AFC South: Justin Gage

Gage simply silly to say no to Titans

September, 28, 2011
9/28/11
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Justin Gage confuses me.

Seriously, I am baffled by John Glennon's report that “Gage’s agent said Tuesday the Titans had interest in re-signing Gage but that the two sides couldn’t agree to terms on a deal.”

Wow.

Here’s how the conversation should go for a veteran receiver who’s drawn minimal interest from around the league after being cut at the conclusion of the preseason.
Titans: “Here’s a one-year offer for the veteran minimum. We’d like you back to provide depth.”

Gage: “OK. Where do I sign? I really appreciate another opportunity and more money for being a good blocker and an unreliable pass-catcher.”

That he said "no" is crazy. What sort of leverage did he think he had?

Wyatt says the Titans worked out David Clowney, Mardy Gilyard, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Tiquan Underwood and Buster Davis. And that at least two more are scheduled for workouts Wednesday -- Donnie Avery and Juaquin Iglesias.

The report indicates Clowney leads the pack right now.

Again, I urge calm over any addition.

The new guy will rank fourth or fifth at the start. He’s not stepping into the lineup to replace Kenny Britt. He’s brought in to bolster depth, immerse himself in the system and be ready for more if Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins cannot give the Titans what they now need.
Titans fans are panicked as they consider the team’s options in the wake of the news that wide receiver Kenny Britt tore up his knee against Denver and is lost for the season.

Should the team contact Terrell Owens? Turn back to Randy Moss? Bring back Justin Gage?

Jim Wyatt reports the Titans do have plans to work out Buster Davis and, if he doesn’t sign with a team he promised to visit first, Donnie Avery. Titans beat writers tweeted from Mike Munchak's news conference that the coach said that Moss and Owens are not likely to get a look but that Gage is a possibility.

Davis, Avery or Gage wouldn't jump into the team’s rotation. The Titans expect Nate Washington, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and tight end Jared Cook to take on more.

Washington has been excellent the past two weeks.

It’s a bit ironic.

In Pittsburgh, he excelled as a scramble option for Ben Roethlisberger. The Titans saw him as a great fit for Vince Young, presuming they’d work the same sort of magic on freelance plays. But it never really panned out and Washington was wildly inconsistent in his first two seasons in Tennessee, dropping far too many passes.

Now, playing with a more conventional pocket passer in Matt Hasselbeck, Washington has found something different. He’s had at least six catches in all three of the Titans’ games so far, with a total of 21 receptions for 258 yards and a touchdown. He’s earning the trust of receivers coach Dave Ragone, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Hasselbeck.

It’s one thing being the No. 2 receiver when a top-level threat such as Britt is drawing attention. Now the Titans need Washington to show he can continue to produce while ranking as the top guy.

It’s not an ideal scenario. But it looks a lot better than it did before the Munchak regime got started.

RTC: Reviewing the division's cuts

September, 4, 2011
9/04/11
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Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Their best back in the preseason and a fifth-round pick were among the Texans' cuts, says John McClain.

The Texans are heavy at defensive back, light on the offensive line, says Alan Burge.

Indianapolis Colts

The shared experience of Chad Span and Darren Evans continues, says Mike Chappell.

Phillip B. Wilson on Colts’ survivors.

Assessing the 53, with Brett Mock.

Another 53 breakdown, with Jake Sanders.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars lost Rashad Jennings for the year and traded for Dwight Lowery, says Tania Ganguli.

The defense will determine the Jaguars fate, says Gene Frenette.

The Times-Union went hard with a “Little Engine That Could” theme on its season preview. Here’s the lead story from Ganguli.

Tennessee Titans

The cuts included three guys who’d been around for a while: Justin Gage, Vincent Fuller and Jacob Ford, says John Glennon.

The suspended Ahmard Hall says he never took steroids and thinks he’s built up enough of a relationship with fans that they should believe him, writes Glennon.

I missed this breakdown of Chris Johnson’s contract from Andrew Brandt.

Tennessee Titans cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
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Click here for a list of Titans' roster moves.

Surprise move: Ahmard Hall was suspended for the first four games of the season for a violation of the NFL’s policy against performance enhancers. The Titans traded an undisclosed draft pick to the Packers for Quinn Johnson, a fifth-rounder out of LSU in 2009. Johnson will serve as lead blocker for Chris Johnson while Hall is out. So the Titans have a running back and a fullback learning the team’s offense in a little over a week. Undrafted rookie corner Chris Hawkins made the team.

No-brainers: Time had come for receiver Justin Gage, a nice guy with good size who could block and be in the right spot, but dropped too many balls and was not enough of a threat. The entire nine-man draft class stuck, and it’s hard to say any one of them is around simply because of that status.

What’s next: Six defensive tackles is a luxury the team may not be able to afford for long, though one of them, Malcolm Sheppard, has been working at end. With only four true ends on the roster and Derrick Morgan out for the opener, the team either has faith in Sheppard or plans a move. The Titans’ fourth and fifth corners -- Tommie Campbell and Hawkins -- are rookies who were judged beter than Frank Walker.
A running list of Saturday cuts around the AFC South so far, per reports from people in the know…

Houston
Indianapolis
Jacksonville
Tennessee

As we await word, cut questions ...

September, 3, 2011
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Cut questions as we wait for news on who’s in and who’s out …

Houston Texans

I’ve confirmed outside linebacker Xavier Adibi will be released, which is a surprise. The Texans are going younger at the spot, which could mean good things for undrafted Bryan Braman. He is raw and probably best suited for the practice squad, but may have done too much to risk cutting first. Can Steve Slaton stick? Odds are against him as he ranks as the team’s fourth back, at best. But he’s got to be a hard guy to let go even after a preseason limited by injury. He’ll be scooped up for sure by a team in need at the position. And he likely still qualifies as one of the team’s best 53 players.

Indianapolis Colts

I know a lot of fans want to see the end for players like Donald Brown, Jerry Hughes and Anthony Gonzalez. But we must ask who are the better options? I’m not sure about Gonzalez, but I suspect that Brown and Hughes are on this team. One guy we presume to have made it who might not is veteran defensive tackle Tommie Harris. One guy we presume not to have made it who might is undrafted rookie tight end Mike McNeill.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Former sixth-round pick Scotty McGee, a return specialist, was among the cuts we learned of Friday. They also included undrafted receivers Armon Binns and Dontrelle Inman. Does that mean another receiver, Jamar Newsome, separated himself and will make it? A team that loves to keep an undrafted guy or two may not this time around. Larry Hart, a 2010 fifth-round defensive end, is probably in trouble.

Tennessee Titans

There looks to be a battle for a backup safety slot between Vincent Fuller, Robert Johnson and Anthony Smith. I wish I had a better feel and could pick a favorite there, but I can’t. It’s a tough call to whittle down from seven receivers, too. Can recent addition Kevin Curtis dislodge Justin Gage and does the team still have patience for Lavelle Hawkins? I can’t see Gage getting cut, even though he is due $3.5 million. Linebacker Rennie Curran sounded like a goner in Mike Munchak’s news conference Friday.

Titans consensus pick: Fourth

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
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Five of us asked to pick the AFC South have the Titans finishing fourth.

While the Titans transition has gone well to this point, there is an awful lot of change. Getting used to a new coach and staff, two new quarterbacks and a defense with major personnel and strategy changes is going to take some time. If you listen to the podcast with the preview file, you’ll hear me waffle on the Jaguars and Titans and third and fourth place.

Here’s my intelligence report on Tennessee. You can find it along with the predictions, a draft element from Mel Kiper and a look inside the numbers from Stats & Information here.

Intelligence Report

Five things you need to know about the Titans:

1. A full, fresh start: Coach Mike Munchak has a staff filled with fresh ideas, and his no-nonsense approach has a refreshing feel to it. His primary theme is simple: He asks players to know what to do, and to do it. Working without an offseason, he appears to have instilled a workmanlike attitude matching his own in short order. Players are appreciating and responding to his methods. He created mini-competition periods during camp that had the whole team watching and tended to bring out the best in guys. The spirit from those short periods, with up-downs at stake for the offense or defense, then spilled into the rest of practice.

2. Quarterback turnover: It's the position that sets the tone, and with Vince Young over the past five seasons, the tone was often unhealthy. Enter Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker. They are both natural leaders, both on the field and in the meeting rooms, who carry the work ethic that needs to go with it. Hasselbeck picked things up at the pace the team expected from a prominent veteran addition and showed a stronger, more versatile arm than I anticipated. Locker showed steady progress and the "it" factor the team loved when it decided to draft him eighth overall. As long as Hasselbeck stays healthy, he's the man, while Locker benefits from additional time to learn.

3. Bigger is better: In Jeff Fisher's final years, the team got small up front. Loaded with speed-rush types, the Titans' defense tended to wear down and, by the analysis of new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, ventured too far from the basics of stopping the run first. So the Titans will be bigger up front with tackles like Shaun Smith and rookies Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. Jason Jones will now be playing end in the base set and tackle in nickel, and Derrick Morgan could ultimately be a breakout guy at end. All the ends will line up more head on with tackles than way out wide, and defenders will be expected to stay disciplined in helping prevent big runs.

4. Weaponry issues: If the Titans have Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook in action, they can be threatening on offense. But Johnson is a preseason holdout and Britt missed most of camp and the first three preseason games with a hamstring issue. Without them, the Titans are far less dynamic and will be relying on backs with far less experience and explosiveness -- Javon Ringer and rookie Jamie Harper -- and receivers who have consistently disappointed (Nate Washington, Justin Gage) or who have underachieved so far (Lavelle Hawkins, Damian Williams).

5. Secondary not quite settled: Cortland Finnegan will move inside to play nickelback most of the time, with youngsters Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner as the corners. Michael Griffin can be excellent at free safety if things in front of him and around him go well. Chris Hope is the biggest question in the secondary. He's slowing down, but Gray might be able to use him effectively anyway. The alternative is Jordan Babineaux, who played for Gray in Seattle and has some big-play ability. With Hope due $6.5 million, there still could be a move to be made at safety. If he remains with his current contract, the pressure will mount if he doesn't rebound in a big way in the new system.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans got good news about Kenny Britt: he’s not suspended.

They got mixed news on Nate Washington: he settled in and made a couple catches. He and Matt Hasselbeck fixed one early mistake and made it into a play that worked.

They got bad news on Damian Williams: he had two drops and no catches until the Titans targeted him a sixth time.


Receivers are always an issue for Tennessee, and they still have a lot to sort out. They were flat in a 14-13 preseason win over the Chicago Bears at LP Field Saturday night, winning on the strength of a 90-yard interception return by rookie corner Tommie Campbell off a gift-wrapped throw from Caleb Hanie.

Britt found out early in the evening he won’t be suspended for his chain of issues with police during the lockout. He said after the game he was pleased. When camp started, he’d said he needed to get out of New Jersey where most of his problems have occurred. His wife and daughter are now with him in Nashville, he said, and he intends to be a Tennessean going forward.

He said he hoped never to hear from Roger Goodell again unless it was to convey a message of "good job on the field."

Britt has dealt with a hamstring issue since the start of camp, has been limited in practices and has yet to play in a game.

“One of my hopes is that he can get out there and start taking reps with the offense instead of taking reps with the scout team,” Hasselbeck said. “We didn’t have an offseason, we didn’t have OTAs and now we really didn’t have training camp together. So it would be great to get on the same page. You saw tonight, there was a lot of sloppy play in the passing game. Mixed reads and mixed signals and just some missed opportunities. We need to get that cleaned up.

Among the missed opportunities: Two throws intended for Washington on the Titans' first possession. Washington didn’t seem to me to go hard enough after the first pass up the right side. The second pass up the left side was overthrown.

“We missed a seam route on the second play of the game,” Hasselbeck said. “I thought he was going to do this and he did that. We talked about it on the sideline, [offensive coordinator Chris Palmer] came over, we talked about it and said, ‘Next time we’re going to do this.’

“And later in the game we had a similar thing going the other direction. It was tighter coverage, it was a tougher throw, it was a tougher catch and he did it great, I think that was the [21]-yard catch that he had.”

Williams, meanwhile, is a guy I’ve been pushing. I’ve bemoaned why the team won’t give him every opportunity to work ahead of Justin Gage.

He had his chances against the Bears, and didn’t do a lot with them. Hasselbeck said the team started working Williams at Britt's split end spot five or six days ago looking to expand things for him, and praised the second-year man's solid camp. But he dropped two passes and was a non-factor in five targets before a 13-yard reception.

“I think it was just a bad game,” Williams said. “Fortunately they haven’t seen any of those from me other than today. We’ll go back and watch the film and we’ll correct it.”

Britt’s presence eases the pressure on the rest of the crew provided his hamstring is sound.

Newly added Kevin Curtis didn’t play. A guy the Titans courted in 2007, when he was a coveted free agent who chose Philadelphia, has since beaten testicular cancer and dealt with knee problems.

“It’s kind of on me,” he said of his chance. “We’ve got one game left, the window is kind of small. I’ve got one game to show them that I can help them out.”

Three things: Bears-Titans

August, 27, 2011
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Three things to look for in tonight’s preseason game for the Titans against the Bears at LP Field, where kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CT.

The Titans need some plays from receivers. Through two games they’ve been without Kenny Britt and he won’t play tonight either. Their other top four -- Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins and Marc Mariani -- don’t have a play of more than 28 yards. Gage doesn’t have a catch and Washington has only one. Kevin Curtis was just added yesterday, so odds are he doesn’t play. Matt Hasselbeck may key on Jared Cook, but he’s got to develop some feel with receivers too. Playing beyond the half will afford that chance. Red zone efficiency is an area that can improve.

The running backs will be led, again, by Jamie Harper. With Chris Johnson holding out and Javon Ringer (hip) hurt, the Titans will still be looking to run. Harper made great strides from his first game to his second. Now he’s got a great chance to give the team even further assurance that if Johnson’s not around, he can be the alternative to Ringer on offense.

Defensive end depth will have a chance to make an impression. The Titans want to be bigger there, but with the injured Derrick Morgan and Jason Jones they lose their top big ends. Pannel Egboh (6-6, 287) will have a tough time making the roster because there is little room. But he was good last week and will probably have a chance to impress again. If you don’t see him much it means they hope to get him on the practice squad.
Kevin Curtis may be worth a look, but can the Titans’ new veteran wide receiver displace any of the guys who rank near the top of the depth chart?

The Titans intend to start Kenny Britt and Nate Washington, thought Britt could be facing an early-season suspension. Justin Gage still appears to rank highly with coaches. Many, including me, feel Damian Williams should definitely get a chance ahead of Gage.

Lavelle Hawkins is still inconsistent and Marc Mariani will have a bigger role as a returner.

So where could Curtis, most recently with the Chiefs, fit?

The Titans have a couple of weeks to find out.

Here’s what Scouts Inc. says about a receiver who battled testicular cancer in 2010.
“Curtis is a slot receiver with better quickness, agility and body control than straight line speed. He knows how to run routes and shows good receiving skills as well as the ability to read coverages and adjust on the move. He shows elusiveness after the catch but lacks the acceleration and deep speed to take it all the way.”
Scouts Inc. finishes out its position-by-position lists with quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, kickers and punters.

Again, we’ll find some huge fodder for debate.

The AFC South representation:

Quarterbacks
2) Peyton Manning

13) Matt Schaub

20) David Garrard

31) Matt Hasselbeck

40) Kerry Collins

42) Matt Leinart

52) Dan Orlovsky

75) Todd Bouman

79) Rusty Smith

82) Luke McCown

I think: I understand not being high on Hasselbeck, but to rank him behind Matt Moore, Tim Tebow, Jon Kitna, Shaun Hill and Alex Smith is ridiculous. And how can Todd Bouman outrank Luke McCown?



Wide receivers
1) Andre Johnson

2) Reggie Wayne

21) Austin Collie

33) Kenny Britt

36) Mike Thomas

38) Pierre Garcon

55) Kevin Walter

63) Anthony Gonzalez

76) Nate Washington

86) Jacoby Jones

103) Jason Hill

111) Justin Gage

I think: Collie is that good, Thomas is probably undervalued and this is yet another source of wondering about Gage.



Tight ends
3) Dallas Clark

6) Owen Daniels

9) Marcedes Lewis

28) Jared Cook

39) Jacob Tamme

42) Daniel Graham

51) Craig Stevens

58) Joel Dreessen

59) Zach Miller

68) Zach Potter

76 ) James Casey (now a fullback)

I think: Cook, Miller and Casey will all be risers this season.



Kickers
2) Rob Bironas

11) Neil Rackers

22) Adam Vinatieri

26) Josh Scobee

I think: Vinatieri’s probably low based on his reliability.



Punters
13) Brad Maynard

16) Brett Kern

30) Pat McAfee

31) Matt Turk

I think: Maynard is way high considering he could lose out to undrafted rookie Brett Hartmann. McAfee is far too low.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Palmer likes Javon Ringer so much, that even when Chris Johnson is back the Titans' offensive coordinator wants to find touches for his No. 2 back.

(Yes, Palmer said when, not if.)

Lots of coaches like to talk about getting certain players touches. But that often fizzles out when the time comes to pull a premier player to get a secondary one involved.

Jeff Fisher was not generally big on role players. Sure he had nickel and dime guys, situational pass rushers, third receivers. But overall he was big on guys he saw as dependable in any situation and he’d stick with them.

Both Mike Munchak and Palmer talked Wednesday of their willingness to use guys in narrow, specific roles.

“Ringer has exceeded my expectations, I am very, very pleased with him,” Palmer said. “We’re going to have to find some plays for him when Chris gets back in here, because he’s done so well…”

“We’ll have guys on the team that are dressed for Sunday that will have special plays in for them and we’ll try to take advantage of their skills. Ringer has deserved a chance to get some snaps and show us what he can do and we have a role for him with our team on Sunday.”

I like the sound of it. Getting Marc Mariani some snaps at wide receiver, particularly if they come at the expense of Justin Gage, is a great idea. Ringer sounds like he can give CJ an occasional break.

But picking the spots where you basically take the ball away from Johnson is a delicate job and Palmer will have to mix determination and flexibility in order to get it done.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans severed ties with their coach and quarterback and set about for a fresh start.

They’ll suffer from time lost with the lockout, but in Mike Munchak, a largely new staff and a new combo of quarterbacks in Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the franchise hasn’t just turned a page.

It’s opened a new book.

The early chapters could well be choppy and rough.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is looking for a bigger defense that will stop the run first, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is bringing a scholarly approach to a group used to being screamed at. The Titans have new signal-callers on offense and defense (middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay), so there is a lot of new stuff to cover.

But external expectations are low. If the Titans can get their best player, Chris Johnson, on the field and make strides on defense, it’s not impossible to improve on last season's disastrous 6-10 record.

Munchak preaches the virtues of being a true professional -- know what to do and do it. The question is, does he have enough talented guys who can win football games following that mantra?

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Johnson be around?

It’s hard to imagine his sitting out the season. The flamboyant running back loves the NFL stage and is one of the league’s most dynamic players. He's certainly scheduled to be underpaid at $1.065 million, though. The Titans won’t negotiate if he’s not at camp, but he won’t come to camp without a new deal. There are no signs of any real movement.

Johnson is not fired up about a compromise that would have him join the team but not practice until a deal is reached. Someone will bend. But in the meantime, we’re likely to see a much less threatening offense.

“It’s tough to tell how long it takes to become an issue,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “Once he’s here he’s here, and we start working with him. We’ll be a different team without him. He's definitely one of the top two if not the best running back in the league. A special player, very dynamic. It makes for a different kind of offense when he’s not in there.

“The plays wouldn’t change. Just without having his speed in there, people would play us differently. I wouldn’t say it would necessarily be a worse offense. It would just be someone else running it, Javon Ringer or the rookie (Jamie Harper). It wouldn’t have CJ’s dynamic and people having to worry about his speed.”

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Chris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Titans will be a different team if they are without Chris Johnson, who rushed for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
If defenses aren't worrying about that speed, things will be far more difficult for Hasselbeck and the team’s other best weapons, receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook.

2. How will Munchak’s style translate?

He’s a Hall of Fame player, and he’s been a top position coach for years. Odds are Munchak can coach a football team.

“He’s his own man,” linebacker Gerald McRath said. “Everybody is going to have to sit back and watch, but it’s definitely going to be different. He has that personality. He wants to establish something that’s his, something that he’s worked hard for. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. It’s a privilege just to be involved in that, to be able to put into some of that.”

The question really is about his CEO role. How does he deal with the late-night calls about DUIs or the overeating defensive lineman? How does he react to the city calling for the starting quarterback’s head or the player enduring stuff at home that’s hurting his play?

Munchak has talked about accountability and discipline and consequences, things that all had slipped at the end for Jeff Fisher. Can he enforce all that effectively?

One other thing: Fisher was great with rules and clock management. In Munchak’s first turn in the primary headset, it will be interesting to see how he fares in those departments.

3. Can the Titans stay healthy up front?

Part of the Titans’ push to be bigger up front on defense is about being better against the run. Part of it is about being more rugged deep into the season. Some of Tennessee’s speed rushers in recent years wore down late, and the Titans suffered for it.

Tracy Rocker has big shoes to fill as defensive line coach, where Jim Washburn had a great run of success. Can Gray and Rocker show the discipline to pace the linemen the way they are talking about doing now?

“I think we have to be real smart this year because our [defensive linemen], for some reason, get hurt quite a bit,” Munchak said. “We have to limit their plays not only in games but in practice so you don’t lose guys. ... We have to find a way to keep them healthy. You can’t control all that, but we have to be smart.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE

It’s early, of course. But the team is talking up Cook again, and this time, he seems prepared to live up to it. The tight end is running plenty of routes that take him deeper than most tight ends, and the quarterbacks are thrilled to have such a big target stretching the field. He seems to be responding better to Palmer's mellow approach than he did to Mike Heimerdinger's high intensity.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Britt’s offseason was filled with off-the-field issues. The Titans gave him a clean slate coming in, but hamstring problems have kept him out of camp so far. He said that he thought yoga was going to help him solve such problems but that his instructor apparently took the money and ran with it. The Titans are already without their most dynamic player in Johnson. With Britt sidelined, they are also missing No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McRath is probably the odd man out in the linebacker shuffle unless he makes a charge to overtake Will Witherspoon on the weak side. McRath knows he didn’t make enough plays last year, but he’s saying the right things and carrying himself the right way. Maybe he’ll be a special-teams stud if he isn’t playing defense.
  • [+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
    Don McPeak/US PRESSWIRENew coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, will have high expectations for his interior line.
  • The pressure is on the Titans' interior offensive line. Munchak and O-line coach Bruce Matthews, both Hall of Fame linemen, expect Leroy Harris, Eugene Amano and Jake Scott to play better in their second season all together. If they don’t, we’ll call it part missed assessment and part blown confidence. Keeping Hasselbeck upright and healthy is a huge deal.
  • I’m not sure how the Titans will distribute their tight ends without tipping their intentions. Cook is the receiver and Craig Stevens is the blocker. Veteran addition Daniel Graham can do both but is more of a blocker.
  • Jordan Babineaux was lured to the Titans from Seattle largely because of his relationship with Gray when both were with the Seahawks. They shouldn’t do anything that entails Michael Griffin playing anything but center field. And Babineaux is more a free than a strong safety, but the Titans will blur the distinction. Can he challenge for Chris Hope’s job? If he does, will Hope take a pay cut to stay?
  • The Titans actually have reasonable depth at cornerback. Cortland Finnegan needs to produce big in a contract year, and Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty are up-and-comers. Ryan Mouton was lost for the year with an Achilles injury, but veteran addition Frank Walker made a nice early impression.
  • This team always has an undrafted receiver who creates buzz early. This time it looks to be Michael Preston out of Heidelberg. He has nice size and athleticism.
  • There’s not enough evidence to know whether seventh-round CB Tommie Campbell can play yet. But he certainly had physical attributes that make receivers take notice. Receiver Yamon Figurs recently went against him and came away muttering that Campbell was the biggest corner he’s seen. Figurs said Campbell, who is 6-foot-3, was “like a giraffe.”
  • Jake Locker has shown steady improvement and has been far better early on that I expected he would be.
  • If the Titans are going to be a lot better on defense, second-year end Derrick Morgan and second-round pick Akeem Ayers, a strongside linebacker, will have a lot to do with it. Morgan is a very good player, and Ayers brings the Titans size they’ve not had at linebacker since the franchise relocated.
  • Leadership was a giant issue last season. There was hardly any when things got tough. The Titans' additions could solve that. Hasselbeck, Graham, Ruud and Ayers are going to be big in that department.
  • Even if Justin Gage has a huge preseason, the Titans should consider moving on if everyone else is healthy. He’s simply not been a steady enough playmaker, and if his presence is going to keep the team from exploring the upside of someone like Damian Williams, it’s not the right move.
  • Where does recently added, versatile veteran offensive lineman Pat McQuistan fit in? The Titans have a lot of young linemen they like, but his case for edging somebody out will include his experience at every position but center. That could increase their flexibility on the bench.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans got what they were looking for at Matt Hasselbeck's first practice and said what you’d expect they’d say afterwards.

The tempo picked up, and while there were plenty of bumps, everyone was upbeat about what unfolded. At the same time, Jake Locker, working at the second quarterback, continued to show improvement and had a very nice night.

“I think I reverted back to some of my old stuff, but Geno [center Eugene Amano] and those guys up front did a great job of just hanging in there with me, snapping the ball,” Hasselbeck said. “I think I only went the wrong way once, that anybody noticed anyway.

“I have to learn it and I have to unlearn this stuff. What was once ‘green’ is now ‘red’ and what was ‘red’ is now ‘blue.’ In a competitive situation where everything is going real fast, everything just reverts.”

He said he’s getting way more from Locker, Rusty Smith and Brett Ratliff then they are getting from him so far and that quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains has been a great resource for scouting reports on his new teammates.

Coach Mike Munchak said the increased tempo allowed him to add an extra red zone period at the end of practice.

Said receiver Justin Gage: “In a day or two Matt will be right there with the rest of us. You can tell just from today, he’s a fast learner, he learns from his mistakes.”

A few other notes out of the Titans’ evening session on Thursday:
  • Munchak indicated second-round pick Akeem Ayers is in line to play the strongside and Barrett Ruud was the first team middle linebacker out of the gate as you’d expect. That leaves the Titans with a battle between Will Witherspoon and Gerald McRath for the starting weakside job.
  • The Titans are blurring the line between free and string safety and Munchak declined to say Chris Hope is solidly in place as a starter before the new free agent acquisition, Jordan Babineaux, even walks in the door. He’ll get a chance to compete.
  • Titans’ union rep Jake Scott said he believes because there is only one company claiming it can accurately test for HGH, that he is skeptical of the accuracy of the testing. He’s for it in principle. “But their motives are questionable. Their incentive is to catch people,” he said. “If they don’t catch anybody, nobody thinks their test works.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Jake Locker and the Titans' offense paid their first visit to the red zone at practice Wednesday, and Locker threw the ball with great accuracy into tight spots during seven-on-seven work.

Here are some highlights of that period, all from when Locker was throwing to receivers:
That last throw was just excellent.

Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said he thought it looked like the fourth or fifth time the offense has been working inside the 20, not the first.

I watched defensive coordinator Jerry Gray talk to the defensive backs, urging them to slow it down, telling them to force the quarterback to make the perfect throw. After Williams’ great catch, secondary coach Marcus Robertson indicated he was fine with it.

“They’ll hit that one out of 10 times,” he said.

After practice, I asked Gray about slowing it down.

“Be ready to break,” Gray explained. “If you run cover-2 in the middle of the field, it’s different than in the red zone. But a lot of times, a young guy doesn’t know that. What they don’t understand is the game changes...”

“Now the game breaks down to shorter increments, so you have to be a whole lot faster breaking.”

The temptation closer to the goal line can be to break faster, so what Gray and Robertson is coaching can seem counterintuitive.

The practice was like a Friday in a game week, when team’s work on red zone. Gray said you can’t fake it in tight quarters, so guys really reveal themselves.

In seven-on-seven, it's a period that favors the offense and gives Gray and Robertson plenty to review with their guys.

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