AFC South: Will Witherspoon

In early March, I outlined a five-category plan for offseason moves for each team in the AFC South.

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

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

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

What I got right:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I got part right, part wrong:

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

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

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

Warmack was the pick at No. 10. The corner arrived in the form of third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson. The additional safety and running back came in free agency, not the draft, with Bernard Pollard and Shonn Greene.
A review of the best member of the 2012 Tennessee Titans who’s still unsigned:

Will Witherspoon was a good guy in the Titans' locker room and there were Sundays when he was a good linebacker. But he was not as big a leader as the Titans may have expected when they signed him in 2010 and he was not as consistent a player as they needed him to be.

In three seasons in Tennessee he started 35 games. But in his final season he started only five and was much more of a role player.

It was his 11th season and the Titans needed to go younger and find more consistency in a veteran linebacker who could play more than one position.

Moise Fokou was signed as a free agent and could be that guy and Zaviar Gooden was drafted in the third round to back up Zach Brown on the weak side and perhaps take on a role in the nickel package.

Witherspoon said he wants to play 15 years. So far he hasn’t found a team that wants to give him No. 12.

Among others still unsigned: Guard Leroy Harris, safety Jordan Babineaux, cornerback Ryan Mouton and running back Javon Ringer.

Reassessing the Titans' needs

April, 2, 2013
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We need to reserve judgment on just how well the Titans did with their free-agent haul. Several of their key additions -- like tight end Delanie Walker and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill -- are expected to graduate into bigger roles with their new team.

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.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pollard
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Titans signed safety Bernard Pollard, hoping the former Raven can add fire and veteran leadership.
A review of what they needed as free agency opened, and some thoughts on what they need now.

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.
My plan for the Tennessee Titans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

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

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

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

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

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

Houston Texans

Not using the franchise tag on Glover Quin would provide some cap help for the Texans, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

As he considers the idea of a not-in-the-closet gay player in the NFL, Jerome Solomon of the Chronicle says locker rooms are far more progressive than they were even 10 years ago.

Indianapolis Colts

Five players Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star thinks could be free-agent help for the Colts when the time to shop arrives. (Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston expects the Colts to pursue cornerback Cary Williams.)

The idea that a frustrated Bill Polian once suggested trading Peyton Manning was what got the most attention out of this interview with Jim Irsay. But more interesting to me from Bob Kravitz’s piece was this: “If the Colts had picked third or lower in the (2012) draft, Manning would still be a Colt, and the team would have drafted his heir apparent later in the draft. One guy they loved: Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson.”

Chappell starts position-by-position video looks at the pre-free agency Colts with quarterbacks.

Jacksonville Jaguars


Like the Jaguars, the Chiefs are starting over. But the teams are taking different approaches to addressing quarterback, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah is more appealing to John Oehser of jaguars.com than Florida State’s Bjoern Werner based on what the team wants to do.

Tennessee Titans

In a second go-round with the Titans as tight ends coach, George Henshaw expects to help boost Jake Locker’s completion percentage by giving him more easy options, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Will Witherspoon is staying busy while seeing what happens next, but the Titans could well go a different direction in seeking a veteran linebacker, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Players react to proposed new calendar

February, 22, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFLPA seems unlikely to grab on to the NFL’s most recent trial balloon.

Adam Schefter reported the NFL would like to shift the offseason calendar: Pushing the combine into March, free agency into April, and the draft into May.

The plan would help the league take more ownership of the sports landscape in the offseason.

But it would mean free agents would have to wait on millions of dollars in signing bonuses, and it’s hard to imagine the union agreeing to that.

I did a quick survey of some players from the AFC South this morning.

Here are their thoughts on the idea.

Jerraud Powers, Colts cornerback and pending free agent: "I don’t like what the league would be trying to do. I’m a strong believer if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If anything, I think they should push everything up so teams can have plenty of time to prepare for the next season with everything in place."

Duane Brown, Texans left tackle: “I think that would be good and bad for the incoming guys. More time to prepare after their final game, but also less time to make the transition to their new teams after the draft. I think it would be best to keep it the way it is.”

Uche Nwaneri, Jaguars right guard: “I think it will allow young players who are recovering from injuries a bit more time to prepare for the combine. I'm guessing it will benefit the fans more than anything, it will streamline the NFL offseason and keep football on the minds of fans with no interruptions. … Shorter amount of time to acclimate to new teams and new cities would not bode well for FAs. I can see that FAs will be sitting in limbo for four months, gives teams a bit more leverage especially leading into OTAs and minicamp. Guys will have to make quick decisions as to who to sign with. Never good to rush a decision.”

Will Witherspoon, Titans linebacker, pending free agent: “I think it could be a good thing, especially for guys going back to school.”

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
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The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.

Rapid Reaction: Titans 14, Jets 10

December, 17, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thoughts on the Titans’ 14-10 victory over the Jets at LP Field:

What it means: The end of a three-game losing streak for Tennessee (5-9). Coach Mike Munchak can use a solid finish to prevent owner Bud Adams from considering a change after the season. Chris Johnson sprinted to a 94-yard touchdown that gave the Titans a lead in the first half. After the Jets pulled ahead in the third quarter, Jake Locker engineered what was probably the best drive of his young career and ran in from 13 yards out for what stood up as the winning score. The result knocked the Jets out of the AFC playoff picture.

Bad times for bad punts: Brett Kern shanked a punt out of the Titans' end zone to give the Jets some great field position late in the third quarter. New York drove 35 yards to a Mark Sanchez-to-Jeff Cumberland 17-yard touchdown pass. Linebacker Tim Shaw was in range, but had his back turned to the ball. Then, with 47 seconds left in the game, Kern punted 19 yards out of his own end zone, giving the Jets the ball at Tennessee's 25. Sanchez couldn't scoop up a low shotgun snap on the next play, running back Bilal Powell kicked it and Tennessee linebacker Zach Brown recovered it.

Rocky ground: While Locker made enough plays to win and got a bit of a signature drive, he missed on a lot of throws. He was long on multiple deep throws where receivers didn’t have a chance. Early in the fourth quarter with Kendall Wright open deep, Locker was late and short, allowing two defenders to get back in the play and break it up. Wright wound up getting hurt as he landed awkwardly on top of Antonio Cromartie.

Another injury: The Titans were already playing four replacement offensive linemen. They lost center Kevin Matthews late in the first quarter to a sprained right ankle. Kyle DeVan, who has been on and off the roster numerous times this season, played the rest of the game.

An awful number: The Titans committed a season-high 14 penalties for 111 yards. None was bigger than a personal foul against linebacker Will Witherspoon that extended a Jets drive near the end of the fourth quarter. Witherspoon was bailed out by Michael Griffin's interception on the first play after the two-minute warning, Griffin's second pick of the game.

Four picks: Tennessee made sure Sanchez’s miserable season stayed miserable, as Jason McCourty and Griffin each intercepted him twice.

What’s next: The Titans travel to Green Bay for their last road game and their final game against the NFC North. They’ve lost to Minnesota and Chicago and beaten Detroit.

Rapid Reaction: Colts 27, Titans 23

December, 9, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Thoughts on the Colts’ 27-23 win over the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: The Colts ensured a winning season, moving to 9-4 and staying in ideal position for an AFC wild-card berth. They are still in play for the division title and would benefit if the Texans lose Monday night in New England. The Titans assured themselves of a losing season, falling to 4-9. They have yet to win a game in the AFC South and have only one more chance -- on the last day of the regular season against Jacksonville.

What I liked: The Colts’ ability to come from behind, as has so often been the case. They were down 20-7 at the half and rallied to take leads of 21-20 and 24-23. Andrew Luck was under all kinds of pressure and made some mistakes, including a big pick-six to Will Witherspoon (that looked to have been aided by a missed call). But once again, he engineered the drives the Colts needed. And the defense produced as well, with a crucial interception and 3-yard return for a score by Cassius Vaughn and another pick from Darius Butler, which just about sealed the result.

What I didn’t like: Referee Pete Morelli and his crew didn’t have a great day. I felt like they let defensive backs get away with being handsy on receivers often -- particularly on early third-quarter Colts throws to Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and a Titans pass for Nate Washington a bit later. Bigger than that was Witherspoon’s second-quarter 40-yard interception return. Luck should have swallowed it, but as he was being taken down by Derrick Morgan he tried to throw it and put it right in Witherspoon’s gut. When a very good freeze frame finally was shown -- and showed Luck with a knee down and the ball still in his hand -- Morelli had already ruled that the play stood.

What I didn’t like, Titans: Following a disastrous outing against Houston last week, Jake Locker played a really nice first half for Tennessee, hitting on 15 of 20 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. But he threw a terrible pass for Washington coming out of his own end zone that Vaughn jumped for a score, then threw behind Washington to Butler for a pick that set up Adam Vinatieri’s 40-yard field goal that made it 27-23 with 3:48 to play.

Injury issues: The Colts lost center Samson Satele (ankle) and right tackle Winston Justice (biceps) during the game, and neither returned. That put reserves A.Q. Shipley and Jeff Linkenbach on the field. Running backs Delone Carter and Robert Hughes couldn’t finish, which left Vick Ballard as the lone healthy back for much of the second half. Inside linebacker Kavell Conner suffered a hamstring injury on a late special-teams play. For the Titans, tight end Jared Cook didn’t finish.

What’s next: The Colts finally face the Texans with a trip to Reliant Stadium to face the division leaders for the first of two meetings in three weeks. Tennessee hosts the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The beat up Tennessee Titans offensive line only has one lineup change, and we knew that was coming on Friday. Right guard Leroy Harris (right knee) is out, and veteran backup Deuce Lutui will play for the Titans for the first time.

Right tackle David Stewart’s got a bad right knee, left tackle Michael Roos is two weeks removed from an appendectomy and center Fernando Velasco was just cleared coming off a concussion.

But they are all in the starting lineup.

It’s not a good day to be beat up on the offensive line, as the Bears' defensive front is a tough matchup.

The complete list of inactives follows.

Titans
Bears

Assessing the injury news

October, 26, 2012
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The primary injury developments that will impact Sunday’s games involving the AFC South.

Colts

Defensive lineman Fili Moala will miss his third consecutive game with a knee injury, so Drake Nevis will start in his place. Linebackers Robert Mathis (knee) and Pat Angerer (foot) are questionable and will be game-time decisions. I presume Angerer has a better chance but won’t be surprised if both play. Running back Donald Brown and nose tackle Martin Tevaseu are also questionable.

Titans

Left tackle Michael Roos, who had his appendix removed Monday, is out and Mike Otto will replace him in the starting lineup. Look for tight end Craig Stevens to line up and frequently help Otto against Dwight Freeney. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy (ankle) and reserve linebacker Will Witherspoon (hamstring) are questionable.

Jaguars

Running back Maurice Jones-Drew (foot) and safety Dwight Lowery (ankle) are out. Rashad Jennings starts for MJD and Chris Prosinski is in line to replace Lowery for a second week. Special teams ace Montell Owens (shoulder) is doubtful. Cornerbacks Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis, fullback Greg Jones and receiver Laurent Robinson are all questionable. They really need Cox to play.

Assessing the injury reports

September, 14, 2012
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What we know about Sunday’s lineups based on Friday’s injury reports:
  • Jacksonville will be without outside linebacker Daryl Smith, right tackle Cameron Bradfield, running back Rashad Jennings, defensive ends Austen Lane and George Selvie. Smith is a big absence, especially considering the way the Jaguars struggled to tackle. Corner Derek Cox (hamstring) is questionable and could help in that department as well. Left guard Eben Britton (ankle) is also questionable. With Bradfield out, we’ll see Guy Whimper (or, if they surprise us, waiver claim Troy Kropog) on the right side. Undrafted rookie interior lineman Mike Brewster wasn’t bad last week when called into duty.
  • The Texans have 12 players listed as probable and are in pretty good shape. Outside linebacker Bryan Braman (hamstring) is questionable. His absence could affect special teams, but barring injuries to front-liners it won’t affect the defense.
  • The Titans will be without play-making middle linebacker Colin McCarthy (ankle), with Will Witherspoon shifting to the middle and Zach Brown and/or Zac Diles on the weakside. They should get much-improved defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks back from a knee injury. San Diego won’t have nickel corner Shareece Wright and will use Mike Harris at left tackle with Jared Gaither (back) out. Harris should mean a favorable matchup for pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley.
  • Dwight Freeney is out for the Colts, which means Jerry Hughes and perhaps Mario Addison will work as the rush linebacker in the 3-4. Major drop off. Left guard Joe Reitz (knee) is out again, so we could see Seth Olsen again or newcomer Trai Essex. T.Y. Hilton is probable and should get some return work as well as receiver snaps. Austin Collie, still coming back from a concussion, had a setback and is doubtful. The Vikings don’t have anyone listed as a starter categorized as worse than probable.

Camp Confidential: Tennessee Titans

August, 14, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Like everyone in the NFL, the 2011 Titans were hurried together.

Unlike most other teams, they were hurried together by a new coaching staff.

Mike Munchak’s coordinators -- Jerry Gray on defense and Chris Palmer on offense-- had to show patience and restraint. They brought exciting new ideas to Nashville, but they weren’t able to implement much of them in the wake of the lockout. The personnel could only be revamped so much, but more importantly they didn’t have much time.

No offseason, no organized team activities and no minicamps meant sticking mostly to basics.

Now, they say, after a full offseason together, they’ll show us far more.

Whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker is at quarterback, we’ll see Palmer implement run-and-shoot concepts while using two tight ends or a fullback. He’ll look to regularly threaten teams deep with what can be a great compliment of pass-catchers: Kenny Britt (presuming he’s healthy and available), Nate Washington, rookie Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Chris Johnson, Jared Cook and Taylor Thompson.

If the evolution into more of a passing offense pans out, Johnson should get more space when he takes a handoff, and that should help him rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. He’s looked better after participating fully in the Titans' offseason activities for the first time.

Defensively, Gray is looking to allow some players to excel in narrow roles in specific situations. Akeem Ayers, for example, should get to show off his rush skills by lining up as an end in a special rush package. Ideally, free safety Michael Griffin will play more in center field, where he's best.

Do Palmer and Gray have enough people to do what they want? And does what they want to do work? Progress seemed steady in the first couple weeks of camp, but there are still questions to answer.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The quarterback battle: It hasn't drawn the spotlight one might have expected, because it’s friendly and doesn’t pit good versus evil on any level.

The Titans drafted Locker eighth overall in 2010 to be their starter -- for a long time, they hope. It’s not a matter of if he gets into the lineup, but when. If he can take advantage of game situations to show improved accuracy and make plays from the pocket as well as on the move, Locker certainly has a chance to displace Hasselbeck now. He was better by at least a bit in the preseason opener and will start the second game Friday night at Tampa Bay.

But the team feels it’s going to compete for a playoff spot now, and the younger, less experienced quarterback comes with a learning curve. If coaches feel Hasselbeck has a mastery of the offense and is playing effectively, it might be difficult to make the switch heading into an opening month that looks very challenging.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Wade PayneLinebacker Kamerion Wimbley looks to be an asset on the field and in the locker room.
The pass rush: Everything the Titans' defense wants to do can blossom out of a more productive pass rush. Gray came to the team determined to beef up the D and get back to run-stopping basics. The Titans certainly want to maintain that theme, but they need a better pass rush to go with it.

They hired Keith Millard to coach not a position but a skill: rushing the passer. I like the concept, but Millard was in Tampa last year and they were a bad pass-rush team. It also has to make you wonder a bit about the pass-rush education defensive linemen were getting from position coach Tracy Rocker.

Kamerion Wimbley looks like a potential difference-maker, but the other projected/expected starter at end, Derrick Morgan, is hardly locked in as a threat yet. He’s been working behind 2011 practice-squader Pannel Egboh recently.

The interior includes very intriguing rush guys in Karl Klug and rookie Mike Martin, and has some depth. Ayers is slated to scoot up and work as an end in some nickel situations, perhaps shifting Morgan inside. However, what hear about Ayers' versatility and what I see from him don’t match up yet.

Britt: A suspension under the personal-conduct policy is looming for Britt after a DUI arrest at a military base. He has not shown he's learned from mistakes and turned into a better decision-maker. And he’s still on the physically-unable-to-perform list, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered early last season and subsequent cleanup procedures. When healthy and available, Britt is an absolutely tantalizing receiver who can make everyone else’s matchups more advantageous.

His recent rehab work makes him look close to ready. His recent meeting with the commissioner makes us expect an announcement soon about some time on the shelf. Once that’s over, he has to settle down and show up every week while not giving the team cause for concern when he’s away from the facility.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

One big reason the Titans didn’t think cornerback Cortland Finnegan was worth the money he got as a free agent from St. Louis is that his brand of professionalism didn't match up with the team's. Finnegan was beyond feisty at times, and a surly mood and an ego that prompted him to leave the team for a day during camp in 2011 in a contract dispute weren’t things the Titans could overlook.

Know what to do and do it. That’s Munchak’s basic requirement of his players. In guard Steve Hutchinson and Wimbley, the Titans added two more standard-bearers of a message other players should continue to respect and respond to.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Estimating who will be good and who won’t in advance of a season is fraught with peril, but it’s hard not to do. Look at the Titans' first four games and it’s hard not to foresee trouble. The Patriots visit on opening day; any game against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is a major challenge. Then a trip to San Diego, where the Titans have long struggled. Detroit brings burgeoning quarterback Matthew Stafford to Tennessee before the Titans travel to Houston to face the division favorite.

With their current questions, it’s hard to envision the Titans ripping off a good start against that early schedule. But the league’s unpredictability is its best feature, so the quality of that four-pack is not written in permanent marker.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • The Titans have invested a lot of time and energy into Rusty Smith, and I don’t doubt they like their third quarterback. It’ll be hard to justify a roster spot for him, though. Third quarterbacks are a luxury, and both Locker and Hasselbeck should be on the team in 2013.
  • Johnson seemed to be back to form in practices, but it’s hard to gauge running backs in practices. He was awful in limited action in the preseason opener at Seattle, failing to press the hole and appearing completely disinterested in the passing game, where he had two drops. That was enough to officially put him back in the “major concern” department for me.
  • Dave Ball contemplated retirement after dealing with another concussion last year. He had another early in camp and is likely fading on the depth chart while missing time. Egboh should be the third end, and guys like rookie Scott Solomon and veterans Leger Douzable and Keyunta Dawson give the Titans some alternatives.
  • [+] EnlargeMike Martin
    Jim Brown/US PresswireRookie Mike Martin helps with pass rushing depth -- and could yet displace veteran Shaun Smith.
    Beau Brinkley is in line to be the long-snapper. The rookie right end out of Missouri takes over for veteran Ken Amato, who was not re-signed after filling the role since 2003. So far, so good for Brinkley, who’s been invisible through camp and a preseason game, which is what you want from a guy in that role.
  • Martin, a third-round pick from Michigan, has gotten some work with the first team and figures to be another piece in a talented group of interior linemen. Though he gives up nearly 20 pounds to Shaun Smith, he could help knock the veteran off the roster. Smith has worked hard at becoming more of a penetrator and turned quiet rather than being the boisterous guy of last season, but his changes may have come too late. The Titans brought him in last year as they tried to get bigger, but had to know he was a space-eater who wasn’t programmed to get into the backfield the way they want tackles to.
  • If Britt is healthy and somehow avoids suspension for his off-field transgressions, he certainly should be an opening-day starter. But if Britt isn't available, I won’t be surprised if Williams is ahead of first-round pick Wright against the Patriots on Sept. 9 at LP Field. Williams has become increasingly assertive and knows what to do, while Wright could need some time to bring an expanded repertoire onto the field.
  • Cook is the more explosive receiver, so he gets talked about. But the Titans’ other top tight end, Craig Stevens, is underrated. He’s a good blocker who may not have receiver speed, but can get open and make some catches when called on.
  • Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon is a quality veteran guy in the locker room. But he comes and goes as a playmaker. Second-round pick Zach Brown brings tremendous speed. I don’t think he’ll dislodge Witherspoon from the job at the start. He may earn a role in covering tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Brandon Pettigrew and Owen Daniels -- players the Titans will be game-planning against in their first month. Tennessee has had some major issues recently covering top tight ends.
  • The Titans have a find in cornerback Jason McCourty, who is going to be good as their lead guy and will help reshape the tone of the defensive backs meeting room. I actually feel better about him and Alterraun Verner as the team’s starting cornerbacks than I do about Griffin and Jordan Babineaux as the safeties. My suspicion is that good offenses are going to find plays down the middle of the field.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- We’re a small little corner of the NFL over here in the AFC South. We understand a division of relocators and expansion teams doesn’t draw the same spotlight as Tim Tebow in New York, and we generally don’t care.

But I did, naively, think that a true quarterback competition between veteran Matt Hasselbeck and kid Jake Locker would be a hotter storyline than it's been.

Slow as I am, it took me until tonight to figure out why it isn’t.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck
Jim Brown/US PresswireQBs Jake Locker, left, and Matt Hasselbeck are "two good guys going at it for the greater good of the team," one fellow Titan said.
It’s simply not sexy.

There is no good versus evil.

There is no white hat.

There isn’t even a fan favorite.

While die-hards might lean one way or the other, even they understand both options and seem to be able to handle the case for the other guy.

The Titans, of course, are used to not being a giant story and don’t particularly care how the team or the quarterback battle are covered.

As I talked about it with a few of them, though, they agreed with my thinking.

“It’s a quarterback competition, not so much a quarterback controversy,” receiver Nate Washington said.

“In a lot of situations there is always a figure involved who there is some favoritism with,” receiver Damian Williams said. “Unfortunately, a lot of times that sort of flies under the radar, when you have two good guys going at it for the greater good of the team.”

After two bad days, Locker rebounded with a solid showing Friday afternoon (16-of-20) though one ball batted by linebacker Will Witherspoon near the line of scrimmage was picked off by safety Jordan Babineaux. Hasselbeck (13-of-15) continued to play well. I saw quick decision-making and a lot of accurate, in rhythm throws regardless of the QB in the huddle.

Hasselbeck and Locker strike the same themes as they face the same questions: They want to help each other out; they are friends, not rivals; they don’t anticipate those things changing or there being bitterness based on how things come out.

"Obviously I'll be a little disappointed that I wasn't able to do it, but it's not gong to change how I go about preparing, how I go about trying to move my career along," Locker said of a scenario in which he's not the guy.

“They actually do like each other, actually do like to help each other and root for each other a little bit,” coach Mike Munchak said. “I think they’ve both handled it well. There is going to be ups and downs for both of them. And that’s made it easier. The hard part is that only one can play.”

As for the limited scope of the story, Hasselbeck is willing to raise his hand and take a good share of the blame.

“Being irrelevant in Green Bay and then being sort of in the witness protection program in Seattle, I’m boring, so I’m not helping the situation,” Hasselbeck said. “We’re focused on football, we’re out here trying to get better, we’re just trying to make ourselves better and trying to make our room better. And in turn that will make our team better.”

How novel.
I’m eager to hear the Titans talk about North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown, whom they just picked at No. 52.

Brown
Brown
The outside reviews are not very good. Over in our chat, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said Brown is a track star with no football acumen.

The Titans have emphasized getting bigger and are trying to improve their pass rush. It would appear Brown does neither, as he’s just over 6-foot-1 and around 244 pounds and his speed seems to lend itself more to coverage work than pass rushing.

Even if the Titans envision him in that role going forward, they’ve long been a team that likes to talk about rushing linebackers but rarely follows through. Is he going to knock veteran Will Witherspoon from the weakside spot? Or succeed him next year?

Draft analyst Mike Detillier likes Brown -- rating him second at outside linebacker behind only Courtney Upshaw and putting him as a late first- or early second-round guy. Pro Football Weekly put Brown in the top 50. Mel Kiper said he was a second- or third-round player who would create split opinions and cited instinct concerns.

Detillier wrote that Brown's acceleration upfield is "unmatched my any other linebacker," that he has "rare closing speed to the ballcarrier" and that he has "first-rate flow skills laterally and eats up a lot of ground."

While Brown could be a tease, Detillier also said that with hard work, Brown can show he "has the skills to be a special player."

Still, like a lot of people, I'm thinking Tennessee could have done better in the spot.

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