NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt was greeted at the NFL owners meetings with the same pressing issues that he inherited when taking control of the club in January:
For starters, What’s up with Chris Johnson?
The six-year running back is due to make $8 million this year and next, followed by another $7 million in 2016. So, it figures the Titans will either trade or release him this spring.
The other question: Can Jake Locker finally become the franchise quarterback warranted by being the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2011?
Locker’s still recovering from foot surgery that, along with an early shoulder injury, caused him to miss nine games last season.
The Johnson issue is the more immediate quandary, since Whisenhunt has already affirmed as the starter headed into training camp. The Titans signed Charlie Whitehurst and subsequently released Ryan Fitzpatrick as Locker’s backup.
Johnson can remain with the club, if a restructured contract makes him more roster- and/or trade-worthy at the same time. But he has steadfastly stated he would not consider a new deal with the Titans.
"Chris has been a good player in this league," said Whisenhunt during the four-day NFL confab in Orlando, Fla.. "He’s been a durable player, and he’s done a lot of things."
That includes rushing for 7,965 yards the past six seasons, justifying Tennessee’s first-round investment from the 2008 draft. In 2009, Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards, but his numbers since then have steadily declined. Last season, he rushed for 1,077 yards, second-lowest of his career, and a career-low 3.9 yards per carry.
"It’s a process with anytime you come into a new team and how all those pieces fit," Whisenhunt said of assessing Johnson’s future with the team. "And we’re still working through it. We don’t have a deadline on that, but we’ll see how it all progresses."
Tennessee players report to the team’s facility on April 7 for off-season workouts, for which Johnson plans to attend. But if he suffers a season-ending injury during a team-sanctioned workout, the Titans might have to pay all of Johnson’s 2014 salary.
"Yeah, I plan on being there," Johnson told The Tennessean on Tuesday. "If I haven’t been traded or released by that time, I will show up in Nashville and be ready to go from day one with the team. There’s been a lot of speculation about the future and where I’ll be. But I am under contract with the Tennessee Titans. That’s my team. And whatever team I am with when the off-season program starts, that is where I am showing up."
As for Locker, Whisenhunt wonders — like everybody else — whether the fourth-year quarterback can stay healthy for an entire season. Last year, Locker looked impressive in guiding the Titans to a 3-1 start (three games of multiple touchdowns) but injured his left non-throwing shoulder in a Week 4 victory over the Jets.
He returned after missing two games with the assist of a bye week, but suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot on Nov. 10 against the Jaguars. The injury called for Locker to miss the final seven games. As such, Fitzpatrick went 3-6 in Locker’s absence.
Whisenhunt and staff, including new offensive coordinator Jason Michael and quarterbacks coach John McNulty, have liked what they have seen of Locker, who also missed five games in 2012 because of injury.
"One of the things that stands out to me is improvement," Whisenhunt said of Locker, 25. "I’ve looked at some tape of him, not necessarily just last year, but a couple years prior to that. And I’ve seen improvement in it. The one thing that’s been a negative, I just haven’t seen enough of it."
For seven games last year, the athletic Locker completed 111 of 183 passes (60.6 percent) for 3,974 yards with eight touchdowns, four interceptions and an 86.7 rating. He also rushed for 155 yards at 6.5 yards per carry with two touchdowns.
Locker underwent surgery in November and spent two months on crutches. It’s unknown whether he’ll be ready to begin work on the field when the team starts spring drills.
"Everything’s healing really well," Locker said earlier this month. "So, I’m encouraged about how it’s coming along. I’m ready to get out of the training room as quickly as possible. So as soon as I’m able to, I will."
Locker’s uncertain status played a large role in the Titans signing Whitehurst, the Chargers’ backup to Philip Rivers last season, with Whisenhunt directing the San Diego offense.
Whitehurst will assist Locker in learning Whisenhunt’s offense quicker and serve as the lead quarterback during the offense’s installation — if Locker isn’t fully recovered and unable to participate during spring drills.
"Getting a chance to get to work with (Locker)," Whisenhunt said, "and see where he is, what we can do offensively with him, how far we can expand what we’re trying to get done, how quickly will he pick those things up, that’s a big piece of it."
"But I know, athletically, he’s talented. And I know he’s not afraid to work at it, just from having talked with him."