As the Titans get a few weeks off before training camp opens in late July, here are five must-hits and five notable surprises from spring camp:
1. Moise Fokou
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When third-year middle linebacker Colin McCarthy has played, the results have been solid. Thing is, the Titans just haven’t seen enough of him, due to injuries. So, the Titans signed an insurance policy in Fokou, most recently of the Colts. Bythe end of spring drills, though, Fokou was running ahead of McCarthy with the first-team defense. The battle at middle linebacker should be fun to watch during training camp.
2. Tennessee’s tight ends
The Titans always have a stable of intriguing tight end prospects, and Delanie Walker (formerly of the 49ers), as the No. 1 option, headlines the group this year. Veteran Craig Stevens is a good blocker and dependable receiver, while second-year player Taylor Thompson appears completely converted from his college days as a defensive end.
Former Vanderbilt standout Brandon Barden made the roster last year; but he could get some competition from another undrafted free agent, Jack Doyle (Western Kentucky), this summer.
3. The Titans secondary
With the arrival of veteran safeties Bernard Pollard (Ravens) and George Wilson (Bills), two-time Pro Bowler Michael Griffin can move back to his natural position of free safety. The Titans went from being lean and inexperienced to deep and talented in one fell swoop.
Pollard and Wilson bring not only years of experience on the field, but accepting of leadership off it. They’ll assume the mantle of guiding the defensive talent — especially the young players — through the season, despite playing elsewhere in 2012.
4. Brian Schwenke
The general consensus concerning Schwenke’s pick in the fourth round was that it made sense. Here was a strong and talented offensive lineman who can develop over time and eventually step into the starting role at center.
That’s not how Schwenke figured it. He had designs on starting from day one in the NFL. During pre-draft training sessions in Los Angeles, working alongside some of the top draft prospects, including Tennessee first-rounder Chance Warmack, Schwenke (6-foot-3, 314 pounds) enhanced a reputation as a workout monster. Against all odds, he could be the Titans’ opening-day starter at center.
5. Shawn Jefferson
It hasn’t taken long for Jefferson — the wide receivers coach who recently spent eight seasons with the Lions (2005-12) — to show his vocal side and demanding approach that was a big hit among receivers.
He vows to coach players to be good human beings first, and then the talent will come out even more. Jefferson called out rookie receiver Justin Hunter for not being on the field because of injury; and by the time minicamp had ended, Munchak seemed to pull back the reins on Jefferson, at least for public consumption.
1. QB Jake Locker
Maybe, just maybe, Locker should have been the Titans’ starter as a rookie in 2011 and taken his lumps, setting the stage for a smoother transition in Year 2.
Then again, the NFL has shown that rookie quarterbacks can have immediate impacts, notably Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Robert Griffin III (Redskins) and Andrew Luck (Colts) last season. While the Titans have seemingly filled many gaps through free agency and the draft, they’ll only go as far as Locker can take them this year.
2. Healthy offensive line
Underachieving when healthy and then finally decimated by injury, the offensive line’s inadequacies last year didn’t sit well with head coach Mike Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews. (Munchak and Matthews are both O-line Hall of Famers.)
While the Titans signed ex-Bills left guard Andy Levitre, the premier free agent at his position, and return veteran tackles Michael Roos on the left and David Stewart on the right, none participated in any significant spring drills because of various injuries.
The big question is Stewart, who broke his leg late last season. As insurance, the Titans signed several free agent tackles.
3. Chris Johnson
Around this time in 2009, one season after he became the sixth back to rush for 2,000 yards in a campaign, Chris Johnson proclaimed that a 2,500 yards was a realistic goal. Well, it hasn’t gone exactly as planned for Johnson, whose contract holdout in 2011 finally netted a bonanza and the realistic expectations for him to remain among the game’s elite.
Well, that hasn’t happened either, and Johnson has yet to own up to having any responsibility for his decline in production. For some, last season’s 1,228 rushing yards might seem like a good year, but it’s not what the Titans or Johnson have come to expect.
4. Michael Griffin
Griffin (a first-round pick in 2007) has been an enigma, on and off the field. At times, his play at safety has been worthy of all-star status. At other times, he seems disinterested and has become the focal point of derision by fans that have seen his potential.
Maybe he wasn’t ready for the leadership role that came with his position and lofty draft status. He also got shifted last season to strong safety, where he was obviously out of position. Back at free safety and seemingly unburdened by the leadership role absorbed by Pollard and Wilson, Griffin can now go freely about the business of being one of the league’s better free safeties.
5. Early victories
The NFL didn’t do Tennessee any favors early on, scheduling old nemesis Pittsburgh in the opener, before making a Week 2 trip to rival Houston — the consensus favorite in the AFC South.
Privately, the Titans would probably take a split and move to Week 3 against visiting San Diego, a must-win regardless of how the first two games shake out. That is the first of three winnable home games for Tennessee, before playing NFC West powers Seattle (road) and San Francisco (home). If the Titans can tread water in the first seven games, they’ll have a huge swing outing against old friend Jeff Fisher’s Rams in Week 8.