NASHVILLE, Tenn. – While the revolving door has been swinging for Tennessee Titans coaches since season’s end, running back Chris Johnson and free safety Michael Griffin will remain.
The Titans let an NFL deadline pass and will not exercise rights to release the two former first-round draft picks and Pro Bowl performers. The moves would have eliminated large chunks of salary and freed space under the salary cap for 2013.
Instead, the Titans decided to stay the course with two high-profile players who have performed at the highest levels, but who have also had reoccurring lapses of inconsistency.
“Just like the coaching decisions, we look at the same thing with the players and the salary cap,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “We do what ifs. What if we did this? What if we did that? What’s best for the team?”
Munchak feels the team is much better off with Johnson, who is scheduled to make $10 million in 2013, including a $9 million roster bonus that is now due and count directly against the cap. Johnson signed a $53.5 million extension two years ago on a contract that runs through 2016.
“Definitely, us going forward with C.J. on the roster is better than the alternative,” Munchak said. “We felt that way from the beginning. So, we are going to build this thing around him at the running back position.”
It has been that way since Johnson was taken No. 24 overall in the 2008 draft out of East Carolina. After showing promise the first season by rushing for 1,228 and nine touchdowns, he broke through for 2,006 rushing yards in 2009, becoming just the sixth back in NFL history to eclipse 2,000 yards in a single season. His 2,509 yards from scrimmage that season was a NFL record
After rushing for 1,364 yards the following year, Johnson went through an extensive holdout seeking a new contract before the start of the 2011 season that had him miss all of training camp and three preseason games. He then rushed for a career-low 1047 yards before putting up a pedestrian 1,243 yards this past season.
Much of Johnson’s inconsistency this past season can be attributed to an injury-plagued offense line that already had weaknesses on the interior. And fired after the season by Munchak was running backs coach Jim Skipper, who was replaced by NFL veteran assistant and former Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom.
“I think Sylvester Croom is going to do a great coming job coming in there and helping us develop C.J. to another level and challenge him and get him more consistent,” Munchak said.
Look for the Titans to look for a strong No. 2 behind Johnson either through free agency or the draft. Neither backup — oft-injured Javon Ringer or Jamie Howard — appears to be the long-term answer, and Darius Reynaud is too valuable in the return game to risk many carries.
“I am more excited about this year than any other year after talking to Coach Munchak,” Johnson told The Tennessean. “I feel better about some of the things we’re going to do, and I want to be a part of it. I feel Coach Munchak wants to put the team back to some winning ways and get things going in the right direction. I feel good about it.”
Griffin’s salary for 2013 also became guaranteed today. And like the decision to maintain the course with Johnson as the lead back, Munchak said keeping Griffin at free safety to lead the defense was a no-brainer.
That comes after Griffin, the No. 19 overall draft pick in 2007 out of Texas, showed inconsistencies this past season as well, much of which can be attributed to being switched to strong safety early in the season before returning to his natural free safety slot that twice has garnered him Pro Bowl status.
“The biggest thing with (Griffin) is us getting a (strong) safety so he doesn’t have to play out of position,” Munchak said, “and that we don’t ask too much from him as far as flip-flopping from strong safety to free safety. I think that was a burden.
“We need to address the other safety position, and I think that will help (Griffin) in a big way.”
Like Johnson, Munchak doesn’t question Griffin’s desire to emerge as a defensive leader for which he was so highly drafted.
“(Griffin) has been in the building every day,” Munchak said. “He loves the game. We’re expecting a big season out of him.”
The Titans are projected with current contracts to be around $19 million under the salary cap for 2013, if the cap remains around what it was in 2012. And there are other personnel decisions to be addressed.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the 14-year veteran and backup to starter Jake Locker, is 37 years old and due to make $5.5 million. He has indicated that he is willing to renegotiate his contract, and it appears he will return.
Veteran guard Steve Hutchinson, who came to the Titans via free agency from Minnesota, goes from $2 million this past season to $4.75 million in 2013. The 12-year veteran missed the last four games with a knee injury, and his return is in doubt, either through retirement or the Titans cutting him.
Center Eugene Amano could have helped a group of interior linemen considered a team weakness, but he missed the season with a triceps injury. He is set to make $3.94 million this year.
With Munchak declaring strong safety a position of need, Jordan Babineaux might be gone. By last season’s end, he was not a starter, and his salary for 2013 is $1.6 million.
Wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins might get caught in a number’s crunch in two ways – his salary for 2013 of $1.9 million more than doubles the $800,000 he got last season, and the players ahead of him on the depth chart at the position. He had only five catches last season.
Tackle Mike Otto’s salary jumps to $1.7 million from $750,000. That might be too much to pay a reserve, even if he has been a key one.