Commentary

Titans' toughness on display at camp

Rebuilt offensive line could be team's anchor; Locker looking more comfortable

Originally Published: August 5, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Tennessee Titans safety Bernard Pollard was infuriated when Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman ran over and through Titans safety George Wilson.

The rules of engagement for this dual practice were no fighting, and running backs were not to finish runs. Fortunately, Wilson wasn't hurt, but Pollard considered Freeman's run excessive. For several minutes, Pollard kept verbally jabbing at Falcons offensive players, saying the team was a pretender. He wouldn't stop.

Though Pollard might have been overzealous with his comments, the most noticeable observation about the Titans is their toughness, especially along the offensive line. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton was hired by new coach Ken Whisenhunt to turn a no-nonsense 4-3 into a tough-minded 3-4. Pollard punctuates the toughness with his voice and hits.

Except for Pollard's occasional verbal assaults, the Titans are hoping to quietly catch up in the AFC this season. Here are five observations from their training camp:

1. O-line could be one of the best: For years, former Titans coach Jeff Fisher had solid offensive lines coached by Hall of Famer Mike Munchak. But inevitably, age and attrition started eating away at the talent and production, leaving left tackle Michael Roos as the only strong survivor. In the past two years, though, general manager Ruston Webster has brought in strong reinforcements. Last year, he signed the top guard in free agency, Andy Levitre, and used a first-round pick on Chance Warmack. In March, he spent $20 million (over four years) for right tackle Michael Oher, and made Taylor Lewan a first-round pick. At center is 318-pound Brian Schwenke, a fourth-round pick in 2013.

That overhaul could qualify Webster for one of those house-repair reality shows. As thin as offensive lines are around the NFL, imagine the Titans going into the season with Lewan, a potential star, on the bench. The improvements on the Falcons' defensive line were noticeable in Monday's workout, but what was more apparent is how well the Titans' line handled those rushes.

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
AP Images/Mark HumphreyRookie RB Bishop Sankey has the skill set to be a valuable weapon in Tennessee.

2. Bishop Sankey should be a star running back: I doubt he'll be a starter on opening day, but not because he lacks talent. Sankey went to the University of Washington, a Pac-12 school that is on the quarter system. He missed most of the OTAs and is behind on his learning. Whisenhunt is smart enough not to rush things. 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. Titans fans became accustomed to the big runs by Chris Johnson through the years. Sankey may not make as many long downfield runs, but he should be a solid 1,100-plus-yard back for the next several years, particularly behind that offensive line.

3. Jake Locker looks improved: Locker has never played more than 11 games in a season, which is why the team didn't exercise the fifth-year option on the quarterback's contract. But for an athlete who was talented and physical enough to play safety, Locker doesn't mind a position in which any play could be his last. What's clear is that he has improved his footwork and is more accurate. He is doing a better job following the progressions. His tendency to break from the pocket when pressured is lessening. Still, there are times he holds onto the ball for too long. Whisenhunt will work with him on that. Before getting hurt last season, Locker finally crossed the 60 percent completion threshold (60.7). How this season plays out will determine if this is his last as the starting quarterback.

4. Receiving corps is better than outsiders think: Because the Titans have been a relatively quiet franchise the past two years, people haven't noticed what they've done on offense. In 2012 and 2013, the Titans used a first- and second-round pick on wide receivers Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Wright has already hit it big, coming off a 94-catch, 1,079-yard season. Hunter is a 6-foot-4, athletic receiver who should make a big jump from his 18-catch rookie season. And veteran Nate Washington hasn't appeared to lose much over the years. Locker is blessed with three quality receivers and a 60-catch tight end, Delanie Walker.

The intriguing addition is former Kansas City Chief Dexter McCluster. The Chiefs used the 5-8 McCluster out of the slot. Whisenhunt is moving him around from the backfield and into routes. He could add a big play or two per game.

5. Transition to 3-4 off to a good start: Normally, I'm skeptical when teams switch to a 3-4. Either the team doesn't have the size along the defensive line, or it doesn't have the pass-rushers to make it work. The reason the Titans have a chance is that Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan look promising as pass-rushers from the linebacker position. As insurance, the Titans signed Shaun Phillips from the San Diego Chargers. The next key will be how well they do at inside linebacker. They signed Wesley Woodyard from the Denver Broncos, and Zach Brown has the range and coverage skills to have the lead at the other inside linebacking slot.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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