Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
01 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 defensive starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL. (However, since the Texans change offensive personnel less than almost any other team, we've listed them with only 11 starters.)
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Injuries along the offensive line struck hard late in 2012, though Tennessee’s ground game had been wildly inconsistent all season long. That made the entire offense inconsistent –- especially when veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was not in. New first-time coordinator Dowell Loggains has a project on his hands. It’s called Jake Locker. Sometimes Locker shows glimpses of first-round talent. More often, though, he shows erratic mechanics and a bad habit of unpredictability as a progression reader. How Locker goes will determine how the Titans go.
QB: Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick; Lost: Matt Hasselbeck
RB: Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene, Jamie Harper, Quinn Johnson (FB); Lost: Javon Ringer
It’s on Loggains to design a system that simplifies things for Locker but also takes advantage of his athleticism. That means more roll-outs, play-action concepts and probably some zone-read options. Doing this will also capitalize on Chris Johnson’s home-run abilities. Johnson will never be a physical runner, which is why the Titans brought in Greene. (Harper has proved to be too slow in his change-of-direction to be a No. 2.) Greene is an unimaginative runner, but as he showed in his first few years with the Jets, he can come in late, be fresh, and feast on tired defenses. The fact that he’s getting $10 million over three years tells you Johnson might be playing for his future in Nashville.
WR: Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Lavelle Hawkins
TE: Craig Stevens, Delanie Walker, Taylor Thompson ; Lost: Jared Cook
Nate Washington doesn’t command regular double teams, but he’s serviceable if the system features route combinations and other vehicles for receiver help. It’s time to cut bait with the brittle-kneed Britt. His on-field issues with route-running and drops make his off-field issues no longer worth tolerating. Besides, the Titans need to see how Wright does in a more featured role. Stevens is an adequate all-around tight end off the bench, but he’s not dynamic enough to create his own opportunities as an every-down starter. Walker might be dynamic enough, but he’s at his best creating mismatches as a flexible No. 2. It will be interesting to see how Thompson, an über-athletic college defensive end, does in his second year.
LT: Michael Roos LG: Andy Levitre C: Fernando Velasco RG: Robert Turner RT: David Stewart
Backups: Mike Otto, Eugene Amano; Lost: Steve Hutchinson, Leroy Harris
Roos isn’t quite as steady as he was a few years ago, but that’s nitpicking. Hutchinson retired at the right time -- he was still respectable, but diminished health was taking a toll. The Titans spent a lot to replace him, but they got a quality young run-blocker in Levitre. It remains to be seen how Velasco can do as a full-time starting center. If he struggles, Amano could slide back into that spot. Also remaining to be seen is how veteran Stewart will bounce back from last December’s broken right leg. If he struggles, Otto, who was impressive as a fill-in, could be worth a look.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray prefers to line up in a basic two-deep zone and just play football. To do this, his guys have to be better than their opponents. That wasn’t the case in 2012. Gray’s defense, particularly the secondary (and even more particularly, safety Michael Griffin), missed far too many tackles. When the Titans did buckle down, they often found themselves making three or four subtle-but-costly mistakes each game. When injuries cut into Tennessee’s pass-rushing potency in midseason, Gray tried to compensate by mixing and disguising coverages, as well as by sprinkling in more unique pass-rush designs. That’s what he needs to do in 2013. This is an improving defense, but it doesn’t have the raw talent to win just with fundamental play out of vanilla looks.
DE: Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Keyunta Dawson, Thaddeus Gibson; Lost: Dave Ball
DT: Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin, Sammie Lee Hill, Ropati Pitotua, Karl Klug; Lost: Sen'Derrick Marks
Martin, a 2012 third-round pick, will almost certainly capture a starting spot after a stellar debut season. The departure of underrated run defender Sen’Derrick Marks opened the door for Hill and Pitoitua, two quality backups who have the size to plug inside but can get after the passer. Klug is looking to recapture his third-down snaps in nickel packages after an uneventful sophomore year. Those nickel packages are where Gray gets creative –- something he may have to focus less on doing in third-and-long if Morgan continues to progress. The fourth-year end is very good at establishing initial contact and making an effective move off of it. Opposite Morgan, Wimbley can skim the edge, but he’s not elite.
OLB: Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, Patrick Bailey; Lost: Gerald McRath, Zac Diles
ILB: Colin McCarthy, Moise Fokou, Tim Shaw; Lost: Will Witherspoon
Ayers and Brown both appear to be on a path to stardom. Ayers is an aggressive, fervid force in high-traffic areas. He also intrigues with his ability to put a hand in the dirt on third downs. Brown is a finesse-based cover linebacker who came on more and more as his rookie campaign unfolded. Inside, McCarthy can be a stabilizing presence, handling his duties against the run and surviving when asked to drop into coverage.
CB: Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Coty Sensabaugh, Tommie Campbell; Lost: Ryan Mouton
S: Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard, George Wilson; Lost: Jordan Babineaux
McCourty isn’t worth the $17 million that was guaranteed in his contract extension last season, but he’s a solid No. 2 zone corner. Coaches like his leadership. Problem is, McCourty is serving as the No. 1 here. On the other side, Verner, on his best days, is a confident, physical player. It might not be a bad idea to bring in a challenger for him, though. At safety, Griffin has good range, but missed tackles and poor angles in coverage were far too common in 2012. There's still a lot of talent there, and he's likely to rebound in 2013. Pollard is one of the fiercest hitters in the game; you have to wonder how angry Wilson, who chose Tennessee over other destinations early in free agency, felt when the ex-Raven was brought in.
K: Rob Bironas P: Brett Kern
Bironas has steadily declined on kickoffs each year, but was unusually consistent on field goals... until last year, when he was below average.
10 comments, Last at 07 Apr 2013, 5:11am by Mr Shush