AFC South: Eugene Amano

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Look at the Tennessee Titans from any angle and the focus winds up on the same spot: starting quarterback Jake Locker.

The Titans did a lot of overhauling after a miserable 6-10 season. All of it puts the third-year quarterback in a better position to succeed.

“I think throwing with confidence makes a big difference, and that’s what I feel like I am doing this year,” Locker said.

The Titans parted with Matt Hasselbeck and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick as the No. 2. They are confidant Fitzpatrick can step in and win games if needed, but they have no leash on Locker. The entire organization is committed to him and believes he’s the right guy to quarterback the team to a turnaround.

“He’s really taken ownership,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can see he’s a confident guy, and that’s one thing that you really need as a quarterback. He’s really worked at his game mentally. We’re progression-based now, and he’s really trying to take it to the next level in terms of his footwork and accuracy. This whole offseason I’ve definitely seen improvement.”

Locker will be running an easier, more straightforward system. He’s got a "move" tight end in Delanie Walker (not currently healthy) who adds a dynamic the Titans haven’t had since Locker was drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011. The receivers are deep and talented. The offensive line could be a dominant group, which should mean a Chris Johnson/Shonn Greene run game will provide great balance. And the defense should get Locker the ball back more often and with better field position.

I’ve seen steady progress and more consistent play in recent practices. But he needs to carry that over into games, and he needs to address two things that might qualify as habits: a tendency to start slow, and a propensity to throw more comfortably and more accurately to his left than to his right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceThe Titans hope to give pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley a lighter workload this season.
1. The pass rush. The Titans generated a reasonable total of 39 sacks last season, with 6.5 from Derrick Morgan and six apiece from Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers. The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ran the same number of defensive plays (1,086), and they had 37 sacks.

But no single player on the Titans’ defensive front ranked as a scheme-changer that offenses had to account for before every play. And the committee work in conjunction with coverage that was far too soft, far too frequently, played a big role in allowing a league-worst 471 points.

They didn’t change a lot at end. They added size in end Ropati Pitoitua, who figures to play a lot of run downs, and depth in fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards. Ayers will be a much more regular presence as a pass-rusher, and both Morgan and Wimbley will play much less than 80 percent of the snaps, which wore them down a year ago. Does all that and a more aggressive scheme influenced by Gregg Williams turn the Titans into a more threatening pass-rushing team? I can’t say yes yet.

2. Two important coaches. Dowell Loggains took over as offensive coordinator with five games left last season, but it’s not like he could revamp everything Chris Palmer was doing. Given an offseason, he has. These Titans will be less reactive and try to dictate more, and the options routes that complicated things and counted on receivers and the quarterback to read things the same way are gone. Things are tailored to Locker now, and Loggains has more talent at his disposal than Palmer did in 2011 or 2012.

On defense, Williams returns from his year in Bountygate exile with a simple promise he expected would help him win players over: That he can make them better. He’s not the same guy he was back when he was the Titans' defensive coordinator from 1997-2000, but the season suspension certainly made him reflect and he comes back a different guy from the one who was coordinator for the Saints. I suspect he will positively impact key guys on this defense like Ayers, cornerback Tommie Campbell, safety Michael Griffin and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.

3. The offensive line. Last season was a disaster, as the Titans had to call on more depth than any team can have. But the franchise counted on coach Mike Munchak and another offensive line Hall of Famer, line coach Bruce Matthews, to develop guys. A couple they counted on who never reached the expected level are gone now, and the Titans have much better players in place of Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano.

With a line of Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Robert Turner/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack and David Stewart, Tennessee feels like it has re-identified its identity.

“If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because our offensive line is a lot better than it was last year, and we’re physical, and we’re relentless, and we’re going to move people around on both sides of the ball,” Munchak said at the start of camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

They identified last season’s issues and have addressed them all in some fashion. That’s with coaching staff alterations, changes in thinking and scheme, major player additions in free agency and a draft that looks solid. This isn’t a team that sat back and assumed that given another year of seasoning, its 6-10 record could turn into 10-6. It took action. Now we have to find out if the moves and changes total up and produce a big difference in overall outcome.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker and Chandler Jones
AP Photo/Joe HowelThe Titans need QB Jake Locker to make big strides quickly if they are to survive a tough early schedule.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The unproven quarterback and the schedule. The Titans open at Pittsburgh and at Houston, and also play San Diego, a team Tennessee always struggles with, at Seattle and San Francisco before the Oct. 27 bye. It’s impossible to predict how the competition will be. But through the first seven games, 4-3 might qualify as pretty good but might still leave them having to chase to get into playoff contention.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Campbell has looked really good, and his physical makeup is tremendous, but is he ready to handle the mental end of the job? The team wants to play more press, physical coverage, and he’s suited to do so. They hyped him a year ago in camp then didn’t trust him enough to play him. We heard even better things about him this offseason, but recently they’ve put out the word not to count out Alterraun Verner and Campbell was tentative in the preseason opener. If they can’t get Campbell onto the field given his physical characteristics, I’ll question the effectiveness of the coaches who have raved so regularly.
  • Linebacker Colin McCarthy finally climbed back into the starting unit recently, then was sidelined the very next day with a hamstring injury. He’s a good player, but he’s always dealing with something. They are prepared to go with Moise Fokou, and I expect it’ll be very much a two-down job. The Titans are relying on all defenders getting a signal from the sideline, so the coach-to-player communication device won’t be a factor that helps keep a middle linebacker on the field.
  • Undrafted kicker Maikon Bonani has a giant leg, but he has to improve his control. Rob Bironas is recovering from back issues.
  • Weakside linebacker Zach Brown came into the league facing a charge by a prominent draft analyst that he was allergic to contact. He’s been anything but, and his growth as a rookie was a bright spot. He and rookie Zaviar Gooden are blazers at linebacker who can help the Titans deal with some of the tough coverage mismatches created against other offenses.
  • I expect offenses to target strong safety Bernard Pollard in the passing game. He’s an in-the-box safety, though he bristles at conversation about his coverage skills. The Titans plan to use George Wilson also, and he’s a more sound coverage safety. Pollard has brought needed swagger. But I wonder if Wilson won’t ultimately wind up with more snaps.
  • Two eye-catching undrafted rookies at camp have been tight end Jack Doyle and defensive tackle Stefan Charles.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fernando Velasco is the incumbent and Brian Schwenke was the center in the draft the Tennessee Titans thought was the best in the class.

But the pivot who’s in place on opening day for a revamped offensive line won’t necessarily be one of the two.

[+] EnlargeRob Turner
Mark Humphrey/AP PhotoThe Titans hope to rely on Rob Turner's veteran expertise to boost the offensive line.
Veteran Rob Turner is also going to get plenty of work and the Titans fully consider him in the mix. Thursday in the first practice of camp, with first-round draft pick Chance Warmack missing because he doesn’t have a deal yet, Turner and Velasco both saw significant time at center and right guard.

“It really shows the maturity of a guy when you’ve got guys who come in competing for the same position and there is no malice towards anybody,” Turner said. “We’re all trying to help each other and help each other improve. We know at the end of the day, sometimes the decisions are made because of money, sometimes they are made because of age or injuries, potential or things like that. But the biggest thing I have to say is we have a good group of guys who really care about each other, that want to help each other improve."

Turner played five seasons for the Jets before joining the Rams in 2012.

Mike Munchak poured out a pretty significant compliment for Turner when I asked about the sixth-year man’s potential.

“We like his attitude, his toughness, he reminds me of Kevin Mawae, he’s a bigger version, he’s a heavier guy,” Munchak said. “When I compare him to Kevin, it’s more his approach to the game, very smart, a takes-control kind of guy who knows all the tricks of the trade. He’s an interesting guy, I’m happy he’s here. He’ll be great with Jake (Locker) in the huddle. He has a lot of intangibles that way.”

The Titans have a lot of competitions to sort through. Munchak sounded as if center could be the first one settled. The Titans need to look at all the options and see how they mesh with the rest of the line and with Locker.

“I don’t think anybody goes anywhere not expecting to play,” Turner said after that practice, adding Chris Spencer to the list of guys fighting for the job. “I think we’re going to play these cards out and see where they play at the end of the day.”

A versatile interior guy, Turner said he thinks he’s the best at where he gets to practice the most.

A team that had to call on too much depth a year ago should be far better off in that area after adding Warmack and Andy Levitre to start at the guard spots, as well as Schwenke, Turner, Spencer, and tackle Barry Richardson.

The best guy will play. It makes sense for the Titans to hope Schwenke is quickly the best guy. A fourth-round pick out of Cal, he’s strong enough to anchor but very quick at getting to the second level. Getting him working next to Warmack as soon as possible would seem to be an ideal scenario.

Wherever Turner winds up, he has impressed the team since he signed.

The Titans' offensive line troubles grew when they didn’t re-sign Mawae for the 2010 season. He had slowed, and not bringing him back wasn’t a terrible move. It was Tennessee's failure to sufficiently replace him, relying predominantly on Eugene Amano who didn’t grow into the player they expected, that set the line back.

Amano missed last year with an injury and was cut this offseason since he was finally healthy.

Tennessee can go three different directions at center now.

With Schwenke, Velasco or Turner in the middle of the line between Levitre, a major free-agent addition, and Warmack, the 10th overall pick, things stand to be significantly better.
In early March, I outlined a five-category plan for offseason moves for each team in the AFC South.

I considered finances, continuity, turnover, additions and the draft.

Today we’ve looked back to see how my plan and the team’s offseason lined up and how they didn’t.

Last up are the Titans. Here’s the original post.

What I got right:

Finances: “There are contracts here that need to be dealt with, but the team has about $18 million in cap room at the start and there's no need to make any moves right away. Guard Steve Hutchinson ($5.25 million base in 2013) and center Eugene Amano ($3.935 million) can't be on the roster at those salaries, and won’t be. Safety Jordan Babineaux ($1.6 million) could be in a similar situation. But the Titans have said they won’t make cap moves until replacement players arrive, and that’s sound thinking.”

Hutchinson, Amano and Babineaux all are gone. It took a while with Amano, but the Titans needed a knee issue to be resolved before they could let him go.

Continuity: “Keeping kicker Rob Bironas would be nice, but you can only spend so much on a kicker, considering how we’ve seen some kids come out of nowhere and do big things. [Since this was posted, The Tennessean reported the Titans struck a two-year deal with Bironas.] Tight end Jared Cook was enough of a problem that the Titans didn’t tag him, so they must move on from the headache. Center Fernando Velasco should be fine if he’s between better guards; the Titans should tender the restricted free agent so that he’s sure to remain. It’d be nice to keep Darius Reynaud, but if Marc Mariani returns healthy, Tennessee doesn’t need both returners.”

They let Cook walk for a giant contract with the Rams, tendered Velesaco, and kept Reynaud.

Turnover: Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is probably not worth what he might draw on the market, so be ready to move on there. Will Witherspoon wasn’t a good enough backup for injury-prone Colin McCarthy at middle linebacker, and an upgrade is needed.

Marks wound up in Jacksonville, Witherspoon is unsigned and Moise Fokou was signed as they looked to upgrade linebacking depth.

What I got part right, part wrong:

Additions: “It’s time to be aggressive. Chase Buffalo’s durable guard, Andy Levitre, and lure him by telling him how much better he can get with the polish two Hall of Fame coaches can apply. The other big fish needs to be Michael Bennett, the Tampa Bay defensive end. He’s a big, ascending player who can play every down and would give the pass rush the boost it needs. Dustin Keller was hurt last year, but he played in every game in his first five seasons. He can be the reliable tight end working underneath for Jake Locker that Frank Wycheck was for Steve McNair. To replace Marks, roll the dice on Kansas City defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who should be affordable and might fare well in a second act with lower expectations.”

Levitre was their primary target. But the Titans went different directions at the other spots -- Ropati Pitoitua at end, Delanie Walker at tight end and Sammie Hill at defensive tackle.

Draft: If Alabama guard Chance Warmack is on the board at No. 10, he would complete the interior line rebuild. I want a corner who can provide another option outside, a safety to groom behind George Wilson and one of the big running backs in the middle rounds who can complement Chris Johnson.

Warmack was the pick at No. 10. The corner arrived in the form of third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson. The additional safety and running back came in free agency, not the draft, with Bernard Pollard and Shonn Greene.

Links: Colts talking with Ahmad Bradshaw

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Houston Texans

With Ed Reed sidelined, rookie safety D.J. Swearinger has gotten extra reps during organized team activities (OTAs) and has already made an impression on teammates, write the Houston Chronicle's Tania Ganguli and Corey Roepken. "Every day he comes out here and does something amazing," safety Danieal Manning said.

Left tackle Andrew Gardner will get to show what he can do with the first team during next week's minicamp, write Ganguli and Roepken. Starter Duane Brown had a bone spur removed from his foot Wednesday and is expected to be out for a month.

A photo gallery of Texans OTAs from the Chronicle.

Coach Gary Kubiak singled out rookies Swearinger and DeAndre Hopkins for praise after wrapping up OTAs Thursday.

Indianapolis Colts

Former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw visited the Colts on Thursday and the two sides have been discussing a contract, reports the Indianapolis Star's Mike Chappell. The Colts are committed to running the football more effectively a season after averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt, writes Chappell.

Reggie Wayne, who spends much of the offseason in South Florida working out, is back in Indianapolis for OTAs and next week's mandatory minicamp, AP reports. "Reggie looks great," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "Reggie's going to look great in whatever offense you put him in. If it's the spread or whatever that crazy A-11 thing was in high school a couple of years ago, whether it's backyard football, any sport. He's the type of guy that stands out. He's just an athlete. He knows how to play. He'll be great. He always is."

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars worked out free agent running back Beanie Wells, a 2009 first-round pick of the Cardinals who has struggled to stay healthy since entering the league, reports Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Uche Nwaneri played last season with torn knee cartilage and a torn meniscus, but the guard said he never considered taking himself out of the lineup to get it fixed, writes the Times-Union's Vito Stellino. "We’re in the trenches. You can’t show any signs of weakness. I’d do it over again in a heartbeat. A lot of it has to do with pride. At the same time, we’re all in this together. The guy next to me is relying on me. I don’t want to let that person down," Nwaneri said. In the offseason, Nwaneri first had arthroscopic surgery on the knee, then later had stem cells taken out of his hip and injected into his knee to regrow cartilage.

Tennessee Titans

The team waived center Eugene Amano after nine seasons with the club, AP reports.

The Titans' decision to ditch last season's playbook and start over was a gamble, but a necessary one, writes The Tennessean's David Climer.

The Titans signed Moise Fokou as a free agent this offseason, and the middle linebacker is making a case to be the starter during OTAs, writes The Tennessean's John Glennon. "He’s here, in his mind, to start. That’s how it should be," coach Mike Munchak said.
The Tennessee Titans have their first three OTA sessions in the next three days, and Friday’s is the first open to the media.

Tinkering, particularly on defense, will be well underway by then.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Scott Solomon
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsTennessee defensive end Scott Solomon will get some work at strongside linebacker.
Media and fans shouldn’t go crazy when they hear what some players will be working on as part of different packages, and as coach Mike Munchak, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams begin to get more complete assessments of what guys can, and cannot, do.

I just talked with Titans coach Mike Munchak:

“The big thing is, especially on defense, don’t get to caught up with who’s doing what and where,” he advised me. “We have enough numbers in a lot of spots, I think you are going to see a lot of guys moving around. We may be doing different things because of packages. As we start competing and with Gregg here now we start to see who works well together, who can do certain things. See what possibilities we can have with certain packages based on who we’re playing on offense and what they do receiver-wise.”

I asked him for some examples of what that tinkering might look like.

  • Defensive end Scott Solomon will get some work at strongside linebacker, where he could ultimately see some time if he’s comfortable there when Akeem Ayers moves forward to do some work as a rush end.
  • Defensive tackle Karl Klug may play some end, but it won’t be a simple move from 4-3 tackle to 4-3 end, he’ll work more like a 3-4 end would in some special, varied fronts. But don’t conclude the Titans are becoming a 3-4 because of it.
  • Starting ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley very much remain the starting ends, but they may not always be on the field at the same time as coaches see who works best together on each side of the pass rush. I presume Ayers will be a factor there, as will some ends who may be more early down run-stoppers who can save some wear and tear on the team’s best rush ends.

As for injuries ...

Right tackle David Stewart, interior offensive lineman Eugene Amano and safety Robert Johnson will not be participating at the start of OTAs as they continue to recover from injuries. (I believe Amano will be cut once his arm and knees are healthy.)

Several others will be limited or will start slow and be eased in: Linebacker Zach Brown (shoulder), guard Andy Levitre (who had a knee cleaned out after the season), Morgan, safety Markelle Martin (back) and defensive tackle Mike Martin (knee).

Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who recently rated himself as 80 percent, is good to go, Munchak said.
Chance WarmackAl Bello/Getty ImagesIt's been 30 years since the Titans franchise drafted a guard in the first round.
NASHVILLE -- The last two guards drafted by the Tennessee Titans franchise, Hall of Famers Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews, just oversaw the selection of another.

Alabama’s Chance Warmack is so football-focused, he got his license only last year. He's so strong, the Titans said he moved SEC defensive linemen like no one else. He's so in love with the idea of playing for these two coaches, he didn't hold a private workout for anyone else.

I’ve known Munchak and Matthews since 1996. I can’t recall ever seeing the two low-key, business-like football men beam quite so brightly. The glow they gave off at the news conference at the Titans' headquarters after making the 10th pick made me believe it when they said there was no question Warmack was their man early on -- something virtually every coach stated Thursday night.

A few days after Alabama’s pro day, Munchak and Matthews got Warmack on the field with Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker in Tuscaloosa. The coaches put the prospects through a difficult 90-minute workout that helped transform Matthews into a believer.

“Really, for me, I go in very skeptical on linemen that I’ve heard about,” Matthews said. “Because typically they’re a product of the team they play on. Alabama having such a great tradition and on such a hit streak, you kind of think they’ve got a bunch of other guys on the team pumping him up.

“I went in very skeptical, wanting to shoot him down at every turn. And really I think what sold me on him was every time I was with him, I got excited about the opportunity to watch him play and coach him. He has the demeanor and the mindset and he plays the style that we are looking for.”

Warmack spoke in advance of the draft about Tennessee being a dream destination. He’s from Atlanta and went to Alabama. In addition to playing in the Southeast, he craved the coaching the Titans could offer, considering he’d never played for a coach who’d actually played offensive line before.

“They put me through the wringer,” he said, recounting the private workout. “I felt like I put everything into what I did, and throughout my visit we had a great time going over plays and I felt like we hit it off pretty well.”

The franchise hasn’t drafted a first-round guard since Matthews in 1983, ninth overall, and Munchak in 1982, eighth overall. Years later, they presented each other into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As a longtime offensive line coach, Munchak frequently develops midround picks into capable players. He was promoted to head coach in 2011 and hired Matthews, his closest friend, to take over his old job.

Fifth-rounder Benji Olson and third-rounder Zach Piller were the starting guards on the Titans' Super Bowl team in 1999. Free agents such as Kevin Mawae, Fred Miller, Jake Scott have been splashed in, but homegrown and developed guys were far more frequent pieces.

None came in the first round since Brad Hopkins in 1993, and only 1996 bust Jason Layman and current left tackle Michael Roos were drafted as high as the second round.

Investing through the draft has proven insufficient recently. Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano were counted on to develop into reliable pieces and didn’t do enough.

The Titans thought they could make it through last season. They added Steve Hutchinson, the well-credentialed veteran guard. He didn’t bring much and then got hurt, like virtually every other lineman on the team.

General manager Ruston Webster and Munchak huddled after the season and decided it was time. When free agency opened, they landed top available guard, Buffalo’s Andy Levitre, with a six-year, $46.8 million contract.

Now they drafted Warmack. He will shift from his college position on the left to the right and be a fixture on the more powerful side of the line.

“To me, he is the complete package,” Munchak said. “He loves the game; he has a passion for it. Spending time with Bruce and I, he loved hearing the stories of linemen of the past, talking about the history of the game. For a young guy, that’s rare that he’s interested in those types of things. Obviously, we all hit it off pretty well.

“I think he wanted to be a Titan the whole time and he didn't hide his feelings on that.”

Warmack said he weighs 325 pounds and anticipates playing at 325 or 330.

Tim Ruskell scouts the Southeast for the Titans and said the sort of power he saw from Warmack is rare in the NFL. He saw Hutchinson up close in Seattle, where he was dominant at the start of his career. The way Warmack plays will mean the Titans can do anything they want behind him.

“He can explode with his hips and he can get in and get movement versus bigger people,” Ruskell said. “He played against so many good defensive linemen that were strong and stout. We didn’t see a lot of guys moving those guys. But when you watch Chance, he was able to get movement, he was able to seal run lanes -- that kind of power. It’s the power to anchor, it’s the power to explode and get movement versus bigger people.

“... It just sets him apart from the normal offensive linemen that you tend to look at. That is what got our attention, and then it is aggression -- the aggression and the want-to and to sustain and finish the block. Coaches always talk finish. This guy has finish. It is a big thing that seems simple, but it is a big deal. When you see it and the combination of what he has, I think it is a rare trait.”
The accuracy of unofficial depth charts varies team to team. Non of them mean a ton in April.

But the Titans have one out as part of their pre-draft news release.

Five of the free-agent additions are listed as starters: Tight end Delanie Walker, left guard Andy Levitre, right guard Rob Turner, defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill and safety Bernard Pollard.

Where the other additions are listed:
The team’s first round draft pick could displace someone for sure, and the second-rounder could, too -- though unofficial depth charts typically honor veteran players and wait for kids to pay dues before they get their rank confirmed on paper.

Find the whole depth chart here.

The division's $5 million men

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Over at NFC South headquarters, our “regional” cohort Pat Yasinskas was driven by Drew Brees' giant salary-cap number to look at all the players in that division with cap numbers of $5 million of more.

We know a good idea when we see one, so here's an AFC South version of the $5 million-or-more club, with 2013 salary-cap numbers.
That’s nine Texans, eight Titans, six Colts and four Jaguars.

Newest Titans will add depth

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The Tennessee Titans added their 11th and 12th free agent in their ongoing roster revamp, signing receiver Kevin Walter and interior offensive lineman Chris Spencer.

Walter is familiar to the Titans as he played the last seven years for the Houston Texans, often serving as the second wide receiver opposite Andre Johnson.

He had 65 catches and eight touchdowns for Houston in 2007, but his role had diminished with only 39 and 41 catches the last two seasons and five total touchdowns. He was a recent salary-cap casualty for a team that drafted a couple receivers last year and is expected to draft a more dynamic No. 2 receiver at the end of the month.

The Titans have struck out with several veteran receivers, including Danny Amendola, Wes Welker and Brandon Gibson. Indications are they’d like to trade the expensive Nate Washington, but I am not sure Walter will add enough to make Washington expendable.

Walter joins Kendall Wright, Kenny Britt, Washington, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and Michael Preston on the Titans receiving corps. The group has a new position coach in Shawn Jefferson.

Spencer is the third veteran, interior offensive lineman the Titans have added. He joins Andy Levitre, who will start at left guard, and Rob Turner.

While Fernando Velasco is expected to remain the starter at center, right guard will be wide open and Turner and Spencer could compete with a draft pick or slug it out between them.

Seattle picked Spencer in the first round in 2005 out of Ole Miss and he played the last two years in Chicago, where offensive line struggles were a big issue.

“Both Kevin and Chris are established veterans in this league who have a great deal of starting experience,” said Titans general manager Ruston Webster said in a statement. “They have made significant contributions on good teams during their careers. We feel like they can come in and provide increased competition at their respective positions for us.”

The addition of Spencer could mean the end of overpriced Eugene Amano, who was hurt in the preseason last year and missed the entire 2012 season.
Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews always said he’d recuse himself on roster decisions involving his son, Tennessee interior offensive lineman Kevin Matthews.

It would have cost the Titans a tender of at least $1.323 million to retain his rights. With or without the input of Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Fame lineman, the Titans didn’t tender Kevin Matthews or interior offensive lineman Kyle DeVan.

Kevin Matthews and DeVan will become unrestricted free agents Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. At that point the Titans could sign them to deals at one-year base minimum salary. The third-year base salary minimum is $630,000.

It’s time, though, for the Titans to be finished with Matthews, the project who came out of Texas A&M in 2010.

The interior offensive line is expected to be revamped with two new starting guards. As they are brought in, via free agency and/or the draft, the team is likely to move on from two expensive veterans, Steve Hutchinson and Eugene Amano.

Leroy Harris and Deuce Lutui become unrestricted free agents Tuesday.

Tyler Horn was on the practice squad at the end of last season and Chris DeGeare was on the practice squad injured list.

The Titans now have Mitch Petrus and Kasey Studdard as their interior depth.

So Tennessee doesn't need only a couple starting guards. It needs a candidate or two to compete with Petrus and Studdard for backup roles as well.
My plan for the Tennessee Titans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

Finances: There are contracts here that need to be dealt with, but the team has about $18 million in cap room at the start and there's no need to make any moves right away. Guard Steve Hutchinson ($5.25 million base in 2013) and center Eugene Amano ($3.935 million) can't be on the roster at those salaries, and won’t be. Safety Jordan Babineaux ($1.6 million) could be in a similar situation. But the Titans have said they won’t make cap moves until replacement players arrive, and that’s sound thinking.

Continuity: Keeping kicker Rob Bironas would be nice, but you can only spend so much on a kicker, considering how we’ve seen some kids come out of nowhere and do big things. [Since this was posted, The Tennessean reported the Titans struck a two-year deal with Bironas.] Tight end Jared Cook was enough of a problem that the Titans didn’t tag him, so they must move on from the headache. Center Fernando Velasco should be fine if he’s between better guards; the Titans should tender the restricted free agent so that he’s sure to remain. It’d be nice to keep Darius Reynaud, but if Marc Mariani returns healthy, Tennessee doesn’t need both returners.

Turnover: Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is probably not worth what he might draw on the market, so be ready to move on there. Will Witherspoon wasn’t a good enough backup for injury-prone Colin McCarthy at middle linebacker, and an upgrade is needed.

Additions: It’s time to be aggressive. Chase Buffalo’s durable guard, Andy Levitre, and lure him by telling him how much better he can get with the polish two Hall of Fame coaches can apply. The other big fish needs to be Michael Bennett, the Tampa Bay defensive end. He’s a big, ascending player who can play every down and would give the pass rush the boost it needs. Dustin Keller was hurt last year, but he played in every game in his first five seasons. He can be the reliable tight end working underneath for Jake Locker that Frank Wycheck was for Steve McNair. To replace Marks, roll the dice on Kansas City defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who should be affordable and might fare well in a second act with lower expectations.

Draft: If Alabama guard Chance Warmack is on the board at No. 10, he would complete the interior line rebuild. I want a corner who can provide another option outside, a safety to groom behind George Wilson and one of the big running backs in the middle rounds who can complement Chris Johnson.

Eight in the Box: Biggest cap casualty

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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, a new NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Houston Texans: The one team in the division that could need some cap relief is the Texans, who currently have $5.768 million in space. But if they re-sign safety Glover Quin, outside linebacker Connor Barwin and fullback James Casey as they’d like to, that space will disappear quickly and they’ll need to find an avenue to gain room. I understand that the general public undervalues a lot of what Kevin Walter does. But a $4.5 million cap number and a scheduled base salary of $3.5 million is simply too much for what he does. A dynamic receiver is still on the Texans' list of needs, which seems to make Walter expendable.

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts don’t need to cut anyone. General manager Ryan Grigson has $43.427 million in cap room. So don’t expect anyone to be released. (Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney was not a cap casualty -- he was a pending free agent who was informed he wouldn’t be offered a new deal.) But are there players who are scheduled to make too much? Sure. Center Samson Satele is due $2.7 million in base salary, and his play in his first year as the team’s center wasn’t $2.22 million better than A.Q. Shipley's in 2012. I doubt it will be in 2013. Parting ways with Satele would save only $1.734 million.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars are in solid cap shape -- they have $23.807 million in space. But they have plenty of players with big deals that the old regime gave them. New general manager Dave Caldwell may be unwilling to pay out some of those contracts. Receiver Laurent Robinson is still dealing with concussion-related issues and although he’s due $2.6 million in base salary, he has the club’s fourth-highest cap number in 2013 at $6.3 million. Cutting him, though, would actually cost the team $100,000 more against the cap in 2013 than keeping him, because his remaining prorated bonus would result in an accelerated $6.4 million hit.

Tennessee Titans: GM Ruston Webster said at the combine Thursday that Tennessee won’t be cutting anyone as the new league year starts, but that once the team adds upgrades in free agency and in the draft, such moves may occur. Webster and coach Mike Munchak are talking about the need to rebuild the interior offensive line. So the top candidates to be cut down the road have to be guard Steve Hutchinson (due a $4.75 million base, he would cost $3 million in dead money cap hit) and guard/center Eugene Amano (due a $3.935 million base, but they’d save only about $1 million by cutting him).

Did teams get their money's worth?

February, 5, 2013
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Did they get their money’s worth?

It’s a great question now that the NFL season is completely over. Which teams in the league did the best job getting the most value out of their dollars spent?

While the salary cap isn’t nearly as constrictive as it once was, it still serves the purpose of leveling the playing field. The teams that fare the best will typically be the most prudent with the cap, right? Rather than pay a guy at his peak value -- like the previous Jaguars regime did with free-agent receiver Laurent Robinson last year, one could argue -- a team will ideally secure him long-term as cheaply as possible before he approaches his ceiling.

The Guardian recently produced this fantastic graphic that shows us how a team’s cap expenditures for the just completed season were divided up.

To the right is a chart of the AFC South, with ranks in offense and defense based on yardage side-by-side with ranks in those categories based on the percentage of their cap dollars spent.

What leaps out?

Well, the Colts had the league’s 10th most productive offense despite spending the least money in the league on offensive players. Pretty good.

The Titans and Jaguars hit that in reverse. While they spent an awful lot on offense, they ranked very poorly in it.

And it can be argued that that difference does a lot to explain the difference in the Colts 11-5 playoff season and the 6-10 and 2-14 seasons of the Titans and Jaguars, respectively.

We shouldn’t connect the dots without allowing for circumstances.

The Jaguars took a huge hit to their plan for their offense when Robinson missed most of the season because of concussion issues. Would they have gotten closer to their $4.7 million worth out of him based on what we saw when he did play? It seems unlikely. But it would be a lot fairer to call him a poor investment if he’d played in more than seven games.

The Titans lose center Eugene Amano to an arm injury during training camp. Earlier in his contract it became clear to many of us that he was overpaid. But whether he would have played anything like a $5.25 million lineman or not in 2012 isn’t a factor in here. The team took that cap hit for him despite the fact he didn’t play a snap for it.

This is a remarkable graphic to fiddle around with. I suspect we’ll revisit it.

Priority one: Tennessee Titans

January, 23, 2013
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Today we look at the biggest issues facing each team in the AFC South and give you an opportunity to assess priority one:

Pending free agents of note: Tight end Jared Cook, kicker Rob Bironas, return man Darius Reynaud, fullback Quinn Johnson, guard Leroy Harris, defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.

Weaknesses: Defense. The Titans couldn’t stop good teams from moving the ball and scoring points. They need a better pass rush to hurry quarterbacks up and better safeties/ safety play to bolster the secondary. Jake Locker was inaccurate and inefficient in his first year as the quarterback, plus he got hurt.

SportsNation

What should be priority one for the Titans?

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    7%
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    31%
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    20%
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    39%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,203)

Unsettled starting jobs: All three interior offensive line positions require attention. Steve Hutchinson could retire, but isn’t the answer at left guard if he doesn’t unless the other two spots get big upgrades. Fernando Velasco was the center after a camp injury to Eugene Amano, and Harris was the right guard until an injury ended his year. Strong safety is up in the air too, where Jordan Babineaux and Al Afalava don't cut it.

Depth issues: Critics will be quick to say the offensive line depth is a question, but the Titans needed starts from six backups, and no one can be 11 deep on the line. Upgrade starters and the backups may be fine. They aren’t deep enough at end or safety. They need a better option for if/when middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is hurt. I’m OK with the top three corners, but one injury and they’re in trouble.

Health concerns: Locker had postseason surgery on his left, non-throwing shoulder. On the offensive line, Hutchinson had right knee surgery after he was injured with four games left and right tackle David Stewart is coming off a broken leg. Returner Marc Mariani suffered a compound broken left leg, tibia and fibula, in the preseason. Kenny Britt was back from knee issues, but was determined to get to the bottom of swelling and soreness this offseason.

Unseen issue: Coach Mike Munchak fired four assistants (including offensive coordinator Chris Palmer during the season) and brought in three outsiders while moving some others around. Will we see improved play on special teams and from linebackers, tight ends, receivers and running backs?

AFC South wrap: The division in 2012

December, 27, 2012
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans. I’ve never seen someone so disruptive up front. The guy’s got the complete package. He’s incredibly instinctive, knowing when to stop rushing and pull up, looking to bat down a pass. He also understands the lane into which a quarterback might be looking to throw. He simply manhandles some blockers -- swimming past them, bowling them backward, speeding around them or knifing between two guys. Some blockers have had absolutely no answer for him, and even if a team tried to take plays as far away from him as possible, he often tracked those plays and got involved in stopping them.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Brett Davis/US PresswireJ.J. Watt needs two more sacks to tie Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks in a season.
Early in the season he talked about wanting to redefine the 3-4 end position, which hasn’t traditionally been a stat position. Later Antonio Smith pointed out how often Watt is really lining up at tackle. He’s not likely to win MVP based on what the league’s best quarterbacks and Adrian Peterson (despite my thinking that the running back is not worthy of the award) are doing. But his ability to push an offense backward so often has been a tremendous factor in an excellent season for the Texans. The other three teams would be wise to reinforce their offensive lines, because it’s reasonable to expect Watt will be a handful for protections and run blocking for years to come.

Biggest disappointment: The pass rushes of the Jaguars and the Titans required offseason attention. Neither team did enough to find a way to disrupt opposing quarterbacks consistently. The Jaguars go into the final game of the season with the worst sacks-per-play average in the NFL and a total of only 18 sacks. Jacksonville’s big addition was second-round pick Andre Branch, who couldn’t hold onto a starting job and finished with one sack in 12 games and is on IR. The Jags played nine games in which they produced either one sack or no sacks. Tennessee has 32 sacks and is close to the middle of the pack. But it’s not enough for a defense with a lot of kids in the back seven and bad safety play. Tennessee got better results than Jacksonville from its newcomer, free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley (five sacks), but he didn’t offer the game-to-game and play-to-play threat Tennessee so desperately needed.

Joe Cullen’s been in place for three seasons as Jacksonville’s defensive line coach. He’s a good coach and motivator, but he did not get the production the defense had to have. His counterpart in Nashville, Tracy Rocker, came from Auburn in 2011 and hasn’t proved to be an effective NFL position coach. Pass-rush coach Keith Millard was brought in to help the rush and the blitz, but it’s hard to see a major difference as a result of his presence. The Titans got shredded by the best quarterbacks they faced, from Tom Brady on opening day to Aaron Rodgers last week.

Offensive player of the year, rookie of the year, fourth-quarter player of the year: Andrew Luck has thrown too many interceptions in his rookie season. His stat line is hardly cause for a parade. He dug himself some holes. But leading his team to 10 wins, seven of them in comeback fashion, and getting into the playoffs does a lot to reduce the importance of those turnovers. He showed a great talent for climbing out of those holes. He was capable of digesting everything the first time around, handling Bruce Arians’ very vertical offense, the absence of coach Chuck Pagano, an often ineffective defense and a less-than-watertight offensive line with aplomb.

Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have strong cases for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, which may never have been so hotly contested. We may see all three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs. In the AFC South, Luck is the quarterback who was asked to do the most from the start, and he was the quarterback who did the most. Rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton is already a good player for the Colts. If you took Hilton and put him on the Titans or the Jaguars, how would he fare? Nowhere near as well as he fared playing with Luck in their first years in the NFL, I feel certain.

Worst injuries: The Jaguars really suffered because Daryl Smith and Clint Session were absent from the linebacking corps. Smith just returned last week from a groin injury and Session never made it back from multiple concussions suffered in 2011, his first season in Jacksonville. The corners all took turns missing time, and safety Dwight Lowery played only nine games. The loss of playmakers really dented a defense that plummeted in the rankings from 2011 to 2012.

Tennessee’s offensive line was not good enough, and revamping the interior needs to be a major offseason priority. The Titans lost starting center Eugene Amano in the preseason and right guard Leroy Harris halfway through the year. For the last quarter of the season, they were also down left guard Steve Hutchinson and right tackle David Stewart. It’s hard for them to give Jake Locker a real chance playing behind a line with four reserves. Still, he could have shown far more in his chances when he was healthy.

The division’s two worst teams lost a lot of time with their young quarterbacks, too. Locker missed five games with a shoulder injury, and Blaine Gabbert played through a shoulder injury before adding a forearm issue that ended his season after 10 games. Looking ahead to 2013, the status of each as a long-term answer is not what it once was.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Bruce Arians stepped in for coach Chuck Pagano and led a team coming off a two-win season to the playoffs.
Coaches of the year: Pagano and Arians of the Colts. It's been a storybook season for Indianapolis, which rallied around Pagano. He learned he had leukemia after just three games and handed the team to Arians while he underwent treatment. His fight gave the team a purpose, and it responded by playing better than the sum of its parts. Behind the scenes, Pagano was more involved than many might imagine.

But it was Arians conveying the messages, overseeing the game-planning, leading and, as offensive coordinator, calling the plays. He did a masterful job in overseeing the team, the offense and the rookie quarterback. Now, with Pagano back in place, he’ll drift into the background. He’s 60, which will work against his getting a head-coaching job. His work, however, should earn him consideration for some of the jobs that are about to open. That was quite an audition. And just about every team hiring a coach will need a quarterback developer.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

I want to emphasize one thing about this All-AFC South Team. Wade Smith is measured against the division’s left guards, not against the rest of the selections. There are miles between Smith as a player and Watt as a player, and if we measure a guard against a defensive end who’s the division MVP, things look askew.

One I’ll get crushed for: Many of you argued with me on Twitter when I wrote that I would take Luck over Matt Schaub as the third Pro Bowl quarterback, so I am sure you won’t like the choice of quarterback here. Luck struggled more than Schaub, for sure. But he was asked to do far more than Schaub and produced seven comeback wins, leading a team that’s really lacking in talent to an improbable playoff spot. There were no expectations for the Colts, and Luck and the team delivered. There were huge expectations on the Texans, and Schaub and the team delivered. My gut continues to prefer Luck’s year. That doesn’t mean I dislike what Schaub’s done.

Just misses: Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan, Texans outside linebacker Brooks Reed, Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.

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