NFL Nation: Colin McCarthy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans linebackers played well in the first month of 2013. They gradually deteriorated from there.

It wound up an awful year for the group, where Akeem Ayers started 14 games, Zach Brown started 13, Moise Fokou 12, Colin McCarthy five and Zaviar Gooden one.

[+] EnlargeZach Brown
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsZach Brown and the Titans linebackers are ready to put a frustrating 2013 behind them.
Collectively, they had six sacks, three interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Brown and McCarthy clearly had troubles with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and/or first-year linebacker coach Chet Parlavecchio. Parlavecchio was an immensely likeable guy and a close friend of Mike Munchak’s. But he was almost certainly cast as a position coach too soon, and was unable to squeeze consistency and improvement out of the group.

McCarthy said he, Ayers and Brown gave the Titans an injection of young talent in the past few years.

“It was tough to be successful to say the least,” he said of 2013. “A lot of linebackers battled with different things, and a lot of guys weren’t happy. But I think with the changes Ruston Webster made, bringing Coach (Ken) Whisenhunt, with the defensive coaches we have now, it’s a breath of fresh air. Guys are excited, me in particular.”

The best guys will play and these coaches will shoot players straight, not tell them what they want to hear, McCarthy said.

“I put last year behind me,” Brown said. “With our coaches now, we communicate a lot more [so] the players have a better time in communication with people. Last year everybody was just kind of looking out for himself. This year is different.

“Everybody’s a team. You feel it in the building, the atmosphere has changed.”

Brown became symbolic at the end of last season, benched, confused and disenchanted with the coaches.

“I’m anxious to play again, because last year before I got hurt I think I was leading the league in tackles,” he said. “I want my name to be up there at the top, along with our defense ...

“I do honestly feel that they did use me as a scapegoat last year, but I really can’t do nothing about me playing. Them sitting me down, it wasn’t my fault. If you’re going to sit down one of your best players, there isn’t anything I can do about it. All I could do was sit and watch.”

McCarthy’s got an injury history and fell behind with a tweaked hamstring that cost him most of training camp.

“Once I did that I was kind of put aside, I got moved around a lot, I got told a lot of different things and things didn’t happen,” McCarthy said. “Frustration kicked in Week 11, Week 12 and just with the way we were doing, it was a tough year ...

“(Now), I’m being positive, I’m excited about the change."

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 20-16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars:

Munchak
Injury talk: A year ago the Titans suffered a slew of injuries on the offensive line, and it was often difficult for them to field a functional group. That’s a bad scenario, suffering multiple serious injuries at the same position. Otherwise, you’re like most other teams. Mike Munchak continues to talk as if the Week 1 knee injury to running back Shonn Greene was season-altering. It’s great that Greene is feeling good and making a contribution, but losing him for a stretch and then not having him at 100 percent shouldn’t have had such a big bearing on this team. Losing quarterback Jake Locker was big, of course. But otherwise the Titans have had a pretty healthy season. Yes, Brian Schwenke’s ankle injury has lessened the rookie center’s game. But the idea that the line hasn’t had sufficient time to jell because of dings is way overstated. Injured/altered lines in Seattle and Miami have functioned well enough, no? There are banged-up guys on the rosters of all the teams the Titans are playing, too. Munchak looks primed to oversell injuries as part of the reason his team hasn’t lived up to his promise of not disappointing fans this season. Tommy Smith and Ruston Webster shouldn’t put too much stock into that. And Munchak shouldn’t expect perfect health if he’s coach in 2014.

Reinforcement: Here’s hoping a successful game against a bad team doesn’t do much to prompt ownership to buy in to antiquated thinking where the Titans continue to want to be predominantly a run team. There is a place for the running game and dangerous backs. But Tennessee has overemphasized it with limited success, and running against a bunch of Jaguars backups shouldn’t fuel the continued dedication to the approach in a passing, quarterback league. The Titans need to focus on quarterback above all else, not further commit to the desire to throw it when they want to as opposed to when they need to.

Shuffling backers: In the two previous games, the Titans gave a large share of the weakside linebacker work to rookie Zaviar Gooden. Sunday he was inactive. Munchak said the team decided to sacrifice a linebacker for an extra receiver as they thought the heat would have a bearing on the wideouts. They also wanted to see Colin McCarthy play the weak side. That’s fine. But it looks like they are having trouble making up their minds about who their best guys are. And that’s a significant problem in Week 16.

Confusing use: I’m a giant believer in maximizing threatening weapons. Jackie Battle is the Titans’ third running back for a reason, and he’s not at all threatening as a pass-catcher. Maybe give him some snaps in passing situations to lessen the pass-protecting responsibilities of Chris Johnson, who’s pretty good at picking up rushers. He’s playing too much, and against the Jaguars, he was splitting out wide in empty formations. I didn’t get to talk to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains after this game, but I certainly will ask him soon what makes Battle in a receiver position a good idea.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 14

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

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

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

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

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

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 11

November, 15, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at LP Field:

Foku
Missing Fokou: When linebacker Moise Fokou hurt his knee Oct. 13 at Seattle, some of us believed the Titans might be better off with Colin McCarthy plugged in at middle linebacker. It’s not as though McCarthy’s been terrible, but three of the four games without Fokou have been run-defense disasters -- 153 yards to San Francisco, 160 to St. Louis and 137 to Indianapolis. (There was a 54-yard game against Jacksonville, too.) Getting Fokou back might not be the answer, but this was a better defense when he was running it.

Special teams: Of all the moves Mike Munchak made, firing Alan Lowry might have been the biggest. Current special teams coach Nate Kaczor isn't making the mistakes, and his units have been hard-hit by the injuries, but the Titans have been far more likely to commit a gaffe on special teams than produce a play. Every team in the league should have a guy they can call up from the practice squad who can field kicks and punts and secure the ball. Devon Wylie's kick return fumble -- which was the result of him bumping into a teammate -- was an absolute killer.

Fitzpatrick
Third and short: I’m fine with the Titans’ willingness to throw in an unconventional situation. They converted an early third-and-1 with a 12-yard pass to Delanie Walker. But the second time they faced third-and-1, when they were running the ball well, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw incomplete for Kendall Wright to stall a drive after just three plays. Shouldn't a team trying to create a we-can-run-when-we-want MO at least allow for the possibility of running it by not going with the empty backfield? They went empty on a third-and-2 a bit later, and converted thanks to a roughing call against Robert Mathis.

Covering Coby Fleener: The tight end wound up with eight catches for 107 yards and was a key to the Colts’ win. The Titans have been far better against tight ends this season than the past couple years, mostly because safety George Wilson's been part of the dime and three-safety nickel packages. Wilson played one snap on defense, and the Titans defended Fleener with base and regular nickel personnel. The three top cornerbacks, free safety Michael Griffin and strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers were all involved in tackling him.
Akeem AyersAP Photo/Tom GannamAkeem Ayers Ayers had three tackles and a pass defensed in the Titans' win against the Rams.
ST. LOUIS -- For six games, middle linebacker Moise Fokou ran the Tennessee Titans' defense, wearing the coach-to-player speaker in his green-dotted helmet.

After Fokou hurt a knee in Seattle on Oct. 13, his replacement, Colin McCarthy, did the job against San Francisco.

But the Titans came out of the bye with a new player charged with the job.

Strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers called the plays and didn’t leave the field, playing as the middle linebacker in nickel during Tennessee’s 28-21 win against the Rams.

"Coach (Jerry) Gray and coach (Gregg) Williams wanted to try something different," Ayers said. "Last year we had a lot of success in our nickel package when we had me and Zach Brown as the two nickel linebackers late in the season. They just thought it would be good for us after doing a lot of self-scouting in the bye week to come out and do something different."

He played every snap at strongside linebacker in base and at "Mike" in nickel, the most he’s played all season.

I don’t know that his increased presence and role had any great bearing on the team, but it did mark a notable change.

Ayers finished with three tackles and a pass defensed. McCarthy, even playing less, led the team with nine tackles on a day when the Titans played poor run defense, allowing rookie running back Zac Stacy 127 yards on 27 carries, and the Rams 5.0 yards per rush attempt.

Turning to Ayers as the defensive play-caller and with a full-time role might have been just a one-game thing. The Rams are run-first team, and Ayers is better as a run-defender than in coverage.

With Greg Williams added to the defensive staff and the Titans still unsure of how to deploy their second-round pick from 2011, they set out this season to use Ayers as a base linebacker and a nickel defensive end, but he’s not stood out much in either role.

It still needs sorting out, and once Fokou is healthy I expect he’ll be back in the middle as the every-down linebacker and play-caller.

In the meantime, it might have given Ayers a bit of a confidence boost that the team factored him into this plan in a bigger way.

"It was a different position for Akeem to be in," safety George Wilson said. "He did an outstanding job getting us the calls, getting us lined up. Anytime you have a guy who hasn’t played it, you’re going to have a few plays where you get some calls mixed up or we don’t get a call. But that didn’t happen much at all. We were able to get lined up and keep the ball in front of us. That was the goal."

It wasn’t a good defensive day, overall. The Titans did have some good moments, however. St. Louis got the ball twice on turnovers, and Tennessee put on the brakes after the sudden changes, allowing the Rams to convert them into zero points.

And after Jake Locker's second interception looked like it would position the Rams for a clock-milking, game-winning drive, the Titans' defense got the ball back.

Jurrell Casey stripped Kellen Clemens at the Rams’ 17-yard line, Derrick Morgan recovered it at the 19, and Chris Johnson took the next play into the end zone for a 28-21 lead that held up as the final score.

"In sudden-change situations, we won on both sides of the ball," Casey said.

The Titans' defense has been reliable and consistent. But they’ve now allowed touchdowns the past six times opponents have crossed their 20 yard line, they’ve allowed more than 150 rushing yards three games in a row, and they’ve given up a 45 percent third-down conversion rate the past two weeks when it was 27 percent before that.

"For some reason, the last two games that we played, we’ve been slipping," Casey said. "So we’ve got to get back to what we were doing the first couple weeks and turn the game back around."

My 53-man Tennessee Titans roster

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

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

Quarterbacks: Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends: Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d expect Khalid Wooten on the practice squad.

Kicker: Rob Bironas

Punter: Brett Kern

Long-snapper: Beau Brinkley
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Look at the Tennessee Titans from any angle and the focus winds up on the same spot: starting quarterback Jake Locker.

The Titans did a lot of overhauling after a miserable 6-10 season. All of it puts the third-year quarterback in a better position to succeed.

“I think throwing with confidence makes a big difference, and that’s what I feel like I am doing this year,” Locker said.

The Titans parted with Matt Hasselbeck and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick as the No. 2. They are confidant Fitzpatrick can step in and win games if needed, but they have no leash on Locker. The entire organization is committed to him and believes he’s the right guy to quarterback the team to a turnaround.

“He’s really taken ownership,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can see he’s a confident guy, and that’s one thing that you really need as a quarterback. He’s really worked at his game mentally. We’re progression-based now, and he’s really trying to take it to the next level in terms of his footwork and accuracy. This whole offseason I’ve definitely seen improvement.”

Locker will be running an easier, more straightforward system. He’s got a "move" tight end in Delanie Walker (not currently healthy) who adds a dynamic the Titans haven’t had since Locker was drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011. The receivers are deep and talented. The offensive line could be a dominant group, which should mean a Chris Johnson/Shonn Greene run game will provide great balance. And the defense should get Locker the ball back more often and with better field position.

I’ve seen steady progress and more consistent play in recent practices. But he needs to carry that over into games, and he needs to address two things that might qualify as habits: a tendency to start slow, and a propensity to throw more comfortably and more accurately to his left than to his right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceThe Titans hope to give pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley a lighter workload this season.
1. The pass rush. The Titans generated a reasonable total of 39 sacks last season, with 6.5 from Derrick Morgan and six apiece from Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers. The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ran the same number of defensive plays (1,086), and they had 37 sacks.

But no single player on the Titans’ defensive front ranked as a scheme-changer that offenses had to account for before every play. And the committee work in conjunction with coverage that was far too soft, far too frequently, played a big role in allowing a league-worst 471 points.

They didn’t change a lot at end. They added size in end Ropati Pitoitua, who figures to play a lot of run downs, and depth in fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards. Ayers will be a much more regular presence as a pass-rusher, and both Morgan and Wimbley will play much less than 80 percent of the snaps, which wore them down a year ago. Does all that and a more aggressive scheme influenced by Gregg Williams turn the Titans into a more threatening pass-rushing team? I can’t say yes yet.

2. Two important coaches. Dowell Loggains took over as offensive coordinator with five games left last season, but it’s not like he could revamp everything Chris Palmer was doing. Given an offseason, he has. These Titans will be less reactive and try to dictate more, and the options routes that complicated things and counted on receivers and the quarterback to read things the same way are gone. Things are tailored to Locker now, and Loggains has more talent at his disposal than Palmer did in 2011 or 2012.

On defense, Williams returns from his year in Bountygate exile with a simple promise he expected would help him win players over: That he can make them better. He’s not the same guy he was back when he was the Titans' defensive coordinator from 1997-2000, but the season suspension certainly made him reflect and he comes back a different guy from the one who was coordinator for the Saints. I suspect he will positively impact key guys on this defense like Ayers, cornerback Tommie Campbell, safety Michael Griffin and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.

3. The offensive line. Last season was a disaster, as the Titans had to call on more depth than any team can have. But the franchise counted on coach Mike Munchak and another offensive line Hall of Famer, line coach Bruce Matthews, to develop guys. A couple they counted on who never reached the expected level are gone now, and the Titans have much better players in place of Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano.

With a line of Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Robert Turner/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack and David Stewart, Tennessee feels like it has re-identified its identity.

“If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because our offensive line is a lot better than it was last year, and we’re physical, and we’re relentless, and we’re going to move people around on both sides of the ball,” Munchak said at the start of camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

They identified last season’s issues and have addressed them all in some fashion. That’s with coaching staff alterations, changes in thinking and scheme, major player additions in free agency and a draft that looks solid. This isn’t a team that sat back and assumed that given another year of seasoning, its 6-10 record could turn into 10-6. It took action. Now we have to find out if the moves and changes total up and produce a big difference in overall outcome.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker and Chandler Jones
AP Photo/Joe HowelThe Titans need QB Jake Locker to make big strides quickly if they are to survive a tough early schedule.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The unproven quarterback and the schedule. The Titans open at Pittsburgh and at Houston, and also play San Diego, a team Tennessee always struggles with, at Seattle and San Francisco before the Oct. 27 bye. It’s impossible to predict how the competition will be. But through the first seven games, 4-3 might qualify as pretty good but might still leave them having to chase to get into playoff contention.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Campbell has looked really good, and his physical makeup is tremendous, but is he ready to handle the mental end of the job? The team wants to play more press, physical coverage, and he’s suited to do so. They hyped him a year ago in camp then didn’t trust him enough to play him. We heard even better things about him this offseason, but recently they’ve put out the word not to count out Alterraun Verner and Campbell was tentative in the preseason opener. If they can’t get Campbell onto the field given his physical characteristics, I’ll question the effectiveness of the coaches who have raved so regularly.
  • Linebacker Colin McCarthy finally climbed back into the starting unit recently, then was sidelined the very next day with a hamstring injury. He’s a good player, but he’s always dealing with something. They are prepared to go with Moise Fokou, and I expect it’ll be very much a two-down job. The Titans are relying on all defenders getting a signal from the sideline, so the coach-to-player communication device won’t be a factor that helps keep a middle linebacker on the field.
  • Undrafted kicker Maikon Bonani has a giant leg, but he has to improve his control. Rob Bironas is recovering from back issues.
  • Weakside linebacker Zach Brown came into the league facing a charge by a prominent draft analyst that he was allergic to contact. He’s been anything but, and his growth as a rookie was a bright spot. He and rookie Zaviar Gooden are blazers at linebacker who can help the Titans deal with some of the tough coverage mismatches created against other offenses.
  • I expect offenses to target strong safety Bernard Pollard in the passing game. He’s an in-the-box safety, though he bristles at conversation about his coverage skills. The Titans plan to use George Wilson also, and he’s a more sound coverage safety. Pollard has brought needed swagger. But I wonder if Wilson won’t ultimately wind up with more snaps.
  • Two eye-catching undrafted rookies at camp have been tight end Jack Doyle and defensive tackle Stefan Charles.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The coach-to-defender communication device isn’t going to play much of a role for the Titans in terms of keeping a middle linebacker on the field every down.

Maybe the starting middle linebacker, be it incumbent Colin McCarthy or challenger Moise Fokou, is a three-down player. Or maybe he’s very much a two-down player the way Barron Wortham was when Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams coached the Titans' defense together.

With second-year outside linebacker Zach Brown and third-rounder Zaviar Gooden among the fastest outside linebacker in the NFL, there could be times the Titans turn to two coverage backers. With Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard and George Wilson on the roster, there will be times the team plays three safeties -- and in many of those instances Pollard could be working as if he’s a linebacker. We may see more dime with just one linebacker on the field.

Gray, the defensive coordinator, said McCarthy or Fokou will have the responsibility of calling the defense and getting people organized.

But that doesn’t mean someone else won’t be doing the job when sub-packages are deployed, and that may be as often as it’s been since the franchise moved to Tennessee.

There are a lot of options.

And because there are, players won’t rely on a guy in the huddle to make the call. They’ll rely on getting it from the coaches themselves.

“The good thing is we’re not even using coach-to-helmet this training camp,” Gray said. “We’re signaling everything. They don’t know who’s going to signal, because we’ve got three or four guys signaling, like baseball. So if you want to video, that’s going to be out -- not a shot.

“The thing I think we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to be smarter. Because if the Mike linebacker is not there, it got us like that last year. We’ve got to learn the signals and we’re making everybody learn signals, we’re going through signal-calling meetings and those things. I think we’ve got to make sure we’re ahead of the curve, not waiting until something happens. Let’s go out and make it happen, be in front of it.”
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each AFC South team who are coming back from injuries:

Houston Texans: There isn’t an easy, obvious fit here. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing is crucial, but all indications are he’s already largely back from the torn ACL he suffered early last season and will be good to go for training camp. Receiver DeVier Posey will be lucky if he makes it back by midseason from a torn Achilles, and they aren’t counting on him for 2013. Brooks Reed had groin surgery and Daryl Sharpton is still recovering from a hip operation. But the most uncertainty seems to involve right tackle Derek Newton. The Texans drafted Brennan Williams in the third round to have a viable alternative to a guy who had serious knee surgery after the season.

Indianapolis Colts: Josh Chapman was a fifth-round pick in 2012, available there because he was recovering from a serious knee injury. Some Colts fans, while they clearly wanted Chapman healthy and on the field, turned his absence into a bit of a punch line regarding the degree of hope being pinned on the nose tackle by some optimists: “Oh, Josh Chapman will fix that when he’s back.” Well he’s back now, working as the starting nose tackle, a position where the team has some depth with guys who have played the spot in a 3-4 front. Chapman can offer a nice boost to a defensive front if he is recovered and durable.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is likely to be the team’s top offensive weapon again, provided he makes it all the way back from a serious Lisfranc injury in his right foot that cost him 10 games last season and ultimately required surgery. His extensive rehabilitation is ongoing. This week at OTAs, The Florida Times-Union reported he was running 30-yard dashes at three-quarter speed. "Lately it's been one day on, a day off, two days on, a day off -- it's part of the process," he said. "I'm closer than I think. I just want to take my time and make sure we do it the right way." The Jags need his production. He needs a big year because he's in the final year of his deal.

Tennessee Titans: Right tackle David Stewart broke his right leg in Week 13 against Houston. He’s expected to be fine for camp, and perhaps even the team’s June OTAs and minicamp, but he said recently at a team event that he still had a little bit to go. He’s been a durable guy for them. But they took a look at Eric Winston after the draft. Such a visit can mean nothing, or it can mean they would be willing to put Stewart into a competitive situation. I rank Stewart ahead of middle linebacker Colin McCarthy because the team can be OK with Greg Jones or Moise Fokou as a run-down middle linebacker. If Mike Otto and Byron Stingily wound up the right tackle on a largely rebuilt offensive line, it would create a bigger question mark.
The Titans' selection of Zaviar Gooden in the third round confused me a bit.

The Missouri linebacker was the fastest player in his position in the draft, but the Titans just drafted that guy last year in Zach Brown.

Given some time to consider the move, I can envision a smart way to use him if he’s ready to play on defense as a rookie.

Last year, linebacker injuries meant the Titans often used a nickel linebacker who wasn’t part of the base defense. I suspect they may go that direction in 2013 -- by choice.

Akeem Ayers may blitz plenty out of three-linebacker sets. But he may move up and function some as an end in rush situations. Or, he could yield to Gooden in nickel when the Titans look to get their best, fastest coverage backers on the field.

Ayers was typically off the field in nickel last season.

Injury-prone middle linebacker Colin McCarthy would be protected by being on the field a bit less when healthy. He probably should be the first backer off the field when an extra defensive back comes on.

So there is room for Gooden to play on defense, even at the start. And the Titans can now withstand an injury to Brown.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If Zaviar Gooden looks sort of familiar, there is a good reason.

The Titans drafted a different version of him last year named Zach Brown.

Brown was selected 52nd overall in the second round.

Gooden was selected 97th overall in the third round.

There is nothing wrong with adding an additional, fast outside linebacker. But it’s not the position of most concern in the Titans' linebacking corps. That would be an alternate middle linebacker, as Colin McCarthy is injury-prone and can miss time.

Veteran addition Moise Fokou can play any spot, but depth is paramount in the middle.

Maybe the Titans could have gone a different direction here, and concentrated on a linebacker capable of playing in the middle later. Or perhaps they’ll draft that guy too.

Gooden ran a 4.47 at the combine, and says he ran a 4.34 at Missouri. It should help make him an excellent special teamer, and it should mean if Brown is hurt and misses any time the Titans are OK at linebacker.

The third round seems a little early for filling those roles.
The accuracy of unofficial depth charts varies team to team. Non of them mean a ton in April.

But the Titans have one out as part of their pre-draft news release.

Five of the free-agent additions are listed as starters: Tight end Delanie Walker, left guard Andy Levitre, right guard Rob Turner, defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill and safety Bernard Pollard.

Where the other additions are listed:
The team’s first round draft pick could displace someone for sure, and the second-rounder could, too -- though unofficial depth charts typically honor veteran players and wait for kids to pay dues before they get their rank confirmed on paper.

Find the whole depth chart here.

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. 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.

Key injuries in the AFC South

December, 14, 2012
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A look at the key injuries and what they mean in the AFC South…

Colts

Safety Tom Zbikowski, right tackle Winston Justice, inside linebacker Kavell Conner, center Samson Satele and running back Delone Carter are out.

Of the new missing guys, replacements will be right tackle Jeff Linkenbach, inside linebacker Pat Angerer, center A.Q. Shipley and running back Mewelde Moore.

Jaguars

Running backs Rashad Jennings, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jordan Todman, cornerback Aaron Ross and defensive end George Selvie are out. Montell Owens will start at running back again.

Austin Pasztor is expected to start at let guard, where Mike Brewster is done for the season and Eben Britton is seemingly out of chances. Receiver Cecil Shorts is expected to play.

Texans

Outside linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Alan Ball are out. Whitney Mercilus will continue to work as the outside linebacker replacing Reed.

Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton, safety Glover Quin (hip) and right tackle Derek Newton are questionable. Quintin Demps would replace Quin.

Titans

Designations come tomorrow since they play Monday night. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is not expected to play and Tim Shaw would start for him again. Receiver Damian Williams and end Scott Solomon also missed Friday practice.

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