Published August 31, 2012
| Sports Network
Jake Locker probably wasn't too pleased when the Tennessee Titans flirted with the idea of bringing in longtime AFC South rival Peyton Manning during the offseason.
And who could blame last year's first-round draft pick for having mixed emotions? The Titans used the eighth overall pick on Locker with the intention of him being their quarterback of the future. When Manning opted to join the Denver Broncos, the Titans eventually made it clear that Locker was the man.
"It's really cool," Locker said after the announcement that he won a competition with veteran Matt Hasselbeck. "It's something I'm proud of, but it's not going to change my approach on how I practice or my preparation for a game. That will still all be the same, but it is cool to be given this opportunity."
Locker beat out last year's starter, Hasselbeck, who said he's excited to help his teammate and would be happy to support him in any way he can. It's admirable for Hasselbeck to be John Q. Supportive, since he's now taking a back seat after leading Tennessee to a 9-7 record in 2011.
Nonetheless, the Titans will try to end a three-year playoff drought behind Locker in 2012. The team ended last season on a high note, winning two straight and four of the final six games. Whether that translates into success for the new campaign is foreign knowledge, however.
Already stacked with two talented wide receivers in Kenny Britt and Nate Washington, the Titans opted to take Baylor's Kendall Wright in the first round of April's NFL Draft. The 20th overall selection doesn't have great height at 5-foot-10, but his speed and quickness make him a quality prospect.
Perhaps Tennessee plucked Wright since standout Britt is recovering from multiple offseason knee surgeries and played in only three games last season due to a torn ACL and MCL, a devastating injury that wasn't completely healed when the team began training camp.
Britt had another procedure done in the offseason to clean up the area, though the former first-round pick in 2009 should be close ready for Tennessee's season opener on Sept. 9 against the New England Patriots. He won't play, however, after receiving a one-game suspension by the NFL for his July 20 arrest for driving under the influence.
Washington was thrust into the spotlight in Britt's absence in 2011 and led the Titans with 74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns, helping the team to the fourth-highest passing yardage total (3,923 net yards) in franchise history under offensive coordinator Chris Palmer.
Palmer is a former quarterbacks coach of such players as Eli Manning, Hasselbeck, Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Warren Moon. And those players were all blessed with talented receivers around them.
Of course, an offense needs a ground game as well, and the Titans have one of the best running backs in the league in Chris Johnson. However, the speedster held out of camp for a new contract last year and his game suffered, despite racking up another 1,000-yard season.
Two years removed from a 2,000-yard campaign, Johnson hopes to thrive once again in this pass-first league behind an offensive line that struggled at times to open holes. The Titans struggled to run the football last year, finishing 31st in the league with just 89.8 rushing yards per game.
Johnson appeared to be back to his old ways in the preseason, and that can only make this team better.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Titans, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 9-7 (2nd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Mike Munchak (9-7 in one season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Chris Palmer (second season with Titans)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jerry Gray (second season with Titans)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Chris Johnson, RB (1047 rushing yards, 57 receptions, 4 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Kamerion Wimbley, DE (63 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 17th overall (31st rushing, 12th passing), 21st scoring (20.3 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: tied 18th overall (24th rushing, 14th passing), 8th scoring (19.8 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: LG Steve Hutchinson (from Vikings), DE Kamerion Wimbley (from Raiders), RB Darius Reynaud (free agent), WR Kendall Wright (1st Round, Baylor), DE Leger Douzable (from Jaguars), DT Mike Martin (3rd Round, Michigan), OLB Zac Diles (from Colts), S Aaron Francisco (free agent)
KEY DEPARTURES: FB Ahmard Hall (free agent), C Eugene Amano (out for season), RG Jake Scott (free agent), DE Jason Jones (to Seahawks), MLB Barrett Ruud (to Saints), CB Cortland Finnegan (to Rams), LS Ken Amato (free agent), WR Marc Mariani (out for season), WR Donnie Avery (to Colts), TE Daniel Graham (to Saints), DE William Hayes (to Rams), DT Shaun Smith (released), S Chris Hope (to Falcons), S Anthony Smith (retired)
QB: Even though Hasselbeck (3571 passing yards, 18 TD, 14 INT in 2011) can still manage the game with the best around, he'll be holding a clipboard as the Titans move on with the Locker experiment. The veteran will still be a strong mentor for the youngster and played in all 16 games last season, with his 3,571 passing yards in 2011 the fourth-highest total in team history and his 18 touchdown passes the most by a Titan since Billy Volek had the same amount in 2004. If Locker (542 passing yards, 4 TD, 0 INT) goes down to injury or struggles to live up to his high billing, the Titans are still in good hands with Hasselbeck under center. Locker is bigger and more athletic than Hasselbeck, but that means nothing in the NFL unless he plays smart and shows poise in the pocket. A big arm can go a long way, however, and Locker certainly has the strength to air it out to his talented receivers. He is the future of the franchise, and appeared ready to handle Palmer's offense in limited action as a rookie. Locker also thrives more out of the pocket with his athleticism, which could present a new wrinkle for opponents.
RB: It's hard to believe based on his past success, but Johnson (1047 rushing yards, 4 TD) could be even more productive with Locker at quarterback because defenses have to key on two mobile players in the backfield. He wasn't in game shape for much of last season after skipping camp until finally getting his new contract, but started to get better around Week 10, when he ran for 130 yards at Carolina. Johnson had two more 100-yard games after that and became the third player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons, joining Eddie George and Earl Campbell. His 5,645 rushing yards from 2008-2011 is also the highest in the league over that span. Backup Javon Ringer (185 rushing yards, 1 TD) was an excellent college back at Michigan State and could possibly start elsewhere in the league, but doesn't see much time because of Johnson's presence and instead serves as a solid reserve. Jamie Harper, another who saw little playing time last season, also returns as the No. 3 back. Craig Stevens (9 receptions, 1 TD) is a natural tight end who is often lined up at fullback, a position Quinn Johnson is trying to stick on the roster at.
WR: Britt (17 receptions, 3 TD) could have enjoyed a productive season in 2011 had he stayed healthy. He had three receiving scores in three weeks before getting hurt, and his ability to stretch the field will help Locker in his development. Hasselbeck still has a decent arm, but Palmer will most likely try to add more vertical plays for this potent offense with the quarterback situations. Britt still tends to get into trouble off the field, however, and must improve his maturity for the offense to be at its best. Wright had an outstanding career at Baylor, where he played with a strong-armed and mobile quarterback in Robert Griffin III. The rookie can lean on the veteran Washington (74 receptions, 1023 yards, 7 TD) to learn the ways to succeed and dissect defenses and make Tennessee's offense a more potent one. Washington was the new man in charge when Britt went down for the year, and gives the offense a solid one-two punch for Locker after enjoying the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2011. As previously stated, more vertical routes should be in store for these receivers. Damian Williams (45 receptions, 5 TD) was second on the team in touchdown catches as a part-time starter last year , but could lose time to the rookie Wright. So could Lavelle Hawkins (47 receptions, 1 TD), one of five Titans receivers with 40-plus catches in 2011.
TE: Tight end plays a big role in Tennessee's offense for blocking purposes, an area where Stevens has his most value. Top receiving target Jared Cook (49 receptions, 3 TD) still had a breakout campaign in 2011, placing second on the team with 759 receiving yards. With a combination of size, speed and huge hands, he will push Owen Daniels of Houston for the distinction of best tight end in the AFC South. Cook set career highs in every receiving category last year, and could improve on those numbers with a new quarterback under center. The four-year pro's yardage total also ranked second in franchise history by a tight end, finishing behind only Frank Wycheck's 768 yards in 1998. The Titans also selected Taylor Thompson from Southern Methodist in the fifth round of April's draft, and he'll start out his career as the No. 3 tight end.
OL: The addition of former Houston Oilers great Bruce Matthews as offensive line coach proved to be the spark this unit needed, at least in pass protection. The Titans allowed just 24 sacks on the year, but were terrible in run blocking. A lot of that might have had to do with Chris Johnson not playing up to par early on in the season, however. Tennessee boosted its front line by adding seven-time All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson in the offseason in hopes of improving the ground attack. If age or injury impedes the 34-year- old's production, Ryan Durand would likely be next to fill in. The Titans have reliable tackles in Michael Roos on the left side and David Stewart on the opposite end. Roos is highly durable and his 112-game active starting streak ranked second in the NFL among all offensive tackles at the end of last season. Stewart's nickname is "Big Country" for obvious reasons. He uses his 6-7, 315-pound frame as an advantage, leaving those to wonder how can the ground game was so poor last year. Leroy Harris can play both guard or center, but right now the Titans have him as the starter at right guard. He started all 16 games there last season, helping the Titans finish second overall in fewest sacks allowed. Fernando Velasco is another versatile player and will most likely start at center. He did not start a game last season, but was the team's top interior reserve. Now is Velasco's chance to shine, since 2011 starter Eugene Amano will miss the season due to a torn right triceps.
DL: One area the Titans need to improve on is their run defense, which was 24th in the NFL last season after allowing 128.3 yards per game on the ground. The unit also was only 31st overall with 28 sacks, with a team-high seven coming from defensive tackle Karl Klug (20 tackles) in his rookie season. Expect an extended role from the former Iowa standout, who played predominantly on passing downs last season with fellow 2011 draft choice Jurrell Casey (52 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) working as the starter. Casey helped Tennessee bulk up on the front line alongside Sen'Derrick Marks (24 tackles, 0.5 sacks), a four-year veteran who also makes the Titans that much bigger and the linebackers' job easier. He was a key piece to a solid rotation while setting career highs with nine starts and 16 games played in 2011. Rookie Mike Martin (3rd Round, Michigan) was drafted in April for further depth at tackle. End Derrick Morgan (30 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) has to step it up this season to prove his first-round selection in 2010 was worth it. He played just four games during his rookie campaign due to injury, but appeared in 15 last year and didn't mount much in the way of a pass rush. The Titans bolstered one end spot by signing former Raider Kamerion Wimbley (63 tackles, 7 sacks), who can get to the quarterback with ease and has at least six sacks in each of the past three seasons. Dave Ball (36 tackles, 4 sacks) is a strong backup and key to the rotation at end, while rookie Scott Solomon (7th Round, Rice) and free agent Leger Douzable (38 tackles, 1 sack with Jaguars) also in the mix.
LB: Tennessee will start young linebackers Akeem Ayers (76 tackles, 2 sacks) and Colin McCarthy (68 tackles, 1 INT) this season, and should be impressed with how each of the 2011 draft picks performed in their debuts. Ayers can rush the edge from the outside, while McCarthy is plugged in at the middle spot after replacing an injured Barrett Ruud last season. He is tremendously athletic in pass coverage and can also get to the quarterback. Will Witherspoon (56 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) is getting older and can be a liability in pass coverage. However, he still has enough speed to chase down runners and be inserted in blitz packages. Zach Brown was added as a second- round pick in the latest draft, and Tennessee hopes the North Carolina product can make an impact right away. Don't be surprised to see Brown supplant Witherspoon in the starting lineup at some point. Zac Diles, a former starter in Houston, signed in the offseason and played 11 games with both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis last year. He can be used in all three linebacker spots. Linebacker Gerald McRath (15 tackles) was to be one of the top backups, but had season-ending knee surgery in mid-August.
DB: The Titans further loaded up on defense in the draft by adding cornerback Coty Sensabaugh from Clemson (4th Round) and safety Markelle Martin out of Oklahoma State (6th Round). Martin will start the season on the PUP list with a knee injury, however. With the Titans losing Cortland Finnegan to St. Louis in free agency, Jason McCourty (105 tackles, 2 INT) is now the best cornerback on the team. He emerged on the scene for a secondary that rated 14th in defending the pass (226.8 ypg) in 2011 and set a career high in stops. McCourty led the team with 13 passes defensed as well, proving that he can keep up with the receivers, and his 15 starts a season ago also were a career- best. Alterraun Verner (47 tackles, 1 INT) is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the defensive backfield, having the ability to play outside in base defenses as well the slot in nickel and dime packages. He will have an even larger role as a starter this season as a starter. Tommie Campbell will see more action this season as the main nickel back and tied for third on the team with eight special teams tackles during his rookie year of 2011. The Titans have one of the league's top free safeties in Michael Griffin (75 tackles, 2 INT), who inked a multi-year deal in June. He can put down the big hit and is a two-time Pro Bowl pick. Strong safety Jordan Babineaux (93 tackles, 1 INT) was second on the team in stops in his first stint with the team after spending the past few years in Seattle. With their ball-hawking skills, Babineaux and Griffin can put a scare into opposing receivers. Safety Aaron Francisco was signed in the offseason for depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rob Bironas is one of the best kickers in the league and hasn't missed a game since entering the NFL in 2005. He made 29-of-32 field goal attempts (90.6 percent) a season ago and was successful on 24-of-26 tries (92.3 percent) in 2010. Bironas also made six of his seven tries from 50-plus yards out last season and is a definite game-changer with his accurate leg. Punter Brett Kern is entering his third season with the Titans and averaged 43.6 yards on a career-best 86 tries. He landed a career-high 31 punts inside the 20-yard line as well, helping Tennessee gain good field position. Darius Reynaud is slated to return both kickoffs and punts this season after Marc Mariani handled both positions in 2011. Mariani, however, is on injured reserve with a broken left leg suffered in the preseason, and averaged 23.4 yards on 32 kickoffs and 10.7 yards on 46 punts. The Titans are counting on the versatile Reynaud to at least match those solid numbers. Williams is capable of making plays in the return game as well, mostly on punts. Beau Brinkley, an undrafted college free agent out of Missouri, is the Titans' new long snapper.
PROGNOSIS: It's boom or bust for Locker this season. The Titans already have an NFL-ready quarterback in Hasselbeck, but they're going all-in with the younger and more athletic talent. A fast start from Chris Johnson can only aid Locker in his first year as the starter, and that means improved run blocking is essential. The line can pass block for sure, but being one-dimensional in this league can only get you so far, as the Titans found out last year. Britt won't be there for the season opener versus New England, but will hopefully return for a trip to San Diego in Week 2, and that should aid the new quarterback as well. Tennessee could be looking at only seven or eight wins this season because of such a difficult schedule early on. It plays the Patriots, Chargers, Lions and Texans in the first month of the season, and that very well could be an 0-4 start. It gets a bit easier from there, save for a visit by Pittsburgh. The Titans could battle Houston for AFC South bragging rights, but still have a few holes on defense that may be exposed and prevent them from ending their postseason drought.