Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Although they should be better on defense, they need to be a lot better. They'll run well, but if they are down 10 to 14 points, they'll have to go away from what they do best. The Texans are more talented, and the Colts have a superior quarterback.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The running offense should improve with Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack at guard, but there are still questions about QB Jake Locker and the defense.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 A rebuilit offensive line paves the way for Chris Johnson and an improved ground game.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Titans need to figure out if Jake Locker really is the answer at quarterback. At this stage, it doesn't look that way.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Titans are just average on defense.|
Five things you need to know about the Titans:
1. Big question at quarterback: It's the deepest and most talented group of receivers the franchise has had since it moved to Tennessee. The revamped line should offer good protection and open some nice holes. Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene should be an effective one-two punch out of the backfield. All of that is nice, but it won't necessarily be enough if Jake Locker can't make significant gains in his third season. He's been better in training camp and the preseason, but there is no guarantee it translates.
2. The defense lacks difference-makers: Who is the Titans' defender opposing offensive coordinators look at and say, "We've got to know where he is at all times"? There is not one. This defense should be better, but there is a long way between better and average. The pass rush was underaddressed in the offseason. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, one of last year's defensive captains, is unlikely to start because he simply cannot stay healthy. Bernard Pollard brings the sort of swagger the team has lacked, but if he can't cover downfield, a lot of the talk could end up ringing hollow.
3. Mike Munchak on the hot seat: Owner Bud Adams let Munchak redesign the team in the way the third-year coach thought was necessary. Beyond the player changes, he brought Gregg Williams back to Tennessee as a senior defensive assistant and shuffled his coaching staff. If it works and the Titans break through to the playoffs, Munchak could get a new contract before entering the final year of his original four-year deal. If it does not, he could be finished after three seasons.
4. The styles are changing: The offense was far too complicated under coordinator Chris Palmer, whom Munchak fired late last season. Gone are the option routes that counted on several players seeing and interpreting things the same way. Less thinking should lead to faster play and quicker, easier decisions in Dowell Loggains' offense. Defensively, they are moving toward more aggressive and physical play, with more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. The first team hasn't fared well with it in the preseason, staying blocked far too often.
5. They are counting on a lot of guys making jumps: Beyond Locker, the Titans need a lot of guys to make big gains all at the same time. There are two categories of those: new veterans projected into bigger roles, like tight end Delanie Walker, defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua, and draft picks who need to vault to new heights, like receiver Kendall Wright, linebacker/end Akeem Ayers and rookie first-round guard Chance Warmack. What are the odds they all pan out simultaneously?
-- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
Jake Locker got off to a strong start in 2012 before getting injured, posting a 72.4 Total QBR through Week 3, sixth best in the NFL during that span. Locker's performance dipped after his return from injury as he posted a 39.0 Total QBR in the final seven weeks of the season, eighth worst among qualified quarterbacks.
Locker's struggles, however, may have been linked to poor offensive line play. He was sacked twice on 112 drop-backs in his first three games last season but took a sack once every 11.6 drop-backs in Weeks 10-17, a rate six drop-backs more frequent than league average.
Locker has played in only 16 games in two seasons, but with an improved offensive line, the Titans may finally get to see what he is capable of doing.
• Although the Titans' pass protection was strong early last season, the run game suffered. Chris Johnson averaged 0.5 rush yards before contact in Weeks 1-3 and 3.7 yards before contact the rest of the season.
• The Titans used five or more pass-rushers on only 25 percent of opponent drop-backs last season, but when they did use such pressure, they recorded a sack once every 7.6 drop-backs, best in the NFL. With four or fewer rushers, that rate jumped to a sack once every 26.0 drop-backs.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
RB Chris Johnson (9.4 avg. AV since 2010)
Though he's no longer CJ2K, Johnson is more than serviceable. His 2,290 rushing yards since 2011 rank sixth, and only three others broke more runs of 15-plus yards during that span.
-- Pro Football Reference