Tennessee Titans: Bishop Sankey
A crisper effort by the first team would do a lot to help the Titans be ready for Sept. 7 against the Chiefs in Kansas City.
But all those carries came from handoffs from Zach Mettenberger.
And none of his carries on a regular-season Sunday should come from Mettenberger.
Sure, he gets work with Locker in practices. But the running back-by-committee approach is going to be working for the Titans this season. To ensure Sankey is as ready as possible, he needs to feel what it’s like to work against a front-line defense behind what should be a top offensive line.
The Titans have a chance to give him that against the Vikings, along with some work with Locker in a live setting.
Locker said the offense still needs to work on communication and focus.
I think it would also benefit from Sankey getting a little work with the starters before they are pulled.
Yes, receiver Justin Hunter and quarterback Jake Locker are blazers. But beyond them, in their first season post-Chris Johnson, not many of their players shock you when they open up and run.
It turns out they may be faster than I thought.
Bill Barnwell of Grantland pieces together a way to measure team speed -- looking at primary skill-position players, using combine 40 times adjusted for age.
It’s inexact, but it’s as good as any approach we could assemble.
Much to Barnwell’s amazement, and mine, the Titans are the fastest team in the NFL by these measures.
The Titans are actually above-average at nine of the 10 positions in this lineup; only Bernard Pollard (4.73 age-adjusted 40-yard dash) is below-average at his respective spot, while the likes of Jake Locker (4.57) and Justin Hunter (4.46) are among the fastest players at their positions. Tennessee also has the fastest pair of cornerbacks in the league with Jason McCourty (4.40) and Coty Sensabaugh (4.37) booked to start.
In addition to those guys, Barnwell used Bishop Sankey, Jackie Battle, Kendall Wright, Delanie Walker and Michael Griffin.
Lack of quarterback speed drags down some of the top offenses and teams in the NFL. Denver (28), New Orleans (30) and New England (32) don’t fare well at all in this metric.
Speed may not matter as much as we tend to think. Philadelphia may be the most clever, modern offense in the NFL and the Eagles are 23rd here.
Tennessee will be more inventive on offense with Ken Whisenhunt calling the plays. Hopefully for the Titans, Hunter will run past people, Locker can hurt defenses when he takes off and speedy corners McCourty and Sensabaugh can help limit deep balls.
Speed can still kill. Since the Titans have it, they need to show how.
Thanks for your participation.
Paul Kuharsky: The fumbling is a problem. Ken Whisenhunt said it's one of a number of things a rookie running back needs to sort through. I think Sankey is a guy who will learn from and resolve mistakes quickly. I liked the way he answered questions about a pass-protection flub in his first game and improved in that area in his second chance.
Paul Kuharsky: Where? At this point, good as Taylor Lewan's been, Michael Roos and Michael Oher have been taking care of their business and not leaving the door cracked. An injury anywhere but center and Lewan would be the guy. Otherwise, there doesn't look to be a spot for him to start.
Paul Kuharsky: Definitely carrying three. In games, at least early on, Charlie Whitehurst is the guy they'd want taking over. The game-day No. 2 won't have had much work during the practice week. If Jake Locker is out for an extended period, they could turn to Mettenberger given a chance to game plan for him and give him a full practice load. Mettenberger did some good things for sure. But let's not forget that Whitehurst has been doing good work -- better than many of us thought him capable of.
Paul Kuharsky: The Titans and the NFL have not chiseled it in granite that it has to be Maikon Bonani or Travis Coons. Coons has been pretty good. His trajectory was my biggest concern and it's improved a lot of late. He said they were working on quickening his approach and once they got that down he got back to his typical swing. They will have alternatives to the winner if they want them.
Paul Kuharsky: I'm not really sure what you think the scope of possible answers to that one is. They need to play better. There needs to be a better rush in front of them to help them play better.
Paul Kuharsky: I think Jake Locker is better. I think it's a better offense with a better scheme and better coaching, all of which will help him. Better enough? I don't know that. He still makes more bad choices than a QB you are hanging your hat on should.
Paul Kuharsky: I thought the one pass interference on Jason McCourty was a bit shaky. But overall I didn't have a huge argument with the officiating. It's on players to follow the rules and concern themselves with what's going to be called, not to count on the officials easing up.
The Tennessee Titans turned the ball over five times at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and didn't do close to enough to offset the giveaways against the New Orleans Saints.
Tennessee lost 31-24 Friday night in New Orleans, despite the hosts' handing away 184 yards on 22 accepted penalties, including eight of the Titans' 28 first downs.
Penalties were the biggest story of a lengthy game, and the Titans made their own large contribution in that department, with 10 for 111 yards. The Titans didn't have a takeaway on defense or special teams to make up for their turnover troubles.
Here are some other thoughts on the Titans' second preseason game:
- Receiver Justin Hunter was the offensive star, with a great leaping catch on the left side of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown from Jake Locker. That one looked a lot like the sort of practice catch Hunter has been making regularly. Hunter also grabbed a pass in the middle of the field from rookie QB Zach Mettenberger and took advantage of a falling defender by taking off into space and coasting the rest of the way for a 64-yard score. He finished with four catches for 111 yards.
- The penalties provided a couple of side benefits for the Titans. Kicker Travis Coons got to follow up a made 45-yard field goal with a make from 50 yards after the first three points were waved off by an illegal formation call against Tennessee's Karl Klug. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's insistence on dunking the ball over the cross bar after his two scoring catches meant two kickoffs Marc Mariani got to field and return in his bid to beat Leon Washington for the returner job. Mariani took those two a combined 55 yards, though 21 were chopped off the second because of a return team penalty.
- A week ago, Mettenberger lost a ball he held too low against the Green Bay Packers, and it happened to him again in New Orleans, when Cameron Jordan swiped a ball away from him at the Superdome. Mettenberger entered the game ahead of schedule after No. 2 Charlie Whitehurst suffered an injury to his throwing hand, and the rookie finished 20-of-25 for 269 yards with two touchdowns, an interception, the lost fumble and two sacks. His TD throw to Hunter was in the second quarter. Chase Coffman caught a 1-yard scoring pass right at the end, when Mettenberger's laser bounced off Marini and Coffman plucked it out of the air.
- Rookie running back Bishop Sankey was nifty on a couple carries, as he took five handoffs for 31 yards and had at least one very good snap in pass protection. But he lost a fumble a week after a botched handoff counted against the quarterback trying to give it to him. It's been something we've seen at practice too. He's got to get that resolved right away. In addition to Mettenberger and Sankey, running back Shonn Greene and receiver Derek Hagan lost fumbles.
- Per a tweet from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, Ken Whisenhunt didn't seem concerned after the game, even with injuries to Whitehurst, Greene (knee) or right tackle Michael Oher (arm).
So Casey was fired up earlier this week when a fan got a packaged figure of Casey as a member of the USC Trojans into his hands.
And Casey’s teammates who saw it had fun, too, because they saw a No. 91 figurine frozen in a running motion that looked more like a tight end than a defensive lineman.
“It needs something to eat, right?” Casey said, laughing. “I’m glad I got one, I’m going to put it up in my room, I won’t open it. Pretty nice. It’s pretty cool I like it, my first actual action figure.”
Bishop Sankey got one too, and seemed pretty fired up about the figurine of him in No. 25 wearing the purple and gold of the Washington Huskies, a ball tucked under his left arm mid-stride, head up.
The figurines came from 56-year-old Nashvillian John Boyle, a computer technician.
Boyle said he basically puts a store-bought figurine in hot water, sprays it down with primer until it is white and painstakingly paints it from there. (Thus Casey's body type. He was once Julius Peppers.)
"The first one I did that was any good was Eddie George," Boyle said. "I brought it to him and I wanted him to sign it but he wouldn't let me have it back. He said the shoes were wrong."
Since then, Boyle's paid great attention to giving his figures from their college days the proper shoes and they seem to appreciate it.
"They seem to notice the shoes like it's something real big," Boyle said.
- Receiver Justin Hunter continued to make things difficult on cornerbacks on jump balls. He went up and got one over Coty Sensabaugh from Jake Locker. He jumped over rookie Marqueston Huff for another. He skied to the crossbar in the back of the end zone to pluck another with Sensabaugh nearby.
- Charlie Whitehurst had to call “ball” on one throw up the right side for Michael Preston, who turned but wasn’t ready and watched it sail through his hands, though he had some room on Micah Pellerin.
- Locker threw a duck that found the ground quickly when it looked like he was aiming for Nate Washington with Blidi Wreh-Wilson in coverage. Locker seemed to be trying to stop himself from throwing it, but the motion was well underway and it came out of his hand. Wound up harmless.
- Other red-zone TD catches besides Hunter’s: Marc Mariani from Whitehurst and Chase Coffman stretching at the back line from Zach Mettenberger.
- Linebacker Zaviar Gooden didn’t get his head around on a Whitehurst throw for Taylor Thompson, but Gooden got his arm up to hit the ball for a breakup.
- While the Titans have been very reserved with their kickers, Brett Kern punted for the second day in a row.
- Whitehurst was "sacked" when the he dashed left and ended up swallowing the ball. It looked like the play was supposed to be a handoff to Bishop Sankey but was unclear who made the mistake. Sankey made some nifty moves on a couple of carries.
- Whitehurst threw an interception to Huff in a ball intended for Isaiah Williams.
- DaQuan Jones is working as the second nose tackle, and Al Woods is also in the loop there behind starter Sammie Hill. Antonio Johnson has been out for a while in recovering from a knee scope. Jones and Woods can play inside or out, while Johnson doesn’t bring the same versatility. He’s likely in trouble.
- Travis Coons hit field goals of 38 and 44 yards at the conclusion of two-minute drill work by the offense. Whisenhunt said Maikon Bonani's groin was bothering him a little bit. Coons hit both field goals on a better trajectory with room to spare. He told me he was hitting the ball a bit lower than usual as he worked with snapper Beau Brinkley and holder Kern to speed up the snap, hold, kick process. Now that they’ve made progress on that he’s getting his natural swing back and getting more height on his kicks.
- Whisenhunt said he will allow players to go home after they return from their trip to New Orleans for Friday night’s game. That ends camp in one way. But Whisenhunt said while the Titans will structure next week like a normal practice week, that they will still work ones against ones and rotate people in competitions. For him, camp really ends when the first round of cuts come and as the team focuses on planning for an opponent.
- That likely means the practice rules change next week and you won’t be seeing any more of these practice reports. Hope you enjoyed them and they gave you some insight.
Linebacker Colin McCarthy could be heading for season-ending shoulder surgery, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. McCarthy will see Dr. James Andrews on Monday.
The Titans are developing a feel for rookie running back Bishop Sankey, says Wyatt. "This offense has to do it collectively, and make the splash plays that C.J. [Chris Johnson] made,” Ken Whisenhunt said. “But we believe in him, and what we have seen so far, we like what we see."
Defensive lineman Antonio Johnson is rehabilitating from a recent knee scope, reports Wyatt.
Predictions on running numbers for the Titans' top three backs, from Wyatt.
Three years ago, Jake Locker played great in New Orleans against the Saints in the Titans' final preseason warm-up, recalls David Boclair of the Nashville Post.
Wesley Woodyard makes Sports Illustrated’s All-Overrated Defensive Team and Michael Oher and Chance Warmack make the All-Overrated Offensive Team, both put together by Doug Farrar.
To which I say: Maybe that’s what Oher read that got him talking about being disrespected. I know he feels he played better last year than many scouts and analysts gave him credit for. And GM Ruston Webster has said the Titans hope to get him back to form from earlier in his career -- as compared to getting the version who played in Baltimore last year.
There are more questions than answers at inside linebacker, says Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus upon his review of the Titans' play against the Packers. Taylor Lewan scored well.
Tuesday practice notes from Wyatt.
Tuesday practice notes from Joe Fann of Titans Online.
- The offense played a lot better than it did on Monday, with Jake Locker throwing three red-zone TD passes a day after he was shut out. There was still some sloppiness. Jackie Battle dropped two passes, and Taylor Thompson dropped one. Shonn Greene had a fumble, though he didn’t run the customary punishment lap which may have been because it was ruled to happen after the whistle (though there isn’t really a whistle).
- In seven-on-seven work Charlie Whitehurst connected with Michael Preston on a deep ball over cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson. I’ve noted before that Whitehurst has put a lot of air under a lot of his deep stuff. This one was more of a line drive.
- Kendall Wright continues to look amazing. It looks as if his confidence is as high as possible, and anything thrown near him is practically a sure thing. I hit him several times on Instagram.
- Justin Hunter also had several good catches, beating Jason McCourty on a go route and going up easily over Tommie Campbell in the back right corner of the end zone in red zone 1-on-1s.
- Bishop Sankey ran more authoritatively than he did a day earlier, when he fumbled a couple times. He had two live goal-line chances from the 2-yard line. The first was debatable -- I wasn’t sure he got in, he said he’s biased but admitted it needed a tape review. He was stuffed pretty quickly on a second snap.
- Both sides were feisty. Bernard Pollard and Nate Washington had an extened back-and-forth hollering at each other, as did Daimion Stafford and Leon Washintgon. Washington told Stafford, “You can’t hit me” to which Stafford replied “You’re too little.” That exchange was repeated several times. Linebacker David Gilbert, back after a stretch out with a shoulder injury, flung tight end Chase Coffman to the ground to start a fight that spilled over. The Gilbert-Coffman dustup wasn’t anything beyond ordinary but leaked into a couple different shoving matches.
- Right after that scrap, Anderson picked off Zach Mettenberger in the back right corner of the end zone. Anderson's been making some plays, but also gets beat. He seems like an all-or-nothing type at this point.
- Derek Hagan caught a mid-range pass near the numbers on the right side in between a lot of defenders. I feel like he’s consistently good at finding that space on that play or ones similar to it.
- It was a horrific day for the offense, which came out flat and had mistakes in every area you can think of. There were multiple drops, fumbles, interceptions and bad snaps. Ken Whisenhunt downplayed it as one bad day, and of course it was, but the degree of badness was alarming. Said receiver Derek Hagan, who dropped a pass near the end of practice “It was bad, we didn’t get anything going at all. It was a crazy day. Nobody was catching the ball, bad blocking, missed assignments. Just an overall bad day.”
- Shonn Greene had a fumble that Zach Brown recovered. Bishop Sankey fumbled twice, the first recovered by Brandon Copeland and the second bounced back to Sankey.
- Kendall Wright streaked across the middle to collect a Locker pass, beating Jason McCourty. Michael Preston made a nice catch over Coty Sensabaugh up the left side from Charlie Whitehurst. Taylor Thompson had a couple more nice plays.
- Jake Locker made a bad throw for Nate Washington in the right side of the end zone in red zone work. Tommie Campbell may have pushed off, but he easily collected the bad throw.
- Whitehurst threw a terrible pick as he looked for Marc Mariani to his right. The line drive throw was easily caught by Blidi Wreh-Wilson who was practically halfway between quarterback and his target. Perhaps the worst play of all on a terrible day.
- Daimion Stafford had a nice breakup of a throw for Mariani, whose helmet popped off in the process. Ri'Shard Anderson broke up a Zach Mettenberger dart for Hagan. Wreh-Wilson had a too-easy breakup of a Locker pass for Dexter McCluster. The defense made some plays, for sure. But more of the offensive failures were self-inflicted.
- Justin Hunter wore a jersey that said “J A G” across the back instead of “Hunter.” He said Whisenhunt and receivers coach Shawn Jefferson talked to him after he forgot to convert a route Saturday night. Hunter didn’t know they’d follow through with the jersey, but they did. He said he’ll continue to work to be more than “just a guy.”
- Hunter made a nice play in the middle of the field, winning a contested ball from Locker by taking it away from safety Michael Griffin.
- Among the targets with drops: Delanie Walker, Preston, Washington (who had a chance to recollect the ball on the sideline but bobbled it until his feet were out), Thompson, Hagan.
- Guard Andy Levitre said he played one game at center for the Bills against Miami and was bad at it. Whisenhunt reminded a questioner that he’d said in the past he intended to work Levitre a little at center to prepare a contingency. Now with Chris Spencer (ankle) out, it was the right time. Levitre said he lost focus and snapped as if the quarterback was under center a couple times when he wound up rolling balls past Zach Mettenberger. Ultimately, they put starting center Brian Schwenke in with the third team to settle things down.
- Kickoffs: Maikon Bonani put one 9 yards deep and another 4 yards deep into the end zone. With less hang time, Travis Coons put one kickoff 4 yards deep. Coons also punted some.
- Coach Ken Whisenhunt said that heavy rain meant "a lot of things we had planned went out the window" for the first team on offense. "We didn't handle it as well as we could have early," he said. But he liked that the offense made plays and the defense stopped the Packers late in the game when things were being decided, and that "the whole team was into it."
- Inside linebacker Zach Brown has been a starter all of camp, but it was Zaviar Gooden who was on the field for the first series with the defense. Whisenhunt said that was punishment for Brown breaking a team rule. "I would describe it as pissing me off," Whisenhunt said. Brown said "If he ain't elaborating, I ain't either" and that he assured his coach it wouldn't happen against and understood the consequence.
- Whisenhunt wasn't sure about the extent of the left ankle injury for interior offensive lineman Chris Spencer. But the shoulder injury for linebacker Colin McCarthy means he "is probably going to be out for a while."
- Rookie running back Bishop Sankey had a solid showing in his debut with 13 carries for 37 yards to go with three catches for 38 more and the game-winning touchdown. He's been good in pass protection in practices but made an error that resulted in a Jarrett Bush sack of Charlie Whitehurst. "I just missed that backside corner coming off," Sankey said. "I just need to pay more attention, really just scan backside more. I took a glance, and got out into my route without really scanning backside completely."
- Whitehurst had a fantastic run-around play where he looked to be in major trouble as he spun and dropped way far back to avoid Mike Neal. Then he rolled right and hit Sankey along the sideline for a key first down. As he got outside he said to himself, "Oh my gosh, something could happen here." The play had some on Twitter calling him "Charlie Football," which he said he preferred to his far more common nickname of "Clipboard Jesus."
- Outside linebacker Brandon Copeland had a big chance to recover a ball Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien put on the ground when he dropped it as he cocked his arm to throw from near the right sideline. But Tolzien got his hands on Copeland, pulled him back and got to the ball to secure it. "I guess when the ball is free it's fair game," Copeland said. "That's just on me. I've got to be more prepared. I probably should have got the quarterback out of the way first. I saw the ball on the ground, and thought that he was out of the way, then I felt a weight on my back. I'm going to definitely take some grief. You live and you learn." Copeland said he might see that ball on the ground in his sleep the rest of his life.
The committee will feature Bishop Sankey, their best all-around back; Shonn Greene, a short-yardage power back; and Dexter McCluster, a change-up pass-catcher. Fullback Jackie Battle can back up the Greene role, while return man Leon Washington can back up the McCluster role.
I figure, when things aren’t good, there is the potential for rumbling about backs being unable to get into a rhythm.
Running backs coach Sylvester Croom says that should not be a complaint.
“I don’t worry about it at all with this group, because the strength is the group,” he said. “They are great people. Each of them has a unique skill set that we need and I think that is really the trend in the National Football League.
"It’s going to be very difficult to find the guy who’s got the power of Shonn Greene, the blocking ability of a Jackie Battle, the change of direction and speed of Dexter McCluster, the veteran experience and hands and quickness of Leon Washington. You’re just not going to find that in one guy these days.”
“They’ll all contribute, and the great things about it is they are all fans of each other, and that’s going to be a big plus for us.”
Johnson used to suggest that when he couldn’t get going it was because he didn’t get enough touches.
Without talking about Johnson, or, I am confident, intending to take a shot at him, Croom said it doesn’t take many carries to show what you can do to get going.
“If you’re out there on a drive and you get four or five carries, I mean how much longer is it going to take you to get rhythm?” he said. “Certain guys are going to get reps on certain things. And so when they get into the game, there will be a rotation. I’ve done it before and never had a problem.”
- Defensive linemen Mike Martin (hamstring) and Antonio Johnson (knee) remain out. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt said Martin could miss Saturday’s preseason opener against Green Bay and that Johnson has more of a chance to play.
- Taylor Lewan's No. 77 jersey was missing his last name. He said he was not in trouble or anything. Fifteen minutes before practice he discovered his jersey was missing.
- Cornerback Tommie Campbell has struggled throughout camp, but he had a much better day. He ran deep with receiver Nate Washington on one play and was close enough to cause an incompletion. He batted away another pass by Jake Locker for Washington in the end zone during red-zone work.
- Tight end Craig Stevens does a lot of unnoticed dirty work as a blocker. He had some nice opportunities in the passing game and took advantage. He caught a throw in the red zone from Locker at the goalpost and had a leaping catch in the end zone.
- I watched Locker closely in one red-zone period. He hit Washington, dropped a snap for a fumble that killed a play, hit Washington in the end zone, hit Stevens for that leaping touchdown and saw Campbell bat that pass away from Washington.
- The Titans went live (with tackling) for a goal-line snap and running back Shonn Greene plowed forward and got into the end zone from the 2-yard line. On the next snap, not live, Bishop Sankey was going straight ahead, made a sharp cut right and slid around the one guy with a chance of keeping him out of the end zone. Very nice.
- We saw some kickoffs. Maikon Bonani put one through the end zone and had another high one come down halfway into the end zone. Travis Coons took one and hit a liner that landed at the goal line and looked like a long squib kick.
- All 2-minute drive work ended with field goals: Bonani hit from 40, Coons hit from 49 (with a low liner), Bonani hit from 48.
- Whisenhunt missed Ri'Shard Anderson swinging his helmet at a member of the Falcons during a scrap Monday. The coach said if he had seen it, Anderson would have been pulled.
- The Titans practice at 2:50 local time Thursday. It is closed to the public.
The Tennessee Titans are lowly regarded by plenty of fans and media nationally. But they have a lot going on that they feel those people have not paid attention to.
With Ken Whisenhunt and his staff at the helm, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that doesn’t include some of the powers they faced a year ago and a division with two other rebuilding franchises, they might have a chance to surprise.
."You say each and every year, 'Feels different, feels different, feels different,'" safety Michael Griffin said. "Just, you can see every day, people out there talking, we always have guys picking people up. Each and every day there is competition. There are little side bets here and there -- who’s going to win this period and things of that nature. The whole time we’re all trying to get each other better.
"Again, it just feels so much different in this locker room, and everybody has the same goals in mind, and that’s a positive around here."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Whisenhunt had the connections and the interviewing skills to hire a staff that appears to be filled with strong teachers, including a few quality holdovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is turning the Titans into a less predictable 3-4 and comfortably works his way into different sections of practice when position work is unfolding. I've watched these coaches teach and I've seen them connect with players.
Whisenhunt may field a complex offense that's hard to defend, but he's good at keeping things simple. I don't see any changes in how the Titans function that aren't for the better at this point.
2. The Titans don’t have players the fans are going to pick to captain their fantasy squads, but Tennessee should have a good array of quality weapons on offense. Kendall Wright topped 1,000 yards in his second season, and now the team’s best receiver will be sent on a wider variety of routes, not just inside slot stuff. He's been excellent so far in camp. Justin Hunter is doing better getting his legs under him and is catching the ball more comfortably. He got behind Atlanta's defense a few times in the recent joint practice and should be a constant deep threat. Nate Washington is showing he remains a versatile, productive guy.
Beyond the receivers, tight end Delanie Walker and running backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey will be good pass-catching options. When the Falcons gave the Titans a lot of room underneath, Jake Locker hit McCluster with a pass over the middle, and he had a ton of space to take. The Titans have invested a great deal in their offensive line over the past two seasons. They have one more tackle than they need after signing Michael Oher and drafting Taylor Lewan. There should be better protection for the quarterback and better holes for the running backs.
3. The 4-3 defense in recent years lacked a star pass-rusher on the edge who an offense had to fear every snap. The Titans still don’t seem to have that guy. They have to find him, but even if he doesn’t emerge from this group, the overall production out of the pass rush should be better. Who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage? In the 4-3, opponents pretty much knew. In this 3-4, it won’t be nearly as clear on a regular basis. Jurrell Casey, who notched 10.5 sacks as a tackle last season, will work as an end now. He's worked on speed rushes off the edge as well as his bread-and-butter quick power stuff in camp.
Sure, some good quarterbacks can diagnose who is rushing and who isn’t, no matter the front. But outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck (twice), the Titans don’t face any A-list quarterbacks coming off big 2013 seasons this time around. They don’t see Seattle and San Francisco this season either.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Locker is a really likable guy who works hard, says the right things and desperately wants to prove he is the long-term answer for the Titans at quarterback. But in two seasons as the starter, he's missed 14 games while dealing with shoulder, hip, knee and foot injuries. He's practiced pretty well, but there are plays splashed in that can be killers on a Sunday afternoon.
Getting 16 games out of him is hardly a certainty for the Titans. Even if they do and he fits well with what Whisenhunt is asking him to do, he has not been accurate or poised enough when he has played. He sometimes tries to do too much and isn’t poised under pressure. Though he moves well and is very fast, putting him on the move puts him at more risk of another injury. Behind him are more question marks. Charlie Whitehurst has had no real success in just 13 games in eight seasons and often fails to step into his throws. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a great arm but slipped to the sixth round for several reasons and is rotating with Tyler Wilson as the third-team QB. (Update: Wilson was released Wednesday.)
2. The offensive weaponry looks good, but for those five pass-catchers to give the Titans the nice smorgasbord of options, they need to stay healthy. Also, guys like Hunter (second year), Sankey (a rookie) and McCluster (first year with the Titans and Whisenhunt) need to show that their potential and practice play translate into NFL Sundays in a Tennessee uniform. Wright was the best player on offense last season and should grow more. Can the others become known quantities?
Who is the star of the defense? DT-turned-DE Casey is a strong, quick rusher who was healthy and productive in 2013. He is going to land a big-money contract -- either soon from Tennessee or on the market next spring. There are some nice pieces around him, but the Titans need veterans to have their best seasons and youngsters to emerge, all simultaneously. In Georgia, no defender stood out and regularly gave the Falcons more than they could handle.
3. Forty-seven percent of the current 90-man roster has been in the league for two years or less. Youth is generally good, but it needs to be quality youth and it needs to be surrounded by quality veterans. The Titans lack experience in a lot of spots. There aren't kids in camp who weren't high picks but have forced their way up the depth chart to this point.
Maybe it’s a great mix of players and a good share of the inexperienced people can blossom together. But with new coaches and new schemes, it could be asking a lot for all that to happen in the first season.
- Locker said he feels more comfortable speaking up and being vocal, and he has shown himself to be more confident in how he carries himself. After one throw that looked to be too long for an undrafted rookie, Locker pointed to tell Julian Horton where he should have gone. He still has bad moments in practice, but the preseason has not started, and he is progressing.
- The Titans have moved running back Jackie Battle to fullback, where he can offer some needed versatility. He appears to have a sizable lead on incumbent Collin Mooney, who has had, at most, a handful of first-team snaps.
- Among long-shot late additions, veteran receiver Derek Hagan has been consistently good and Brian Robiskie is also gaining notice. He's competing for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston. Maybe they'll keep six.
- Sankey is learning quickly how to be a pro, and he has shown a bit of everything the Titans said they expected when they made him the first running back selected in the draft. His first day in pads he looked like an experienced NFL-caliber pass protector. He has good vision and makes good decisions on when to go and when to cut. He also catches the ball well, can run inside and outside.
- Weakside outside linebacker Shaun Phillips has not worked at all with the first team when Kamerion Wimbley has been practicing.
- Tommie Campbell was politely mentioned with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as a contender for the starting right cornerback spot that opened when Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay. But it’s a two-man competition, and Campbell has struggled horribly.
Titans fans have complained about how the national media perceives their team.
Clayton’s reflections are pretty positive on multiple fronts, including this bit about rookie running back Bishop Sankey.
“Sankey offers everything for the Titans. He's a quick back with power who can bounce around and make defenders miss. He catches the ball well. Sankey knows how to block and protect the quarterback, a skill not all backs have entering the league.”
Of the Titans’ top six pass-catchers right now, no two really look alike. That’s a nice feature to have, that variety.
A run through, in roughly their order of importance and quality:
WR Kendall Wright: An excellent slot guy who’s shifty and fast enough to cause problems. Ken Whisenhunt is likely to line him up outside, too, and to send him on more than just underneath stuff. He was dynamic downfield and can add that to his NFL game.
Backup situation: There is no one else like him on this team, though Dexter McCluster and Leon Washington could do a bit of what Wright does.
Backup situation: The Titans don't have another all-around receiver who's proven himself over a long career.
WR Justin Hunter: The blazing downfield X receiver who should be threatening and stretching defenses even when the ball is not coming his way. He had a catch in the camp opener Saturday that is the sort the team hopes he can make with regularity -- climbing over Coty Sensabaugh and collecting a pass on the boundary.
Backup situation: No one else among the receivers has speed in the same range as Hunter.
TE Delanie Walker: A tough and athletic tight end who can muscle his way to success. The Titans feel he gives them mismatch opportunities, as he can outrun a linebacker and overpower a defensive back.
Backup situation: Craig Stevens is a better pass-catcher than he was given a chance to show last season, but he's not in Walker's class. Taylor Thompson should be at least OK in the department, but is no roster lock yet.
RB Dexter McCluster: More quick than fast (though he says he’s both), he’s just 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds. He has played more receiver than running back in his first four years in the league. He’ll get shots to lone up in the slot or to motion there, but he’ll come out of the backfield and give the Titans far better receiver skills than Chris Johnson showed in recent years.
Backup situation: Leon Washington can do some of the same things, but doesn't match McCluster's quickness.
RB Bishop Sankey: Projects to be the Titans best all-around back once he learns the ropes. He’s completely comfortable as a pass-catcher, and while not likely as dynamic as McCluster, defenses will have to account for the possibility of him working as a receiver when he’s on the field.
Backup situation: If he went down, McCluster would likely catch even more passes. And Shonn Greene would be expected to do a bit more in the area.
“It’s become a matchup game, and you’re trying to create those mismatches,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We have a number of guys that we feel can do that, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get some guys that step up during camp in those backup roles that we have confidence can do that.
“When you get to the season, it’s more about week to week, what their roles are. If we don’t have somebody, then we’re going to lean more heavily on some of the others that we know what they can do.”
“I’ll give you the perfect example. Wide receiver that we had in San Diego last year, Tutu (Seyi Ajirotutu) wasn’t even on our team at the start of the season. We’re playing Kansas City in a critical game late in the year, on the last play of the game in a 2-minute situation as an X, he catches the touchdown pass. You never would have expected that to win the game, but that’s what this league’s all about. He came in, he showed up, earned more trust from the quarterback, and he made a play for us.”
The Titans are going to throw downfield more, and they will be counting on Hunter to make a big contribution as they expand in that department.
That, in turn, will help create opportunities underneath.
“Wideouts may not be wide open down the field, but we can leak out and still make plays out of the backfield,” McCluster said.
In 2-minute drills, Whisenhunt expects McCluster and the backs to be big contributors as well.
“If you’re efficient with that, a lot of times the back is going to make big chucks for you,” Whisenhunt said. “If the down-the-field throws aren’t there, they are playing off coverage, if you can do that it’s big. It takes discipline. But we’re working at it.”