NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans already have shuffled their offensive line this offseason by bringing in five-time All-Pro Steve Hutchinson.
More changes could be coming.
Center Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris, both coming off a pair of surgeries, are back on the field trying to reclaim their starting jobs. At the same time, the Titans are looking to strengthen a unit that uncharacteristically struggled in run blocking last season despite being one of the NFL’s best at pass protection.
Amano is trying to hold off Kevin Matthews, an undrafted lineman whose father Bruce is Tennessee’s offensive line coach, while Fernando Velasco got to work at right guard as Harris recovered. Harris returned to team drills Tuesday in time to take part in the Titans’ final three-day minicamp to cap the offseason program.
Coach Mike Munchak, himself a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, said they thought the result would be great competition.
“And that is how it has been here,” Munchak said. “Those two guys have gotten a lot of work, Fernando and Kevin Matthews, have got a lot of work with the first group quarterbacks during the OTA period. Now Leroy and Eugene are getting a lot of work, so I think that makes a nice mix of competition coming to camp.”
The Titans traditionally have been among the NFL’s best when it comes to running the ball, something that usually starts up front with stout blocking. But Tennessee dropped to next-to-last in that category last year, with blame handed out almost equally to running back Chris Johnson coming off his contract holdout and across an offensive line intact for a second straight season.
Tennessee averaged 4.3 yards per rush, good for 29th in the league. Still, there were far too many times when Johnson was tackled in the backfield.
“We all took our share in it, not just the interior guys,” Harris said Wednesday. “It seems like we were all taking turns. It wasn’t any particular guy on any play. We all took our turn at having bad plays. … It was killing us. We couldn’t do it.”
Pass blocking was no problem. The Titans allowed only 24 sacks, tying the Saints for the second-fewest in the NFL.
Early in the offseason, Amano had surgeries to repair his knee and ankle. Harris had surgery on his left shoulder and left knee on the same day to start his healing process from injuries suffered early in training camp last year.
The Titans got busy as well. Right guard Jake Scott was allowed to leave with his contract completed. They hosted Hutchinson early in free agency and signed him to a contract two days after his visit, instantly installing him at his customary left guard spot where he has earned seven Pro Bowl berths.
Munchak said he already sees Hutchinson’s presence and full-speed approach from drill to drill at practice rubbing off on his linemates. The coach also is seeing improvement in communication in the interior of the line.
“When you have another veteran in there like him, if it ends up being Leroy at right guard and Eugene at center however it works out, I think you’re going to have guys who really get along well,” Munchak said. “I can already see things they’re doing, the adjustments they’re making, the calls they’re making so much ahead of where you think you’d be this time of year.”
For Amano, working to remain a starter is nothing new for a seventh-round draft pick in 2004 out of Southeast Missouri State. He has started 68 of 124 games played.
Harris now is being asked to play a position he has rarely been at in his career whether in the NFL or back in college at N.C. State. The five-year veteran is going into the final year of his current contract happy he returned to practice for this minicamp so he can feel comfortable in training camp playing on the right side next to right tackle David Stewart.
And working hard to start? Harris said nothing’s changed.
“I always feel like the guy behind me is really creeping up on me so I take the attitude with it. I also see it as a challenge,” he said.
NOTES: QB Matt Hasselbeck has been mentioned as a target in the Saints’ bounty program when he was with Seattle. Asked Wednesday about being targeted, the veteran said he hasn’t followed it closely. “But what I heard was it was the quarterback, running back and top receiver. Those are the names you expect. I’ve been going about my thing and I don’t really know what to say,” Hasselbeck said.