AFC South: Kyle Vanden Bosch

Titans lacking 'the guy' on defense

September, 5, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Not every good or great defense in the NFL has a signpost guy who’s the big issue for the competition.

The best defenses for the Tennessee Titans have, however.

Defensive end Jevon Kearse arrived in 1999 and proved to be the missing ingredient, booting the Titans defense to a Super Bowl level with his explosive edge rush. He notched 36 sacks in his first three seasons. The 2000 team was the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

Albert Haynesworth was an incredible defensive tackle for the Titans in 2007 and 2008, with 14.5 sacks from defensive tackle. Tennessee was fifth in defense the first year and seventh the second.

Like Kearse, Haynesworth created panic and forced offenses to account for him at all times.

Perhaps these Titans have upgraded and will be collectively successful. They lack a singular, dominant player who dictates double teams or constant concern.

“We’d hope that there is more than just that guy,” senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams said recently. “Kearse here was that guy. But when I went other places and had top defenses in the league, we had a multitude of just really good guys. Maybe not a dominant, take-over-the-game guy, maybe not a lot of Pro Bowlers on those teams, but top-ranked defenses.

“We’ve got to have more than just one guy. We’ve got to have several guys that people have to account for and/or know because they can be threats.”

The better scenario, of course, is having the one guy, and having him surrounded by the kind of really good guys Williams speaks about.

Kearse played with solid defenders like cornerback Samari Rolle, safety Blaine Bishop (for two of those years) and linebacker Randall Godfrey. Haynesworth had end Kyle Vanden Bosch, linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton and cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

The Titans have a lot guys who can potentially be high-quality defenders: tackle Jurrell Casey, end Derrick Morgan and linebacker/end Akeem Ayers head my list. It’s hard to imagine any of them jumping the Kearse-Haynesworth level of production.

Casey got a big compliment from Jerricho Cotchery, the Steelers receiver, on Wednesday.

“I'm supposed to be looking at DBs, but you can't help but see No. 99 up front, big Casey," Cotchery told my Pittsburgh colleague, Scott Brown. "He's everywhere, especially when you look at the Atlanta game in the preseason. He's just all over the place. He stands out even when you're watching the back end of it.”

Maybe Casey will wind up being a singular force for the Titans.

They don't intend to worry about it as they get to work.

“I say we go to work with the guys that we have,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “We can’t really worry about what we don’t have, but we can worry about how effective we can be with what we do have.”

Who gets penalized the most?

August, 22, 2013
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Numbers can be tricky things, and they can't be viewed in a vacuum.

But to help add perspective to the overall discussion of Antonio Smith and Richie Incognito, I consulted ESPN Stats & Information for a broader look at some numbers on penalties incurred by NFL players.

Analyst John McTigue broke down the players with the most personal foul-penalties since 2005 -- the year Incognito entered the league.

The name at the top of the list is familiar to Houston Texans fans: cornerback Cortland Finnegan, famous for winding up in a fistfight with the mild-mannered Andre Johnson. Finnegan is joined at the head of the list by another former Titan, Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Smith and Incognito are tied over that span with 14.

It's pretty rare for offensive players to get personal-foul penalties. They are much more liberally meted out to defensive players, partially because of the nature of the call (an offensive player can't, for example, rough the passer). Even still, Incognito wound up among the top 11 players overall to be flagged for personal fouls. He is the only offensive representative.

During the past five seasons, Smith was whistled for 11 personal-foul penalties while Incognito had 10. Incognito's 10 is the highest number for any offensive player in the league during that time. (Oddly, fourth on the offensive list is Falcons receiver Roddy White, who has six personal fouls in the past five years.)

Smith ranks fourth among defensive players in the past five years. Finnegan (15) continued to lead the list, followed by safety Bernard Pollard (13), outside linebacker Trent Cole (12) and Smith, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, outside linebacker Cliff Avril and defensive end Jason Babin all tied at 11.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When they drafted him in the second round in 2011, the Tennessee Titans saw a big, physical linebacker in Akeem Ayers.

They needed, seemingly, two years and a couple alterations to the coaching staff to figure out what to do with him. And during that time he’s worked to figure out just how to use what he’s got to be an effective NFL contributor.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers
Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports"I think this will be his year," defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said of Akeem Ayers (56).

Now, the strongside linebacker will also see time at defensive end, and his primary job will be clear.

He’s a pass-rusher.

“I think this will be his year,” defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said.

Like most rookies, he wasn’t looking to initiate conversations with Gray, he wanted to simply do his job. He sought out Gray more last year.

“Now he’s already coming in, ‘Jerry I like this, I like that,’” Gray said. “That’s when guys understand who they are. They’re not trying to please everybody; they’re trying to please themselves. And it’s your job as a coach to say, ‘This is what the guy is telling me,’ so believe it. He understands what his role is going to be. And we’ve got to be smart enough to get him rushing.”

Ayers’ production may be as big a harbinger of what kind of success the Titans will have on defense as anything. He’ll be at outside linebacker in base, but often up on the line of scrimmage. He’ll be at end some, too, in a three-point stance.

Scott Solomon, a second-year defender drafted as an end but now playing more as an outside backer, said he can just see Ayers’ increased confidence when Ayers is walking around.

“I know what I am going to do each week, we’ll pretty much stick to one game plan and I will stick to the things I’m going to be doing,” Ayers said. “I’m not going to be middle linebacker one week and defensive end one week. I’ve got a role, I’m sticking to it and I’m really trying to perfect it. It’s a lot more rushing, going forward, penetration. Less dropping into coverage. I’ll be playing close to the line of scrimmage more times than not.”

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains rates Ayers and one of the guys who’s been standing out on defense. He said the Titans offense would never scheme to stop Ayers with Chris Johnson or even Shonn Greene.

The Titans expect to be an emerging defense. But they have no one as a rusher who will demand the attention of the Jevon Kearse or even Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Still, they expect Derrick Morgan, Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley to lead a committee of players that can get to the quarterback off the edge with regularity.

Now that he’s going to be going forward so often, Ayers has a pretty standard pass-rushing goal: At least 10 sacks.

“If I’m going to be rushing how I’m expecting, I’m expecting to at least get double digits,” he said. “But the main this is as long as I can help the team, as long as we are winning games and we’re doing, we; as a team, the goal should be easy to get.”
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

The Texans’ tag team attack of Arian Foster and Ben Tate is doubly good, says Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle.

Randy Harvey of the Chronicle says: “I’m going to tell you today that Peyton Manning is not the quarterback we knew all those years in Indianapolis, with the distinct possibility that I will tell you Sunday after he throws for 300-plus yards and four touchdowns in another victory over his favorite foils, the Texans, that he is as good as ever.”

Indianapolis Colts

Through two games, the Colts have shown great gains in run defense with their new scheme, writes Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star.

Maurice Jones-Drew can expect plenty of trash talk from some friends on the Colts, says Mike Chappell of the Star.

The Colts need to sell about 500 tickets by lunch to avoid a blackout, says Chappell.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert (glute) went though a full practice Wednesday and is in line to play Sunday at Indianapolis.

The Jaguars signed tight end Maurice Stovall, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are urging patience, and want quarterback Jake Locker and the offense to realize every play doesn’t have to be a big play, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch has no hard feelings that the Titans didn’t try to re-sign him after the 2009 season, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Linebacker Colin McCarthy is making progress, but he’s still not practicing because of his ankle injury, says Wyatt.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

John McClain’s first mock draft gives the Texans Robert Quinn, the North Carolina defensive end/outside linebacker.

Tackling concussions can be jarring, says Richard Justice.

Top 10 draft prospects by position from Lance Zierlein.

Indianapolis Colts

Owner greed deserves to lose, says Bob Kravitz.

The Indy Star polled about which player should replace the Bob Sanders on a banner on Lucas Oil Stadium, said Scott Thien.

Part one of a comparison of Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter, from Nate Dunlevy.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike Sims-Walker never made a big impact, says Gene Frenette.

Continuing a discussion of the most important positions on offense, with John Oehser.

Five free agents the Jaguars should be prepared to chase, from Alfie Crow.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans will split their focus Tuesday on pro days for Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett, says Jim Wyatt.

Former Titans Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch had a recent Nashville reunion, says Jim Wyatt.

Houston Nutt is sure Tracy Rocker will be a good NFL defensive line coach, says Terry McCormick.

Starting field position wasn’t as much a cause of the Titans’ downfall as we may have suspected last season, says Tom Gower.

Mudd, Washburn talk as new Eagles

February, 9, 2011
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Former Indianapolis Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd and former Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who built a close friendship working against each other in the AFC South, met the Philadelphia media Wednesday for the first time.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles public relations staff, here are some highlights.

Mudd on why he ended his one-year retirement:

“Andy [Reid]. I have known Andy for 22 years. He was a young assistant coach for Bob Stull at University of Missouri. He came over [when I was with the Chiefs] and wanted to know about what I did and why I did it and stuff like that. We spent a lot of time that one year there. I went over and spoke at their spring clinic and got to know him. Then he ends up leaving and Marty Mornhinweg was then the offensive line coach. He asked me if I would spend time. [Reid] was in Green Bay and we maintained contact. He’s a really friendly guy and he liked what I did and would always ask me questions as we went through the years. We just maintained contact. When this thing shook down, I was kind of in a state of shock. I went, ‘What?’ He called me and said, ‘Would you consider coming out of retirement?’ He told me this whole story about the interview process with the defensive coordinator. I know Juan [Castillo] very well. He said this isn’t going to work if we make this move if you don’t come.”

Mudd on aiding Washburn as he decided to jump to Philadelphia, which happened before he came into the picture himself:

“I was really involved with Wash when he was making the decision to come here. This other thing shook down a little bit later. I didn’t really consult Wash because I didn’t want to say anything [until it was in place]. It only really took about 12 hours or something like that.”

Mudd on their friendship:

“We worked against one another for 12 years in Indianapolis and Tennessee. Our boys really fought hard against one another. They beat each other up quite a bit. We found this common ground of motorcycle, so we talked about that before every game. We ran a draw play and I would call him up maybe Friday before we played them and asked if they had a good week of practice. He would say 'yes.' I said, ‘Well did you work on the draw? Because if you worked on the draw, we’re not running it.’ We have this professional respect. There is no one who coaches that position better than Jim. The proof is in the people who have failed in other places and have distinguished themselves with their play. [Titans DE Jason] Babin is the last one, but it was Kyle Vanden Bosh [before him]. Those people who are kind of no-name people, but you better tape your ankles if you’re going to play against Washburn.”

Washburn on leaving the Titans:

"It was sort of like home and that was hard. But it was really a no-brainer between the other teams and this place because it’s got a quarterback. It’s about that simple no matter what anybody tells you, it’s got a quarterback. We’ve got two … I like [head coach] Andy Reid. I met him at the Pro Bowl when we coached the Pro Bowl one year and I’ve always liked him. The first time I ever saw him -- in my first Division I game coaching, he was playing left offensive tackle for BYU and I was at New Mexico. I’ll let him tell you how that went in that game.”

Washburn on his opportunity in Philadelphia:

"I haven’t got too much time left, I’m 61 years old. I’ve got my best coaching ahead of me, I feel like I’m just where I want to be. When [offensive line coach] Howard Mudd retired -- he is one of my best friends -- what a terrible thing that was. All that knowledge he has, I wish I could just take a chip out of his brain and put it mine. And it’s just so cool that he’s here. I’m okay, he’s really good and that’s the truth.”

Washburn on his friendship with Mudd:

“We worked against the Colts one camp. He came down and we worked against him. We started talking, he’s such a good guy and we started talking about motorcycles. We both like motorcycles, so he said let’s ride in the offseason and we did. We became friends and he’s sort of a different dude and I’m like a way different dude. We just have a good time and he’s just a good person.”

Titans' Washburn may be Philly-bound

January, 18, 2011
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Jeff Fisher critics have called for staff shuffling.

They’d have been foolish to want defensive line coach Jim Washburn to go. But Washburn, a free agent like every coach on Fisher’s 2010 staff except for Mike Heimerdinger, may be on the verge of jumping to Philadelphia, reports Jim Wyatt.

Fisher acknowledging the possibility may be an early attempt to start softening the blow.

It would be a terrible development for the organization, which has consistently seen Washburn turn draft picks and free agents, problem children and reclamation projects into productive pass rushers.

The list of guys Washburn got the best out of includes Jevon Kearse, who joined the Titans in 1999, the same year as Washburn as well as Kenny Holmes, Josh Evans, Henry Ford, Carlos Hall, Robaire Smith, Antwan Odom, Travis LaBoy, Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tony Brown, Jason Jones, Dave Ball and Jason Babin.

In six seasons with four teams, Babin had 17. 5 career sacks before the Titans signed him for $1 million last offseason. Under Washburn’s tutelage, Babin posted 12.5 sacks -- the sixth-best total in the NFL. (Here’s a column on Babin and Ball from early in the 2010 season.)

A screamer, Washburn knows how to find and push buttons for his players, and he’s helped them make them a ton of money. By Wyatt’s count, 11 defensive linemen left the Titans over the past 12 years to sign big free-agent contracts elsewhere at a total value of more than $355 million.

I can think of only two guys who were better after they left. Juqua Thomas, who’s now Juqua Parker of the Eagles and could soon have Washburn as a position coach again, is not part of that big-money departure list. Randy Starks of the Dolphins is.

Virtually everyone who’s played for Washburn has good things to say about what he did for them.

Replacing him would be a huge undertaking for Fisher. A lame-duck coach, he won’t be able to offer his next defensive line coach any more than the one-year deal he was able to offer Washburn.
Jason Babin and Dave Ball Getty Images/AP PhotoTennessee's Jason Babin (left) and Dave Ball have combined for 10 sacks this season.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Longtime Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn answered the phone recently and heard Josh Evans on the line.

A productive but troubled defensive tackle for the Titans from 1995-99 and in 2001 after completing a suspension, Evans still feels a strong connection to the guys Washburn oversees because they play the same way his lines played.

“He said, ‘I watched you on TV and I was so proud because I knew I was a part of that,’ ” Washburn said. “ 'That group on the field 10 years after I left, I knew that was still my group and they still play hard.’ ”

Which led a sentimental Washburn to ask: “What’s better, that or winning the division?”

His best rush groups have featured a star -– Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch were top rushers, Kevin Carter was a big name -– surrounded by mostly mid- and late-round picks.

But the linemen leading the charge for the NFL’s No. 1 sack team heading into Jacksonville for "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET, ESPN) aren't marquee names. Twenty-two sacks have come from a group of outcasts, misfits and football orphans from the scrap heap mixed with draft picks from Eastern Michigan, Winston-Salem State and Central Arkansas.

They are a lot like Evans, who was undrafted out of Alabama-Birmingham.

The Titans probably expected their starting ends at this point to be rookie first-rounder Derrick Morgan and William Hayes, a three-year veteran from Winston-Salem State.

Morgan, though, is out for the year with a torn ACL, and after Hayes was slowed by a knee injury in the preseason, he’s working as part of a deep rotation.

The front-line rushers on the outside are Jason Babin and Dave Ball, regular Joes who are personable, low-key guys six days a week and fierce quarterback killers Sunday.

Washburn makes them sound like they are related to Darth Vader when he says they each have a “dark side.”

“When emotions get high and things get crazy, my alter ego and my inner being kind of come out,” Babin said. “And he’s not a nice guy. I wouldn’t say I am trying to maim or hurt people. But I am definitely not considerate by any means.

“Off the field, I’m a dad, I’m a husband. I help out with dinner. I do bath time. But not out there.”

The Titans fleeced the Houston Texans in a 2004 draft-day trade made for the 27th pick in the first round. The Texans took Babin and tried to turn him into a linebacker in their 3-4, but things never worked out in his three seasons there. Babin then bounced from Seattle to Kansas City to Philadelphia.

The Titans grabbed him last spring with a one-year, $1 million deal. In their simple get-the-quarterback scheme, he has 5 1/2 sacks in five games, more than his total in any of his previous six seasons.

He knows it will take a much longer stretch of quality production to remove his bust reputation. But he’s a poster boy for how complicated schemes and projected position changes can get in the way of a player playing solid football.

“It’s a simple game, it’s basic and if you try to draw X's and O's and scheme, that stuff doesn’t work,” Babin said. “Here, we come off the ball, and whatever happens, happens …

[+] EnlargeJim Washurn
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTitans assistant Jim Washburn has made his mark by getting production from unheralded players.
“Wash likes to joke, ‘If I had my hands on you, you’d have a lot more money and a lot more sacks,’ and maybe that’s true. But the journey that I took has really made me who I am today. I’m more humble and more respectful than I was when I started. I really cherish practice, working out and every play on the field.”

Ball has bounced around as well. Drafted out of UCLA in the fifth round by San Diego in 2004, he spent time with the Chargers, Jets and Panthers and then had a season out of football. He signed with the Titans in early 2008.

Mostly a rotation guy for Tennessee in his first two seasons, Ball has stayed healthy and been productive this season. He has 4 1/2 sacks while holding off Hayes, Jacob Ford and Morgan (while he was healthy) despite regular worries about losing rank.

“He’s a paranoid dude,” Washburn said. “He is just afraid to fail. He’s obsessed, just like Kyle (Vanden Bosch). He’s afraid every day.”

Ball said his receding hairline is partly because of that mentality. Although he doesn't come to work fearful that he could be cut as he once did, he still is concerned about the potential for drop-off.

“I worry about not keeping up the pace I’ve been going,” he said. “I always want the best for me and my family. Any little wrinkle, any bump in the road I get freaked out because I’ve sat out a year, I bounced around at the beginning of my career.

“I’ve been paranoid for the longest time. I always get tremendously nervous during football. I wasn’t going to play good, or someone was going to beat me out or I wasn’t going to be the best kind of player … It makes me work extremely hard.”

Ball has the ability during games to set his concerns aside and have fun, helping him be consistently disruptive.

Evans, who played some of his best football as the Titans went to Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000, had that sort of fun and effect when he played for Washburn too. He’ll likely be watching the Titans against the Jaguars, feeling connected. So will a lot of former Washburn linemen people have never heard of or forgotten.

“We just play off the theme we’ve been playing off for 12 years,” Washburn said. “We’re nobodies or whatever. Nobody thinks we’re very good. I would imagine it’s what most coaches play off of if they have small-school guys, reclamation projects, guys that have not experienced a lot of success.”

“What would you do? You’d do the same thing, wouldn’t you?"

NASHVILLE, Tenn., -- When the Titans and Cardinals broke into pieces early in practice, injured Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald didn’t stick with the quarterbacks and receivers in seven-on-seven.

He watched the Titans defensive linemen work against Arizona’s large offensive line. There were many good battles, and the Cards fared a lot better at fending off the rush in the drill than they did Monday night in a preseason loss at LP Field.

My thinking about the Titans is turning a bit -- they may be better than I've been expecting. And the biggest force behind it is the defensive line.

And that’s with four key guys currently out or limited: Derrick Morgan, the No. 1 pick; William Hayes, perhaps the best edge rush prospect; Jacob Ford, who has 12 sacks in 29 games; and Tony Brown, probably the best all-around interior lineman.

It still looks like a very deep group that will find ways to get to the quarterback without blitz help, though the Titans worked the blitz a good deal against the Cardinals in the game.

The rest of the group is also a pretty anonymous gang, part draft picks, part reclamation project free agents: ends Jason Babin and Dave Ball; tackles Jason Jones, Jovan Haye and Sen’Derrick Marks.

That’s five quality ends before Raheem Brock or Eric Bakhtiari, who's likely to be on a 53-man roster. That’s four quality tackles before seventh-round rookie David Howard.

High motor end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who set the Titans’ standard for work, left as a free agent for Detroit. Albert Haynesworth is heading into his second-season of drama in Washington.

And defensive line coach Jim Washburn may be just fine without them. The rotating won’t be based as much on situations -- though you want your best pass rushers on the field on third down, first down hardly qualifies as a “run down” any more -- as it will be on freshness. Tired linemen are expected to remove themselves from action, making way for the next guy while recovering.

Jeff Fisher said he’s very happy with the group’s depth and his counterpart at Thursday’s practice was impressed.

“I think they’re good, I think it’s one of the better defensive lines, I’ve always thought that.” Ken Whisenhunt said. “I know what coach Fisher’s mentality’s been with defense. They play hard. They do a very good job with their twists and their stunt game. Definitely when you play a team like Tennessee, it makes your O-line better. Because if you don’t work hard, you’re going to get embarrassed.”

Cardinals guard Alan Faneca also talked about twists and stunts, saying he thinks the Titans are using them more instead of relying on juggernauts like KVB and Haynesworth to pave the road.

“I think they’ve mixed in a lot of guys, they all seem to play pretty good with each other,” Faneca said. “…To me it seemed like they were working a lot on their inside games and stuff. With Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth, they really let those guys work so that really wasn’t as big of a staple of theirs. They mix it up. You can’t anticipate one thing, you’ve got to anticipate a couple things, and that slows your reaction down.”

I don’t know how much more the Titans may game and stunt -- this could just be a time in camp where they’ve emphasized it. I am certain they all want to and believe they can line up and beat the man across from them while using stuff to keep blockers off balance. A year after the team had 31 sacks, a drop off of 13 from 2008, I'll be surprised if the number isn't up.

“We’re very deep right now,” Jones said. “Right now we still have interchangeable parts, athletic guys on this D-line. When the hurt guys get back it’s going to be full force… We still have the same pride. When we get our rushes we expect to get to the quarterback or at least hit him and cause some havoc.”

Camp Confidential: Tennessee Titans

August, 22, 2010
8/22/10
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 18

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Since 2002, Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans have had a losing record in the first month five times. Last season, it wasn’t just a bad start, it was a miserable 0-6.

Fisher and his staff have often been masterful at guiding a team’s climb out of a hole, but starting off on more level ground is a necessity if the young 2010 Titans are to re-emerge as a playoff team.

“Camp’s different than it was last year, we have four preseason games rather than five, we had injuries to deal with,” Fisher said. “We’re going to work on a couple opponents [earlier], prepare for them a little differently.

“We need to get off to a good start this year.”

A lot of recognizable names are gone, and that’s fine if a youth movement is as stocked as they believe it is. But it’s the sort of roster that could need time to settle in, which could mean early struggles again.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Will there be sufficient leadership?

[+] EnlargeAhmard Hall
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesAhmard Hall is a likely candidate to help fill the leadership void in Nashville.
Even if Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Alge Crumpler and Kevin Mawae were all starting to tail off and even if the Titans feel they have an upgrade over each, that is still as big a loss of collective leadership in one offseason as I can recall. The people in place to lead now -- guys like safety Chris Hope and fullback Ahmard Hall -- have to maintain, or increase, their level of production to attain and maintain the credibility that batch had.

Linebacker Will Witherspoon was the biggest veteran addition, and he looks to be a top candidate to take on a leadership mantle. But as a newcomer he’s got to figure out how to fit himself smoothly into the mix.

“With me it’s more about deciphering how to approach individuals,” Witherspoon said. “…Those are the kind of things you have to figure out. You look at the stages of leadership and different types of leadership. I’m not the guy who’s a loudmouth, getting down a guy’s throat.

“But I will, if I feel like I need to, take a guy aside and say look, ‘Here’s what I see, here’s what going on and here’s how people feel about it. Here’s what I can tell you is going to change it or you’re just going to end up with a real problem.’”

Vince Young needs to play a solid 16 games.

He’s got the league’s most explosive back behind him, an excellent offensive line protecting him and the franchise’s best crop of wide receivers in some time. Things are set up for Young to succeed as the team’s starting quarterback.

The Titans need to know they can count on him to bounce back from play-to-play, series-to-series, day-to-day and week-to-week. They need improved accountability, accuracy and consistency. They need for him not to provide reasons for fans to debate whether Rusty Smith is actually the team’s quarterback of the future.

There are more questions on defense, and the Titans need to do some scoring to allow for the sort of mistakes some of the young defenders are bound to make, especially early on.

Can the pass rush and secondary improve?

[+] EnlargeChris Hope
AP Photo/Stephen MortonChris Hope and the Titans' secondary will have to defend better against the play-action pass.
The pass rush was insufficient and the secondary failed to hold up when it needed to last. Fisher said the back end needs to be better on play-action but that the regular rush against drop back passes should be improved with a deep crop of defensive linemen.

“If we can get back to where we were with the guys rushing up front in the rotation, they’ll be fine,” Fisher said. “The play-action pass, that’s got to get done by the secondary. You don’t get as quick pressure on the quarterback in the play-action pass. We gave up too many plays in the play-action passing game last year. That’s going to require better play from the linebackers and the secondary.

“On drop backs we should really be able to do some more things.”

They don’t have clear-cut guys as the primary rushers or for the No. 2 corner spot. But they have the next best thing in what appear to be a deep pool of young options.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Harris and Stevens: Offensive lineman Leroy Harris and tight end Craig Stevens might prove more effective than Mawae and Crumpler, the two guys they are replacing. Harris is actually at left guard, with Eugene Amano sliding inside to center. Stevens doesn’t have Crumpler’s girth but can fend off a would-be tackler and/or slip out into a route so long as concussion issues don’t surface again.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Morgan out: First-round pick Derrick Morgan has been sidelined for camp with a calf injury. The defensive end has missed so much installation and work it will be tough for him to contribute. The Titans have to hope some combination of William Hayes (once he’s healthy), Jacob Ford, Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Raheem Brock can effectively rush off the edge from the start.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeLavelle Hawkins
    Don McPeak/US PresswireLavelle Hawkins has been impressive during the preseason, but can the fourth-year receiver rise on the team's depth chart?
    Offensive line coach Mike Munchak consistently develops talent, but the Titans have virtually no experience behind their starting offensive line. Mike Otto could be sufficient as the backup swing tackle, but they could look for a veteran interior swing guy after cuts.
  • Lavelle Hawkins has gotten great reviews and is more of a traditional slot receiver than Justin Gage. It’ll be great for the team if Hawkins provides an option inside, but I’ll wait until he’s deployed in a meaningful game before buying the hype.
  • Babin is a new reclamation project for defensive line coach Jim Washburn. He’s suited for the team’s go-get-the-quarterback mentality and in practice, and in the first preseason game, appeared to be getting off the ball with excellent speed.
  • Jared Cook is only now starting to flash and create the buzz he generated at this time a year ago. The second-year tight end is a physical specimen and an attractive target, but word is he’s not as reliable as he should be. One thing that can hurt his cause: Stevens, while nowhere near Cook as an explosive threat, has been catching the ball well.
  • Dowell Loggains was promoted to quarterbacks coach when Fisher shuffled his staff a bit with the late departure of running back coach Kennedy Pola. Loggains has used some creative new methods to keep things fresh for his guys. It seems small but can make a big difference.
  • Ryan Mouton is not on par with the more consistent Jason McCourty or the more instinctive rookie Alterraun Verner among the cornerbacks vying for the No. 2 spot. I expect McCourty to start opposite Cortland Finnegan with Verner backing up the effective, but oft-injured, Vincent Fuller at nickelback. Verner’s ability to find a pick almost every day is one of the big stories of camp.
  • Sen’Derrick Marks is significantly stronger than he was as a rookie and could be an influential player for a defensive line that’s expected to be much more productive.
  • The Titans saw young defensive coordinators Gregg Williams and Jim Schwartz reach new comfort levels in their second seasons. Chuck Cecil expects to follow a similar course. Cecil knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll face another season of uncomfortable questions.
You need super-cool Insider status to see it all, but here are some highlights from Mel Kiper’s look at the AFC South, where he conducts a summer auditInsider:

Colts
Next April's pick, now: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

A fluid talent out of Texas, expect to hear more about a guy who helped make Earl Thomas' job easier in that secondary.

My thoughts: He’s hardly alone in thinking cornerback is a concern, but if the Colts stay healthy, they are three deep with Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey. And a lot of teams would love to be three deep.

Jaguars
The question mark: I thought the Jags could have really used the addition of a guard through the draft or free agency, though that's an area that most good offensive coordinators or line coaches can capably mask. But the third-biggest need wasn't addressed at all.

My thoughts: Guess he doesn’t care for Justin Smiley, acquired by trade from Miami, or Kynan Forney, a reserve last year who is getting a serious look inside.

Texans
The question mark: …The Texans averaged just 92 yards a game on the ground, bad enough for 30th in the league. Some of that stemmed from poor guard play. The Texans drafted Shelley Smith in the sixth round, but they could still struggle to balance the offense in 2010 if their interior line play isn't better. The addition of Tate may help from a physical standpoint, however.

My thoughts: They feel like they have sufficient interior options with free-agent addition Wade Smith, Antoine Caldwell going into year two and Mike Brisiel returning from injury.

Titans
Crucial influx: We knew Tennessee would likely go with a pass-rusher in the first round, particularly after the departure of Kyle Vanden Bosch. But in Derrick Morgan, you also have a guy with an immensely versatile game. Few players in college football last year -- maybe nobody -- proved as effective against the run while still maintaining an ability to consistently pressure the quarterback. I don't think Morgan has the ceiling of a player like Jason Pierre-Paul, but there [are] zero hints that he could be a bust.

My thoughts: Titans faithful have to like to hear all that about Morgan, but they are hoping he won’t be all dinged up as he has been in OTAs when he participated very little.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A couple of notes, a couple of quotes and a couple of thoughts out of the Titans' organized training activities session Tuesday morning.

  • Two receivers made nice sideline plays, showing nice body control and feet. Nate Washington climbed the ladder and spun on the first, which was delivered by Vince Young to a spot where nothing bad could have happened but wasn’t exactly crisp. Justin Gage's play wasn’t quite as nice and came on a better thrown ball from Young.
  • Will Witherspoon had a short-range interception over the middle of Kerry Collins.
  • During a punting period, Ken Amato struggled to snap consistently and Brett Kern had to show off his athleticism to collect a few of them. (It couldn't have been a wild snap drill, could it?) Damian Williams was among the handful of players fielding the punts and looked comfortable, but there was no one coming at him in a drill that was about the punts not the returns.
  • First-rounder Derrick Morgan was dealing with some tightness left over from Monday and wasn’t a participant. Jeff Fisher said the team is being careful and indicated it’s not a big deal.
  • Fourth-round corner Alterraun Verner and undrafted running back LeGarrette Blount were the two missing rookies. As their classes at UCLA and Oregon are still ongoing, NFL rules prevent them from joining the team yet. They will surface in June.
  • Jeff Fisher’s not nearly as worried about the Titans’ leadership void as I am on a team that’s minus Kyle Vanden Bosch, Kevin Mawae, Keith Bulluck and Alge Crumpler: “A lot has been made of this, but I’m not concerned about the leadership on this football team. You can have leadership and you can have an awful locker room. This is a good locker room. …There are enough guys here that will step up.”
  • Always reluctant to go the hypothetical route, Fisher delved into Keith Bulluck a bit: “Hypothetically if Keith was fine for the start of training camp and able to play in the preseason games and is 100 percent and we were able to get him under contract, he’s a starter, yeah. But that’s the best-case scenario and it’s not going to be a realistic scenario just from the timing standpoint as you deal with the ACL.” I feel confident the Titans are moving forward with no intention of re-signing Bulluck, who’s unrestricted.
  • As for the other incumbent outside linebacker, David Thornton, who’s coming off shoulder and hip injuries: “He’s still a ways away right now,” Fisher said. “Right now he’s not able to practices, so no, he’s not [a starter]. …[His injury tendency] is a legitimate concern. Sometimes guys will have a couple years where they have issues and then can put it behind them and can play a number of more years. It’s not going to be because David didn’t work at it.”
I'm not going to lie to you. I misunderstood a Saturday assignment and initially, instead of filling these categories with just one selection for the whole division, I did one per team.

And so, after another run through, I present to you a broader look at the AFC South's drafting.

Houston Texans

Best move: The Colts didn't touch their their return man issues until taking cornerback Ray Fisher in the seventh round. The Titans convinced themselves they can get both receiver and return contributions from Damian Williams and Marc Mariani. But the Texans, already more threatening when fielding kicks and punts, jumped at Trindon Holliday from LSU in the sixth-round. He’s tiny at 5-5 and 169 pounds, but he could earn a few touches on offense and is the sort of special teams player the rest of the AFC South could wind up chasing all over the field.

Riskiest move: A lot of people expected them to take running back Toby Gerhart in the second round, but they made two trades to drop down eight slots and went with Auburn’s Ben Tate instead. Those two will likely be measured against each other for a good while and the Texans really need to have nailed it.

Most surprising move: See earlier post.

File it away: Fourth-rounder Garrett Graham out of Wisconsin and seventh-rounder Dorin Dickerson out of Pitt could be part insurance plan, part plan for 2011 and beyond. Owen Daniels is a world-class pass catcher. But he’s coming off his third ACL tear and is a restricted free agent seeking a big contract. They drafted a blocking tight end last year in Anthony Hill and a receiving tight end in James Casey and still took two in nine picks in this draft.

Indianapolis Colts

Best move: See earlier post.

Riskiest move: Bill Polian didn’t fare real well with two recent second-round picks on the offensive line (Tony Ugoh, Mike Pollak), so he went back to what’s worked better. The Colts took Tennessee guard Jacques McClendon in the fourth round (No. 129), where they’ve landed Ryan Diem and Jake Scott a little deeper in the team’s past. He didn’t register on some other teams’ radar at the same level. Polian said it was a weak tackle group after the top guys.

Most surprising move: Many probably didn’t list tight end as any sort of need considering the team has Dallas Clark, Gijon Robinson, Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi on the roster. But Robinson’s not been as consistent a help in run blocking as they need and Santi’s been hurt too much. Enter fifth-rounder Brody Eldridge from Oklahoma, who’s 6-foot-5 and 261 pounds. I love this pick and the thinking behind it.

File it away: Polian opened the door, at least a little, for cornerback Jerraud Powers to be involved in the return games. Polian said a return specialist was a luxury they’re not convinced was necessary and one they won’t lose sleep over missing out on. But are they pushing it asking Peyton Manning to drive the offense so far so often? Fisher might be a big piece in the equation now too.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Best move: I like the trade for Oakland linebacker Kirk Morrison, a tackling machine. He may not be super-sturdy against the run, but with the Jags’ emphasis on defensive tackles he should get some room to work. Morrison has a reputation as a good guy and a good leader, and the Jaguars are trying to fill their locker room with both.

Riskiest move: See earlier post.

Most surprising move: A second defensive tackle in the second round. D’Anthony Smith came on the heels of No. 10 pick Tyson Alualu and last year’s third-rounder Terrance Knighton. Gene Smith is a foundation builder with a deep pool of defensive tackles and the picks meant the Jaguars parted with John Henderson on Monday.

File it away: Gene Smith’s getting hit for not trading down in the first or third round before grabbing Alualu or Smith, but he was a capable trader. He got a fifth-rounder from Oakland recently for failed second-round end Quentin Groves and pulled off a trade with the Raiders for Morrison during the fourth round.

Tennessee Titans

Best move: See earlier post.

Riskiest move: Not taking a corner before the fourth round and 103rd pick. Alterraun Verner sounds like a good prospect, but he’ll be part of a five-person competition for the starting job opposite Cortland Finnegan. There is some safety in numbers. There is a bit more safety in having a clear-cut front runner for such a crucial spot.

Most surprising move: I thought they’d take a quarterback in the middle or late rounds. I didn’t expect it would be Florida Atlantic’s first draftee, Rusty Smith. Mike Heimerdinger will have a chance to develop a guy they’ve characterized as a true pocket passer, and may be lining themselves up with an alternative if Vince Young doesn’t pass the final audition of his rookie contract this season.

File it away: See earlier post.

Kiper's grades: Jags the worst

April, 25, 2010
4/25/10
12:10
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Mel Kiper’s draft grades are in. Insider

Here's my standard draft grade disclaimer. Yes, grades before a guy sets foot on an NFL practice field are a silly concept. Still, they are what a huge percentage of fans will be looking for Sunday. So here are my notes from Kiper's Insider file.

Texans

He calls first-round corner Kareem Jackson “a predictable, safe pick” and said Ben Tate looks even better as a value at 58 considering Minnesota traded up to take Toby Gerhart at 51. Sixth-rounder Trindon Holliday “could be the next Dante Hall.” Even seventh-rounder Dorin Dickerson “has promise at tight end if he can add strength.” (The Texans are going with him as a wide receiver to start.) “Nothing amazing, but plenty of promise.”

Kiper's grade: B

Titans

No end has the “polish and versatility” of Derrick Morgan and he fills the hole left by Kyle Vanden Bosch. He questions Damian Williams' speed, and while he likes Rennie Curran, he called him “a slight reach” in the third. And “between math whiz Alterraun Verner and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle, they'll have the smartest secondary in football if both stick.”

Kiper's grade: C+

Colts

He likes Jerry Hughes but thought Pat Angerer was a reach in Round 2 and “could have been around even at that No. 94 slot where Indy picked Kevin Thomas.” He rates Thomas a risk because of injury history. In general, nothing flashy. “But I'm never going to believe Bill Polian won't prove me wrong on at least one of these guys.”

Kiper's grade: C

Jaguars

Kiper calls GM Gene Smith’s second draft disappointing, starting with the over-valuing of Tyson Alualu at No. 10. “To take a guy you could conceivably get 15 to 25 slots later, you're cheating yourself not just out of sixth- and seventh-round guys, but potentially a late second- or third-rounder. You have to know not just the pick, but the relative value.” Of the Jags' six picks, only Alualu rated in Kiper’s Top 100.

Kiper's grade: D

AFC South draft analysis

April, 24, 2010
4/24/10
6:00
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

We had big names (Jerry Hughes, Myron Rolle) and no names (Scotty McGee, Shelley Smith) in 32 draft picks in the AFC South.

We also had an incoming veteran (Kirk Morrison to Jacksonville) and outgoing underachievers (LenDale White and Kevin Vickerson out of Tennessee).

Everyone’s on the phone hoping to land more in the form of undrafted free agents, but they’re feeling good too. Needs they had on Thursday have been washed away over three days, and minicamps where rookies will be fitted for uniforms and yelled at by position coaches for the first time will soon arrive.

Best moves

The Titans and Colts both wanted a productive defensive end, both sat still at their first round pick and both had a talented player who fits them fall in their laps.

Derrick Morgan’s got multiple connections with defensive line coach Jim Washburn, and the love fest is on. After losing the high-motor, classy Kyle Vanden Bosch as a free agent, the Titans look to have landed a young version of KVB.

Bill Polian said the Colts have been looking for an extra end for seven years. First-rounder Hughes from TCU looks almost too good to be true in terms of matching up a skill set with a Colts’ model for a position. He couldn’t have landed in a better spot, playing with and learning from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Riskiest move

Tyson Alualu at No. 10 caused a big stir and raised questions about the Jaguars’ inability to move down. The defensive tackle would likely have still been available later, and the 11th, 12th and 13th picks all got deals right after their selection.

Gene Smith went very heavy on small schools and low profile programs -- Central Arkansas, Murray State, Southern Illinois and James Madison. But it’s Alualu, more than anyone, that will make or break his regime’s reputation. Will the scouts who shook their heads and dropped their jaws at the pick be surprised and revise their opinion or be proven right?

[+] EnlargeKareem Jackson
Chris Williams/Icon SMIJackson didn't miss any time with injuries as a three-year starter for Alabama.
Most surprising move

They are touting the championship pedigree of first-round cornerback Kareem Jackson from Alabama, but Kyle Wilson and Devin McCourty were still on the board. If Jackson doesn’t pan out well for a team thin on talent at corner, they could regret the decision.

I think the Texans had really settled on Ryan Mathews being the guy and may not have recovered after San Diego jumped all the way up to 12 to get him. They had plenty of time to recover and re-examine, but went with Jackson, who was rising on a lot of boards as they draft drew near. There is a gaping hole he needs to help fill, and there will be a lot of second guessing if he doesn’t -- particularly if Wilson and/or McCourty play big.

File it away

Based on their conference call media conversations and the inclusion of a math whiz from UCLA (Alterraun Verner), a Rhodes Scholar from Florida State (Rolle) and an Ivy League defensive tackle from Brown (David Howard), the Titans drafted a smart class.

It’ll be a wonderful thing in meeting rooms and interview sessions. And there shouldn’t be a lot of kids confused when they first dig into the playbook. But if the brains don’t translate into the games, it won’t matter.

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