Titans: 5 position battles to watch for training camp
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans report Friday and hit the field Saturday morning for the first training camp under new coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Six years have elapsed since the Titans last made the playoffs, and another 11 since winning a postseason game. It’s a far cry from the stretch that began with the 1999 season — the franchise’s first in its new downtown stadium after moving from Houston (and Memphis) — that ended in the Super Bowl and started a run of four playoff appearances in five seasons.
If Whisenhunt is to guide the Titans back to the good old days and the promised land of the playoffs, here are five key position battles to watch during training camp:
Last season, opposite steady veteran Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner made the most of a contract year by having a breakout season. His career-high five interceptions led the AFC and tied for fifth in the NFL. It netted the smallish Verner a four-year, $26.5 million contract with the Bucs.
The thing is, though, Verner didn’t beat out Tommie Campbell for the starting nod until the final week of the preseason. In his fourth season, the athletic and rangy Campbell has seemingly fallen behind third-year Coty Sensabaugh, a fourth-round draft pick out of Clemson, and second-year Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a third-round pick out of UConn.
Sensabaugh played in 14 games last season, including three starts at nickel back, before missing the last two with an injury. In two seasons, he has 64 tackles, but has yet to have an interception.
Wreh-Wilson played a limited role as a rookie, but at 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds, he has a slight size advantage over Sensabaugh (5-11, 187). If Wreh-Wilson wins the job, Sensabaugh will move back to the nickel slot on a regular basis.
The Titans have been set for nearly a decade at tackle, with Michael Roos on the left side and David Stewart on the right. The steady and solid Roos returns for a 10th season, but Stewart retired after battling nagging injuries in recent years.
To apparently fill that role at right tackle, the Titans signed veteran Michael Oher, a first-round pick from 2009, who spent the past five seasons starting for the Ravens. He has started all 80 games in that span, bouncing from left side to right side along the way.
The Titans turned some heads by drafting Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan in Round 1 (11th overall), ordaining him the starting left tackle of the future once Roos retires or gets released. In the meantime, Lewan figures to challenge Oher for the starting nod at right tackle, but he will also being groomed to play either guard position — in case of injury to starters Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack.
The Titans are better than solid with a trio of lead receivers that includes 10th-year veteran Nate Washington, who played for Whisenhunt when he was offensive coordinator with the Steelers in the mid-1990s; third-year budding star Kendall Wright, the former first-round draft pick whose 94 catches last season ranked fifth in the AFC (7th in NFL); and Justin Hunter, whose deep-route and big-play potential needs to be realized in his second season.
But who will make the roster as the fourth, fifth or even sixth receiver, should the Titans go that away for the final 53-man roster? Michael Preston (6-5, 213) is big and athletic and appears the favorite for the fourth slot, but he caught only five passes for 37 yards as a rookie. After missing the last two years with injuries, fifth-year Marc Mariana is healthy, but his previous return skills aren’t an added benefit for roster insurance with those positions already filled.
To show the Titans are unclear who will make the roster at wide receiver after the top three, they have seven more potential roster hopefuls already signed. That includes two veterans — Derek Hagan and Brian Robiskie — who have extensive experience. Hagan sat out last season but had 129 catches the previous seven seasons with five teams. Robiskie hasn’t found a permanent NFL home after being the second-round draft pick of the Browns in 2009.
Inside or outside? Take your pick for the new 3-4 defensive alignment of coordinator Ray Horton.
First the inside, where the Titans signed free agent signee Wesley Woodyard to fill one of the two slots. A five-year defensive captain with the Broncos (2008-12), Woodyard is a tackling machine, including 2012 when he became the first NFL defender in three decades to record at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions in a season.
Veterans Moise Fokou and Colin McCarthy, middle linebackers in the former 4-3, may not fit the new defense, especially with fifth-round pick Avery Williamson being groomed there, too. That leaves third-year Zach Brown or second-year Zaviar Gooden battling for the other starting spot. Brown was second on the team last year with a career-high 117 tackles, making him the leader in the clubhouse.
On the outside, two defensive ends — veterans Derrick Morgan, the team’s 2010 first-round draft pick, and Kamerion Wimbley — are being asked to move from down lineman to standing up to rush the passer, stop the run or defend pass routes in space. Slowed early in his career by injury, Morgan has 12 1/2 sacks the last two seasons. Wimbley played linebacker earlier in his eight-year career.
Fourth-year linebacker Akeem Ayers appears ready to finally take that step to productive starter on a per-game basis after being slowed by injuries the past two seasons. When healthy, he has big-play potential, but the Titans added former Broncos rush end/linebacker Shaun Phillips to challenge — just in case.
The Titans surprised many in mid-March when they released veteran Rob Bironas in mid-March, the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, having made 85.7 percent (239 of 279) of field goals the past nine seasons. But he was due to make $2.875 million this year, making him too rich for the Titans at the position.
Two unproven rookies — native Brazilian Maikon Bonani and Travis Coons — are the only kickers currently on the roster. But there is no guarantee it will remain that way as NFL teams go through cuts the next few weeks.
If the season began today, Bonani would be the guy. The former South Florida kicker was signed by the Titans last year, released during training camp and then re-signed again in January. He has a strong leg, but has had accuracy issues. In four college seasons, he made 75.8 percent of field-goal tries.
Signed in mid-May as an undrafted free agent, Coons made 80 percent (24 of 30) on field goals the past two seasons at Washington.