NFL Nation: Javon RInger

While the Tennessee Titans believe Shonn Greene can do more, if all goes well in 2013 he will be a niche back with an important niche: convert crucial short-yardage situations.

What does that mean for Chris Johnson?

Well, fewer carries.

[+] EnlargeShonn Greene
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesRunning back Shonn Greene had 276 rushes for 1,063 yards last season.
I’m not sure how Johnson will react to that idea. Fewer carries will probably be better for the team, but it won’t enhance his chances to get to 2,000 yards and that’s his football obsession.

On the radio in Nashville Tuesday I had a chance to ask Greene about how he expects his role will go over with CJ considering Johnson’s love for his yards.

“I haven’t talked to him about that, but seeing him play, I don’t think he needs very many carries,” Green said on 104.5 The Zone. “That guy, he’s a great football player, he’s very explosive and he can be gone with any carry. So I don’t think it’s a matter of carries. He’s very talented. So I think it’s a possibility he could still reach his goals. I’m just here to help the team win football games.”

It was a smart answer from Greene.

Given Johnson’s propensity for predictions, I fully expect him to talk about 2,000 yards yet again when the Titans reassemble. It’s a rite of spring in Tennessee. (He's already said he expects to outrun Adrian Peterson.)

So let’s look at the possibilities for Johnson with Greene on the roster.

Johnson had 358 carries in 2009 when he went for 2,006 yards, and the Titans force-fed him down the stretch.

The Titans had 378 total carries last season and 376 the year before. The most carries another Titans running back has had in those two seasons was just 59 -- by Javon Ringer in 2011.

Greene didn’t get a $2.5 million signing bonus and a three-year contract to carry the ball only 16 percent of the time the way Ringer did that season.

So let’s give Tennessee's new back 20 percent of a 377-carry season. That’s 75. Speedy quarterback Jake Locker ran nearly four times per game in his starts. Conservatively, let’s say a healthy Locker averages three runs a game for 48 total rushing attempts.

That’s 123 carries for Green and Locker, leaving 254 for Johnson if no one else gets any.

He’d have to average more than 7.8 yards per carry to get to 2,000.

Johnson averaged a career-best 5.6 yards per carry in 2009.

The highest non-quarterback rushing averages in NFL history belong to Beattie Feathers (8.4 on 119 attempts for Chicago in 1934), Skeet Quinlan (7.3 on 97 carries for the Rams in 1953), Lenny Moore (7.0 on 92 carries for Baltimore in 1961) and Hugh McElhenny (7.0 on 98 carries for San Francisco in 1952).

Like I’ve said, CJ2K 2.0 is not happening in 2013.

Cast in a lesser role, maybe Shonn Greene will be more a more impressive running back.

Cast in a bigger role, perhaps Sammie Lee Hill will be a more impactful defensive lineman.

The Tennessee Titans boosted their free agent haul to four, adding Greene and Hill to guard Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker.

Greene was a plodding back for the Jets, and while he topped 1,000 yards two years in a row for an anemic offense, he was not a very good lead back. He was very good, as John Glennon of The Tennessean notes, in short-yardage situations -- when the Jets faced second or third down and less than 3 yards to go, Greene got first downs on 23 of 26 attempts in 2012.

In Tennessee, that’s what the Titans will ask him to do: Convert short-yardage situations, and help the Titans control the clock in a 4-minute drill.

While I believe they could have found someone to fill that specialty role for less than $10 million over three years, perhaps it's a good thing they didn't wait for the draft considering their failure at the position in recent years. Outside of Chris Johnson in in 2008, they've bombed with fourth-rounder Jamie Harper, 2009 fifth-rounder Javon Ringer and 2007 second-rounder Chris Henry.

If just one of those guys was able to function in a capable complementary role, the Titans wouldn’t have had running back on their list of needs. They are probably better off getting a guy who’s shown he can convert in short-yardage. It's the yearly average of $3.33 million for a No. 2 running that concerns me. Let's see what he's guaranteed.

Hill should be an early-down run stopper who can penetrate some. At 6-foot-4, 329-pounds, he’s a bigger body than anyone the Titans have. He should be what the Titans hoped Shaun Smith was going to be when they brought him in a few years back.

The investment in a guy who’s been working behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit seems reasonable: Three years, $11.4 million, including $4 million guaranteed according to Adam Schefter.

He’ll take over the starting job vacated by Sen'Derrick Marks, an unrestricted free agent whose name we have not heard connected to any suitors yet.

The Titans are expected to introduce all four of their additions at a news conference at 6 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. CT, and I’ll share some details from there.

Friday is D-Day for CJ

February, 7, 2013
Chris JohnsonAP Photo/Joe HowellThe Titans' Chris Johnson finished with 1,243 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season.
If the Titans want out from under Chris Johnson and his $10 million base salary for 2013, they have to release him by the end of Friday.

Of that salary, $9 million locks in as a guarantee if he’s on the roster past the fifth day of the waiver period, which began Monday.

A report by The Tennessean’s Jim Wyatt before the season ended said the team had no plans to cut Johnson. Since then, coach Mike Munchak has been making moves that indicate if he’s going to go down in his third year at the helm, he’s going to go down his way. That left me wondering if things might have changed.

Then Wyatt wrote this morning that Johnson was feeling good after a recent half-hour chat with Munchak.

“I am more excited about this year than any other year after talking to coach,” Johnson said today. “I feel better about some of the things we’re going to do, and I want to be a part of it. I feel like coach Munchak wants to put the team back to some winning ways and get things going in the right direction. I feel good about it.”

The most likely scenario is that the Titans look to add a big back and return to the shared-workload system they ran with Johnson and LenDale White in 2008.

But a case could have been made for moving on from Johnson, and I think there was a time Munchak would probably have liked to do so.

They can afford that salary. Ultimately, it should be framed as more of a philosophical debate than a financial one.

The Munchak-Johnson conversation indicates the decision has been made.

But it's worth considering what needed to be considered:

Home run threat: Johnson can break off huge runs, and that’s where his big value comes from. He has six career touchdowns of 80 yards or more. No other player in league history has more than three. That’s incredible, and those runs do a lot for a team. Still, if the rest of his runs are attempts to find that home run and don’t put the Titans in an advantageous down and distance, is that a sufficient trade-off? I tend to say no.

Now if Johnson is changing it up with a more physical guy who can convert third-and-2 more regularly and do more to ensure the Titans aren’t in second-and-12, that changes. Johnson is largely a boom-or-bust guy. Five years of featuring a boom-or-bust back has produced just one playoff team -- not that it’s the lone factor.

Consider that the team’s primary back in its prime years since the move to Tennessee was Eddie George, and the frequent lament was that he couldn’t break away for a big play. Now the lament with Johnson is that he isn’t productive enough down to down. See how a team can wind up in a no-win situation?

You’re rarely going to get the best of both worlds, and you don’t need a guy who can give you both to win.

So given a choice between a home run threat who’s going to strikeout more often or the style they had with George where, in his prime, he was pretty good at getting a couple yards, what do they prefer?

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireIf the Titans keep Chris Johnson, they might ask him to share carries with backup Javon Ringer or another back who isn't on the roster yet.
Replacement possibilities: Javon Ringer is coming off a knee injury, hasn’t proved himself and is a pending free agent. Jamie Harper has shown little. If the Titans moved away from CJ, the guy who would take his carries isn’t on the roster.

It’s easy to say it’s easy to find a back, that the Titans should just go get the next Arian Foster (undrafted), Alfred Morris (sixth-rounder) or Vick Ballard (fifth-rounder).

But you’d have to have an awful lot of faith in your ability to find that guy. The Titans are a team full of holes. Cutting Johnson would have created another big one, and they don’t exactly have the record of hole-filling that suggests it wouldn’t be an issue.

The scheme: Johnson did run for 2,000 yards in Mike Heimerdinger’s scheme that featured zone-running principles. Under Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator, the Titans will be more intent on returning to a similar philosophy.

It’s not the best fit for Johnson, at least not as the singular, primary ball carrier. Johnson looks to be creative in searching for room. Zone schemes call for a guy to make a cut and go, not consider and reconsider the path.

“CJ would be decent in that scheme but far from ideal,” said ESPN's Matt Williamson. “You need to be decisive and, when you see it, really hit it. And generally, that fits a bigger back. CJ can certainly hit it at times when he sees it and can take it the distance, but he is far from an Alfred Morris type that consistently churns out yardage, albeit in smaller chunks, run after run.”

If the Titans put Johnson in a timeshare, how will he react to it? My guess is not well. Will that disrupt the locker room and create a headache for coaches and management? Will it lead him to mope? It sure could.

The contract: When he was holding out in 2011, I said they needed to sign him. Most fans did, too. For a long time, the conversation was about a lack of playmakers. Well, they finally had one, and while he wasn’t at what ranks as a premium position anymore, he was the best they'd had in terms of big plays in a long time.

He got four more years worth $53.5 million with $30 million guaranteed tacked onto the two years he had remaining on his rookie deal.

There is a misperception that the Titans don’t spend. They sure spent with Johnson, and now they take heat for it. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good deal. But it hasn’t destroyed them. Keep him as is and they are fine financially, with enough room to get the other parts they need.

While he has said money didn’t change him, Johnson has been a lot more tentative since he signed that deal than he was while he was trying to position himself for that new contract.

The expectations: As Johnson campaigned for a new contract in 2011, he sold himself as not just a back but a playmaker who transcended the position. That was good for selling himself. Predicting 2,000-yard seasons consistently gets him headlines.

But what he does when he says those things is set the bar unreasonably high. He didn’t say, “I’m a playmaker, not just a running back, so long as my line is playing great or so long as I have consistency with a running backs coach.” When it circles back after the fact to those sorts of issues, they come across as excuses.

He doesn’t seem real invested. Last week as a guest on Nashville's The Midday 180 from radio row at the Super Bowl, he said there would be no bad blood if the Titans let him go. Some heard that and almost felt like he was wishing to be released. What would have come across better was, “I want to be back. I’m worth it, and I can be a big part of a big turnaround.”

For the $10 million that’s coming, it’s hardly unreasonable to want to hear that.

So do we have a verdict?

“I assume he is untradeable, but I think I would let him go,” Williamson said. “That is just so much to pay a guy that isn’t perfect for what you do at the position. Use that money on a safety or interior OL and draft a bigger RB.”

Said former Colts president and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian: “CJ cannot carry the load by himself simply because of size. … Rather than focus on system, I would focus on Javon Ringer’s health. If he can take some load off CJ as he has in the past, they become far more efficient. If his injury prevents that, then they must find an adequate replacement for Ringer.”

I’m torn about what they should have done. But I tend to think it wouldn't have been wise to create another hole. Cut him and watch him land in Detroit or somewhere else, and when he makes big plays, you’re going to take grief -- and maybe feel some, too.

I’d plan to find a guy to pair him with.

But I’m glad it wasn't my decision, or money.

Polian on AFC South's top free agents

February, 5, 2013
ESPN’s Bill Polian has a major Insider file out ranking the upcoming class of free agents.

He divided them into three tiers:
  • A Players: Worth paying big, starter-caliber money.
  • B Players: Guys I would sign but only if the value made sense.
  • C Players: Guys I'd sign for low-salary, short-term (one or two years) value, with low bonuses.

Let’s look at how Polian views free-agents-to-be coming out of the AFC South. Obviously he's got some special insight, and regard, for the Colts on this list:

A Players:

Titans TE Jared Cook

Polian: “I think he'll command some money based on his potential.”

Kuharsky: Polian mentions Cook as a franchise possibility, and I suspect that is what will happen.

Jaguars FB Greg Jones

Polian: “Can he pass a physical? And is he affordable? He is one of the few FBs who can carry the ball and do it well.”

Kuharsky: Both Super Bowl teams used fullbacks, but it’s still a position that’s fading.

Colts OLB Dwight Freeney

Polian: “I see Freeney as a fit in a Wide-9 scheme or as a 4-3 DE. I believe he still has a lot of talent, but age is definitely a concern.”

Kuharsky: He’s going to want more years than he’s going to be able to get.

Texans S Glover Quin

Polian: “If you want a safety to play man, cover ground, and go up and play in the nickel on the line of scrimmage, this is a guy who does all of that well.”

Kuharsky: Like Polian, I think the Texans will make a big push to keep Quin in Houston.

B Players:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Once upon a time, Steelers fans invaded an NFL game in Tennessee to such a large degree, it prompted a major organizational change.

In 1997, when the Tennessee Oilers played in Memphis, so many Steelers fans filled the Liberty Bowl for the team’s finale. Bud Adams couldn’t get over it.

He negotiated out of a second year in Memphis and got the team to Vanderbilt Stadium for its final year before the franchise’s new stadium was ready.

An hour before kickoff, LP Field is still largely empty. Of those in here, most are wearing black and gold.

As it fills up, it’ll be no surprise to see much more of the same.

The Titans are passing out pink towels as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a wise choice as they look to offset Terrible Towels of another color.

The full list of inactives for tonight:


Wrap-up: Vikings 30, Titans 7

October, 7, 2012

Thoughts on the Titans' 30-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field:

What it means: The 1-4 Titans are a mess, and they were inferior in every way against a team they should be on pace with as they rebuild. They couldn’t move the ball against the Vikings and they couldn’t stop the Vikings from moving the ball, and the result of this blowout was never in doubt.

What’s hard to fathom: The Titans have now given up 34, 38, 41, 38 and 30 points in their games this season. Nothing they’ve done on defense has stopped the bleeding and the return of middle linebacker Colin McCarthy from a high ankle sprain had no bearing.

Bad hit: Safety Michael Griffin was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit of defenseless receiver Michael Jenkins at the end of the second quarter. Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called for more toughness and ownership of the middle of the field last week, and suggested players shouldn't operate in fear of fines. But this was a foolish play by Griffin, who was in position to easily aim lower and make a big hit minus the penalty or the fine that is sure to follow.

A sampling of the badness: Matt Hasselbeck’s first-down scramble was challenged in the first quarter and re-spotted for a fourth down that prompted the Titans to punt. Hasselbeck absolutely telegraphed a second-quarter interception to Antoine Winfield. Defensive end Jared Allen was inexplicably unblocked on one of the Vikings’ sacks. Cornerback Alterraun Verner was a beat late to Percy Harvin on a wide receiver screen and saw it go for a significant gain. McCarthy failed to bring down tight end Rhett Ellison, slipping off the rookie to allow a big play.

Another awful injury: The Titans saw return man Marc Mariani suffer a grotesque leg injury in the preseason. They saw another one Sunday, as running back Javon Ringer was bent awkwardly on a tackle and carted off with a left leg injury.

One good thing: Rookie receiver Kendall Wright didn’t stretch the field at all, but he was far more sure than a week ago, when he had several drops, as he caught a game-high nine passes, though he took them only 66 yards.

What’s next: The Titans have a quick turnaround with the Steelers coming to Nashville on Thursday night.

Quin knocks Locker out of game

September, 30, 2012
HOUSTON -- The Titans' formation on third-and-7 from their own 12-yard line was questionable. Safety Glover Quin lined up on the defensive left and blitzed unblocked.

The play could have a major bearing on Jake Locker's growth and progress.

Running back Javon Ringer was lined up to Locker’s left in a shotgun, and Ringer ran a pass route left while Quin came from Locker’s right.

He crushed Locker, who wound up writhing on the ground after managing to maintain possession. He left the field to get checked out. The Titans said it was a left shoulder injury and labeled his return as questionable.

I feel comfortable as labeling it just short of impossible.

Matt Hasselbeck will take over when the Titans get the ball back.

Marks, Ringer are out for Titans

September, 9, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Greetings from LP Field where the AFC South blog is very excited about getting the season kicked off.

The Titans will take on the Patriots without defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks. Rookie Mike Martin will start in his spot. Also out is No. 2 running back Javon Ringer (elbow). Look for Darius Reynaud to get some work when Chris Johnson is out of the lineup, perhaps on third downs.

The Titans will have no advantage from warm weather -- it’s currently 70 degrees and the forecast says it will top out at 86.

The full list of inactives follows.


Tennessee Titans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
Click here for the complete list of Tennessee Titans' roster moves.
Most significant move: Al Afalava didn’t stick with the Colts when they were thinned out in the secondary, but he’s the Titans' fourth safety at the start. Another former member of the Indianapolis secondary, Aaron Francisco, had done some great special teams work and I thought he would win that job. Afalava may be sturdier, which could have helped his case. With end Dave Ball (concussion) and Leger Douzable (shoulder) put on IR, there was room for an additional tackle. But the Titans cut Zach Clayton in favor of DaJohn Harris on the inside rather than keeping both.

Onward and upward: Running back and returner Darius Reynaud was a big story in camp, and may have been destined to stick even before return man Marc Mariani suffered a terrible broken leg. The running back can do nice work in the screen game and should be a pretty good returner. On defense, Pannel Egboh, has floated around the practice squad circuit. Now he gets the big payoff and should get some work as the third end who takes some snaps on clear run downs while giving Derrick Morgan or Kamerion Wimbley a rest.

What’s next: The Titans third corner, Tommie Campbell, is in his second season. And beyond him cornerback depth is very inexperienced, with rookie Coty Sensabaugh and Ryan Mouton (who missed his second season hurt). A veteran corner could be a quality addition. The team is heavy at running back with Chris Johnson, Javon Ringer, Jamie Harper and Reynaud plus fullback Quinn Johnson. I’m skeptical of the need for a fullback who’s not an ace special teamer, and Quinn Johnson is not one.

Thoughts from Titans 10, Saints 6

August, 30, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A few thoughts from the Titans’ preseason finale, a 10-6 victory over the Saints at LP Field.
  • Eight of the 11 players listed as starting defenders for the Saints were scratched. No matter the extent of the game plan, the Titans' first-team offense should find yards against that lineup. Yet Jake Locker missed short (a rollout well short of Kendall Wright, but also well short of a bunch of defenders) and long (overthrowing Damian Williams on what should have been a 39-yard touchdown) and wound up with the often-standard accuracy issues. His final line was uninspiring: 9 of 16 for 81 yards and a lost fumble on a scramble. Before his final series, his average per pass play was at 3.6. To be fair, he didn’t have everyone -- starters Nate Washington, Steve Hutchinson and Chris Johnson didn’t play. Backup Matt Hasselbeck took over for Locker with 1:47 left in the second quarter.
  • I know I can misperceive patience as hesitancy. But I think second-string running back Javon Ringer was more hesitant than patient on at least a couple of his carries, which was disappointing. Chris Johnson did not play, so those Ringer carries came early and he managed all of 17 yards on six carries. First-half rushing not including Locker: 10 handoffs for 33 yards.
  • The Titans have pretty much said we can expect to see both Jordan Babineaux and Robert Johnson on the field as the team’s second safety. They were both starters against the Saints, as Michael Griffin didn’t take the field.
  • I know injury concerns trump all, but I do think teams that play starters some in Week 4 rip off ticket buyers a little less -- so the Titans had that going for them. Which is nice. Sure, people know what they are buying. No, season ticket-holders don’t have a choice but to buy preseason tickets. And they’re full price. If it’s not the biggest scam in sports, it’s a contender for the title. And I am not sure what the competition is.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some thoughts out of the Titans’ 32-27 win over the Arizona Cardinals at LP Field on Thursday night.
  • The Cardinals wanted to test out rookie left tackle D.J. Young as they look to replace the injured Levi Brown (triceps) for the season. Young failed this test, badly, as the Titans' big defensive free agent addition Kamerion Wimbley attacked him with great effect. Wimbley sacked John Skelton on his first play and Kevin Kolb on his first. He had a couple of hurries, too. The Cardinals' entire offensive line was bad in pass protection and the Titans rushed very effectively. Jurrell Casey is really turning into a well-rounded defensive tackle. He's an absolute handful.
  • Want variety? On the Titans' first four offensive plays from scrimmage, they lined up with an empty backfield, with two tight ends, with three wide receivers and with two backs. The only thing with the potential to make them predictable this season would seem to be down and distance.
  • Jake Locker was victimized by drops by Javon Ringer and Nate Washington, but finished the first half having hit on just 8 of 16 passes. Completing 50 percent, he still had a 115.6 passer rating since he had 124 yards and two TDs. Connections of 28, 29 and 35 yards have a way of helping out. He made better decisions and smartly took off a few times as he felt pressure.
  • On a first-quarter return, Marc Mariani suffered a gruesome broken lower left leg that was Theismann-esque. We’d been wondering about Darius Reynaud as someone putting pressure on Mariani for the return jobs. Reynaud comes out of the night as a lock to make the roster as the returner now because of Mariani’s misfortune. I don’t know whether Mariani would have been getting many, if any, receiver snaps at the expense of Kenny Britt (once healthy and when not suspended), Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams or even Lavelle Hawkins.
  • Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy has an excellent nose for the ball. But his two interceptions of Kolb on this night were absolute gifts. The first was thrown into an area filled with Titans, and he looked like the intended receiver on the second, which he returned for a 31-yard touchdown.
  • Aaron Francisco is a special-teams demon. I can’t see how he won’t be the fourth safety on this team, unless the Titans find better defensive depth elsewhere. If they do, special-teams coach Alan Lowry would surely shed a tear over losing Francisco.
  • Camp leg/kicker Will Batson was 3-for-4 on field goals, but accounted for only three points. He hit a 26-yarder in the fourth quarter, only to see it wiped away by a holding call against Taylor Thompson. Then Batson hit from 36... only to see it wiped away by a holding call against... Thompson. Then Batson hit from 46 and made it to the sideline without seeing a flag. Britt greeted him excitedly.
  • I don’t know what’s going on with the two-tone coloring of the Titans’ light blue uniform tops. But it’s incredibly distracting that the coloration is inconsistent from player to player. Quinn Johnson and Ringer, standing side-by-side, didn’t look like they were wearing the same jersey. Honestly. Nike, are you reading?
  • The new “Titantrons” at LP Field are really impressive. It’s a big benefit of the stadium’s open-end zone configuration. -- finding room to fit giant HD video boards wasn’t an issue. Some other buildings that might want to match these won’t have a spot for them. Stadium game productions are updated and far better. But the lyrics of "Folsom Prison Blues" on the big screens, intended to produce a sing-a-long between the third and fourth quarter, appeared to fail miserably. Put that one on the shelf.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Virtually every team has a preseason underdog emerge.

With the Titans, it’s Darius Reynaud. As a return man and running back working after starters were out, he’s done impressive work in the Titans first two preseason games.

This has generated four big questions:

  • Could the Titans keep four running backs?
  • Could the Titans create room for Reynaud by using No. 3 back Jamie Harper as a fullback once in a while, and not keep a fullback?
  • Could he beat out Javon Ringer, the incumbent No. 2 running back?
  • Could he unseat Marc Mariani as the team’s return man?
[+] EnlargeDarius Reynaud
Douglas Jones/US PRESSWIREHas Darius Reynaud has played well enough to force himself onto the Titans' roster?
I doubt Reynaud unseats Ringer, though I’d have no issue with it. Titans coaches and brass seem to love Ringer.

I doubt they abandon fullback, though it’s such a narrow, situational role I’d have no complaint about leaning on a two-tight end package more often.

I doubt he takes Mariani’s job, though I’d wouldn’t argue against that either, as I think Mariani is a bit overrated. (Mike Munchak said this week Reynaud’s made it a legit competition.)

The four running back scenario may be most likely, but to keep a fourth back that player will have to be able to contribute on special teams as a non-returner.

We’ll get a taste of whether Reynaud can do that Thursday night, when the Titans host the Cardinals at LP Field.

Special teams coach Alan Lowry said he will use Reynaud on the kickoff coverage and punt coverage teams against Arizona as the Titans get their first sampling of what Reynaud can do in that capacity.

“My sense is he can do whatever he wants,” Lowry said. “He’s a good football player. He’s got speed and strength. I hope we have enough plays, I don’t know.”

Reynaud’s previously been with the Vikings and Giants.

“Reynaud is interesting and I am not quite sure why he has never stuck anywhere,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “He is kind of like a Percy Harvin Lite. He’s real good with the ball in his hands, a running back/receiver tweener type who also can be an effective returner.”

He’s still got a good, positive attitude and knows he can play. Reynaud is not worried about all these scenarios, he’s just glad he's created them.

“My job is to make their job as hard as possible,” he said of the Titans decision-makers.

He worked in the sort of jobs he’ll have tonight on special teams when he was with the Giants. As for the return man debate, Lowery said he thought a race between Mariani and Reynaud would be close and Reynaud agreed, though he said of course he’d win.

Who would Williamson start as his return man if these were his two choices?

“I would say that is a pretty good competition,” Williamson said. “Reynaud runs lower and with more power. He might be shiftier laterally too. But Mariani has really good vision, is quick to get upfield and probably is the faster of the two. Edge to Mariani, who is also more reliable.”

Following up the Titans’ 27-17 loss in Seattle on Saturday night:

  • We’re never going to read a whole bunch into a preseason performance. But Chris Johnson did nothing against the Seahawks to make anyone think he’s turned the page from his down season in 2011. Three passes were thrown his way and they all hit the ground, two of them as drops. He turned five carries into 8 yards. The backs who followed him into the Titans huddle didn’t face the same quality of defenders by any means, but Javon Ringer and Darius Reynaud were more decisive and fared better. Eddie George and Keith Bulluck, doing commentary on the Nashville broadcast of the game, thought CJ failed to press the hole on one failed run when he could have more aggressively taken on a charging safety and chose instead to overdo it laterally.
  • Jake Locker was certainly a good notch better than Matt Hasselbeck, but don’t mark Hasselbeck down much for his two interceptions. The first was a fluke play where the ball stayed alive after bouncing up off Nate Washington on the first play from scrimmage and turned into a touchdown by Brandon Browner. The other was on a deep ball that Richard Sherman did better to go up and get than Damian Williams, and effectively amounted to a punt.
  • Tommie Campbell’s been the third cornerback for the Titans throughout camp, but he played into the second half and lost a jump ball to Braylon Edwards. Russell Wilson put it up and Edwards allowed Campbell to go by (perhaps offering some guidance with an arm), then went up and got it for a 39-yard TD. It’s likely the kind of play Campbell can learn a great deal from at this stage.
  • Showed me more than I anticipated: The defensive line overall, particularly active tackle Zach Clayton; safety Robert Johnson; rookie linebacker Zach Brown; Seattle’s backup rookie quarterback Wilson. (What a fantastic naked bootleg TD at the end.)
  • Overtime shouldn’t be possible in the preseason. Bravo to Mike Munchak and special teams coach Alan Lowry for reducing the possibility by having rookie Will Batson, rather than Rob Bironas, try a 36-yard fourth-quarter field goal that could have tied it at 20-20. He narrowly missed it right with 4:46 left in the game. Not that his coaches or teammates were wanting him to misfire.

Ranking the AFC South RBs

April, 4, 2012
With free agency slowing down and the draft quickly approaching, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson breaks down the running back situations in the AFC South.

1. Houston Texans: The Texans have the best set of running backs in the NFL in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Of course, Houston’s scheme and blocking are phenomenal, but these two are outstanding in their own right. Foster in particular would fit any scheme. He has size, excellent vision, patience, explosive traits and can be a physical player with the ability to break off long runs. Foster is also extremely adept in the passing game. He gains separation in his routes, catches the ball cleanly and is also an above-average pass-blocker. Only 25, Foster should have a lot of great production ahead of him. The Texans are banking on it after locking him up with a long-term contract right before free agency began. You could make the argument that Foster is the best running back in football right now, especially when factoring in Adrian Peterson’s injury. Tate averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry in his second season. It could be argued that he is the most effective backup running back in the league right now. He is more of a straight-line runner than Foster and doesn’t fit all schemes as well as Foster, but he is perfect for what Houston does with its movement-based zone blocking scheme. Tate is quick to get downhill, decisive and runs with power, yet like Foster, can run away from defenders. Houston is loaded at running back.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Jones-Drew
Kim Klement/US PresswireDespite facing defenses keyed on stopping him, Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for over 1,600 yards last season.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew had as good of a season in 2011 as any running back in the NFL -- and every defense Jacksonville faced keyed on stopping him. Averaging 4.7 yards per carry under his circumstances was truly a remarkable performance. Everyone makes note of Jones-Drew’s lack of size when discussing him, but he’s a very powerful runner with exceptional leverage. He might not have quite the same burst and long speed as he once did, but his running skills are as sharp as ever. He has a great history of finding the end zone and is excellent as an outlet receiver. Jones-Drew can also stand up a blitzing linebacker as well as any running back in the league. At just 27, he is on a Hall of Fame career pace. Jones-Drew’s backups are Rashad Jennings and Deji Karim. Jennings missed the entire season, but is a very good running back when right. He runs hard and has light feet for a bigger back. As mentioned above, the circumstances were far from optimal last season, but Karim’s 2.1-yard average was simply abysmal. Karim has the look of a poor man’s Jones-Drew … a very poor man’s.

3. Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson clearly had an incredibly disappointing 2011 season. He ran with little conviction or competitiveness for much of the season and too often looked to hit the home run instead of grinding out the tough yards. He improved late in the season, though, and there is no question Johnson can remain among the best players at his position. His speed has become legendary. Johnson is also a very good receiver who is lethal in space. I am not suggesting that we will see the back who exceeded 2,000 yards on the ground in 2009, but I am expecting a bounce-back season from Johnson in 2012. The Titans’ run blocking should be better and to me, Johnson is simply a much better player than what he showed on film for much of the season. There are also questions concerning what kind of shape he was in to start 2011. Javon Ringer is Tennessee’s top backup, but Jamie Harper also has ability. Ringer is much more reliable and proven, though. He runs hard with ample degrees of power and acceleration for a backup. Ringer is also an asset as a receiver and continues to improve in this area. Harper has a decent all-around skill set, but his 2.6-yard average last year is inexcusable.

4. Indianapolis Colts: Although Donald Brown has never really lived up to his first-round draft status, he was one of the few bright spots for the Colts last year. His 4.8 yards-per-carry average on the worst team in the league last season does stand out. It was by far Brown’s best season as a pro. As running backs go, I see Brown as a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none in many ways. He doesn’t have a single trait that stands out above all others, but as he showed in 2011, he is quite solid in all areas. Brown also is a decent receiver and a very good pass-blocker. Delone Carter was rather disappointing in all phases of playing the position as a rookie. He is a wide-bodied, shorter back who didn’t show the power you would expect and also wasn’t real light on his feet or agile. I still have hope for Carter, though. As is the case with fellow second-year RB Jamie Harper in Tennessee, a true offseason could do Carter a lot of good. With the gaping holes that Indianapolis has on its roster, running back is not among the top needs. But it is far from a great positional group when comparing it to the rest of the league. Perhaps the Colts will add another runner in the middle rounds of the draft.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

AFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Houston Texans

Key additions: None.

Key losses: OLB Mario Williams, RG Mike Brisiel, CB Jason Allen, TE Joel Dreessen, RT Eric Winston (cut), ILB DeMeco Ryans (traded), FB Lawrence Vickers (cut), QB Matt Leinart (cut).

Keepers and finance: Not everyone got away. The Texans managed to keep two very important players. They re-signed running back Arian Foster before he reached restricted free agency. And after he'd explored the market some, they struck a deal with unrestricted-free-agent center Chris Myers, a vital piece to a line that lost the two starters on the right side when Winston was cut and Brisiel bolted to Oakland.

Ryans was not a full-time player in the 3-4 defense, and his price tag was high. While Houston takes a $750,000 hit this season, he’s cleared from the books in the future. That will help the team as it tries to make sure players like outside linebacker Connor Barwin and left tackle Duane Brown don’t get away like Williams did.

What’s next: Depth paid off in a big way in 2011 as the Texans managed to win the division and a playoff game despite major losses. At several spots, like on the offensive line and at corner, the draft will serve to replenish the roster with the same kind of insurance.

But the Texans are not without need.

While they are likely to stick with Jacoby Jones as part of the team and like Kevin Walter, a more reliable and dynamic weapon to go with Andre Johnson at receiver is something they acknowledge wanting. A third outside linebacker can reduce the high-snap strain on Barwin and Brooks Reed. While they hope Rashad Butler will replace Winston and Antoine Caldwell will take Brisiel’s spot, adding a guy who can compete for one or both of those spots would be healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Key additions: DE Cory Redding, WR Donnie Avery, C Samson Satele, S Tom Zbikowski, G Mike McGlynn, RT Winston Justice (trade), QB Drew Stanton (trade).

Key losses: QB Peyton Manning (cut), WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jacob Tamme, C Jeff Saturday, TE Dallas Clark (cut), LB Gary Brackett (cut), S Melvin Bullitt (cut), RT Ryan Diem (retired), WR Anthony Gonzalez, QB Dan Orlovsky, CB Jacob Lacey (not tendered), QB Curtis Painter (cut), DE Jamaal Anderson, G Mike Pollak.

So much we don’t know: We know background on coach Chuck Pagano and his coordinators and we know what Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have said. But there will be a degree of mystery well into the season about what they intend to run and with whom. It’s unlikely to be a sweeping transition to a 3-4 defense, as it takes time to overhaul the personnel. But as they play a hybrid defense and move toward a conversion, they’ll need more than they’ve got – starting with a nose tackle.

On offense, they’ve said they’ll use a fullback. That’s a major departure from the previous regime. And we don’t know if a Donald Brown-Delone Carter duo at fullback will be sufficient to run behind. They need help virtually everywhere after the cap purge and free-agency turnover. Not everything will get addressed as much as they’d like in their first offseason.

What’s next: I expect more role players like Zbikowski and McGlynn, more castoffs like Justice and Stanton and more guys who are presumed finished by a lot of teams, like Avery.

They are all guys who didn’t cost much but who have upside and can help, at least as role players. And if they don’t pan out, it’s hardly a death blow to Indianapolis' major, long-term plans. Money is limited with big dead-money charges and a $19 million cap hit for defensive end Dwight Freeney the team has indicated it's willing to carry.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key additions: WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, QB Chad Henne.

Key losses: DT Leger Douzable (did not tender).

Keeping their own: The Jaguars did well to hold onto players who have been valuable to them. The top of that list belongs to safety Dwight Lowery. They traded with the Jets for him before last season, shifted him full time to safety and got good work from him before he was hurt. It was crucial for the team to stay fixed at the position where it was horrific in 2010 before signing Dawan Landry and adding Lowery.

They also re-signed defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a great effort defensive end who was overextended in terms of playing time last year. He’s no sack-master, but he’s going to bust it on every play, break through sometimes and make the opponent work hard to stay in his way. And with the lack of quality defensive ends who hit the market, the Jaguars did well to keep him from jumping to Chicago.

What’s next: Receiver has to be addressed beyond a change in position coach and the addition of Robinson. If it’s not in the first round, it needs to be early. The franchise is trying to maximize Blaine Gabbert’s chances to be a franchise quarterback, and few would be able to establish themselves with the current cast of wideouts.

The Jaguars are a top pass-rushing end away from being a top-flight defense. Can they find him seventh overall in the draft? They could tab someone like South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, though it’s hard to say he or any rookie would be an immediate solution. Most ends need some time to become impact guys in the league.

The Jaguars could certainly look to add in the secondary free-agent market and when players are set free late in training camp.

Tennessee Titans

Key additions: DE Kamerion Wimbley, RG Steve Hutchinson.

Key losses: CB Cortland Finnegan, DL Jason Jones, WR Donnie Avery.

Sidetracked: Did the Titans miss out on real chances to sign either Scott Wells, who went to St. Louis, or Chris Myers, who stayed in Houston, as their new center because they were focused on chasing quarterback Peyton Manning? Perhaps. But when the owner declares that his executives and coaches need to put the hard sell on an all-time great QB with roots in the team’s state, that’s what you do.

Ideally, the team will still find an alternative to Eugene Amano. If the Titans find a new center to go with Hutchinson, who replaces free agent Jake Scott in the starting lineup, the interior offensive line could see a big improvement. That could have a big bearing on running back Chris Johnson, provided he takes care of his own business.

What’s next: The Titans think Wimbley will excel as a full-time defensive end, but they can’t afford for him to be too full time. He’s a smaller guy who’s played mostly as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and shouldn’t be asked to play every down of every game. That means they still need more help at end, where the only other guys they have right now are Derrick Morgan and Malcolm Sheppard.

Look for them to address depth at corner -- where they feel fine about Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner as the starters, if that’s how it falls -- as well as at receiver. One wild-card spot could be running back. Are they content with Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper as changeups to Johnson, or would they like to add a big back?


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