Friday, July 17, 2009
Albert who? This team is still loaded
By AJ Mass ESPN.com
Time stands still for no man except perhaps for Joe Flacco.
The blown "delay of game" call during the Ravens' game-winning drive in the AFC playoffs is what most Titans fans will point to as the cause for Tennessee's 2008 season coming to an unceremonious end. Still, whether you blame that call or the three turnovers the Titans had that day for the loss, the fact remains that up until that moment, Tennessee was looking like a championship team.
They earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after going 13-3 on the regular season, and quite frankly, the third loss probably shouldn't even count against them, as it came in a "battle of the backups" in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Colts. Really, outside of the outcome of that playoff game against the Ravens, there's not a whole lot this team needed to change, which is why we're not surprised to see that not much has.
As long as Keith Bulluck is anchoring it, the Titans' D will still be mighty imposing.
Yes, Albert Haynesworth left for Washington, but the Titans' defense has never relied on just one point of attack. Jevon Kearse, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Keith Bulluck are all still in Tennessee, and we don't see any reason the Titans won't continue to have one of the toughest defenses in the NFL. They ranked seventh overall in yards allowed in 2008, and even without Haynesworth's 8.5 sacks, they would have ranked in the top 10 in that category.
The offense won't do anything different. Kerry Collins will start under center with "Smash and Dash" -- Chris Johnson and LenDale White -- in the backfield sharing the carries. The Titans did lose several receivers this offseason (Brandon Jones and Justin McCareins), but so what? Justin Gage was the team's most effective receiver in 2008, albeit with a mediocre 651 yards (good enough for only 44th place among wideouts), and he is returning. Even after signing Nate Washington, the team still could use an upgrade in that department, but other than that, expect this year's Titans to dominate their opponents in the same manner as last season, as they had a points scored differential of plus-141, tied with Baltimore for best in the league.
Key position battles: With the starting lineup pretty much set, most of the position battles will be for backup jobs. At quarterback, Vince Young will battle it out with Patrick Ramsey for the No. 2 spot. Just the fact that Ramsey is in camp at all seems to indicate the Titans have soured on Young. That doesn't mean, however, the former "franchise quarterback" can't win the backup role, especially if coach Jeff Fisher wants to mix in a special goal-line package suited specifically to Young's talents.
Similarly, at running back, we know Johnson and White will get nearly all the carries, save for the occasional mop-up duty, but why not let a fresh face hold that mop? Javon Ringer was drafted in the fifth round out of Michigan State, and most likely already has a leg up on perennial disappointment Chris Henry and special-teams standout Quinton Ganther. Don't count out practice-squad player Rafael Little, who might well do enough in camp to win the No. 4 running back job.
Fitting in: At wide receiver, Washington should step right in to the starting lineup alongside Gage, and given his deep-play capability, he actually might have even more value than Gage in fantasy terms, especially if your league isn't of the PPR variety. First-round pick Kenny Britt has reportedly been training with workout warrior Rod Smith in the offseason, but he's still probably a year away from having a huge fantasy impact. We do, however, certainly expect him to pass the likes of Paul Williams, Chris Davis, Lavelle Hawkins and the "legendary" Craphonso Thorpe on the depth chart before Week 1. There's also an outside shot that current free agent Drew Bennett will attempt to make a comeback with the Titans, but that would have little impact on the expected top three receivers.
The Tennessee tight ends are set, with Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler both providing a crucial veteran presence at the position. That should remove all pressure from third-round draft pick Jared Cook as he attempts to acclimate to the pro game. Crumpler, in particular, has taken the rookie under his wing. Cook told The Tennessean, "It's just great to have someone like that around, a big savvy guy who knows a lot and can teach you a lot. I learn something from him every day." If something should happen to Scaife or Crumpler, it looks like Cook will be well-prepared to step in.
On the defensive side of things, there are two big pairs of shoes to fill. Long-time assistant Chuck Cecil will attempt to maintain the status quo now that Jim Schwartz is off to run the show in Detroit, but it's Jovan Haye who will be called on to make fans forget about Haynesworth. Haye was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay, and will share defensive line duties with Tony Brown, Jason Jones (who filled in when Haynesworth got hurt last season) and second-round pick Sen'Derrick Marks in the Titans' rotational scheme. But with a healthy Vanden Bosch in the mix, we don't expect this unit will miss a step. Albert who?
On the line:
All five starters (Michael Roos, Jake Scott, Kevin Mawae, Eugene Amano and David Stewart) will return for the Titans, hoping to repeat last season's impressive work. Collins was sacked only eight times all season, and the running backs rushed for just under 2,200 yards. The Titans also had more rushing touchdowns inside the 10-yard line than any team in the league. There's not much to say here. We'll just zip our lips and bow down in respect to these guys.
The bottom line
As we said earlier, time stands still for no man, but the Titans will be spending all season simply killing time, as they once again march through the AFC just waiting to return to that one moment in time when it all fell apart for them last year. A deep playoff run and redemption seems inevitable for Fisher and his charges. While Collins and the wide receivers won't win you any fantasy titles, if you hop on board with Johnson, White and the Titans' defense, you certainly won't be sorry. Tennessee's time is now.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.