Titans hit first OTAs with key position battles

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – By the time training camp opens in late July, the roster of the Tennessee Titans will swell to 90 players. By the time camp ends a month or so later, that roster will be whittled  to 53 survivors.

But with the unprecedented aggressiveness of signing more than a dozen free agents coupled with filling even more immediate needs through the recent draft, the Titans’ front office and coaching staff served notice that competition will be the name of the game for those who are to join the team for the 2013 season.

“I would hope that these guys make their living being competitive,” third-year head coach Mike Munchak said. “I wouldn’t expect anything other than everybody to rise up and compete. I think that when you get this far, it’s hard to get to the NFL without having a competitive nature that would make you want to work and battle for a spot on this team.”

This week signals the start of official workouts for the Titans called OTAs — organized team activities, formerly labeled as mini-camps — at Baptist Sports Park. First come the veterans, followed by the rookies, then a blend of both.

Certainly, notice has been served that there are plenty of keen eyes watching every position with the influx of free agents, drafted and undrafted rookies, and returning veterans.

“I think that was something that was real important for us,” Titans general manager Ruston Webster said of creating competition roster-wide through free agency and the draft. “I think it is a way for us to get better as a team, if there is competition day-in and day-out for jobs. So yeah, I definitely feel that way and that was a goal.”

Against that backdrop, here is a position-by-position analysis of the Titans’ roster heading into May:

Quarterback

After playing sparingly as a rookie two seasons ago behind veteran Matt Hasselbeck, former first-round draft pick Jake Locker won the starting job in training camp last season. But he missed five games with a shoulder injury and was inconsistent in the 11 games he played.

The Titans promoted Dowell Loggains from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and bolstered the offense at every position, especially along the line. That all makes it paramount for Locker to seize the reins and become the guy. If not, the Titans placed an insurance policy by signing free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Buffalo Bills starter, as seemingly more than just a backup should Locker get hurt.

No. 3 quarterback Rusty Smith enters his fourth season. Big and strong-armed, Smith hasn’t impressed in the few times he has played. Don’t be surprised when the Titans sign a free agent or two to compete for the third QB slot.

Running back

The Titans turned heads when they signed former New York Jets running back Shonn Greene via free agency. The Titans’ lead back since being drafted in the first round of the 2008 has been speedster Chris Johnson. His 5,645 rushing yards during his first four seasons led the NFL.

But after rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009, the numbers have since been rather pedestrian, including 1,243 yards last season. Sure, the offensive line was depleted by injury, but that “spurt-ability” Johnson possessed in his first few years was seemingly gone. He is due $10 million this season.

Upon hearing of Greene’s signing, Johnson apparently wasn’t all that pleased and was quoted as saying, “I have never been a big fan of the two-back system, so I don’t know how we plan on using him. I’m not afraid of competition. … At the end of the day, I think there’s a chance it could turn into some controversy, but that is nothing to worry about right now. I am hoping for the best.”

Greene rushed for more than 1,000 yards the past two seasons and had 3,423 yards in four seasons with the Jets.

The Titans are currently listing tight end Craig Stevens atop the depth chart at fullback, followed by Quinn Johnson.

Wide receiver

In the first round of the 2012 draft, the Titans surprised many when they selected Baylor’s Kendall Wright. All he did was lead the team and tie for most catches among NFL rookies with 64 receptions.

With supposedly more glaring needs, the Titans moved up in the second round of this year’s draft to select Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter, an athletic and rangy receiver who seemed to never fully recover during this past season with the Volunteers from a season-ending knee injury in 2011.  

When you throw in former first-round draft pick Kenny Britt and veteran Nate Washington, the Titans have gotten deep at wide receiver in a hurry. So much so that last week they released LaVelle Hawkins after five seasons, and veterans Damian Williams and Marc Mariani are also on the hot seat for roster inclusion, especially when you consider the free agency signing of 10-year veteran Kevin Walter. He has 356 career catches, mostly with Houston, the past seven seasons.

When he is on his game, Britt can be one of the better receivers in the league. But he has been injury prone on the field and often a knucklehead off it, considering his multiple run-ins with the law since joining the team. In the final year of his contract, Britt can play himself into a huge deal with a big season or he can play himself off the roster following it with another sub-par performance.

Washington is an interesting case as well. He is due a cumbersome $4.2 million this season, thus the reason he was reportedly dangled as trade bait before and during the draft, even though he led the team last season with 746 receiving yards. That payroll figure might make him expendable, although he has not missed a game during his seven-year career that started with three seasons in Pittsburgh.

Tight end

The Titans feel they will not miss a beat at tight end, and might have even upgraded the position when they didn’t re-sign Jared Cook but got former San Francisco 49ers tight end Delanie Walker instead. The athletic and rangy Cook had shown promise during his four seasons with the Titans, but also was a point of frustration because of his lack of productivity. Things boiled over last year when he talked about being traded during the season.

Walker has played behind Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis during his days with the 49ers. He is more versatile than Cook, meaning he can block but also put pressure on defenders in space. In second-year Taylor Thompson, the Titans might have a diamond in the rough. He played defensive end collegiately at SMU.

Offensive line

Munchak and Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews are Hall-of-Fame linemen who performed side-by-side for the franchise back when the team was in Houston. And they were certainly embarrassed by the pitiful offensive line play of last season that had mostly to do with injuries, but also lack of production and quality depth.

So what did they do? Enter former Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre, the top free agent at the position. Then came the selection of Alabama guard Chance Warmack with the No. 10 overall draft pick, giving the Titans what projects to be one of the best guard tandems in the league. Veteran tackles Michael Roos on the left and David Stewart on the right make for one of the league’s more underrated tackle tandems, too.

But there is concern about Stewart returning fully healthy after breaking his right leg late in the season. Thus, the parade of potential free agents recently visiting the Titans, including veteran Eric Winston.

Prior to the draft, the Titans locked down solid center Fernando Velasquez, but they also drafted California’s Brian Schwenke in the fourth round after having him graded as the top center in the draft. Veterans Mike Otto and Byron Stingily are solid backups on the outside, while Eugene Amano can play any of the three interior slots.

Defensive line

The defensive front was thought to be a priority through free agency and the draft, but there was little movement, especially at end. Former first-round draft pick Derrick Morgan hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but he did show flashes to close last season.


Veteran defensive end Kamerion Wimbley has missed one game in a seven-year career, but he needs to have more than the six sacks he produced last season. The Titans added former Kansas City Chief Ropati Pitoitua, who is 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds, through free agency and drafted LSU’s Lavar Edwards in the fifth round.

The Titans upgraded at tackle when they didn’t re-sign solid Sen’Derrick Marks but rather went with former Detroit Lion Sammie Hill, a former starter in Detroit who found himself playing behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Adding Hill to the trio of Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin and Karl Klug makes for a solid interior rotation.

Linebacker

The Titans appear to have linebacking set for several seasons to come with a young but talented and productive trio im Colin McCarthy in the middle and Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown on the outside.

But McCarthy has been injury prone, thus the free agency signing of former Indianapolis Colt Moise Foiku as backup. And the Titans added speed and depth on the outside by drafting Missouri’s Zaviar Gooden in the third round.

Munchak foreshadowed the team selecting a linebacker before the draft, even if it wasn’t considered a pressing need.

“I think that is a position almost every draft you usually come out with one as you go through because they’re such good athletes out there,” he said, “and they can do so much to help you win on a Sunday.”

Secondary

The Titans moved veteran Michael Griffin from strong safety to his more natural free safety slot from where he has twice been named to the Pro Bowl. Through free agency, the Titans added former Baltimore Raven Bernard Pollard and former Buffalo Bill George Wilson to compete at strong safety.

The Titans like starting cornerbacks in Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner, but it didn’t keep them from adding two more through the draft in UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson in the third round and Nevada’s Khalid Wooten in the sixth round. Second-year Coty Sensabaugh seems ready for full time in the nickel slot, while athletic Tommie Campbell appears to be on more of a learning curve. In Pollard and Wilson, the Titans may have their short-term answer at strong safety, but don’t be surprised if the future for that position turns out to be Wreh-Wilson, a big and strong defender with solid speed.

Special teams

The Titans didn’t let placekicker Rob Bironas enter free agency by signing him to a two-year deal worth $6.6 million. Despite missing a career-high six field goals and dipping to 80.6 percent on field goal attempts, third-lowest of his career, Bironas is still considered one of the league’s top kickers.

Third-year punter Brett Kern is solid and dependable. His 40.4 yards per punt net average last year was second-best of a six-year career.

After return specialist Marc Mariani was injured last season, backup Darius Reynaud stole the show. He ranked third in the NFL in punt return average and returned two punts for scores in the same game against Jacksonville.