AFC South: Keenan Lewis
The Titans tight end said he was embarrassed after the Jaguars won 29-27 in Nashville on Nov. 10 to pick up their first victory. Since then, the Jaguars are 3-2 with victories over Houston (twice) and Cleveland. The Titans are 1-4 with a victory over Oakland.
There seems to be much more stability in Jacksonville, too, because of the uncertain status surrounding Tennessee coach Mike Munchak.
Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky break down Sunday’s matchup at EverBank Field.
DiRocco: Some Titans players were pretty vocal about being embarrassed due to becoming the first team to lose to the Jaguars. Is that something that still stings, and how have they rebounded from that loss?
Kuharsky: It definitely left a mark. They are only 1-4 since then. It kind of set a bar for how bad they can be and re-established their propensity to lose to teams that are really struggling. The Jaguars are on an upswing since that game, and the Titans are on a downward spiral. If Tennessee losses to the Jaguars again, the Titans will be in line to finish in third place in an awful division, which is well short of their goals and expectations. The Titans are a better team than they were last year. But losing closer isn’t a really big difference in the really big picture.
Let’s turn that around. How has life changed for the Jaguars since that Nov. 10 breakthrough?
DiRocco: I could go into a lot of stats that show how much better the Jaguars are playing, but that's not what's really important. The past six games have been more about the validation of the process, establishing the foundation of the franchise's rebuild, and confidence in the new regime. Coach Gus Bradley never wavered from the plan that he and general manager David Caldwell established. His message stayed the same throughout the eight-game losing streak to start the season: trust in the process, work hard, and focus on improving and not victories, and the victories will eventually come. Because that has happened, the players appear to have completely bought into what Bradley and Caldwell want to do, and there's a confidence in the locker room that the franchise is headed in the right direction.
We talked about Jake Locker the last time these teams met, but that was before he suffered a season-ending injury to his foot. How does that change the Titans' outlook on him and are they in the market for a quarterback in the offseason, too?
Kuharsky: Locker is certain to be on the 2014 Titans. His fourth year isn’t that costly and it’s guaranteed. But they can’t execute a spring option for his fifth year that would line him up for over $13 million. A lot of his fate depends on whether Munchak is back as the head coach. It’s possible they go forward with Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and just-signed Tyler Wilson as their quarterbacks. It’s also possible they’d draft a new guy, and depending on how high of a pick he could land in competition to start. I think it’s less likely they chase a free agent like Jay Cutler if he comes free, but they have to assess all the possibilities. How can they completely commit to Locker based on his injury history?
One side effect of the Jaguars' surge is they aren’t going to be in position to draft the first quarterback taken. What’s your sense of what Bradley and Caldwell want in a quarterback and do you expect one to arrive in the first round?
DiRocco: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said something interesting last week. He said he wants his QB to scramble around, take off running to get yards and take some chances throwing the football. To me, that sounds like a pretty accurate description of Johnny Manziel. I'm not sure how that reconciles with the ideas of his bosses. Bradley comes from Seattle, which has the mobile Russell Wilson. Caldwell comes from Atlanta, which has the considerably less mobile Matt Ryan. My sense is that Bradley and Caldwell probably lean more toward the Wilson end of the spectrum. People think that eliminates Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the case. He's not a runner but he can run if needed. If he's around, I'd expect them to take him. If not, then I would still expect them to go quarterback. It's their most glaring need.
You mentioned Munchak's job status. What's your take on whether he will be back next season -- and should he be?
Kuharsky: He’s shepherded improvement, but his team lacks an ability to finish. He’s 0-4 in the worst division in football, 1-9 in the past two years. His teams have lost to the previously winless Jags in 2013 and the previously winless Colts in 2011. He’s 4-18 against teams with winning records when the Titans played them and 2-19 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. To me, three years is a sufficient sample size to know what you’ve got and those numbers are the most telling thing on his resume. Keep him and they deal with all the limitations connected to a lame duck coach. I don’t know what Tommy Smith, the head of the new ownership, will do. But the fan base overwhelmingly wants change, if that’s worth anything. People still pay for tickets because they’ve got investments in personal seat licenses they do not want to throw away. But a lot of people are staying home on Sundays now.
Cecil Shorts is done and Maurice Jones-Drew is uncertain. How can the Jaguars threaten on offense without their two best weapons?
DiRocco: They were able to put up 20 points and post their second-highest yardage total of the season, including a season-high 159 rushing, in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. Running back Jordan Todman stepped up big time and ran for 109 yards (Jones-Drew cracked 100 only once in the first 13 games) and tight end Marcedes Lewis was more involved in the passing game than in previous weeks (four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown). But I'm not sure that is sustainable. Teams will certainly concentrate on stopping Lewis and make quarterback Chad Henne move the ball with three receivers who have a combined 75 career catches. Todman doesn't scare anyone, either. The Jaguars will have to be creative on offense (they've run gadget plays the past three weeks) and capitalize on every opportunity they get.
The Titans project they can handle that and excel with it. We’ll have to wait and see.
What I like most about what they’ve done is this: A team with a ton of needs as the 2013 NFL year began has far fewer now.
That creates a certain draft freedom. While there are still things they need, they need them far less desperately. If a guy they really want in the draft goes off the board a couple picks before they are up, it will be less tragic.
Safety: Like it or not they are locked into Michael Griffin. So what they needed was a serious upgrade with regard to an in-the-box presence at the position who will allow Griffin to play as a center fielding free safety. Enter George Wilson and Bernard Pollard. They are veterans who are better than the options the Titans had in 2012, plus they bring leadership -- Wilson of a quieter variety, Pollard with a loud swagger. If they draft a kid to develop behind this group, that’d be fine, but it’s not a pressing need.
Guard: Andy Levitre was the best option on the market. Rob Turner and Chris Spencer are far better options than interior guys like Kevin Matthews or Deuce Lutui, who wound up playing last year. Ideally the Titans find a young stud to play right guard long term. But if the can’t get, or decide to pass on, Chance Warmack, Jonathan Cooper or Larry Warford they could still be OK.
Defensive end: Internally, it’s not been rated the need it was externally. They did add super-sized Ropati Pitoitua, but he doesn’t appear to be a guy who will spur the pass rush. I think they feel good about Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, and will use Akeem Ayers more as a rusher. But I’d still rank an end that can boost the pass rush as a need.
Running back: They needed a short-yardage guy to serve in a complementary role with Chris Johnson, and found a guy they liked in Shonn Greene. Darius Reynaud is back, though he’s primarily a returner. A mid- or late-round back would make sense to increase their options if Johnson’s money is an issue next year and/or to compete with Jamie Harper for a role.
Defensive tackle: They showed no interest in bringing back Sen'Derrick Marks and found the size they wanted in Hill. With Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin, that’s a nice three-pack. Karl Klug is a question mark. This is a spot where they can definitely continue to add, even if they have high hopes for Klug and DaJohn Harris.
Cornerback: The one name that surfaced as a guy they courted was Keenan Lewis, the Steeler-turned-Saint. Depth at this position is shaky. Coty Sensabaugh did OK as a rookie nickel back. But ideally the Titans would get Alterraun Verner into the slot, even if he’s starting outside in the base defense. They need a better candidate that Tommie Campbell to play outside as the second or third guy. This could now rate as one of the top needs.
Tight end: Following the breakdown in talks with Jared Cook, the team decided against using the franchise tag on him. Walker is more equipped to shift around from the backfield to the line to the slot, and the Titans want to get back to using a guy like that. No remaining need with Craig Stevens, a solid blocker, and Taylor Thompson, a second-year project, in place.
Linebacker: Depth is the issue here, especially in the middle where Colin McCarthy gets hurt. Moise Fokou might help, and ideally the main addition would be a veteran upgrade over outgoing free agent Will Witherspoon. If Ayers moves forward to rush some as a defensive end, they’ll need a quality outside guy who can cover. A need, still, for sure.
Receiver -- I wasn’t thinking it was a spot they needed to address before the draft, but they looked at a lot of guys and signed Kevin Walter. He’s a reliable route runner who can work underneath and do well against zones for quarterback Jake Locker. But Walter isn’t explosive. I expect they’d like to add a draft pick who’s a smart, quality route runner with a little more ability for yards after the catch.
Ready to go four rounds deep? Here's what Mel Kiper is saying in a new four-round mock draft posted Thursday.
I think a Texans' fan would have to be very happy if the first two picks went like this.
No. 15: Linebacker Brian Cushing, USC
No. 46: Defensive tackle Evander Hood, Missouri
No. 77: Cornerback Keenan Lewis, Oregon State
No. 112: Defensive end David Veikune, Hawaii
No. 122: Receiver Mike Thomas, Arizona
No. 27: Defensive tackle Peria Jerry, Mississippi
No. 61: Receiver Derrick Williams, Penn State
No. 92: Linebacker Jason Phillips, TCU
No. 127: Running back Javon Ringer, Michigan State
No. 136: Linebacker Jonathan Casillas, Wisconsin
No. 30: Receiver Percy Harvin, Florida
No. 62: Cornerback D.J. Moore, Vanderbilt
No. 94: Linebacker Marcus Freeman, Ohio State
No. 130: Guard Louis Vasquez, Texas Tech
No. 135: Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, Michigan