AFC South: Justin Hunter

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.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter are very much the future of the Titans at wide receiver.

Sunday in a win at Jacksonville, Nate Washington showed he’s very much part of the present. He pulled in six catches for 117 yards and the game-winning touchdown.

He’s the team’s third leading receiver with 56 receptions, and second in receiving yards with 880.

[+] EnlargeNate Washington
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Nate Washington is second on the Titans with 880 receiving yards.
When the head of the team’s new ownership group, Tommy Smith, listed some young players he considers the Titans’ core, he also mentioned Washington and his leadership.

Washington has been an important influence on Wright and Hunter.

“It’s brothers, man,” Washington said of the receivers room. "It’s a room that I think the organization has been working to put together for a long time. I think they can really sit down right now with our room and be satisfied with all the hard work they’ve put in.”

Washington would certainly like to see things kept intact next season, though Kenny Britt is heading for free agency and certainly won’t be back. He’s hardly contributed this season. Damian Williams is also in line to be a free agent, and he’s a versatile piece I believe the team should try hard to keep.

Whether the Titans make a coaching change or not, there is potential they could choose to move away from Washington, who is 30. Heading into the final year of his deal, he’s due $4.8 million in 2014. It would be the final year of a six-year deal, and it’s pretty rare for a player to play out a long second deal with high cap numbers.

If they came to him and said they wanted to keep him at a reduced price, he wouldn’t be upset, but he wouldn’t negotiate either, he said.

“All I can do is play football,” he said. “If I’m in Tennessee next year, I will be very gracious. I love Tennessee, I love the people, I love the organization. If I’m here next year it’d be awesome. But I understand it’s a business ..."

If they wanted to reduce his salary?

“It’s time to move on, man,” he said. “If that’s the way they have to approach it, I understand.”

I agree with Washington that the receivers room is one of the best things the Titans have going for them. He has a big salary scheduled, but the team is not in line to be cap-strapped. If they are going to overpay someone, why not him? Yes, you want to get rid of a guy a year too early rather than a year too late, but I wouldn’t mess with a position where things seem to be in good order.

Replacement receivers hardly practiced

December, 15, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans were without receivers Justin Hunter and Damian Williams Sunday because of a violation of team rules.

I credit Mike Munchak for making them inactive. He could have kept it quiet and played Hunter, who would have helped the team as the coach fights for his job.

Tennessee lost, 37-34, to Arizona in overtime.

Without Hunter and Williams, the Titans turned to Kenny Britt and Michael Preston as their receivers behind Kendall Wright and Nate Washington.

Britt caught three of six passes thrown his way, for 29 yards. He let a late touchdown pass go through his hands. Preston caught three of five passes targeting him for 27 yards and the Titans' two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

Britt said he had not played a snap of offense all week in practice. Wright said that was the case for Preston too, but Preston corrected him and said his offensive snaps were "sparse" -- five to 10.

It was a solid combined performance from two guys who were not in the plan. But things would have likely been better with the guys who were in the plan.

"They broke some team rules," Munchak said. "The consequence was that they didn't suit up today."

A couple of us caught up to Williams as he left the locker room.

"It definitely lets the team down and I definitely am ashamed that I let my team down," he said.

He left open the idea that things we're so cut and dried, however.

I asked if it was more complicated than people might guess.

"Possibly," he said. "[But] the situation is that we violated team rules and that's it."

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 14

December, 9, 2013
DENVER -- An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 51-28 loss to the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

Pressure on Peyton: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has been the Titans' best player this season, and a week ago in Indianapolis he was a monster the Colts simply couldn’t handle. In Denver, the Broncos' interior line kept him quiet -- he was credited with one tackle. He told me interior pressure was the key to forcing quarterback Peyton Manning into a mistake. There was none. Manning threw the ball 59 times and he didn’t turn it over. The Titans had the seventh-best pass defense in the league and had allowed eight touchdown passes heading into this game. Manning threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns. The Titans didn’t sack him and hit him just once. That’s hardly the recipe to rattle a big-time quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pollard
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos put up 551 yards against Bernard Pollard and the Tennessee defense.
Persecution complex: The Titans' secondary was upset over the way the game was officiated, and clearly feel Manning gets the benefit of the doubt from the zebras. Maybe he does get some of it, but calls against the Titans didn’t account for the Broncos’ 51 points. Tennessee needs to be careful about blaming the officials too much, and themselves not enough. They were the victims of a bad call against Bernard Pollard early in the third quarter. But that didn’t unhinge them or determine the game. Sure, Pollard’s been an outspoken critic of rules and officiating. Is that really enough for the league’s officiating department to pick the Titans as a target? I sure don’t think so.

Shuffling backers: The Titans used Colin McCarthy and even rookie Zaviar Gooden some at linebacker on Sunday, and not as the result of any injuries to their regular trio of Moise Fokou, Akeem Ayers or Zach Brown. Maybe they had some great rationale, but it seemed like the sort of lineup fiddling in Week 14 that suggests a team doesn’t have enough in its core guys and needs to mess around to find something. McCarthy made four tackles and Gooden four while Ayers wasn’t on the stat sheet. So maybe it was smart.

Too quiet: The Titans' best offensive weapon is receiver Kendall Wright, who works a lot out of the slot. One of the Broncos' best pieces on defense is nickel corner Chris Harris. Harris did his part to hold Wright to his fewest catches (two) and fewest yards (17) since opening day. Since the Titans’ win in Pittsburgh, Wright has had at least three catches and at least 54 yards in every game. With Delanie Walker out of the lineup with a concussion, the Titans were down one key weapon. Justin Hunter had four catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. No one else had more than two catches or 24 receiving yards.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Bambi stayed on his feet. Kendall Wright got back on his.

Sunday's 23-19 win over the Oakland Raiders was a breakthrough game for the Tennessee Titans' two young receivers.

Rookie second-rounder Justin Hunter is called Bambi by the other receivers for his propensity to fall down. But he stayed up and made two defensive backs look foolish with a nice move that produced a 54-yard catch and run touchdown.

[+] EnlargeKendall Wright and Justin Hunter
AP Photo/Beck DiefenbachJustin Hunter (left) and Kendall Wright combined for 212 yards on 12 catches against the Raiders on Sunday.
Wright again showed his toughness, popping up from an ankle injury and returning to action in short order to score the game-winning touchdown.

Both topped 100-yards in a game we may look back on as the start of an era where the Titans have a top tandem of pass-catchers.

"Hard work and humbleness, both of them,” veteran receiver Nate Washington said. "As good as they both are now, they're both willing to listen, they both understand right now they both have a lot of work to do. They come in every week and work as hard as possible.”

Said Wright of Hunter: "He made some spectacular catches today, he made some tough catches." He's working hard every day, maturing as a player. He's growing up. We still have a lot of work to do, him, me, everybody else.”

Wright hurt his right ankle early in the fourth quarter and it looked like trouble. He didn't know then that the Titans would be extra late returning to Nashville because their charter was delayed by 90 minutes. Still, he had no desire to be in super-early Monday morning to be with trainers and guys who finish the game don't have to get up at that hour.

"I settled down a lot,” he said. "I almost felt like it was broke the way it did it. But I told myself out there, ‘I'm not waking up at 6 in the morning to go to treatment. I'm just not doing it. I hate the training room, I hate being in there. So I'm going to do anything I can to get back out there.”

Hunter's been used increasingly as Kenny Britt's faded and Damian Williams has been out. The rookie had just seven catches on the season but was targeted six times by Fitzpatrick in this game, catching them all.

"I think it's been a steady climb all season long,” Fitzpatrick said. "I think he feels like he's starting to get it and belongs, more so than maybe at the beginning of the season. He's not just a guy that we're going to send down field and throw deep balls to. He's a guy that can really make some plays underneath. He's gotten better and he's worked so hard at it and now the reward and having a big game, it was good.”

Said Wright of Hunter's 54-yard touchdown: "Usually, the play he scored on, any other day at practice or something he probably would have fell. But he didn't [on Sunday]."

Hunter is very soft spoken.

In the locker room after the game, receivers coach Shawn Jefferson passed him his smartphone. There was something on the screen someone had sent along for him to read, and he smiled as he took it in.

I could hardly hear him in a bustling locker room where guys weren't clearing out because they had to pass some time waiting for the plane.

He said his intent was to cut all the way across the field but he found the path past safety Brandian Ross and corner Phillip Adams was to turn back to the right.

"I hope so, I hope this is a day it gets started for us together,” he said of his work with Wright. "We're going to be together for a while.”
OAKLAND, Calif. -- If they lost, they couldn’t have kept talking playoffs.

So when the Tennessee Titans got the ball trailing by three points with 6:10 remaining in regulation, their season was in the balance.

They saved it, for the time being at least, with a clutch drive. Birthday boy Ryan Fitzpatrick connected on 8 of 10 passes for 67 of the 80 yards Tennessee needed, capping it with a third-down, 10-yard scoring pass to Kendall Wright.

[+] EnlargeKendall Wright
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsKendall Wright had six catches for 103 yards against Oakland, including the game-winning TD grab.
It was a beautifully executed, well-synchronized drive. They got to the end zone on third down. Had they missed, they would have kicked a short field goal and settled for overtime.

The Titans got the touchdown, left just 10 seconds for the Raiders, and headed home with a 23-19 win and a 5-6 record that has them in a pack of six teams at that mark contending for the last AFC playoff berth.

“At the end of the day, we knew our time was running out,” said running back Chris Johnson, who carried 20 times for 73 yards. “It was kind of like do or die. Like we were saying all throughout the week, our playoffs start now.”

Said Fitzpatrick: “That would have been a big, big loss for us in terms of what the rest of the season was going to look like. So we knew this was a gotta-have-it drive at the end of the game. The guys really stepped up and did a good job…

“Hopefully we’ll capture some momentum from this .... My biggest thing is, the win was great, but that feeling on that drive in the huddle, the confidence everybody had. I mean that’s why you play the game, to go out there and have that type of feeling. And to actually deliver on it.”

We’ve discussed how Fitzpatrick is a streaky quarterback.

When he relieved Jake Locker against the Jets and then started in losses to the Chiefs and Seahawks, he threw two touchdowns, four interceptions and posted a 61.2 passer rating.

Since he relieved Locker against Jacksonville and started games against the Colts and Raiders, he’s thrown five touchdowns, no picks and posted a 110.7 passer rating.

He was under near constant pressure against Oakland, but ran five times for 26 yards and got out of trouble for throwaways on several more occasions while taking two sacks. He was 30-of-42 for 320 yards and two TDs. The Titans' offense got over 100 yards receiving from second-year receiver Wright and rookie Justin Hunter.

Still, it was a sloppy offensive effort, featuring 10 penalties for 100 yards -- six of them holding -- and five drops. They are the sorts of mistakes a good team shouldn’t be making at this stage of the season and the sorts of mistakes the Titans haven’t often overcome. But on this day, the Titans endured, didn’t get discouraged and beat a team they should beat.

Mike Munchak often talks about overcoming adversity, and he can show his team this game as a blueprint for just what he’s talking about. Quarterback Matt McGloin made plays for the Raiders in just his second NFL start, and little known wide receivers Rod Streater and Andre Holmes caught seven passes between them for a 17.8-yard average.

But a defense that has struggled to hold opponents to field goals came alive at the right times, forcing Sebastian Janikowski onto the field for six attempts. He missed two of them wide left.

“That took a lot of points off the board,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “Those are all, we call them, four-point plays when we can make the kick there instead of getting that touchdown. They even missed two field goals.”

The Raiders finally broke though and scored a touchdown with 6:10 left as McGloin hit fullback Marcel Reece, who turned linebacker Zach Brown around at the front left corner of the end zone.

The Titans seemed to have a different feel than late in recent games. They got the ball back trailing and weren’t acting defeated. They were a team not content to force overtime but determined to win.

“The defense, they’ve been coming up for us all year,” Johnson said. “They’ve been making stops for us, getting turnovers. This was just a situation where we wanted as an offensive unit to take advantage, not put it in the defense’s hands. We wanted to win the game on our own.”

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

November, 24, 2013

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Rapid Reaction from the Tennessee Titans' 23-19 win against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum:

What it means: The Titans are one of six 5-6 teams in the AFC vying for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. While the Titans clearly have deficiencies and it will be tough for them to fight though the crowd, they are still in the crowd. Ryan Fitzpatrick engineered a solid game-winning drive, capping it with a 10-yard touchdown throw to Kendall Wright with 10 seconds left.

Stock watch, falling: The offensive line left Fitzpatrick running all day to avoid trouble and committed four of the Titans' five holding penalties as well as a false start. It’s an all-too-familiar refrain, but a team with two Hall of Fame offensive linemen overseeing a line that was revamped in the offseason is simply not good enough on the line.

Stock watch, rising: The Titans' two young wide receivers shined. Wright finished with six catches for 103 yards and the score, and rookie Justin Hunter notched his first 100-yard game, with six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.

Stumbling: The Titans committed 10 penalties for 100 yards and had five drops. The laundry list of mistakes is hard to swallow at this stage of the season with so much on the line against a less-than-spectacular defense.

Helped: Sebastian Janikowski missed a 32-yard field goal on the final play of the first half and a 48-yarder in the third quarter. Those six points could have been huge for Oakland.

What’s next: The Titans travel to Indianapolis for a rematch with the Colts, who beat them 30-27 on Nov. 14 in Nashville, Tenn. The Colts lead the Titans by two games in the AFC South.

One good reason to stick with Britt

September, 26, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Plenty of football fans in Tennessee would be happy to see the Titans simply swap Justin Hunter and Kenny Britt.

Hunter, after all, just grabbed a game-winning 34-yard touchdown pass, while Britt is struggling with drops and penalties and focus.

It could happen Sunday against the Jets, but not because of production. Britt suffered a fractured rib on a bad landing after going up for a pass against the Chargers. He didn’t practice Wednesday and he was limited Thursday.

Mike Munchak said his fate for the Jets game will likely be determined by what he’s able to do Friday.

“It’s amazing these last 48 hours how guys get better,” Mike Munchak said. “We wish he could’ve done more today, but he didn’t. He was out here with his pads on, but tomorrow’s going to be another day to see if he can come back and do more reps than he did last week.”

But Britt has talked this week about needing to refocus, and this seems like a good occasion to help him along. Sit him to give him time to work through the soreness and he can do some refocusing while Hunter tries to build on last week.

“That’s all part of it, part of our thinking when we look at how he is healthy-wise and what’s best for him, going forward and long-term,” Munchak said.

There is a big reason not to scrap Britt completely. He’s a superior blocker to Hunter.

I say repeatedly the first quality I want in a receiver is, you know, the ability to receive.

But the Titans are a run first-offense and the sort of big plays Chris Johnson can make often get big help from blocking receiver. Britt’s done it for a long time, dating back to his time at Rutgers with Ray Rice. Hunter hasn’t done it nearly as much or as effectively. Britt is 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds; Hunter is 6-4 and 203. Britt isn't only 20 pounds heavier, he's a lot stronger which means he's not going to get beat up by run blocking 20 or 25 times in a game.

While Hunter is a willing blocker, that doesn’t make him a better blocker by any means. Britt has drawn penalties blocking this season, but if he can clean those up, given the choice between the two in run blocking, it’s not a contest.

Britt’s physicality, as it translated to his ability to get off the jam and to run block, was a big reason the Titans drafted him 30th overall in 2009.

“That was the exciting thing about his size when he was first playing was that he was blocking well,” Munchak said. “We had him doing crack blocks and his first three years he was blocked real well. He enjoyed doing it, he was highly engaged in it, he took pride in it."

Munchak wants Britt blocking, just doing so more smartly with his hands to avoid holding calls.

“Justin is very willing, it’s not like he’s shying away from it,” Munchak said. “He’ll throw his body in there, (sometimes) he’ll get bounced out of there. A lot of guys aren’t very willing. He’ll get a lot bigger and stronger at it. Those guys get on him pretty good about it, so he’s responded well at least to getting in the right spots.”

For now, Britt's the better choice. I'd have no beef with him getting a week of to heal and reset. But once he's healthy, he's a player the run game needs with potential to recover and help as a pass catcher too.

Hunter should play more. Just not to the degree where Britt hardly plays at all.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After Justin Hunter found his way the end zone for the game winning touchdown, he couldn’t find the player parking lot at LP Field.

Such are the growing pains of an NFL rookie, still finding his way, both on and off the field.

His grab of Jake Locker's pass over cornerback Crezdon Butler just about set LP Field ablaze and showed him at his best, using his speed to get deep and his height to beat a defender to a jump ball. The result was a 20-17 win over the Chargers.

“That’s why he’s here, when Jake looked out, as well as Nate Washington and Kendall Wright were playing, he didn’t care, he was throwing the ball to Justin Hunter,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.

Loggains said the last two or three weeks things had started to click in for Hunter, who didn’t play in the season opener and was on the field for just eight snaps in Week 2.

The game-winning play, Track Right 61 Zipper, calls for four vertical routes and doesn’t give Locker a pre-prescribed progression.

“It’s based on coverage and matchups and Jake did a great job” Loggains said. “They rotated away from Justin, put that one guy in an island and Jake knew the mismatch with that right corner, Nate was picking on him all day, [Locker] was throwing the ball there no matter what, if he was pressed, if he bailed, it didn’t matter, he was going there.”

Said Hunter on seeing the single coverage: “I was like, I have to go deep, I have to run as fast as I can and make sure the DB is nowhere around me when I get the ball, just jump for it. I had to hold on tight like it was a baby.”

In the first half Hunter had an end zone chance but it didn’t pan out.

Locker threw a 44-yard pass to him in the middle of the end zone, where he had a bit of space to work against safety Eric Weddle. Weddle got away with pass interference, but Hunter still felt like he should have pulled in the pass.

“He let the first ball come to him,” Wright said. “We told him after that, ‘Just high-point the ball.’ Nobody out there can jump with him.”

“…He’s got a lot of attributes that you can’t coach. Six-four, with a 40-something inch vertical and can run really fast but don’t even look like it. I’m happy for him, glad he made that play, I told him he should have had two touchdowns.”

As Hunter rises, Kenny Britt sinks.

He caused a stir this week with a Tweet about how he expects this is his last season with the team. He suggested he was getting blamed for mistakes he wasn’t making, the same way he felt Jared Cook did a year ago.

Britt dropped an easy pass on the first play from scrimmage and committed a false start two plays later. He was not on the field during the Titans' final drive.

“It was definitely a frustrating game for me, I’m kind of mad about how it started and how it ended,” Britt said, aiming the anger at no one but himself. “…That first series was definitely all on me. I take definite full blame for that. We could have had a great start in the game.”

He finished with two drops and two penalties, with the second flag being an illegal block above the waist.

Still, he posted a goose egg on five targets and his confidence may be at an all-time low. The team's confidence in him should be about the same.

Loggains talked of how Locker believes in Washington and Wright. The coordinator did not mention Britt. The Titans aren’t going to completely phase him out and insert Hunter as a starter, though you can make a good argument they should. Odds are over 13 more games they will need both.

While Washington was the team’s best receiver Sunday, the game had a feel of a turning point for the Titans at receiver around him.

Hunter made the big play the Titans could not find a week ago in Houston. Britt failed in his chances to make one and contribute.

Britt said he didn’t feel like there was any passing of the torch unfolding. His happy-go-lucky attitude is part of the issue here. He says he is mad, and I do not doubt that he is. But as he was grilled in front of his locker, he still smiled and laughed while talking about disappointing developments.

Maybe that’s a guy doing well to set aside his failures and celebrate a win. Maybe it’s just his personality. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism.

Or maybe it’s a guy lacking the mentality needed to rank as more than his team’s fourth receiver.

Kenny Britt explains himself, kind of

September, 18, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Kenny Britt sort of went in circles Wednesday as he talked publicly for the first time since he tweeted that he was getting the Jared Cook treatment and expected this to be his final season with the Tennessee Titans.

He seems to be the last guy to conclude that the Titans will move on after his contract expires. They have, after all, spent a 2012 first-round pick on Kendall Wright and a 2013 second-rounder on Justin Hunter.

Britt, in his fifth season, said he was upset by a newspaper report conveyed to him that attributed a brief benching Sunday to penalties, lack of effort and imprecise routes on his part. Those things, of course, didn’t form out of the ether. They came from coach Mike Munchak in his Monday press conference, and from offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains in a radio appearance Tuesday.

“(What’s written) gets brought to my attention, and I probably took it the wrong way,” Britt said. “If they would have came out and said, ‘Hey, we took him out because of a holding penalty,’ then I’d have been OK with it. But then saying I had mistakes in the game, they took me out because of mistakes and I wasn’t blocking, that’s just wrong.”

A penalty is a mistake, however -- especially a holding penalty within 24 hours of the coach spelling out how players needed to let go and not give officials cause to call a hold.

Munchak downplayed the tweet and resulting fan backlash, though he said he’d spoken to Britt about it. Britt said he spoke to general manager Ruston Webster, who asked him to take any issues he has to the people he has them with rather than to Twitter.

Britt said he’s not a selfish player, and noted that he was a college teammate of Ray Rice’s at Rutgers and has long been used to being part of a run-heavy offense.

According to Britt, the tweet had nothing to do with him not getting the ball. He said he recalled the Titans saying that Cook, a tight end who’s now in St. Louis, wasn’t getting the ball in 2012 because he was making mistakes.

“I think that wasn’t the case last year, and that wasn’t the case this year with me making mistakes being why they benched me,” he said. “It wasn’t the case.”

Britt said he hopes the Titans want him back next season and that he would like to be back.

It’s now time for him to show coaches he’s not going to make mistakes going forward, to muscle past defensive backs the way he can, to get open and to begin making the sort of plays the Titans' passing games needs.

The wait is over: Your Twitter mailbag

September, 14, 2013

The return of the Twitter mailbag

September, 7, 2013

My 53-man Tennessee Titans roster

August, 30, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rather than tell you this is what’s going to happen, I’ll tell you this is what would happen if I had influence in the Tennessee Titans meeting room when final cuts will be decided.

Some cuts are already trickling out from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, so check his Twitter feed.

Quarterbacks: Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick

There just is no room for Rusty Smith and there isn’t a need for a third quarterback unless things go incredibly wrong. The difference between a random third guy and Smith isn’t giant.

Running backs: Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle, Quinn Johnson (FB)

Battle has to contribute on special teams, but he was better than Jalen Parmele through the preseason. Wyatt says Parmele is already gone. Johnson’s been hurt and could lose out to Collin Mooney.

Wide receivers: Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Justin Hunter, Michael Preston, Marc Mariani (return specialist)

Preston is one of the best 53 players on the team. Even though he won’t be active on Sundays if everyone’s healthy, you keep extra quality depth at one spot if it’s better than weaker depth at another spot. Once he’s healthy, Mariani isn’t as explosive as a punt returner as Darius Reynaud, but will more regularly get 10 yards.

Tight ends: Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson

No need for a fourth on the 53. Sign Jack Doyle to the practice squad

Offensive linemen: Tackles Michael Roos, David Stewart, Mike Otto, Byron Stingily. Interior: Andy Levitre, Chance Warmack, Rob Turner, Brian Schwenke, Fernando Velasco

Velasco is guaranteed $2.02 million under his tender contract out of restricted free agency. I’m not sure he should stick over Scott Solomon at linebacker or Stefan Charles at defensive tackle. But the big push for revamping the line and the desire for depth after last year’s slew of injuries makes me feel like they will stay loaded.

Defensive ends: Derrick Morgan, Ropati Pitoitua, Kamerion Wimbley, Lavar Edwards, Keyunta Dawson.

Dawson is a good guy to have. I can see him staying and the Titans going five ends as opposed to six tackles. But linebacker Akeem Ayers is a nickel end so he factors in here as well.

Defensive tackles: Jurrell Casey, Sammie Hill, Mike Martin, Antonio Johnson, Karl Klug (swing)

I’ve got Stefan Charles over DaJohn Harris but neither making it. If one of them sticks, it’s the last defensive line spot probably over Dawson. I see Charles on the practice squad.

Linebackers: Akeem Ayers, Moise Fokou, Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, Colin McCarthy, Patrick Bailey

Scott Solomon is one of my last two cuts. I want to keep seven 'backers. The seventh guy would be a trade-off for Velasco, I think. Solomon is versatile, seems to be catching on to the position change and can still play end if needed. He’s not practice squad eligible. I just can’t fit him here. I might keep him over Bailey but I don’t think they rank him that way.

Safeties: Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard, George Wilson, Daimion Stafford

The fourth spot isn’t strong and Stafford could probably go to the practice squad. But if they choose a veteran -- Al Afalava or Corey Lynch -- as the fourth I could see them trying to upgrade it with an outsider.

Cornerbacks: Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Tommie Campbell, Coty Sensabaugh, Blidi Wreh-Wilson

I’d expect Khalid Wooten on the practice squad.

Kicker: Rob Bironas

Punter: Brett Kern

Long-snapper: Beau Brinkley
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans gained a roster spot by placing receiver Kevin Walter on the physically unable to perform list.

He's been out since having back surgery following minicamp.

Obviously, we can't say what his standing would be if he had been in the field with the Titans since the start of camp. But it's hard to see him outranking any of the team's current top five.

That group is: Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams and Justin Hunter. Michael Preston is making a strong bid to be kept as a sixth option. And if Marc Mariani, out with a shoulder injury, sticks as the return man, he too is a receiver.

There is no room for Walter right now.

The window for him to emerge off PUP starts after Week 6 of the regular season.

Who knows what sort of shape the Titans will be in at receiver then? At worst for Walter, they are in the same shape, playing well and he's not needed then either. Then he'd get a look for a couple weeks and be put on IR or they'd cut him.

At best for Walter -- not that he'd be rooting for an injury or a failure -- someone will be hurt or have underachieved and they'll be a need for him.

There isn't that need right now.

Observation deck: Titans-Falcons

August, 25, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you’re going to post two duds and a stellar game in the preseason, it’s best if the stellar game comes in Week 3, the traditional dress-rehearsal week.

That’s what the Tennessee Titans got Saturday night at LP Field in a 27-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

The defense gave up too much on the Falcons’ first three drives but held strong in the red zone and surrendered a total of six points. The run defense still has room to improve, allowing 4.5 yards per carry to Steven Jackson in the first half.

But things got better overall as the game went on, with five sacks of Matt Ryan and much better shedding of blocks, hitting and tackling.

The headline, however, was provided by young quarterback Jake Locker.

He finished up the first half plus one series with a very solid line: 11-for-13 for 133 yards and a touchdown with a 134.9 passer rating. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble. He threw the ball well and had people catching the ball better for him but for a drive-killing Taylor Thompson drop of a pass thrown a touch behind the tight end.

The mandatory preseason disclaimer: It was a meaningless game against a team that went deep into the playoffs last season but was only 24th in overall defense and 23rd against the pass. Now, two of the Falcons’ top three cornerbacks are rookies -- Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

Locker’s bad moments came on the move or under pressure.

On a third-and-7 from the Titans' 35, he didn’t seem quite aware enough and should have been sacked but shrugged out of a blitz. He rolled right and turned to run for a pretty easy first down. But linebacker Joplo Bartu hit him -- and the ball -- as he went down and jarred it loose; safety Thomas DeCoud recovered it.

Beside the fumble, Locker was helpless on two sacks -- one that came from super-quick pressure past right tackle David Stewart, one on which he was pinned in on both sides and taken down as the middle closed in.

In the third quarter, the first-team offense’s lone drive stalled when Locker saw pressure and put his head down rather than feeling the pressure and trying to do something against it.

The positive far outweighed the fumble and the sacks, however.

“This is the first week that we’ve actually put in a game plan. We’d been running base stuff the first two weeks,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “So I think that probably helped a little bit. It helped open up the play-action a little bit and helped Jake.

“I was probably too conservative early on, and once I let him go, he played really well.”

It was a very encouraging night for the quarterback. If the Titans could freeze him right here and put him in practice on Wednesday, Sept. 4, in preparation for the season opener at Pittsburgh, I think they might.

I’ve done some reporting and I’ve learned, exclusively, that such freezing is not an available option.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/John RussellTitans QB Jake Locker ran three times for 22 yards in addition to his 133 yards through the air.
Some other thoughts:

Run defense still an issue: Jackson took 10 first-half carries 45 yards.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who’s healthy and playing very well, didn’t like learning those numbers.

“We want to hold guys to 2 yards a carry. One or 2 yards a carry,” Casey said. “We don’t want to give up nothing more than that because then it makes it too hard, a game where they can just pound it down your throat. In order to get to the quarterback, you’ve got to stop them on the run on first and second downs.”

See more about the run defense in this video.

Even having allowed more rushing yards than they’d like, the Titans' pass rush was excellent, with five sacks of Ryan and six overall. Casey had 1½; Derrick Morgan, Mike Martin and Kadarron Anderson had one each. Moise Fokou, Karl Klug and Kamerion Wimbley each had half a sack. Nice distribution.

Double barrel: Chris Johnson looked solid in gaining 65 yards on 11 carries with a nice 20-yard sprint to the right sideline on the Titans' first touchdown drive.

Earlier, on the Titans' second possession, Johnson got the ball on first and second down, gaining 7 yards and then 2. Tennessee sent Shonn Greene on to replace Johnson, and Greene did just what the Titans brought him in to do: find 3 yards to convert the third-and-1.

I asked Johnson if he envisioned that being the way things are going to work.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Another not-smart hit by Bernard Pollard: In the Titans’ first preseason game, Pollard put his head down and hit a Redskin heading out of bounds. That got him a $10,000 fine. In the Titans' second preseason game, he twice got beat on third-and-long, failing to make tackles in situations when he should have. Against Atlanta, on the Falcons' very first drive, he unnecessarily jumped in late on a tackle of Julio Jones and drew another personal foul penalty.

Ankle sprains: The Titans announced that both receiver Nate Washington and running back Greene didn’t finish with the first team because of ankle sprains. Washington said his was actually a right foot injury that wouldn’t cost him time unless the Titans were super cautious; Greene said his was really existing ankle soreness and not serious.

Good red zone defense after allowing the Falcons to get there too easily: The Falcons marched into the red zone on their first three drives but wound up with three field goal attempts and only six points.

“They got down there way too easy,” Casey said. “We let them get explosive plays -- big passes, things like that. We can’t allow that. When they got down there, we did our job by not letting them get in the end zone. That was one of our goals this week -- stopping them in the red zone, and we did that.”

Making a case: Receiver Michael Preston is not going to outrank any of the five receivers ahead of him, but he could be making himself a guy the Titans have to keep as a sixth, and I am hard-pressed to believe he is not one of the team’s 53 best football players.

Preston had three catches for 68 yards from Ryan Fitzpatrick, with a 56-yard bomb setting up Justin Hunter's short TD catch before he hauled in a 6-yard touchdown catch of his own later on.

I wrote about Preston at work on Friday.

“He’s a really good player. He’s been doing that day in, day out at practice,” Loggains said. “He made a big statement for his case to be on this football team again tonight.”

Verner and Turner: Cornerback Alterraun Verner and center Rob Turner started and did nothing that should dent them as the favorites to be named the starters at their respective spots.

Verner was flagged for two penalties against Jones -- a pass interference on a short pass into the middle and an illegal contact on a longer throw. I thought the first one was a good play on a ball Ryan threw a bit behind Jones. Later, Jones beat Verner, who didn’t touch him near the line, on a 42-yard play up the right side. Jones is going to make plays against a lot of corners.

And while Tommie Campbell came in early enough to have a couple chances against Jones and wasn’t victimized in a similar way, he didn’t do anything that should change the Titans' leanings.

Battle vs. Parmele: I thought Jackie Battle was getting a bit too much hype heading into the game. He was running better than Jalen Parmele, but special teams will be a huge factor in one of them winning the No. 3 running back job. I was told before the game, however, that he's close to Parmele on special teams. Battle got a game-high 13 carries for 41 yards. Parmele didn’t get one. Advantage Battle.

Referee change: Ed Hochuli was the ref in the first half, but by design, the game turned over to Wayne Mackie in the second half. He’s typically a field judge. The league is looking for opportunities to get people experience. Mackie communicated well when he had to use his microphone.

But Mackie was buzzed to review Alford’s interception of Fitzpatrick on a throw intended for Hunter. There was absolutely no reason for replay assistant Roger Ruth to buzz Mackie to review that play except to give him practice at it.

And whether the league needs to get a guy game experience or not, two teams, a crowd and a TV audience should not be subject to an unneeded challenge for such purposes.

Pending cuts? The first round of cuts come Tuesday, when the Titans have to get from 90 to 75. Healthy guys who don’t play in the third preseason game are typically being kept from getting hurt, because a team can’t cut an injured player.

Healthy Titans who didn’t play in this game were receiver Justin Hilton, defensive end Nigel Nicholas, guard Oscar Johnson, tackle Barry Richardson, tight end Martell Webb and receiver Rashad Ross. It'll be a surprise if any of them are on the roster Tuesday evening.