who has been in this system for five, going on six years, this is something that maybe we do need to get corrected, behind our closed doors and hope that our fans and this community know that coming from these captains, that it means that much to us to get corrected."

I think Titans fans should be encouraged by how strongly Washington and McCourty responded to the issue. I expect the staff and players will hash it out in a way it wasn't last season. And still, as both these players said, there will be some selfish guys on the team who can rank as cancer who won't prevent the Titans from winning.
NEW YORK -- The reaction to Delanie Walker's concern about a half dozen teammate from 2013 that he called cancers has been mostly surprise.

But it shouldn’t be.

It shouldn’t be because Walker talked of it before. After the Tennessee Titans lost to previously winless Jacksonville on Nov. 11, 2013, Walker said: “We’ve got to find that cancer because it’s slowing us down. We’re going to have to find out.”

[+] EnlargeDelanie Walker
Mark Humphrey/AP PhotoDelanie Walker on getting certain teammates to play hard: "If they dont want to do it, you cant make them do it. No matter what."
He and Bernard Pollard talked repeatedly of guys who didn’t want to be there, and how the Titans needed them to turn in their stuff.

More broadly than that, I think every bad team likely has guys Walker would identify as cancers -- players who don’t practice hard enough, who don’t care enough, who give up hope once a season takes a bad turn, who are more concerned about their contract status than the team.

It’s part of what makes those bad teams bad teams. And the 7-9 Titans were a bad team.

Walker and Pollard played in the Super Bowl a year ago before signing with the Titans. Their experience in a winning culture was part of the reason Tennessee wanted them.

That pedigree, however, didn’t mean a lot to the guys Walker complained about in his interview with us on The Midday 180 on Wednesday.

“They look at us like, ‘This ain’t the 49ers, this ain’t the Baltimore Ravens,’” Walker said. “I was like, 'We go to the Super Bowl, we go to the playoffs, we’re always in it. We’re talked about. We’ve got prime-time games.' You give them that, but they’re like, 'Who cares? You’re with the Titans now.'

"And then you’re like, 'OK, we’re with the Titans but we’re trying to turn that around. You see us speaking out, you see us playing our hearts out, we go out every day, we play hard, we never give up.' And it’s hard to relay that message to guys that don’t want to do it. If they don’t want to do it, you can’t make them do it. No matter what. I’m not the coach, I’m your teammate.

“I can’t make you play. I can’t tell you what to do. I can get in your face: 'You’re terrible, you’re hurting the team.' It doesn’t do nothing.”

I asked if Walker thinks it’s common on bad teams.

“Yeah, because when you’re on a bad team you start acting like you’re on a bad team," he said. "You’re like, ‘We might lose anyway.’ You go into a game thinking you might lose.”

With the 49ers, things started to change when Jim Harbaugh took over as coach.

Like fans of the team he plays for, Walker is hoping a similar transformation occurs in Tennessee with Ken Whisenhunt now at the controls.

All-AFC South: Tennessee Titans

January, 2, 2014
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans account for seven of 23 spots on offense and defense in ESPN.com’s All-AFC South Team for 2013.

The team was pieced together by a vote of the four writers who cover the division. That’s Mike Wells on the Indianapolis Colts, Tania Ganguli on the Houston Texans, Mike DiRocco on the Jacksonville Jaguars and me on the Titans.

Receiver Kendall Wright, running back Chris Johnson and right guard Chance Warmack are on the All-AFC South offense.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty and strong safety Bernard Pollard are on the 12-man defense; the extra spot helped us meld 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.

I didn’t vote for Warmack, as I thought he was too inconsistent. I would have preferred we left a guard slot, or even both guard slots, blank. Offensive line play in the division was generally poor.

I don’t like having two running backs on the team. No one uses enough fullback to warrant one here, but that doesn't mean we should have a second tailback. I pushed for three wide receivers instead, but was overruled by the editor overseeing the project and putting together the balloting.

Receiver T.Y. Hilton of the Colts is a huge omission here, and he’d be on my team ahead of Ben Tate or Johnson. If not three-wide we should have gone two-tight. But even with one tight end, I voted Delanie Walker ahead of Coby Fleener.

Five things to watch: Jaguars-Titans

December, 21, 2013
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Here are five things to watch in Sunday's Jacksonville Jaguars-Tennessee Titans game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.:

Stopping the run: The Jaguars’ improved rush defense in the second half of the season started against the Titans, who managed just 83 yards on the ground. Chris Johnson had 30 yards on 12 carries and fumbled early in the game. The Jaguars slipped a bit last week and gave up 198 yards on the ground to the Bills. Can they rebound against the Titans and corral Johnson, who is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball?

Fitzpatrick Part II: Titans QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was forced into action in the last meeting when Jake Locker went down with a foot injury and he carved up the Jaguars’ secondary and nearly led the Titans to a comeback victory. He’s coming off a 400-yard, four-TD performance against Arizona and the Jaguars have given up an average of 301.8 yards passing in the last five games. It looks like safety Johnathan Cyprien will be able to play, so that should help some, but the Jaguars are going to have to get pressure to slow down Fitzpatrick.

MoJo’s health: Maurice Jones-Drew is questionable with a hamstring injury and is going to test it on Sunday morning to see if he can go. Even if he does play, it’s likely he won’t have a full load, which means we’ll see more Jordan Todman. He filled in pretty well for Jones-Drew last week (109 yards rushing).

TE play: From the Jaguars’ perspective, it’d be best to see more of Marcedes Lewis and less of Delanie Walker. Lewis has caught a touchdown pass in the last three games and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said he wants to see Lewis more involved in the passing game now that Cecil Shorts is done for the season. Tight ends have hurt the Jaguars all season and Walker caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting. Can they limit his damage in this game?

Goodbye Brad: This will be the last home game for center Brad Meester, who announced earlier in the week that this would be his final season. The 36-year-old Meester, who is in his 14th season, owns franchise records for games played (207) and game started (207) as well as the two longest steaks of consecutive starts (92 and 88). The Jaguars selected him in the second round of the 2000 draft out of Northern Iowa and started at left guard the first three seasons before moving to center to begin the 2003 season. The team is going to have a post-game ceremony to honor him.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Ryan Fitzpatrick got hit by a blitzer, he threw short for Michael Preston in overtime. The resulting interception by Antoine Cason set up the Arizona Cardinals' win over the Tennessee Titans.

Preston said on "The Wake Up Zone" in Nashville this week that his deep route didn’t come with an adjustment for a blitz.

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains confirmed that Thursday.

Not only did Preston not have a sight adjustment for that situation, no receiver has one for any situation.

“We don’t sight, we don’t hot,” Loggains said.

That means Fitzpatrick or whoever is at quarterback is expected to make a protection adjustment to deal with the blitz and know who the best person in the progression is to turn to under pressure.

“That way you eliminate some of the gray area of, ‘Is that guy coming, is that guy not coming?’ Loggains said. “That way the receiver can go run his routes instead of staring at the safety and playing slow. …

“Instead of hot routes, we’ll put built-ins where Ryan has to recognize a coverage and go to Kendall [Wright] on an escape or Delanie [Walker] on a shallow cross instead of saying this receiver or tight end has to change his route after the snap and see the same thing the quarterback sees.”

Sounds smart to me.

On the Titans' decision not to go for 2

December, 15, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Dowell Loggains pleaded with Mike Munchak when the Titans scored the tying touchdown with 10 seconds left.

The offensive coordinator didn't want to go to overtime. He wanted to try to win the game right there and then. Munchak declined the option, and the Titans lost in overtime, 37-34.

I imagine momentum factored into it. But I believe in Ryan Fitzpatrick's propensity to throw a big interception as much as I do in the idea that a team that had just stormed back from a 17-point deficit somehow carries an advantage into overtime. (Bill Barnwell of Grantland has written convincingly that momentum is a myth.)

They kicked the extra point but still had a chance. A defensive offsides call could have given them another attempt, needing just 1 yard, not 2.

But they passed on the opportunity.

Virtually every player I asked about it told me he wasn't the coach and it wasn't his call. Bravo to Munchak for having a team of guys willing to jump on board his groupthink and not publicly challenge their boss. Those are important things to have on a losing football team lacking identity. That and effort will be the top two things Munchak points to when he tries to sell Tommy Smith on keeping him for a fourth season.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
AP Photo/Wade PayneNew Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak has used his head coach and Hall of Fame player experience to make a great early impression.
The team could use a couple players, frankly, that might be brave enough to challenge his logic at times, since his logic is a staple ingredient in a 5-9 season.

The only guy I can recall questioning him this season was Rob Bironas, after the terrible, tee-less, spinner onside kick failed the Titans a second game in a row at the end of the home loss to Indianapolis.

Lo and behold, Bironas effected change.

On two onside attempts against the Cardinals, he used a tee. And the second succeeded in conventional fashion. He smashed in into the ground, it took a high bounce, Larry Fitzgerald went up and got it, Jackie Battle crushed him and he lost it, Daimion Stafford recovered it.

No player was looking to effect change after this one, really. They were looking not to ruffle feathers.Understandable, I suppose. Though it signals the lack of star power that only one guy said something amounting to, "Damn right I want to go for it there."

Munchak has built this team in his image with a revamped offensive line and a lot of lip service to the running game. He saw the offense score on a lovely play-action pass to Delanie Walker from a yard out in the third quarter. This end-of-game scenario should be right in the Titans' wheelhouse.

Instead, Munchak preferred an extra series or multiple extra series to one snap.

“I'm not the head coach,” Walker said. “I believe in whatever he wants to do.”

Receiver Kendall Wright was a monster when the Titans needed him, finishing with 12 catches on 20 targets for 150 yards.

“I definitely wanted to go for it,” he at least conceded before turning to the company line. “But I'm not the offensive coordinator, I'm not the head coach. I can't control that. I thought the penalty might have changed it, but it is what it is. We can't control what our coaches do. We've just got to go out there and play.”

Said Munchak: “I would hope the offense always wants to go for it.”

An unconventional decision grounded in percentages would have been healthy for this team at that stage.

Make it and you were courageous. Miss it and you showed faith in your guys.

“I thought about it a lot,” Munchak said. “I just felt that we played so hard to get back into it, to put it on one play, that all of a sudden the game is over, the high to low. Now you sit there and think, ‘We might as well have done it. We had a better chance to win.' I felt the momentum was on our side. We got the ball, which I hoped we would. We were in position to take over the game. We have to make plays there and win it. Now that we didn't get it done, I wish we did go for it.”

The distance needed for the conversion shrinking after the penalty wasn't really a factor in his thinking, Munchak said.

In my thinking a team that has consistently failed to make plays, plural, this season, would have been better off trying to make a play, singular.

Including Sunday, the Titans have snapped the ball 11 times in 2013 from the 1-yard line. Five times they've scored the touchdown.

Including Sunday, the Titans have 56 snaps needing a yard for a first down. They have 35 first downs and 6 touchdowns. That's 73 percent success -- 23 percent better than the 50 percent that is overtime.

I am not an analytics guy, but I know several who are brilliant on this stuff.

I asked Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com how he looks at it.

“If ‘on average' the two situations are equal, then the characteristics of the team come into play,” he said. “Honestly, considering the quality of the Arizona D, notwithstanding the last 3 minutes of the game, I'd probably lean towards playing for OT.

“However, the penalty makes a huge difference. Since 2012, teams have scored TDs on 60 percent of 4th-and-goal from the 1 situations."

His bigger point departs from numerical analysis and melds with mine, looking at the philosophy and structure of the Titans.

Munchak has a team he's spent three years helping craft. The team has spent money, draft picks and resources to be a team that gets a tough yard.

“It's a huge indictment of the organization's philosophy, in my opinion, for THIS team to not go for 2 and run it up the gut,” Stuart said. “You can't devote so many resources and time and effort to being a physical running team and then not run in a situation where even average teams convert.”

Amen, brother.

Munchak lacks faith in the offense he's constructed just as much as I do, it appears.

Even lacking faith, I would have gone for it from the 1.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kendall Wright graduated into a receiver drawing double-teams in the past two weeks.

Wright
The Tennessee Titans top wide receiver said: "It might be a compliment, but I don't like it."

The absence of tight end Delanie Walker has allowed defenses to key more on Wright. Walker suffered a first-quarter concussion in Indianapolis, left that game and didn't play the next game in Denver.

"I've seen it a lot the last two games," Wright said. "It's hard, it's real hard. I've got a linebacker on me on the inside and a nickelback on me on the outside. When it's just the nickelback, if I have an out-breaking route, the corner will trap it, of an in-breaking route the linebacker will.

"I don't think they can really keep doing it because Justin (Hunter) is stepping up and we have a lot of play-makers at the position, so it would be kind of hard."

Wright said it's not a probable for him to beat a double-team, but that it might make for a better read to someone else. With Walker ready to get back on the field, Wright said there is no clear choice to double-team.

"He's a special tight end, when he gets back out there, they'll probably double-team me on some plays, some formations," Wright said. "But it'll be hard when you have Delanie out there with Nate (Washington) and Justin too."

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