Titans: 5 position battles to watch during camp

BY foxsports • July 23, 2013

The Tennessee Titans open training camp Thursday seeking a turnaround from last season’s disappointing 6-10 record. The Titans signed 16 free agents and drafted to fill key positions, so there is guarded optimism for the Titans as they enter the third season under Coach Mike Munchack.

Two weeks from Thursday night, the Titans open the preseason with a home game against the Redskins. They open the season with road trips to Pittsburgh on Sept. 8 and AFC South rival Houston on Sept. 15.

Against that backdrop, we look at the five key position battles as the Titans open camp …

Third-year Colin McCarthy has shown promise in the middle when he can stay on the field, but that has been a question for the former fourth-round draft pick out of Miami (Fla.). After being voted a team captain heading into last season, he played only seven games because of concussion symptoms and a shoulder injury. That came after playing in 13 games, starting seven, as a rookie in 2011 and finishing fourth on the team in tackles.

For insurance, the Titans signed free agent Moise Fokou, a fifth-year veteran who had 43 tackles last season for the Colts in a reserve role. While the current depth chart has McCarthy listed as the starter, it was Fokou doing the most work with the first-time defense by the end of spring drills.

There is little doubt who will be the lead receivers for the Titans, considering two of their last five first-round draft picks have been Kenny Britt in 2009 and Kendall Wright in 2012. Add Justin Hunter selected in the second round this year and veteran Nate Washington to the mix, and you figure that quartet to be the core.

But Washington, the team’s leader in receiving yards the past two seasons, has a salary cap hit of $5.1 million this year, which could too expensive to make the roster. Britt has been injured and troubled off the field, but explosive when on it. Wright should only be better in year two after leading the team and tying all NFL rookies with 64 receptions, and Hunter had first-round grades by many teams before falling to the second round in April.

Whether Washington returns to the roster or not, there is a logjam of receivers on the depth chart. When the Titans signed veteran Kevin Walters, it appeared to place third-year Damian Williams and fourth-year Marc Mariani, who set out last season with an injury, on the bubble.

After appearing in all 32 games for the Titans in 2010-11, versatile veteran Fernando Velasco started all 16 games (13 at center, three at guard) last season and was one of just a few bright spots for an injury-depleted and underachieving offensive line. But the Titans turned heads in the draft in April when they selected California's Brian Schwenke in the fourth round after having him graded as the top center available.

While Velasco is listed as the starter on the current depth chart, there is the notion that the strong and nasty Schwenke will eventually team with guard Chance Warmack, the team’s first-round draft pick at No. 10 overall, to provide an interior anchor duo for the line for many years to come. Just how soon that will happen could be determined in training camp.

When the Titans signed veteran strong safety George Wilson, the longtime defensive leader for the Bills, it appeared the position was set for this season. That was important, because allowed the move of Titans veteran Michael Griffin back to his natural position of free safety, from where he had previously been named twice to the Pro Bowl.

But the Titans then signed another strong safety, Bernard Pollard, who had just come off helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl. From the moment he set foot on Titans property, Pollard assumed the leadership role with a defense that had sorely lacked any kind of guidance from its upper-classmen.

Just maybe, Pollard and Wilson will play many snaps together on the field, but when it’s one or the other at strong safety, then it appears Pollard will take that lead role.

Say what? That’s correct.

It appears to be a work in process just who will be leading the defense between third-year coordinator Jerry Gray or Gregg Williams, who was hired just days off his NFL year-long suspension and given the ambiguous title of senior assistant/defense.

Sure, the long relationship between Gray and Williams goes back to their days with the franchise when Williams as defensive coordinator and Gray as secondary coach was helping the Titans make the Super Bowl. And when Williams was named head coach with the Bills, it was Gray who followed him there to become defensive coordinator.

But after the Titans last season gave up the most points in the NFL and franchise history, the defense needed a new voice. Enter Williams, who will take a backseat to nobody on his coaching approach. During spring drills, it was Williams who did the most directing of the defense. Just how the working relationship evolves between Gray and Williams will go a long way in determining whether the Titans defense improves.

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