by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
What are we to make of the Tennessee Titans? Midway through August, they announced that 24-year-old Jake Locker would be their starting quarterback in Week 1. Locker will be playing in a more open, advanced, system than what offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was able to run last season. He’ll also be throwing to first-round rookie receiver Kendall Wright. These seem like the makings of a team in rebuilding mode –- or at least of a team looking to begin a new chapter.
But this wasn’t the specific blueprint put forward by owner Bud Adams or senior executive vice president Mike Reinfeldt. There never was a specific blueprint. Entering training camp, Adams and Reinfeldt weren’t even sure that soon-to-be 37-year-old Matt Hasselbeck wouldn’t be the starting quarterback in 2012. And they gladly would have kicked Hasselbeck to the curb and slammed the brakes on Palmer’s new system if free agent Peyton Manning had accepted their lucrative offer back in March.
Defensively, the Titans have long been a vanilla, execution-based, zone team. Defenses that play this style are generally built around a few stars. (Think the Bears with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, for example, or the Lions with Ndamukong Suh, or the Dungy Era Colts with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.) The Titans, however, don’t have any stars. Historically, when they’ve had defenders blossom into stardom, they’ve let them leave via free agency. Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth, and Jason Babin have all fled for more money, and this offseason saw cornerback Cortland Finnegan join the pattern. Good depth has allowed Tennessee’s defense to naturally bloom again, but there’s very little year-to-year continuity, which is odd given that the system has largely stayed the same.
The Titans had an opportunity to carve out a new identity last year when Jeff Fisher was fired after a 17-year run, but Adams and Reinfeldt opted for more of the same. They stayed within the Fisher Regime and promoted offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the head job. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with "more of the same" for Tennessee. This has been a stellar organization for the better part of 20 years. But, aside from four 11-plus win seasons from 1999 to 2003, this has never been a dominant organization.
For most of the past eight years, and especially the last three, the Titans have embodied mediocrity. Now they’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again with their long-standing formula. To even have a chance, they’ll need a handful of important players –- including the young quarterback –- to rise up.
The word out of Tennessee is that offensive coordinator Chris Palmer plans to open things up and introduce more three- and four-receiver looks to a Titans offense that has long featured a classic fullback and controlled, game-managing play calls. Palmer’s new approach is in line with the evolution of today’s NFL. Palmer said he would have implemented more of this advanced system last season, but the lockout wiped away too much of the necessary prep time. The well-traveled offensive guru undoubtedly has the creative acumen to orchestrate an evolved pass-oriented offense; he did a phenomenal job last season dialing up unique route combinations and play-calls to outsmart defensive coordinators. Tennessee was able to manufacture a respectable downfield passing game despite star running back Chris Johnson suddenly deteriorating and No. 1 receiver Kenny Britt going down early with a serious knee injury.
One could argue that the type of offense Palmer wants to run is better suited for Matt Hasselbeck than Jake Locker. Hasselbeck doesn’t have a big arm, but most of today’s spread-oriented passing concepts are horizontal and timing-based. (Palmer hopes to showcase some vertical run-and-shoot concepts, though.) That suits Hasselbeck, one of the league’s best progression-read decision-makers, very well. He’s a cerebral, accurate pocket passer. Locker, on the other hand, is an out-of-the-pocket quarterback. Unrefined mechanics compromise his accuracy at times, and in college he was never comfortable playing a rhythmic brand of drop-back football.
If Palmer wants his young quarterback to succeed, he’ll have to build much of his offense around moving pockets. That will slice Locker’s field in half, which makes for easier reads –- something he’ll likely need –- and allow for more sandlot playmaking opportunities. That’s the value Locker brings to the table. He gives the offense a constant undertone of athleticism. That's something Hasselbeck can’t offer.
As NFL Films guru Greg Cosell astutely points out, Locker’s athleticism could help rejuvenate Tennessee’s zone-based run game. When a quarterback is capable of rolling to the edge of the pocket, backside defenders are compelled to hold their pursuit for an extra beat out of respect for a possible play-action or bootleg. That extra beat opens up more cutback lanes, which a fast running back with strong initial acceleration can take advantage of. (For example, look at Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who is super productive when Michael Vick is on the field.)
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Chris Johnson can take advantage of backside lanes ... we think. No one knows for sure because the explosive 2,000-yard rusher saw his production drop by about 50 percent last season. Johnson wasn’t injured and his offensive line, though not as strong as in 2010, didn’t suddenly forget how to block. For whatever reason, Johnson simply became a tentative-yet-impatient runner who abhorred contact and over-thought everything. We’ll give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and refrain from attributing his struggles to the comforts of having signed a fat new contract after his prolonged holdout, but we’ll also wait and see how he does this September before referring to him as a "superstar" again.
The Titans need Johnson to be a superstar. Backup Javon Ringer has shown flashes of a strength-quickness combination, but no one would describe the fourth-year pro as "explosive." The other option, 2011 fourth-round pick, Jamie Harper, has just 17 carries to his name and is built more for short-yardage situations.
If Palmer sticks with his new system, short-yardage situations might be fullback Quinn Johnson’s only crack at playing time. In order for the updated system to work in normal down and distance situations, tight end Jared Cook will have to become a better run-blocker. Cook isn’t nearly as physical as his cut 6-foot-5, 248-pound-frame suggests. In fact, he’ll probably share a lot of his reps with fifth-year veteran Craig Stevens, who is a serviceable underneath and between-the-numbers pass-catcher and a more reliable all-around blocker.
Cook will likely figure prominently into a lot of Palmer’s passing schemes, as his ability to operate out of the traditional tight end hole or the slot is one of this offense’s few sources of versatility. Cook isn’t the most dynamic runner, but he proved last season to have just enough fluidity to capitalize when matched against linebackers or lower-tier safeties.
The hope is that first-round rookie Kendall Wright can be the primary source of aerial versatility. Many were leery of Wright’s diva attitude and questionable conditioning prior to the draft, but the high-octane Baylor star has drawn high praise for the alacrity and intelligence he’s shown in learning a new playbook. It’s an extra-thick playbook, too, as Palmer plans on using Wright at flanker, split end and in the slot.
Ideally, Wright would tandem with budding star Kenny Britt. Then again, if Britt were remotely trustworthy, the Titans may not have drafted Wright. Bad knees and overwhelming immaturity are two major red flags on the fourth-year pro. At this point, anything Britt gives Tennessee this season should be considered gravy.
Wright will beat out Damian Williams for a starting job. The 2010 third-round pick was a reliable possession target last season, particularly against zone coverage. There’s nothing particularly dazzling about Williams’s game, though, which is why defenses make wideout Nate Washington the bigger priority. In part because of crafty play designs and in part because of his own improvements, Washington is coming off the first 1,000-yard campaign of his seven-year career. Rounding out the receiving corps, mundane fifth-year pro Lavelle Hawkins will be handling all of the No. 4 duties.
Up front, the Titans have always had a stellar, and at times even spectacular, line. Good coaching from Mike Munchak has been a big reason why, though with him at head coach, the line is now under the guidance of Bruce Matthews. This season Matthews will be working with a possible future Hall of Famer in newly acquired left guard Steve Hutchinson. However, the Hutchinson Tennessee has is not the Hutchinson that Seattle or Minnesota had. At 34, the seven-time Pro Bowler no longer has dynamic power behind his initial get-off. And that initial get-off is getting slower and slower. This isn’t to say Hutchinson is washed up; he’s still a serviceable NFL guard. But he’s not much better than the starter on the right side, Leroy Harris.
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With center Eugene Amano out for the year with a torn triceps, lining up between Hutchinson and Harris will be longtime fringe backup Fernando Velasco. Velasco did not get on the field much in 2011, but when filling in at guard in 2010, he had a very difficult time holding ground in pass protection. Undrafted Kevin Matthews is the likely fall-back option if Velasco doesn’t work out, though the Titans have also kicked the tires on five-year center Chris Morris.
At least there is still a quality set of bookend tackles outside. On the left, long-armed Michael Roos is about as steady as they come. He uncharacteristically struggled a time or two last season, but he’s still very much in the discussion of top five players at his position. Gritty veteran David Stewart also struggled a tad on the right side, but there’s no need to even consider replacing him with 2011 sixth-round pick Byron Stingily at this point.
Occasionally, on third down, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray will blitz his slot cornerback or line up in a 3-3-5 and rush a linebacker. But most of the time, Gray keeps his men in predictable 4-3 zone looks. This makes Tennessee’s defense one of the easiest to prepare for during the week, but also, when its playing well, one of the hardest to manipulate on Sunday. Titans defenders consistently keep everything in front of them and make offenses earn every yard.
As you may know by now, vanilla 4-3 zone schemes rely on having an active front four. The Titans last season ranked 31st in the league with 28 sacks –- which is why good offenses were regularly able to mount drives against them. To buttress the pass-rush, Mike Reinfeldt signed ex-Raider Kamerion Wimbley to a five-year, $35 million contract. Wimbley is a respectable player, but this is a classic case of a team overspending because of a weak market at a particular position.
Wimbley is projected to start on the right side. On the left will be 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, who should finally show his true colors now that he’s nearly two full years removed from his rookie season knee injury. Morgan is not the next Reggie White, but he has decent all-around burst and plays with good leverage and technique against the run.
The Titans generally prefer to rotate their defensive linemen, though they may not quite have enough depth to do that on the outside this season. Tenacious veteran Dave Ball is still a handful for offensive tackles, but the only experienced backup alongside him is little-used journeyman Leger Douzable. There’s hope that strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers can become a pass-rushing specialist in sub-packages. The Titans experimented with this last season, as edge-rushing is something Ayers did regularly at UCLA.
Inside, second-year pro Jurrell Casey has the potential to become a superb three-technique. He has excellent quickness and lateral agility, especially for a powerful 300-pounder. The Titans are banking on Casey’s continued development, as their previous interior ace, Jason Jones, fled for the Rams. Taking the sting off Jones’s departure is the fact that last year’s fifth-round pick, Karl Klug, can match Jones’s versatility. Klug plays with great tempo and limberness –- evidenced by his seven sacks in a backup role last season.
Expect Klug to keep playing only passing downs for the foreseeable future. Not only do the Titans have a stellar run-stopping defensive tackle in 2009 second-rounder Sen’Derrick Marks, they also spent a third-round pick this past April on undersized nose tackle MIke Martin.
Tennessee’s linebackers play a slightly more prominent role than typical 4-3 linebackers in their team’s run-stopping efforts. Outside linebacker Akeem Ayers aggressively lines up in the stacked position along the line of scrimmage in both under and over fronts. He was generally impressive in this spot last season, though he occasionally disappeared for prolonged stretches.
In the middle, 2011 fourth-round pick Colin McCarthy will be an upgrade over the man he supplanted in the middle of last season, Barrett Ruud. McCarthy isn’t a budding superstar, but he plays downhill and with a sense of urgency. Also, he was smart enough to make the presnap signal calls and play in nickel packages as a rookie. He shared those nickel duties with Ayers, though this year, athletic second-round pick Zach Brown could line up alongside him. Ultimately, the Titans would like Brown to unseat the shrewd, physical Will Witherspoon as their weakside starter, but first Brown must prove to his coaches (and Mike Mayock) that he’s not "allergic to contact."
With the linebackers crowding the line of scrimmage and Gray using a lot of traditional zone coverages, the Titans don’t often bring a safety down in the box. If they wanted to, hard-hitting (and historically mistake-prone) Jordan Babineaux would be the guy. Babineaux is actually versatile enough to have played slot cornerback at times earlier in his career, but for open-space coverage purposes, the Titans rely mainly on free safety Michael Griffin. The sixth-year pro is rangy and (most of the time) offers good ball skills. This past offseason, Reinfeldt signed Griffin to a five-year, $35 million contract.
Reinfeldt did not re-sign No. 1 corner Cortland Finnegan. And he didn’t bring in a replacement, either. That will hurt, as Finnegan often shadowed the opposing team’s top receiver and was effective sliding into the slot. Alterraun Verner will assume Finnegan’s starting outside and nickel slot duties. The third-year pro has a good knack for breaking on the ball, and he claims he’s eager to develop the same level of physicality that Finnegan had. He won’t follow opposing No. 1 receivers, though.
At the other corner position will be Jason McCourty, an improving but unspectacular fourth-year pro who just signed a five-year contract extension with an astounding $20 million in guarantees. Tennessee’s depth at corner is a concern, as Ryan Mouton, coming off an Achilles injury, will compete with undrafted Chris Hawkins and 2011 seventh-rounder Tommie Campbell for backup duties.
Kicker Rob Bironas has one of the most powerful legs in the game. Punter Brett Kern ranked in the middle of the NFL’s pack statistically last season. With 2010 Pro Bowler Marc Mariani out for the season, either Darrius Reynaud or Damian Williams will likely handle return duties.
The Titans don’t quite seem to have a crisp identity, though there’s enough youth here to wait for one to develop naturally. If Jake Locker plays well and Chris Johnson rounds into his old form, this offense can rank in the top 12 or 15. Defensively, the front seven needs playmakers to emerge.