NFL team preview: Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans enter the 2010 season with the optimism that they are the team that closed the year 8-2 after an unexpectedly dreadful 0-6 start in 2009.
But that optimism has to be tempered with the fact that the Titans have questions aplenty that have to address on both sides of the football.
Offensively, the team is centered around extraordinary running back Chris Johnson, who became only the sixth player in NFL history to run for 2,000 yards in a season. But as amazing as CJ2K is, he may not be the player that holds the key to success in his hands.
That "honor" falls to quarterback Vince Young, who reclaimed the starting position last year after the 0-6 slide and played better than nearly anyone could have predicted.
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Now, it is up to Young, as he enters his fifth season, to find consistency in his game and become the leader the Titans need him to be.
"This is the best group of skill positions players Vince has been surrounded with since he's been here," Coach Jeff Fisher has been fond of saying throughout training camp and preseason.
That said, it is up to Young to operate the controls to take advantage of those weapons that not only include the mercurial Johnson, but also receivers
"We've got the good runner, but for an offense to be good, your quarterback has to play good and make good decisions. So we'll see as we go through preseason," offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said.
If preseason is any indication, Young is better, but still needs to take better care of the football.
More questions abound on the defensive side of the ball in Tennessee where the unit slumped to 28th last year, including 31st against the pass.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil has had a year to grow into his role after being promoted from defensive backs coach in 2009.
Gone are 30-something stalwarts Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Jevon Kearse and Nick Harper. In their place are youngsters and journeymen that have to step up and integrate into the defense. In preseason, the experiment seemed to work, but the Titans have to hope that that is not an aberration.
The secondary has only one change -- Jason McCourty replaces Harper -- but hopes for better health from Cortland Finnegan and nickel back Vincent Fuller and better play from safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin than they showed a year ago.
COACHING: Jeff Fisher, 17th year, 17th with Titans (141-116).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 8-8 (3rd in AFC South).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC South).
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Titans are beginning to get some of their walking wounded back. DT Tony Brown was activated off the PUP list after having a slow recovery from offseason knee surgery. Brown was given a three-year, $17 million extension in the off-season, but had not practiced at all after he needed surgery to repair a condition in the knee caused by blood and fluid from a thigh bruise that seeped into the knee.
Also, defensive end William Hayes, who has had a sprained MCL in his right knee, is close to returning and should be a go by the season opener.
Cortland Finnegan is back from his injured groin and is a go for the season as well.
The only major question mark is linebacker David Thornton, who remains on PUP with a shoulder injury. He could start the season on PUP, or the Titans might outright release him and his $4.35 million base salary.
--LG Leroy Harris has a nagging ankle injury, but should be ready to go by the start of the regular season.
--LB Rennie Curran tweaked a hamstring against Carolina and has been slowed in practice, but should be ready for the start of the season.
--WR Justin Gage is playing with a splint on his right thumb and says the digit that apparently has ligament damage will likely linger into the regular season.
--S Nick Schommer is making a late push to earn a roster spot. Beginning with the Carolina game and in practices recently, Schommer has moved past rookie Myron Rolle and been working as a second-team strong safety.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/16, DE Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech -- After being out for most of camp with a calf injury, Morgan made his preseason debut against Carolina and impressed with his rush skills. He should have a regular spot in the Titans' defensive end rotation.
Rd. 3/77, WR Damian Williams, Southern California -- The Titans are hopeful that Williams will solve their return game issues on both punts and kickoffs.
Rd. 3/97, LB Rennie Curran, Georgia -- Undersized linebacker will probably contribute on special teams as a rookie. The Titans hope he can contend for more in 2011.
Rd. 4/104, CB Alterraun Verner, UCLA -- The hit of training camp, Verner is battling Jason McCourty to the wire to be a starting cornerback. The only knock is his man coverage on the deep ball.
Rd. 5/148, S Robert Johnson, Utah -- A ballhawk in college, that aspect of his game has yet to translate during his first training camp. Likely a special teams player for now.
Rd. 6/176, QB Rusty Smith, Florida Atlantic -- His strong arm has gotten him noticed in camp, probably enough that the Titans will keep him on the 53 instead of the practice squad.
Rd. 7/222, WR Marc Mariani, Montana -- This small-school receiver has played his way onto the roster by showing he belongs and being a playmaker when given the opportunity. He could even wrest the return job away from Damian Williams.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Vince Young. Backups -- Kerry Collins, Rusty Smith.
Young's re-emergence came last year and now he has to be more consistent in order to become a franchise QB. Collins is back for one more year as the backup, while Smith is the heir apparent to at least be No. 2 and perhaps No. 1 if Young falters down the line.
Johnson became the best running back in the league last year, and at age 24, there's no reason to believe he won't continue to be among the NFL's most productive. Hall is underrated as a fullback, while Ringer steps into the backup role. Though he might be better suited on practice squad, the coaches seem enamored with Blount's big-back skills.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter: Bo Scaife. Backups - Jared Cook, Craig Stevens, Sean Ryan.
Scaife has been one of Young's favorite targets over the years, but could lose playing time to Cook, who has a world of potential. Stevens will play a lot in two tight-end sets and has value as both a blocker and receiver.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Nate Washington, Justin Gage. Backups - Kenny Britt, Lavelle Hawkins, Damian Williams, Marc Mariani.
Gage and Washington are both back from a year ago. The Titans would love for Britt to show the consistency necessary to move into the starting lineup. Hawkins has improved in this camp, but the Titans are high on the potential of rookies Williams and Mariani.
This group has been one of the NFL's best over the past two seasons, and the only change is Amano sliding over from left guard to center to replace departed veteran Kevin Mawae, with Harris moving in at left guard. The only question is among the backups where experience is lacking.
This unit has something to prove with younger players having to step forward. Jones can be an impact player inside if he can stay healthy (something he hasn't done his first two seasons), while Morgan can earn playing time quickly in the rotation. Keep an eye on journeyman Babin as d-line coach Jim Washburn has a good track with reclamation projects.
McRath is suspended for the season's first four games, leaving Allred likely to start and creating a potential drop-off. Tulloch has been playing well in camp after missing OTAs in protest over his contract. Witherspoon comes on board and has shown he still has solid skills.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: LCB Cortland Finnegan, FS Michael Griffin, SS Chris Hope, RCB Jason McCourty. Backups -- NB Vincent Fuller, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Ryan Mouton, S Robert Johnson, CB Tye Hill, S Nick Schommer, S Donnie Nickey.
This group is looking for atonement after struggling in '09. Finnegan, Griffin and Hope were in the Pro Bowl in '08. Finnegan will roam more for favorable matchups, alternating sides. Don't underestimate the value of Fuller as the nickel back. Verner had an outstanding camp and preseason and might still beat out McCourty in the long-term.
SPECIALISTS: PK Rob Bironas, P Brett Kern, LS Ken Amato, KOR Damian Williams, PR Damian Williams, KOR/PR Marc Mariani.
Bironas is one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL, and Kern has proven to be a nice addition taking over for Craig Hentrich, who retired. Williams and Mariani are in a battle to see who wins the return position.