When Peyton Manning underwent his fourth neck operation shortly before the start of the 2011 campaign, the door in the AFC South swung open for one of the division’s other three teams to emerge as a serious contender. Bursting through that opening was the Texans, who grinded out a franchise-record 10 wins and their first-ever postseason berth and victory. (For what it’s worth, I think the Texans had the necessary talent and resolve to knock off a Manning-led Colts squad in 2011, but you will see where I’m going here shortly).
As impressive as the Texans were, arguably a greater surprise in the division was the success of the Titans, a team that was widely expected to struggle with a new head coach and quarterback coming off a lockout-shortened offseason. Instead, Tennessee impressively morphed its offensive identity on the fly, received unexpected defensive contributions from a tremendous rookie class and was alive for a playoff spot in Week 17. In fact, the Titans were the only AFC team competing for a wild-card berth on the final Sunday that actually held up their end of the bargain by winning, yet they lost out on a playoff spot because of a tiebreaker with the Bengals.
Nonetheless, they appeared to be a team whose arrow was pointing straight up at the end of last season, perhaps one that could break through in 2012 if things fell its way.
The difficult offseason that the salary-cap-constrained Texans endured might not be comparable to the door flying off the hinges for Indy when Manning went down, but it appeared that, at the least, a window cracked open for the Titans and Jaguars. However, the Titans failed to take advantage and I’m not convinced the Titans are closer to taking a step forward than they might be to taking a step back.
I can’t fault owner Bud Adams for going all in on pursuing Manning. In fact, I was surprised more teams didn’t go after the league’s only four-time MVP. But the failed courtship by the Titans caused them to miss out on a number of targeted free agents and GM Ruston Webster’s first draft as lead decision maker leaves me wondering if this team has a clear plan.
Last offseason, the Titans wanted to get bigger and nastier to better stop the run. They bulked up and shipped out some undersized guys — including 2011 NFL sack leader Jason Babin — and dropped from 20thoverall in run defense in 2010 to 24thoverall stopping the run last season. What’s more, without Babin, who had 18 sacks for Philadelphia, Tennessee became the NFL’s second-worst sack unit in the league. This offseason, it was widely expected that the Titans would address their anemic pass rush, which they did by bringing in former Raider Kamerion Wimbley, primarily an outside ‘backer in Oakland who appears undersized to be a three-down player, via free agency.
Are you still following me?
Webster then chose to go the total boom-or-bust route with his first two picks in the draft. In Round One, he looked past glaring needs up front on both sides of the ball to select Baylor WR Kendall Wright, even though the WR corps showed tremendous progress last season — even without the star of the unit, Kenny Britt. Wright was a polarizing figure leading up to the draft, as some teams chose to ignore his disappointing NFL Scouting Combine and pro-day results because of the explosiveness they saw on tape, while others couldn’t look past a guy who appeared to not be in his best shape for the most important job interviews of his life.
In Round Two, Webster selected arguably the most athletic linebacker in the draft, Zach Brown, out of North Carolina. Brown can fly, but he has a reputation for shying away from contact and freelancing. That worries me for a team that needs to get better against the run and somehow find a way to replace the physicality and swagger that was lost when CB Cortland Finnegan, the club’s best defensive player, left for St. Louis in free agency.
I loved what Webster did in Round Three, adding DT Mike Martin to a terrific young interior nucleus of second-year studs Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. I’m also intrigued by FS Markelle Martin, who eventually could replace Michael Griffin, and end-turned-TE Taylor Thompson, even though tight end is a position of strength for the club. DE Scott Solomon is a player who could stick and represented nice value late in the draft, but I am stunned that his addition is the extent to which Webster addressed the lack of defensive pressure last season.
The Titans will be a fascinating team to watch in 2012. Whichever QB is under center — Jake Locker or Matt Hasselbeck — figures to have plenty of firepower at his disposal, especially if Chris Johnson and Britt can regain their mojo. I also really like a number of the young pieces that are in place on “D,” particularly MLB Colin McCarthy and Klug.
This is a team with a reputation for having underrated draft classes that produce. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that, unlike the Texans, who last season were up to the task of seizing a golden opportunity in front of them, the Titans’ curious offseason moves could lead to a regression in 2012.