Training camp preview: 5 questions facing Titans
JUN 23, 2014 3:24p ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. â Last Thursday, the Titans put a wrap to several months of various offseason programs under new coach Ken Whisenhunt with a flurry of activity. Ten voluntary team sessions were followed by the mandatory three-day minicamp held last week. The Titans will not convene again until July 25 -- the start of training camp.
It has been a whirlwind for the coach, staff and players alike as new offensive and defensive philosophies are learned and schemes installed. When the team opens training camp, it will need to hit the ground running, considering the first preseason game is two weeks later against visiting Green Bay on Aug. 9. So heading into summer break, here are five pressing questions the Titans must answer to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.
1. Will Jake Locker finally stay healthy long enough to become franchise quarterback?
By end of the offseason program, Locker was running full speed and in charge of the offense. Certainly, he was well ahead of schedule all spring while recovering from foot surgery in November that caused him to miss the last seven starts of 2013.
As the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2011, Locker has been deemed the franchise quarterback in waiting. But heâs missed 14 starts the last two seasons because of injuries, including nine last year. When he has played, Locker has looked the part, both with his arm and his ability to pressure defenses with his legs.
The Titans did not exercise the option year of Lockerâs contract that was to pay him $14.6 million in 2015, though. That puts Locker in the last year of his initial contract and playing for a job next season. If Whisenhunt is indeed a quarterback whisperer as advertised, then Locker should excel in an offense with plenty of weapons catered to his specific strengths. Now all Locker has to do is stay healthy for an entire season.
2. Can the backfield by committee replace departed running back Chris Johnson?
After six seasons, the Titans released Johnson when he declined to renegotiate a contract that would have paid him $8 million each of the next two seasons and $7 million in 2016. He then signed with the Jets for a modest $8 million over two years, a number he could have probably gotten with the Titans had he been willing.
While his production steadily decreased since signing a $53.5 million contract in 2011, the speedy Johnson was always a home-run threat every time he touched the ball. He was supposed to split carries last season with free agent signee Shonn Greene, who was limited by injuries.
Enter via free agency versatile running back and receiving threat Dexter McCluster, who made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner last year for the Chiefs. Heâs listed as a running back, but the Titans will use him much the same way the Chargers with Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator used Danny Woodhead last season.
The Titans also drafted Washington running back Bishop Sankey in the second round, making him the first running back taken with the 54th overall pick. His versatility to run, catch and block caught Titans eyes. Recovering from knee surgery this spring, Greene hopes to get back to the form that netted consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons from 2011-12 with the Jets. â¨
3. How quickly will the Titansâ defense adapt to the new 3-4 alignment?
One of the first items of business when Whisenhunt took over was to hire Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton to the same job with the Titans. Heâs a 3-4 defensive guru, and the coaches spent all spring mixing and matching to see who fit where.
From the Broncos, the Titans added linebackers Wesley Woodyard for the inside and Shaun Phillips for the outside. They also drafted Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson in the sixth round, continuing to serve notice to returning linebackers that roster spots are limited and up for grabs.
In fourth-year tackle Jurrell Casey, the Titans have an emerging star. Last year, he led the Titans and finished tied for second among NFL tackles with a career-high 10.5 sacks. But he did so in the traditional 4-3 set used by the previous coaching staff.
Departed by free agency to the Bucs is cornerback Alterraun Verner, who parlayed a breakout year and Pro Bowl berth into a large payday. Thing is, general thinking has opposite cornerback, sixth-year veteran Jason McCourty, the better of the two. Leading candidates to replace Verner are third-year Coty Sensabaugh, second-year Blidi Wreh-Wilson and fourth-year Tommie Campbell, who was barely beaten out by Verner for the starting nod last year.
4. Is the offensive line finally ready to achieve?
By end of last season, three Titans new to the roster in 2013 had firmly become the interior core of the offensive front for years to come. After former Bills left guard Andy Levitre was signed via free agency, the Titans drafted right guard Chance Warmack in the first round and center Brian Schwenke in the fourth.
Dependable left tackle Michael Roos returns for a 10th season, but his running mate for the past eight years, right tackle Dave Stewart, retired. After the Titans signed veteran free agent Michael Oher to take over that spot, they made Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan the No. 11 overall pick in the draft.
Lewan is heir apparent to follow Roos at left tackle, but donât be surprised if you see him playing a variety of line positions this season, especially if there are injuries. If Oher can return to form and Roos can stay healthy, this could be the season the offensive line moves from perennial underachiever to team strength under new position coach Bob Bostad.
5. Can the new offense find a balance amongst its deep pool of options?
Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Jason Michael are licking their chops to utilize one of the deeper offensive skill groupings in recent Titans history. That makes Lockerâs need to stay healthy even more paramount.
Already mentioned is the running back tandem of McCluster, Sankey and Greene. But the wide receiver trio of veteran Nate Washington, third-year standout Kendall Wright and second-year deep threat Justin Hunter combine to be as promising a receiving group as the team has had in years. After playing seven seasons behind 49ers star Vernon Davis, tight end Delanie Walker came to the Titans to make a name for himself. Despite being nagged by injuries in 2013, he still had career highs in receptions (60), receiving yards (571) and touchdowns (6).
While they may be listed at a certain position, Whisenhunt likes to move players around and use them in a variety of roles. If the offensive line can take the next step and Locker stays healthy, it should be a productive year offensively for the Titans.