NFL Nation: Tracy Rocker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans' secondary was good last year, so defensive backs coach Brett Maxie should have been retained.

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesLet's give Ken Whisenhunt the benefit of the doubt before judging the moves he made regarding the Titans' coaching staff.
The Titans special teams were bad last year, so special teams coach Nate Kaczor and his assistant, Steve Hoffman, should not have been retained.

That's the popular thinking for at least a portion of Titans fans who are vocal on Twitter.

It's overly simplistic and incorrect.

I thought Maxie and assistant secondary coach Steve Brown did a good job last season.

Ken Whisenhunt kept Brown but let Maxie go.

Maybe he loved Maxie's work but has someone else in mind. Maybe he didn't like Maxie's work. Maybe a coaching colleague he trusts told him something about Maxie and something different about Brown. Maybe Ruston Webster gave him different reviews of the two. Maybe he's got a list of secondary coaches he covets and thinks a new guy working with a holdover will maximize the secondary's chances to do its best.

There are a number of factors that could have come into play. Whisenhunt's not going to spell them out for us.

The same is the case with regard to keeping Kaczor and Hoffman.

It's at least a partial endorsement of their work.

Tennessee's special teams were a problem last year, though things settled down when a quality returner, Leon Washington, fell into their lap late in the season.

But while those guys were heard, they weren't ultimately responsible for Darius Reynaud starting out as returner or Devon Wylie holding the job for a bit. Look higher up the Titans organizational chart for blame there -- to Mike Munchak and Webster.

As for silly, side-spinning, tee-less onside kicks ...

Perhaps Kaczor brought the idea to the table. But the head coach is the guy responsible for the team using it. Munchak, and any head coach, holds veto power and ultimate responsibility.

Whisenhunt is a smart coach who's respected around the league and arrives with six years as a head coach on his resume.

He's taken in some info and decided to keep the special teams assistants who were in place.

Rather than immediately call it a crazy move, how about we wait and see how they do given another chance?




The list of assistants and their fates, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean:

Retained: Steve Watterson, assistant head coach/strength and conditioning; Steve Brown, assistant secondary coach; Sylvester Croom, running backs; Steve Hoffman, assistant special teams; Shawn Jefferson, wide receivers; Nate Kaczor, special teams.

Let go: Dowell Loggains, offensive coordinator; George Henshaw, tight ends; Bruce Matthews, offensive line; Brett Maxie, secondary; Chet Parlavecchio, linebackers; Dave Ragone, quarterbacks; Tracy Rocker, defensive line.

Contract not renewed: Jerry Gray, defensive coordinator; Gregg Williams, senior assistant/defense; Keith Millard, pass rush.

TBA*: Jonathan Gannon, defensive assistant/quality control; Arthur Smith, offensive line/tight end assistant.

* Wyatt says they are retained for now, but the new offensive coordinator will have a say in what direction the team goes.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mike Munchak returned Friday evening to the Music City, but the Tennessee Titans issued statements from president/CEO Tommy Smith and general manager Ruston Webster saying things are not yet resolved regarding the coach's job status.

Munchak
"I said all along that we would review every aspect of the football operations at the conclusion of the season -- in early January," Smith said. "Today I sat down with Ruston and Mike and we discussed every coach and player on the roster. We had good discussions, but no final decisions were made."

Said Webster: "The three of us met all day today in Houston. We had a good conversation in regards to the team and moving forward. Nothing final has been decided at this point, but we hope to have a decision soon."

Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean reported that Munchak will return, saying after the statements were released that Munchak has conditions but is expected to meet them.

I interpret that as meaning Munchak will sacrifice part of his staff to retain his job.

Jerry Gray has an expiring contract, but when his phone rings he's likely to be told he won't get a new deal. Munchak should be trying to promote Gregg Williams to the defensive coordinator post, but Williams is also about to become a coaching free agent.

Others who might be in trouble: offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, Munchak's best friend and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer; linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio; special-teams coach Nate Kaczor; defensive line coach Tracy Rocker; and pass rush coach Keith Millard.

I wrote previously about some of them being at risk.

I fully believe Dowell Loggains is safe if Munchak is back. The last thing the Titans need is a third offensive coordinator in three years for young quarterback Jake Locker.

If staff changes are the primary conditions for Munchak's return, the easy part may be firing assistants. Hiring quality replacements while heading toward a lame-duck season will be difficult. And there is no indication at all that Smith will consider an extension for Munchak.
Ropati Pitoitua and Sammie HillAP PhotoRopati Pitoitua and Sammie Hill add some much-needed weight to the Titans' defensive line.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Mike Munchak was promoted to coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2011, one of the first things his new defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray, talked about was the need for the team to get bigger.

The Titans had been a pretty good pass-rushing team. Smaller, quicker rushers may have been getting to the passer, but the team’s run defense had slipped. Adding stouter players would bolster the run defense and help everything, the Titans reasoned.

Heading into the third season of the Munchak regime, the franchise has made headway in getting bigger up front on defense.

“I really feel we have a lot of pieces in place that ... Jerry wanted, and the defensive staff wanted,” Munchak said. “You can’t always get what you want in this league.”

In 2011, the Titans’ 90-man roster included 15 defensive linemen who totaled 4,232 pounds.

Now they’ve got 16 who total 4,591.

The average weight per defensive player has risen from 282 to 287 pounds.

More significantly, Sammie Hill, who will start at defensive tackle, and Ropati Pitoitua, who should be in the rotation of defensive ends, are much bigger than players the Titans have deployed at those spots in recent years.

Hill joined the team as a free-agent addition from Detroit. Only undrafted guard Oscar Johnson (330) weighs more than Hill’s listed 329 on the Tennessee roster. Pitoitua is an imposing 6-foot-8. At 315, he’s the Titans' heaviest end -- by 38 pounds.

“I feel good about our size,” Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “It’s a big man’s game. They’ve made some big changes with free agency with Sam Hill, Ropati and Antonio Johnson coming in. It’s on both sides of the ball, the offensive and defensive lines.”

Antonio Johnson is listed at 310, but he said recently he’s at about 330. Rocker said the Titans want him to play at 325 or 330.

In Hill, the Titans found a young player they believe can blossom if given a bigger role than the one he had with the Lions, where he was behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Though he should draw regular double teams, he’s not simply a space eater. He’s got good feet for a man his size and is expected to penetrate and help move the quarterback off his spot, which will benefit the rush ends.

“I can get off the ball for the big guy that I am,” Hill said. “I try to be real disruptive. ... I don’t like to look at myself as just that big guy who occupies space. I like to get in there and cause havoc and disrupt the pocket and all that.”

Hill said he’s played as big as 343 and as light as 325, but doesn’t believe he’s sacrificed strength when he’s been smaller. He expects to play between 330 and 338 for the Titans. Any NFL player that size is carrying a little extra. But Hill is not fat. He said a preferred meal is a couple of baked chicken breasts with rice, and he doesn’t eat sweets.

In speaking with him, I learned that he drinks 3 1/2 to four gallons of water a day, an amount that surely would drown many of his teammates.

When you look at Pitoitua, it’s hard not to think: If the low man wins, how does he ever win?

He said his biggest disadvantage is his height, but the length that comes with it is his biggest advantage.

Said Rocker: “With him, it’s leverage. With the length of his arms, that changes the game for a lot of people facing him. And if you can recall, when the Giants played New England in the Super Bowl, it wasn’t so much that they sacked Tom Brady. There were a lot of tall people in there. You had a lot of trees in there, and it was hard for Tom Brady to complete passes. Ropati creates those things for us and can cause disruptions. We see him as a big-time run-stopper and a ball disruption guy.”

Offensive tackle Michael Otto’s been facing Pitoitua in organized team activities.

“He’s a big, strong dude,” Otto said. “He’s not somebody you’re going to blow off the ball and throw on his back. You’re fighting him the whole time, you just push. A stalemate is pretty good so long as he isn’t getting any penetration.”

If Pitoitua and fifth-round rookie Lavar Edwards (277) pan out, they can help chop down the snap counts of starting ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley. They both played more than 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season, which is far too much.

Rocker said that ideally, the Titans would be on the field 60 to 75 snaps a game, and guys such as Morgan and Hill would play 45 of them. That would be 60 to 75 percent.

Although the league is increasingly about good quarterbacks and stopping them, slowing the run helps a defense in its ability to focus on the QB.

That’s a primary reason the Titans wanted to be bigger.

They play in a division where they will see Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew twice, as well as a Colts team that is determined to run more and better.

They also will see Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore this season.

A season after giving up 4.2 yards a carry, that bigger defense needs to have bigger games when it comes to stopping the run.

AFC South wrap: The division in 2012

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans. I’ve never seen someone so disruptive up front. The guy’s got the complete package. He’s incredibly instinctive, knowing when to stop rushing and pull up, looking to bat down a pass. He also understands the lane into which a quarterback might be looking to throw. He simply manhandles some blockers -- swimming past them, bowling them backward, speeding around them or knifing between two guys. Some blockers have had absolutely no answer for him, and even if a team tried to take plays as far away from him as possible, he often tracked those plays and got involved in stopping them.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Brett Davis/US PresswireJ.J. Watt needs two more sacks to tie Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks in a season.
Early in the season he talked about wanting to redefine the 3-4 end position, which hasn’t traditionally been a stat position. Later Antonio Smith pointed out how often Watt is really lining up at tackle. He’s not likely to win MVP based on what the league’s best quarterbacks and Adrian Peterson (despite my thinking that the running back is not worthy of the award) are doing. But his ability to push an offense backward so often has been a tremendous factor in an excellent season for the Texans. The other three teams would be wise to reinforce their offensive lines, because it’s reasonable to expect Watt will be a handful for protections and run blocking for years to come.

Biggest disappointment: The pass rushes of the Jaguars and the Titans required offseason attention. Neither team did enough to find a way to disrupt opposing quarterbacks consistently. The Jaguars go into the final game of the season with the worst sacks-per-play average in the NFL and a total of only 18 sacks. Jacksonville’s big addition was second-round pick Andre Branch, who couldn’t hold onto a starting job and finished with one sack in 12 games and is on IR. The Jags played nine games in which they produced either one sack or no sacks. Tennessee has 32 sacks and is close to the middle of the pack. But it’s not enough for a defense with a lot of kids in the back seven and bad safety play. Tennessee got better results than Jacksonville from its newcomer, free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley (five sacks), but he didn’t offer the game-to-game and play-to-play threat Tennessee so desperately needed.

Joe Cullen’s been in place for three seasons as Jacksonville’s defensive line coach. He’s a good coach and motivator, but he did not get the production the defense had to have. His counterpart in Nashville, Tracy Rocker, came from Auburn in 2011 and hasn’t proved to be an effective NFL position coach. Pass-rush coach Keith Millard was brought in to help the rush and the blitz, but it’s hard to see a major difference as a result of his presence. The Titans got shredded by the best quarterbacks they faced, from Tom Brady on opening day to Aaron Rodgers last week.

Offensive player of the year, rookie of the year, fourth-quarter player of the year: Andrew Luck has thrown too many interceptions in his rookie season. His stat line is hardly cause for a parade. He dug himself some holes. But leading his team to 10 wins, seven of them in comeback fashion, and getting into the playoffs does a lot to reduce the importance of those turnovers. He showed a great talent for climbing out of those holes. He was capable of digesting everything the first time around, handling Bruce Arians’ very vertical offense, the absence of coach Chuck Pagano, an often ineffective defense and a less-than-watertight offensive line with aplomb.

Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have strong cases for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, which may never have been so hotly contested. We may see all three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs. In the AFC South, Luck is the quarterback who was asked to do the most from the start, and he was the quarterback who did the most. Rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton is already a good player for the Colts. If you took Hilton and put him on the Titans or the Jaguars, how would he fare? Nowhere near as well as he fared playing with Luck in their first years in the NFL, I feel certain.

Worst injuries: The Jaguars really suffered because Daryl Smith and Clint Session were absent from the linebacking corps. Smith just returned last week from a groin injury and Session never made it back from multiple concussions suffered in 2011, his first season in Jacksonville. The corners all took turns missing time, and safety Dwight Lowery played only nine games. The loss of playmakers really dented a defense that plummeted in the rankings from 2011 to 2012.

Tennessee’s offensive line was not good enough, and revamping the interior needs to be a major offseason priority. The Titans lost starting center Eugene Amano in the preseason and right guard Leroy Harris halfway through the year. For the last quarter of the season, they were also down left guard Steve Hutchinson and right tackle David Stewart. It’s hard for them to give Jake Locker a real chance playing behind a line with four reserves. Still, he could have shown far more in his chances when he was healthy.

The division’s two worst teams lost a lot of time with their young quarterbacks, too. Locker missed five games with a shoulder injury, and Blaine Gabbert played through a shoulder injury before adding a forearm issue that ended his season after 10 games. Looking ahead to 2013, the status of each as a long-term answer is not what it once was.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Bruce Arians stepped in for coach Chuck Pagano and led a team coming off a two-win season to the playoffs.
Coaches of the year: Pagano and Arians of the Colts. It's been a storybook season for Indianapolis, which rallied around Pagano. He learned he had leukemia after just three games and handed the team to Arians while he underwent treatment. His fight gave the team a purpose, and it responded by playing better than the sum of its parts. Behind the scenes, Pagano was more involved than many might imagine.

But it was Arians conveying the messages, overseeing the game-planning, leading and, as offensive coordinator, calling the plays. He did a masterful job in overseeing the team, the offense and the rookie quarterback. Now, with Pagano back in place, he’ll drift into the background. He’s 60, which will work against his getting a head-coaching job. His work, however, should earn him consideration for some of the jobs that are about to open. That was quite an audition. And just about every team hiring a coach will need a quarterback developer.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

I want to emphasize one thing about this All-AFC South Team. Wade Smith is measured against the division’s left guards, not against the rest of the selections. There are miles between Smith as a player and Watt as a player, and if we measure a guard against a defensive end who’s the division MVP, things look askew.

One I’ll get crushed for: Many of you argued with me on Twitter when I wrote that I would take Luck over Matt Schaub as the third Pro Bowl quarterback, so I am sure you won’t like the choice of quarterback here. Luck struggled more than Schaub, for sure. But he was asked to do far more than Schaub and produced seven comeback wins, leading a team that’s really lacking in talent to an improbable playoff spot. There were no expectations for the Colts, and Luck and the team delivered. There were huge expectations on the Texans, and Schaub and the team delivered. My gut continues to prefer Luck’s year. That doesn’t mean I dislike what Schaub’s done.

Just misses: Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan, Texans outside linebacker Brooks Reed, Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.

Sen'Derrick MarksKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireOpposing linemen, beware: Sen'Derrick Marks said he's "mean and mad" when playing noseguard.

It’s a game of inches.

So a couple of feet are making a huge difference in the life of Titans defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.

He finished strong last season. Though I am not a big believer in a big finish carrying over to the next season, it may be what’s about to happen for Marks.

“I came in last year in a totally different system off of shoulder surgery and all of that,” he said. “It’s not an excuse. Moving from tackle to noseguard and then just finding my way. I bought into what the coaches were selling and we just made it happen.

“It has carried over to this year and we’re just making it happen.”

Operating in the closest quarters possible has been a real boon for Marks, a second-round pick from Auburn who’s heading into his fourth season. He’s not thinking about a new contract, but on some level it’s always at play when a guy knows free agency is looming. He’s thinking about how quickly he can get his hands on a center and steer past him to help put the quarterback in a well. That’s the Titans’ aim up front -- to surround the guy they are chasing.

“It’s a lot slower to me playing from the noseguard position,” Marks said. “For some odd reason now, I feel so comfortable at the noseguard, I just feel mean and mad every time I go out. Because I know what I can do and how mean I can get.”

Why meaner?

“Playing over the center, he’s usually a smaller guy, you’re right over the ball,” he said. “You can always be quicker. You see the ball. I feel like I’ve got a real good get-off. Usually if you’re in the middle and you cause a lot of disruption, everything happens right there. I feel real comfortable there.

“If you’re a 3-technique, then usually your guard is a yard away from you, and half of the time they are two yards away from you when they can get away with it. So you’ve got a lot of distance to cover. I like getting off the ball and just attacking.”

I think the Titans' defensive strength starts in the middle of the line, with the blossoming Jurrell Casey and Marks. They lead a defense that had 25 tackles for a loss in the preseason.

But it’s not just tackles for a loss that set an offense back, it’s tackles at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Tennessee has another 12 of those in the preseason, including nine in the first halves when starters were on the field the most.

It’s a category the Titans excelled in last year, when nearly a quarter of the rushing attempts against them resulted in a loss or no gain. (The Jaguars fared well at this as well.) If a team stops the run like that and forces passing downs, it has won one major battle. Downs in which there is little mystery about run or pass are what a defense wants to be lining up against.

“The biggest thing in the league on defense is, you have to win first down,” Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “If you can get to second-and-long or third-and-long, now you are able to do some things defensively.”

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.
Keith Millard MPS/Getty ImagesKeith Millard, the Titans' new pass rush coach, collected 58 sacks over his eight-season career.

NASHVILLE -- After 15 minutes on the phone with Keith Millard, I was ready to rush the passer.

The newest addition to Titans coach Mike Munchak’s staff won’t oversee a position but a skill set. And although Millard will spend a lot of time with defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and his group, he’ll also rove and talk nuances of getting to the quarterback with linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks.

His initial speech will go like this:

“Before you even start, you’ve got to pick a line and you’ve got to stay on that line. And that goes for every position, no matter what you are doing. It’s from wherever you start to the quarterback and that thing can’t vary. You know the old saying the shortest distance between two spots is a straight line? That’s as true in pass rush as there is. You stay on that line, get your blocker off it. Now how you do that is where it gets interesting, where technique and fundamentals come in.”

Tennessee needs to rush the passer better than it did last season, which was its first without Jim Washburn since 1998. The former defensive line coach, now in Philadelphia, pieced together an effective four-man rush most of the time.

After Munchak hired Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator, the team concluded that getting to the quarterback at all costs wasn’t the way to go because the run defense suffered.

In Year 1 of the new regime, the team sacked the quarterback less -- managing just 28 sacks, 31st in sacks per play in the NFL -- and was still just 24th against the run.

Both the personnel and the coaching need to be better.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Titans brought in former Raider Kamerion Wimbley to boost their pass rush.
Enter Kamerion Wimbley, the former Oakland Raider whom the Titans pounced on when he was released. Enter Millard.

Wimbley should be a boost for the pass rush. He’s worked a lot in his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker but in Tennessee he’ll be a 4-3 end. He can rush the passer well from there, but the team could put his durability to the test if he’s on the field for too many snaps.

Millard’s a big believer in a four-man rush, as the Titans have long been. But if they can’t get to the quality quarterbacks they are scheduled to face in 2012 with just four rushers, they should be better equipped to bring more blitzers than they have been in some time after Millard coaches them up.

“I’m thrilled about Millard,” Titans outside linebacker Gerald McRath said. “For me, I’ve never had someone who took time to teach me pass rush. You can fine tune a skill, and that’s a skill that makes you more valuable to your team. I think that will be great, that you can have someone who can focus on that.”

Munchak and Gray talked about the idea early on after the new staff was assembled. It didn’t come together during the initial staff assembly and the lockout. But then Millard came free after Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay staff were let go.

Millard played nine seasons as an NFL defensive lineman, primarily with Minnesota. He coached in Denver and Oakland before spending 2011 in Tampa Bay.

Although he’s worked mostly as a defensive line coach, he was a pass rush coach at times with the Broncos and Raiders.

Specialized coaches are increasingly popular in the NFL. Many 3-4 teams have outside linebacker coaches. Some teams have cornerback and safety coaches in their secondary, or a coach who concentrates on the nickel defensive backs.

A coach like Millard qualifies as being outside the box for the Titans. He gets fired up talking about his office, and initially makes it sound big. Then you realize he means big enough to have three or maybe four guys in there at a time to go over pass-rush nuances.

“Not only is he going to be doing D-line, and that’s a good thing, we’re going to be sending him linebackers and safeties and things like that,” said Gray, who played nine seasons as a cover corner. “I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t know anything about blitzing. Beating a running back, I can tell you, but I’ve never felt that. So I really don’t know how it feels.

“He’ll be able to help us, more than saying ‘Hey, I’ve got a clear open spot for you to hit the quarterback.’ The best thing you can do is offer a one-on-one. Now show me how to win the one-on-one. That’s what he’s going to be doing.”

Warren Sapp, who’s widely regarded as an all-time great pass-rushing tackle, raved about Millard’s influence on him to The Tennessean after the Titans made the hire.

[+] EnlargeKeith Millard
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIKeith Millard has had coaching stints with the Broncos, Raiders and Buccaneers.
Gray still emphasizes the need for players to stop the run. Millard and Gray talk about earning the right to pass rush. And nothing does that more than stuffing a run play on first down to help create second- and third-and-long situations.

Millard calls himself a self-taught pass-rusher.

He’s eager to share what he knows, and says it will be a lot more about feet than hands for both blitzers and guys who make a living rushing the passer. For Millard, that second group generally falls into two styles, straight-liners (like Kyle Vanden Bosch or Jason Taylor) and basketball types (like Sapp and Derrick Burgess).

“I think doing it myself from different positions has given me a real edge at teaching the true fundamentals,” Millard said. “Being able to study blockers and find their weaknesses and how to take advantage of them. I’m really about teaching the concept of getting the blocker on your terms and how to do that. It’s not so much a repertoire with your hands as it is your footwork and trying to work a blocker’s weaknesses against him.

“Hands are really just kind of a second nature thing. When you really get down to it, it’s about feet. Getting blockers off balance and using your hands to keep them off balance. Whether you are bull-rushing, whether you are going from one edge to the other and back, it’s really got to be about balance and footwork and your approach -- getting to a point where you own that guy, you know where his weaknesses are and you just continually, constantly, work on those weaknesses. There is a lot that goes into that.”

Millard will spell out for a guy what his body has to do to counter the body trying to block him: flipping hips, making yourself small, understanding what blockers are doing with their hands. Get the guy in your way off balance and keep him off balance.

It seems uncertain just where and how Millard will fit into the regular practice schedule, but he’s certain to work with specific guys before and after practices and outside of regular meeting times.

Those office sessions will be kept small -- he'll rarely work with more than two linebackers or two defensive backs at a time.

If he’s what Munchak and Gray expect, the Titans will do a far better job of getting from Point A to the quarterback and the defense will make big gains.

Millard’s motivated me. I’m heading outside right now to see about making myself small and finding the best way to stay on my straight line.
The Titans have a five-year deal with Kamerion Wimbley, the team announced.

Wyatt said the agent for another end the Titans courted, Mark Anderson, has said Anderson will be signing elsewhere. The Jaguars are interested.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
Brett Davis/US PresswireFormer Raider Kamerion Wimbley will play defensive end for the Titans.
Wimbley has worked as an outside linebacker, but he will be an end for the Titans.

Tennessee gets a player who has nice pass-rushing skills who helps fill a major need. One insider told me Wimbley has "unique cornering ability."

But he’s not likely to be an every-down guy. A friend who covers the Raiders said Wimbley did his best work as a nickel end, but tends to flash and disappear.

The Raiders listed him as 6-foot-4, 255 pounds last season -- the exact same size Titans end Dave Ball was at in 2011. Ball beefed up last season to fit better with the philosophy Jerry Gray brought in as defensive coordinator. But he still ranked as the lightest defensive end on the roster. He’s a free agent now.

While the Titans would like to get bigger overall, it’s just not an option at some spots. Bigger guys with top pass-rush skills are a huge commodity, and it’s not like a bunch are available. That’s part of why Mario Williams, 6-6 and 283, got such a giant contract in Buffalo.

Wimbley joins Derrick Morgan and Malcolm Sheppard as the Titans' lone ends under contract.

Does Wimbley solve the team’s pass-rushing woes the way Williams would have or Dwight Freeney could (if he’s traded or cut)?

I don’t know that he’s going to qualify as a singular force. He had seven sacks last season, but four came in one game against San Diego.

As for the durability question for a smaller end, he has a good record for how he’s been used.

In six seasons primarily as a linebacker with Cleveland and Oakland, he has missed just one game. He had 11 sacks as a rookie linebacker with Cleveland in 2006, and has 42.5 in his career.

The Titans have done well in the past with smallish, speedy defensive ends. But that was a different scheme, and the position coach who set those ends up for success, Jim Washburn, left as the staff broke up in 2011. Washburn is now in Philadelphia.

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and pass-rush coach Keith Millard will be charged with getting sack and pass-pressure production from Wimbley.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans severed ties with their coach and their quarterback and set about for a fresh start.

They’ll suffer from time lost with the lockout, but in Mike Munchak, a largely new staff and a new combo of quarterbacks in Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the franchise hasn’t just turned a page.

It’s opened a new book.

The early chapters could well be choppy and rough.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is looking for a bigger defense that will stop the run first, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is bringing a scholarly approach to a group used to being screamed at. They have new signal callers on offense and defense (middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay), so there is a lot of new stuff to cover.

But external expectations are low. If the Titans can get their best player, Chris Johnson, on the field and make strides on defense, it’s not impossible to improve on last season's disastrous 6-10 record.

Munchak preaches the virtues of being a true professional -- know what to do and do it. The question is, does he have enough talented guys who, following that mantra, can win football games?

THREE HOT ISSUES

1) Will Johnson be around?

It’s hard to imagine his sitting out the season. The flamboyant running back loves the NFL stage. But he's one of the league’s most dynamic players and is certainly scheduled to be underpaid at $1.065 million. The Titans won’t negotiate if he’s not at camp. He won’t come to camp without a new deal. There are currently no signs of any real movement.

He’s not fired up about a compromise that would have him join the team but not practice until a deal is reached. Someone will bend. But in the meantime, we’re likely to see a much less threatening offense.

“It’s tough to tell how long it takes to become an issue,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “Once he’s here he’s here and we start working with him. We’ll be a different team without him. He's definitely one of the top two, if not the best running back in the league. A special player, very dynamic. It makes for a different kind of offense when he’s not in there.

“The plays wouldn’t change. Just without having his speed in there people would play us differently. I wouldn’t say it would necessarily be a worse offense. It would just be someone else running it, Javon Ringer or the rookie (Jamie Harper). It wouldn’t have CJ’s dynamic and people having to worry about his speed.”

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Chris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Titans will be a different team if they are without Chris Johnson, who rushed for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
If defenses aren't worrying about that speed, things will be far more difficult for Hasselbeck and the team’s other best weapons, receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook.

2) How will Munchak’s style translate?

He’s a Hall of Fame player, and he’s been a top position coach for years. Odds are Munchak can coach a football team.

“He’s his own man,” linebacker Gerald McRath said. “Everybody is going to have to sit back and watch, but it’s definitely going to be different. He has that personality. He wants to establish something that’s his, something that he’s worked hard for. I feel like it’s a great opportunity. It’s a privilege just to be involved in that, to be able to put into some of that.”

The question really is about his CEO role. How does he deal with the late-night calls about DUIs or the overeating defensive lineman? How does he react to the city calling for the starting quarterback’s head or the player enduring stuff at home that’s hurting his play?

Munchak has talked about accountability and discipline and consequences, things that all had slipped at the end for Jeff Fisher. Can he enforce all that effectively?

One other thing: Fisher was great with rules and clock management. In Munchak’s first turn in the primary headset, it will be interesting to see how he fares in those departments.

3) Can the Titans stay healthy up front?

Part of the Titans’ push to be bigger up front on defense is about being better against the run. Part of it is about being more rugged deep into the season. Some of Tennessee’s speed rushers in recent years wore down late, and the Titans suffered for it.

Tracy Rocker has big shoes to fill as defensive line coach, where Jim Washburn had a great run of success. Can Gray and Rocker show the discipline to pace the linemen the way they are talking about doing now?

“I think we have to be real smart this year because our (defensive linemen), for some reason, get hurt quite a bit,” Munchak said. “We have to limit their plays not only in games but in practice so you don’t lose guys… We have to find a way to keep them healthy. You can’t control all that, but we have to be smart.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE

It’s early, of course. But the team’s talking up Cook again, and this time he seems prepared to live up to it. The tight end is running plenty of routes that take him deeper than most tight ends, and the quarterbacks are thrilled to have such a big target stretching the field. He seems to be responding better to the mellow approach of Palmer than he did to the high intensity of Mike Heimerdinger.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Britt’s offseason was filled with off-the-field issues. The Titans gave him a clean slate coming in, but hamstring problems have kept him out of camp so far. He said that he thought yoga was going to help him solve such problems but that his instructor apparently took the money and ran with it. The Titans are already without their most dynamic player in Johnson. With Britt sidelined, they are also missing No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McRath is probably the odd man out in the linebacker shuffle, unless he makes a charge to overtake Will Witherspoon on the weakside. McRath knows he didn’t make enough plays last year, but he’s saying the right things and carrying himself the right way. Maybe he’s a special teams stud if he isn’t playing defense.
  • [+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
    Don McPeak/US PRESSWIRENew coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, will have high expectations for his interior line.
  • The pressure is on the Titans' interior offensive line. Munchak and O-line coach Bruce Matthews, both Hall of Fame linemen, expect Leroy Harris, Eugene Amano and Jake Scott to play better in their second season all together. If they don’t, we’ll call it part missed assessment and part blown confidence. Keeping Hasselbeck upright and healthy is a huge deal.
  • I’m not sure how the Titans will distribute their tight ends without tipping their intentions. Cook is the receiver and Craig Stevens is the blocker. Veteran addition Daniel Graham can do both but is more a blocker.
  • Jordan Babineaux was lured to the Titans from Seattle largely because of his relationship with Gray when both were with the Seahawks. They shouldn’t do anything that entails Michael Griffin playing anything but centerfield. And Babineaux is more a free than a strong safety, But the Titans will blur the distinction. Can he challenge for Chris Hope’s job? If he does, will Hope take a pay cut to stay?
  • The Titans actually have reasonable depth at cornerback. Cortland Finnegan needs to produce big in a contract year and Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty are up-and-comers. Ryan Mouton was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. But veteran addition Frank Walker made a nice early impression.
  • This team always has an undrafted receiver who creates buzz early. This time it looks to be Michael Preston out of Heidelberg. He’s got nice size and athleticism.
  • There’s not enough evidence to know if seventh-rounder CB Tommie Campbell can play yet. But he certainly had physical attributes that makes receivers take notice. Receiver Yamon Figurs recently went against him and came away muttering that Campbell was the biggest corner he’s ever seen. Figurs said Campbell, who is 6-foot-3, was “like a giraffe.”
  • Jake Locker has shown steady improvement and has been far better early on that I anticipated he would be.
  • If the Titans are going to be a lot better on defense, second-year end Derrick Morgan and second-round pick Akeem Ayers, a strongside linebacker, are going to have a lot to do with it. Morgan is a very good player, and Ayers bring the Titans size they’ve not had at linebacker since the franchise relocated.
  • Leadership was a giant issue last season. There was hardly any when things got tough. The Titans' additions could solve that. Hasselbeck, Graham, Ruud and Ayers are going to be big in that department.
  • Even if Justin Gage has a huge preseason, the Titans should consider moving on if everyone else is healthy. He’s simply not been a steady enough playmaker, and if his presence is going to keep the team from exploring the upside of someone like Damian Williams, it’s not the right move.
  • Where does recently added, versatile veteran offensive lineman Pat McQuistan fit in? The Titans have a lot of young linemen they like, but his case for edging somebody out will include his experience at every position but center. That could increase their flexibility on the bench.
Do eight voices combining for a mock draft fare any better than those by one guy?

Who knows?

I think my blog network brethren would say the same thing I do: Most of my thinking in our combined mock draft came from an educated connecting of the dots that combines what I know about my teams’ draft philosophies, what I know of teams' needs, who’s available in this context, what I’ve been told, what my gut says and what I've been calling for.

So Kevin Seifert over at the NFC North isn’t saying Andy Dalton is the 12th-best player in the draft. He’s reiterating what he’s been writing about how quarterbacks have to have a higher value and how Minnesota has to have one.

Three of my four picks for the AFC South line up with what I’d call the conventional thinking at this point. Maybe I outsmart myself with the Colts, but I’ll explain myself in a second.

Here’s a bit more than I was able to offer in my comments in the mock, which you’ll find here.

Titans at No. 8 – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

I think the defensive rebuild has to go inside-out. I think the character concerns on Fairley are overblown or are something that line coach Tracy Rocker, who worked with him at Auburn, and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray can handle. I think that the Titans can find ways to turn him into a consistently productive player. But maybe this match is too easy. The alternatives would be a defensive end, though Da'Quan Bowers has dropped for them because of his knee, or quarterback if they choose to be bold.

Texans at No. 11 – Aldon Smith, DE-OLB, Missouri

Somehow, I sense that Smith has become unpopular with a good share of Texans fans. His name certainly lacks the juice of Von Miller or Robert Quinn. But plenty of teams would like to get their hands on Smith, who’s an intriguing option as an outside linebacker in Houston’s new 3-4 defensive front. He’s got intriguing size at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds. The best defensive player in this scenario may be Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, but rushing the passer is not what he does best and that’s what the Texans need most.

Jaguars at No. 16 – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue

Too easy a fit? Perhaps. But when GM Gene Smith said last week that there are a lot of guys who, like Kerrigan, fit into the formula he likes, there is no doubting that Kerrigan does. Still, who among us saw Smith taking Tyson Alualu at No. 10 last season? We could see another surprise. Smith loaded up on defensive linemen last year. If he takes Kerrigan or another end now, it should be the last defensive linemen for a while, and he should move on to secondary and receiver help. Cameron Jordan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward are all heavier. But with a rugged interior, the Jaguars need speed more than size.

Colts at No. 22 – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois

Everyone and everything says offensive line. And I could have taken Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi or Derek Sherrod here. I just think the odds of Bill Polian doing what we all expect are low. While there will be one and should be more than one offensive linemen for Indianapolis in this draft, Polian won’t let the need steer him. Two years ago we all had the Colts liking Peria Jerry, but he went to Atlanta three spots before Indy took Donald Brown. I hear Liuget is a better fit that Jerry would have been. More interior push helps Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and Liuget would help the run defense.
New mocks are in from Todd McShay Insider and Mel Kiper. Insider Though they are Insider files, I’ve received clearance to share the most important parts with this audience.

So away we go…

Tennessee Titans, No. 8

McShay: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

"The Titans picked offensive skill players in the first round in 2008 and 2009 (RB Chris Johnson, WR Kenny Britt), but this year could mark a second straight defensive lineman in the first round after Tennessee took DE Derrick Morgan in 2010. Fairley is the most naturally gifted interior pass rusher in this draft and has a lot of upside, but the Titans need to decide if they are willing to take a chance on a player who could be a perennial Pro Bowler or turn into the next big DT bust thanks to questionable work ethic and football character."

Beyond the first round: Second -- Arkansas QB Ryan Mallet; Third -- Texans CB Curtis Brown.

Kiper: Fairley

"Defensive line probably falls lower on the list of team needs behind the obvious question of who will be taking snaps, but it's not a minor need. And to get the most productive interior lineman in the college game last year, a player who was simply unblockable in a number of key games, is a solid get for the Titans at No. 8 overall. Fairley gives you immediate help at a spot they need to address, and he offers the value of a top-five pick. Disruptive versus both the run and the pass, he will help this defense now, and they can look for a linebacker later on."

Kuharsky: Fairley is almost a consensus guy for the Titans at the spot and I understand the rationale and am very intrigued. But if there are concerns about him dogging it once he gets a big payday, the Titans had better sniff them out. A new regime doesn’t need a big dose of that. And it shouldn’t put too much stock into the opinion of one guy, considering former Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, now in the same post with the Titans, is brand new.

Houston Texans, No. 11

McShay: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Temple

"With [Von] Miller and [Robert] Quinn gone there is no outside linebacker on the board who can address the Texans' need for a pass rusher, and while California's Cameron Jordan or Wisconsin's J.J. Watt could also be the pick I believe Wilkerson has more upside than any other 3-4 end in this draft. Houston also has a need at cornerback, but new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips believes that if he has a solid front seven he can live with an average secondary."

Beyond the first round: Second -- Georgia OLB Justin Houston; Third -- Temple S Jaiquawn Jarrett.

Kiper: Quinn, LB, North Carolina

"Houston has needs all over the defensive side of the ball, and Quinn is the best player still on the board if they can get him here. A gifted natural pass-rusher, Quinn sat out all of 2010, but his talent should overcome any questions about rust. A physical specimen, Wade Phillips can find a way to use Quinn in his scheme, and DeMarcus Ware will be what he has in mind when he gets Quinn into camp. Yes, the secondary needs help, but the fastest way to make that group look better is get a pass rush."

Kuharsky: In my eyes, Quinn is more attractive than Wilkerson, who I’ve not seen this high anywhere I can remember. With so much defensive line talent available, if the Texans went McShay’s direction with Quinn off the board, they simply have to be right that Wilkerson is a better fit than all the other defensive ends still sitting there at this spot.

Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 16

McShay: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue

"The Jaguars have bigger needs but defensive end offers the most value here. I would be tempted to take a shot on Bowers or the upside offered by Missouri's Aldon Smith here, but Jags GM Gene Smith has proved he will take the player with the higher floor rather than the higher ceiling. Kerrigan has some limitations but Jacksonville knows exactly what it would be getting, which is a player with the overall skill set to immediately push for a starting job opposite Jaguars DE Aaron Kampman."

Beyond the first round: Second -- Washington LB Mason Foster; Third -- WR North Carolina Greg Little.

Kiper: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri

"Another guy I'm sticking with from the previous mock, Smith offers a raw talent package with a lot of upside. He's a player who could easily have been a top-10 pick in 2012 had he stuck around Missouri for another year of development. The Jags went for veterans to spackle over the holes at defensive end last year, but it's time to develop some edge talent to go with what is a really promising defensive interior. Smith is an ideal developmental option who can still help in 2011."

Kuharsky: I think McShay’s line about Gene Smith and floors versus ceilings is the single most interesting thing out of either of these files. I'll have to spend more time with it to see if I consider it totally accurate. From what I’ve heard and read, it seems Kerrigan is more ready to have an impact now, and he fits a lot of Smith's criteria.

Indianapolis Colts, No. 22

McShay: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado

"This one is a no-brainer. The Colts' offensive line has struggled mightily over the last couple of seasons and Indianapolis must upgrade there. Not only do the Colts need to protect the face of their franchise in QB Peyton Manning, they also need to address a running game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season. Solder is a good fit for an offense that emphasizes quickness and athleticism over brute strength."

Beyond the first round: Second -- DL Iowa Christian Ballard; Third -- Wisconsin G John Moffitt.

Kiper: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College

"One more that stays the same from previous mocks, I just really like the fit. The Colts have to improve on the offensive line and even while Peyton Manning is a maestro working out of the shotgun, they need to be able to do more both in the run game and in pass protection. Castonzo is a smart, versatile tackle who has been consistently rated as a first-round tackle option. Indy has brought in some quarterbacks to work out, but Castonzo is more of an immediate help."

Kuharsky: I don’t know that I will ever be able to give you a super-quality read on which of the top tackles is the best fit for the Colts. If only USC’s Tyron Smith is gone as in Kiper's scenario, having their pick of the second tackle in the draft seems like an awfully good situation for the Colts. McShay's got Solder to Indy as the fourth tackle. Whoever is there, if Bill Polian feels like the gap between the tackle options at No. 22 and a second- or third-round tackle isn’t so big, he could grab a blue-chipper at another position.
Bowers, Watt and SmithIcon, Icon, US PresswireDa'Quan Bowers, J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith are likely first-rounders who are under the microscope.
It’s the right year to need a defensive lineman in the first round, and in the AFC South, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if all four teams spent their first pick in the draft on a tackle or an end.

Speaking briefly Tuesday night before a charity event, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt offered nothing substantive on his quarterback-needy team’s feelings about the quarterback prospects.

But the guy running the team’s draft is also in need of a couple of defensive linemen, and joined the chorus raving about the talent available.

“I think it’s going to be very tempting because I think there will be 14 or 15 defensive linemen that go in the first round,” he said. “So that’ll make an interesting choice for a lot of people in the first round.”

NFL Draft Scout rates seven ends and two tackles as clear first-rounders and another two ends and four tackles as possible first-rounders. Some of those ends could wind up as pass-rushing outside linebackers in a 3-4.

At the NFL scouting combine, many of the hot defensive linemen expressed pride in the strength of their position in this draft.

“I look at it like, if you go back in the history of watching football, before the game was started, it started up front,” said Marcell Dareus, the Alabama tackle who's expected to be the first defensive lineman off the board. “Some people were scared and backed up off the ball. But the real bulls stayed up front and played the game.”

The compelling group that could have guys coming to try to hit Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub and slow Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson includes a guy who plays the guitar and the drums (Clemson end Da'Quan Bowers), another who had a brain tumor removed five years ago (North Carolina end Robert Quinn) and a third who started out not in football, but in rugby (Oregon State tackle Stephen Paea).

I asked one college scout from the AFC and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to pair each AFC South team with a defensive lineman likely to be available at each team's slot. Here’s what they said.

Tennessee (No. 8)

Scout: Bowers

"Add him to a young Derrick Morgan and Titans would have bookend defensive ends with pass-rush ability for many years. Look at the Titans' current DEs: Jacob Ford (potential free agent) is a nickel pass-rusher; Dave Ball (free agent and injuries) is a rotational player only; Jason Babin (free agent) is a one-year wonder and honestly just a pass-rusher; William Hayes is a base/run-down end. So the need is there for sure. Players that can play the run and rush the passer usually never hit free agency, they aren’t allowed to because they are so hard to find. If there wasn’t a issue with the knee, Bowers wouldn’t be there at eight."

Williamson: Auburn tackle Nick Fairley or Quinn

“Value and upside. Both players are dripping with upside, but have some questions. The Titans' new line coach, Tracy Rocker, comes from Auburn and already has a relationship with Fairley. He is just too good of a prospect to pass up at that point of the draft. And Tennessee’s line has enough guys already that they could sort of ease either player into his respective role.”

Texans (No. 11)

Scout: Wisconsin end J.J. Watt

"A great choice for a 5-technique player. High motor, excellent size with potential to add to frame, great kid with a huge upside. I am ignoring obvious pass-rushers because they are outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense and you wanted a lineman. The [Texans] are in need of a pass-rusher more than a 5-technique end -- Mario Williams, Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith all fit that position. Amobi Okoye is a quick nose tackle, but not a true nose. They will need to upgrade that spot as well, but there is not a value nose tackle for them with the 11th pick."

Williamson: Watt or Cal end Cameron Jordan

“For Houston, I think they would love to get a 5-technique like JJ Watt or Cameron Jordan. Nose tackle is the bigger need, but taking [Baylor’s] Phil Taylor there is too early.”

Jacksonville (No. 16)

Scout: Missouri end Aldon Smith

“An excellent pass-rusher. Young, inexperienced but has a huge upside. Should grow into his frame and maintain athletic ability. They lack true pass-rushers. Larry Hart is a situational rusher at best. Austen Lane is a run-down player… at best. Derrick Harvey hasn’t worked out. And they are already solid in the middle. [Miami end] Allen Bailey, [Iowa end] Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Jordan are too close to what they have already. The only other option would be [Purdue end] Ryan Kerrigan, but he and Aaron Kampman are similar in skills and limitations. Aldon has true edge pass-rush ability.”

Williamson: Aldon Smith

“I like Smith a lot for Jacksonville. They are set at tackle, so they only would look for an end up front in my opinion. He is loaded with upside. And with all this defensive line talent in this draft, he could be a real value pick where they select.”

Indianapolis (No. 22)

Scout: Illinois tackle Corey Liuget

“He would be a great choice for them. A very athletic defensive tackle with size, effort and upside. He can play the run as well, but helps with pressure on inside. He is a very good combo DT playing run/pass equally well. They are set at defensive end. Jerry Hughes will come around and they will have three solid players at the spot. Liuget adds to depleted interior group.”

Williamson: Taylor or Liuget

“Indy might pounce on Taylor to clog up the middle or if Corey Liuget is still there, he would be ideal. I would say it is unlikely, but Bill Polian doesn't care about what others think and he likes 'his type of players' ... so Drake Nevis from LSU could be someone he really likes.”
Guys want to disappear when football season is over, I understand. But a lot of them resurfaced this time around well before the union decertified and the owners locked them out.

Many readers have found it odd that a couple Titans spearheading Nashville workouts, like Cortland Finnegan, said they didn’t chat with new coaches before the labor impasse reached the point where it wasn’t allowed.

And it is odd that if a guy was in Nashville or even working out at team headquarters that some sort of effort to cross paths for a hello wouldn’t have been made.

Jason Babin, in this piece from Peter Schrager in Esquire, made the lack of introductions seem even weirder. This is Babin talking about the one chance he had to talk to either defensive coordinator Jerry Gray or defensive line coach Tracy Rocker.
ESQ: Have you spoken to any of your old Titans coaches?

JB: Weird situation, actually. The new coaching staff sent me a text one night. I called back, but they never got back to me. That's been the case with a lot of the guys -- one text message at some odd hour, a call back from the players, and no return phone call.

ESQ: Huh.

JB: Believe it or not, the coaches are in the toughest spot. These guys' whole lives revolve around football. They eat, drink, breath football twenty-four hours a day. So for them, this is torture. They obviously want to coach us and get to work, but they have to answer to the owners.

It's almost as if the Titans wanted to reach out, but didn't actually want to make contact.

The Titans cancelled a team meeting where they intended to spell out how things would work if and when there was a lockout for fear of getting in trouble with the league. Perhaps coaches weren’t aggressive in terms of searching out players for hellos for the same reasons.

But it would seem that having been assertive in terms of making one connection before a potential lockout would have been advisable.

If the Titans plan to pursue Babin, who will be a free agent, when there is a new agreement, they’ll be like any other team starting from scratch when they could have at least reached out to him for introductions in February.
Getting an actual nugget about an actual change from a team at this stage, especially given the upcoming shutdown, is a big deal.

Jim Wyatt got one out of reserved Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt in this piece, just the sort of wrinkle that would have fit nicely in my piece from a few days ago about how scouts in Tennessee and Houston have to adjust to the desires of new coaches.

Under new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, the Titans will be looking for defensive ends who are a bit different.

Writes Wyatt out of his conversation with Reinfeldt:
In previous years, the Titans had their ends play a lot of 9-technique, lined up wide and told to collapse the pocket. Under Gray, the Titans could play more of a 7-technique, lined up across from the offensive tackles or tight ends, placement that requires stout, run-stopper ends.

"It is still a work in progress," [Reinfeldt said]. "I think our scouts are pretty good at evaluating talent and evaluating a young man's ability to play in the NFL. At the same time they need to have a really good idea of the scheme we are running, what traits we are looking for and I think that is where the combine is good for us. It's a chance for both those guys to be together and I think the pre-draft meetings will be critical for that also."

It appears this is a good draft to be looking for such an end. The Titans could conceivably even trade down from No. 8 and land a first-round defensive end like North Carolina’s Robert Quinn, Cal’s Cameron Jordan or Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn.

All of them are bigger than Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford, smaller Titans ends who are not under contract for 2011. One of those prospects could look good working in combination with last year’s No. 1, Derrick Morgan, and William Hayes, two ends on the roster who are sturdier types. Morgan went on IR on Oct. 5 of his rookie season after blowing out a knee.

A bit later in the draft there are more guys who could be attractive given a desire to have more physical ends. Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Miami’s Allen Bailey and Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee all have nice size and would likely be better equipped to line up tighter to the line of scrimmage and do more against the run.

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