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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Tennessee Titans Season Preview

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Tennessee Titans (projected finish: 10-6)

Team synopsis: The schedule is not easy.  In fact, it’s downright violent.  But the Titans are too talented, and too good, to suffer back to back non-winning seasons.  They’ve won 31 games in the last three years.  There’s a legitimate worry about a defense that finished ranked 27th last season, as that is the unit that really hurt the Titans last year.  The other concern is with quarterback Vince Young, but if both merely play to the level of their teammates, they will help the Titans win.

Best Players

  • RB Chris Johnson (drafted — East Carolina/2008 1st round pick)
  • LT Michael Roos (drafted — Eastern Washington/2005 2nd round pick)
  • RT David Stewart (drafted — Mississippi State/2005 4th round pick)
  • DT Tony Brown (signed — Carolina/2006 waivers)
  • LB David Thornton (signed — Indianapolis/2006 free agent)
  • CB Cortland Finnegan (drafted — Samford/2006 7th round pick)

Best Prospects

  • RB Javon Ringer (drafted — Michigan State/2009 5th round pick)
  • WR Kenny Britt (drafted — Rutgers/2009 1st round pick)
  • TE Jared Cook (drafted — South Carolina/2009 3rd round pick)
  • LG Leroy Harris (drafted — N.C. State/2007 4th round pick)
  • DT Jason Jones (drafted — Eastern Michigan/2008 2nd round pick)
  • DT Sen’Derrick Marks (drafted — Auburn/2009 2nd round pick)
  • DE Derrick Morgan (drafted — Georgia Tech/2010 1st round pick)
  • LB Gerald McRath (drafted — Southern Miss/2009 4th round pick)
  • LB Rennie Currie (drafted — Georgia/2010 3rd round pick)
  • CB Ryan Mouton (drafted — Hawaii/2009 3rd round pick)

If there one event that caused the Titans to turn around after a 0-6 start — one that isn’t related to Vince Young, Kerry Collins, or Chris Johnson — it’s a collective effort by their 2009 draft class.  No one player broke out, but Mouton had meaningful punt returns and two starts, Ringer made an impact in the kick return game and averaged 6 YPC on 8 attempts, Gerald McRath started five games and made an impact, and Kenny Britt emerged as Vince Young’s favorite receiver.  Young players made plays for the Titans, and one year later, they look to have one of the better draft classes from 2009.

Keeping the return to respectability in perspective, though, is critical.  It’s true that they were a horrible team in the first six games, and that they weren’t that same team when they got back from the bye week.  But saying that they were a true 8-2 team in the second half overstates a small sample.  According to game-by-game DVOA, the 8-2 Titans had a remarkably similar 3 game stretch (Weeks 11-13) to the 0-6 Titans (Weeks 1-3).  They, of course, began the season 0-3 against Pittsburgh, Houston, and the Jets.  But in that three game stretch in late November, they beat Houston and Arizona before losing to Indianapolis.  The Titans also had a two game stretch to end the season similar to their Week 4 and 5 stretch, going 1-1 against San Diego and Seattle, but 0-2 against Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

The Titans were improved in the second half of the year — much improved — but they weren’t great.  They were able to turn those close losses into close wins, and they blew out the Rams, and handled the 49ers comfortably, and beat up on the division rival Jags after the bye.  And because their 59-0 forfeit to the Patriots in the snow came at 0-5 and before the bye, the contrast seems more stark than it really is.  The biggest difference, of course, was who they played and when they played them.

Chris Johnson really picked his game up after the break.  He was on the radar already thanks to some scattered performances that changed fantasy results even as the Titans lost games.  But after the bye, the Titans threw Chris Johnson’s receiving skills into their gameplan with Young at the controls, and suddenly, a nondescript pro-bowl year turned into NFL history.  Johnson would break the NFL yards from scrimmage record, no doubt assisted by the fact that the Titans had little to play for in Week 17 despite winning seven of their last nine.

Young was perhaps the biggest factor, taking over for a very ineffective Collins.  Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger threw the book at his opponents.  A lot of Chris Johnson’s longest runs came on old college option plays: Young’s versatility could get him out on the corner, and even though Young didn’t exactly challenge defenses with his rushing skills, it was a significant strategic advantage to toss Johnson the ball with only the secondary to beat after beating the lineman and linebackers with misdirection action.  Johnson may have done what no other back in NFL history accomplished, but he didn’t do it without help from his offense.

Young also threw the ball quite well.  Though he completed only 58.7% of his passes, consider that NFL writers awarded him the Rookie of the Year award with a 51.5% clip in the same category for winning the same number of games with three more losses.  He didn’t exactly go unrewarded, with the pro bowl nomination and all, but Young got the ball out of his hand quickly (3.4% sack rate), set career bests in yards per attempt, TD rate and INT rate, and if anything, his 82.8 QB rating actually understates the job he did.

The biggest change on the Titans offense will be the promotion of Leroy Harris from the bench to left guard, with Eugene Amano moving over and filling a hole created by Kevin Mawae’s expiring contract.  The overall impact of these moves would appear to be an upgrade.  The offensive line remains a team strength, and the best in the division.

A lot of Vince Young’s ability to sustain his productivity rides on the shoulders of Kenny Britt.  Britt had 85 career receiving yards before reaching the drinking age.  He’ll be 22 before the Week 2 game, and the Titans just don’t have a lot of places that they can throw the ball.  Their 3rd round pick, Damian Williams, is an advanced target capable of picking up an offense similar to the one he ran in college quickly, but may not have great upside, and certainly not the upside of a guy like Britt.  Nate Washington can be a number two receiver in this offense, but can’t save Justin Gage from his general lack of speed and quickness in and out of his routes.

If Derrick Morgan is half the player the Titans think he can be, the Titans have a better defensive line than they did when Albert Haynesworth played for them.  Tony Brown was already a very good defensive tackle when he played with Haynesworth, and now has developed into the lead man on the Tennessee DL.  Jason Jones is probably better than Brown was when Haynesworth played there.  And on the left side, the William Hayes/Jacob Ford platoon is better than when Jevon Kearse played there.

The problem becomes replacing Kyle Vanden Bosch in his prime.  Thing is, Vanden Bosch wasn’t at his prime pass rushing level for his final two years in Tennessee.  Morgan’s first task is to fill the shoes of a declining defensive end.  After that, he needs to develop into the elite pass rusher that Vanden Bosch used to be.  Then, once again, Tennessee has the pieces of an elite defense.

David Thornton is aging, but he’s justified the cost of picking him up in the free agent market four years ago, and probably can have a rebound year at age 32.  He’s going to hold his spot warm for McRath through this year, with Stephen Tulloch playing the middle and Will Witherspoon replacing Keith Bulluck on the other side.

The Titans need to find solutions in their secondary.  Cortland Finnegan is a very good cover corner in this league, but lacks the elite skills to take an entire side of the field away.  Tye Hill, Mouton, and second year Jason McCourty all are in the mix for the fiercest position battle on the Titans, second corner.  Michael Griffin and Chris Hope return as the safeties.  Hope is solid, dependable, and can get targeted in the passing game by better passing combinations.  Griffin has shown great skills and abilities in the past, but comes off a dreadful season, and needs to pull his career off of the Reggie Nelson career path.  6th round rookie Myron Rolle can step in for Hope if necessary, but Griffin has just Vincent Fuller behind him — he’s sink or swim.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Chris Simms could play well enough to win Kerry Collins’ spot.  That’s unlikely, if you’ve seen Chris Simms play recently.  Rusty Smith is a developmental draft pick who probably lacks NFL starter upside, but could max out at backup.

The running back situation seems to be taking hold, where Javon Ringer is your number two guy, and Alvin Pearman is the number three who catches passes and returns punts.  Samkon Gado is in with the Titans for camp, but his career is probably reaching it’s end.  Likely the same for LeGarrette Blount, who never had much of a career to begin with.

Even with Britt’s emergence, there are more questions among the receivers than a year ago.  That Nate Washington signing hasn’t worked out thus far, and Gage’s strange, multi-year run of competence abruptly ended this season.  That inconsistency caused Lavelle Hawkins, a 4th round pick in 2008, to catch seven passes in fourteen targets.  Hawkins would only make this year’s team out of necessity, as the top three receivers figure to be Britt, Washington, and Damian Williams.  Gage probably makes team due to a veteran clause.  Montana’s Marc Mariani could challenge Gage for his roster spot.  It would be nice if one of the other roster fillers stepped up.

Craig Stevens, perhaps the best blocking TE in the NFL, is becoming a bigger member of the offensive gameplan, which means that Bo Scaife has to hold off Jared Cook to justify his roster spot.  In reality, the two will probably split time.  Scaife does not appear to be a part of the teams future.

Mike Otto and Troy Kropog are the first lineman off the bench, and Michael Toudouze doesn’t have any great competition for his roster spot.  The Titans prefer their reserve lineman to learn multiple positions.  Undrafted rookie Kevin Matthews is going to be any and every opportunity to make the team.  He is royalty after all.

The additions of both Raheem Brock and Jason Babin would push the Titans to keep nine defensive lineman at least, which is the most likely scenario.  Both are reserves on this team.  Rennie Curran, a third round LB out of UGA, is a backup this year, and could start next year if Tulloch’s contract isn’t renewed.  Collin Allred and Stanford Keglar both have starts in the preseason, but the Titans may or may not be able to afford to keep both.

The team drafted CB Alterran Verner in the 4th round from UCLA.  He’s nominally the fifth corner, but if he plays his way into the rotation in the preseason, there’s little reason to hold onto Tye Hill if he doesn’t win the starting job.


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