2011 team previews
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For the first time in 17 years, Jeff Fisher won't be roaming the Titans' sideline as head coach. Fisher's relationship with the front office and with ex-Titans QB Vince Young had deteriorated in recent years, and in February, Fisher and owner Bud Adams agreed to part ways, ending the employment of the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL.
Hall of Fame OG and longtime OL coach Mike Munchak was pegged as Fisher's replacement and given the task of turning around a team that got off to a 5-2 start before dropping eight of its final nine games. Entering his 30th season with the organization but his first head-coaching gig, Munchak brings a no-nonsense, detail-oriented approach that has helped the Titans consistently field one of the most disciplined and well-coached offensive lines over the past decade.
Accompanying Munchak and his new staff is a pair of new QBs: first-round pick Jake Locker and placeholder Matt Hasselbeck. The veteran will be counted on not only to build a bridge to the rookie, but also to mentor Locker and help him learn what it takes to be a successful NFL QB.
In addition to having to handle the QB situation carefully, Munchak was greeted immediately by a training-camp holdout from the team's best player, RB Chris Johnson. As of this writing, a stalemate exists between the two sides. The Titans are willing to make Johnson the highest-paid RB in the league; Johnson wants to be among the highest-paid players, looking for roughly $35 million in guaranteed money. Sources say the two sides are not close. Munchak also must figure out how to get through to troubled WR Kenny Britt and reenergize the defense. After 30 years of preparing for this moment, Munchak's final exam starts now.
Don't expect Tennessee's conservative approach to change under Mike Munchak and new coordinator Chris Palmer. Palmer will keep most of the previous playbook in place, with a heavy dose of Pro Bowl RB Chris Johnson — hopefully — being the featured attraction. The Titans want to control the clock by wearing down defenses on the ground, which should open up opportunities in the play-action game for WR Kenny Britt, TE Jared Cook and others downfield.
Quarterbacks: The Titans made Jake Locker their quarterback of the future because they thought he had the best intangibles of any quarterback in the rookie class and will be a perfect fit for what they do offensively. It also doesn't hurt that he is the antithesis of Vince Young, whose turbulent tenure with the team ended sourly. The coaching staff raves about Locker's toughness and competitiveness, in addition to his strong arm, exceptional athleticism and playmaking ability outside of the pocket. Playing in a pro-style offense at Washington also is an advantage, but improvements to his footwork, decision making and accuracy will be imperative. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck arrives after spending the past 10 seasons in Seattle. Despite durability concerns — Hasselbeck has started 16 games only three times in his career — the Titans had their sights set on Hasselbeck all offseason, as he has a good relationship with members of the Titans' front office, as well as with offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Locker. A classic West Coast passer who is still nifty inside the pocket, Hasselbeck is coming off an inconsistent regular season. However, he ended on a high note, posting a dazzling 7-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the Seahawks' two postseason games. Rusty Smith has good size and work ethic, but scouts say he is probably nothing more than a career backup.
Running backs: Speed merchant Chris Johnson jetted for 1,364 rushing yards in 2010, giving him 4,598 career yards on the ground — the fourth-highest total in NFL history by a back in his first three seasons. Johnson's production dipped last season, in part because of a drop-off in OL play, as well as a lack of stability at the QB position. Still, he is arguably the most explosive player in football, possessing elite speed and elusiveness to go along with his outstanding initial burst. Johnson also led the Titans in receptions last season, and Munchak wants to get the ball in his hands even more moving forward. Johnson's blocking and blitz recognition remain works in progress. Backing up Johnson is Javon Ringer, a compact runner who possesses good balance and vision. Rookie Jamie Harper has the size and power to complement Johnson well and could challenge Ringer for carries. (Both backs could be thrust into larger roles if Johnson's holdout continues.) Ahmard Hall, a physical, throwback fullback who has paved the way for Johnson's success the past three seasons, is an effective lead blocker and leader in the locker room.
Receivers: WR Kenny Britt has few limitations on the field, possessing the size, strength and overall talent to be one of the best pass catchers in the game. Britt, who led the Titans in TD grabs and receiving yards despite missing four games with a hamstring injury, has outstanding run-after-the-catch and leaping ability, and the toughness and competitiveness to be great. Away from the field, however, the 22-year-old has shown alarmingly poor decision making and immaturity, as evidenced by no fewer than seven run-ins with the law since being drafted in 2009. Further, Britt's nagging hamstring issues — he was limited during camp and the preseason — are troublesome. Vertical threat Nate Washington was productive while starting 16 games for the first time in his career last season, but his inconsistent hands and route running have plagued him. Sure-handed and deceptively speedy Damian Williams impressed late in the season and could compete with Washington for the No. 2 job. Underachieving Lavelle Hawkins will have a clean slate under the new coaching staff. Marc Mariani, a smart, savvy route runner, was a huge surprise, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl for his dynamic return skills, and he could see time in the slot in '11. TE Jared Cook emerged late last season, and he possesses major upside. An outstanding athlete who can stretch the field and be used in a variety of ways, Cook could be poised for a breakout season. TE Craig Stevens is an aggressive blocker with limited pass-catching ability. Free-agent addition Daniel Graham will be used mainly as a blocker.
Offensive linemen: A lack of chemistry, in part because of the departure of C Kevin Mawae, caused the interior of the O-line to regress last season. Eugene Amano, who moved from left guard to center to replace Mawae, is an athletic blocker who should improve in his second season at center. Tough and versatile OLG Leroy Harris filled the spot vacated by Amano. He uses his hands violently and has a strong football IQ. ORG Jake Scott, who has started every game the past three seasons, is a solid technician with good feet and quickness. Michael Roos, widely regarded as one of the top left tackles in the game, gave up more sacks than usual last season. But he is a smart, determined blocker who plays on his feet and can get out in space. ORT David Stewart, who has missed only one start since 2006, is a mammoth blocker with impressive strength and quickness. Raw and quick-footed rookie OT Byron Stingily is a developmental prospect. C Fernando Velasco, OG-C Kevin Matthews and OT Mike Otto provide depth.
Although the Titans will continue to operate out of an attack 4-3 base "D," new coordinator Jerry Gray's version will have a slightly different look and feel. Gray prefers his defensive ends — who in recent years have played a lot of nine-technique and were instructed to collapse the pocket — bulkier and lined up tighter to the line of scrimmage. The Titans have finished the past two seasons ranked 26th and 28th in overall defense after finishing in the top seven in '07 and '08.
Defensive linemen: Team insiders say 2010 first-rounder DLE Derrick Morgan was just starting to flash when he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week Five. The instinctive, physical Morgan has a motor that never stops. Former DT Jason Jones, who became a starter in '10, notching a career-high 39 tackles and 12 tackles for loss, moves to right defensive end. Jones is a versatile player with incredibly long arms and an explosive first step. DE William Hayes fits Gray's mold of bigger, more rugged linemen. Dave Ball, a powerful edge rusher, started 11 games in 2010, finishing second on the team in sacks (seven). Undersized edge rusher Jacob Ford has recorded 15½ sacks in three seasons. DT Shaun Smith is a two-down run stuffer with a nasty demeanor. The jury is still out on Sen'Derrick Marks, who started three games and recorded 22 tackles last season. Marks is a naturally athletic three-technique who needs to continue building strength and prove that he can stay on the field. A trio of rookie defensive tackles — Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug and Zach Clayton — bolster the unit. Casey has the size to stuff the run and the quickness to get upfield and rush the passer. Although Klug is undersized, his strength and hands impressed the coaching staff in camp. The overachieving Clayton is a gym rat with natural leadership qualities.
Linebackers: Former Bucs MLB Barrett Ruud replaces Stephen Tulloch in the middle. Ruud is a proven leader and three-down 'backer who is very good in coverage and decent in run support. WLB Will Witherspoon, who came over from Philadelphia last offseason and started all 16 games for the fifth time in his career, is a heady vet. He possesses good awareness and instincts and likely will battle with Gerald McRath for the starting "Will" job. McRath missed the first four games in 2010 while serving a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He is a fast, athletic player whose growth was hurt by the suspension. The drafting of rookies Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy infused the linebacking corps with necessary size and youth. The 6-3, 254-pound Ayers, another rookie who impressed in camp, will help set the edge, playing closer to the line of scrimmage than Titans' linebackers have in the past. He flashes big-time playmaking ability but lacks discipline and sometimes coasts on his athleticism. McCarthy was a china doll in college but has good run-and-hit ability to man the weak-side if he can stay healthy. Veteran Tim Shaw saw the most action of any of the reserves, offering nice contributions in short-yardage sets. Rennie Curran, a search-and-flow linebacker who makes up for his lack of size with great hitting ability, played very well on special teams.
Defensive backs: The Titans have a solid, young nucleus at the CB position, with Cortland Finnegan, Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty. Finnegan, who enters a contract year, hasn't regained his 2008 All-Pro form, but he is ultra confident and tough as nails. He thrives on getting under his opponent's skin. Verner, who was thrust into a starting role following a forearm injury to McCourty, was tremendous en route to earning PFW All-Rookie honors. He lacks ideal size but possesses a nose for the football and a willingness to initiate contact. Verner was second on the team in passes defensed (11) and finished fifth in tackles (93). McCourty is an impressive athlete who shows good short-area burst. Verner and McCourty are ascending players who will battle for the starting job opposite Finnegan. Talented FS Michael Griffin led the team in interceptions (four) and finished second in tackles with a career-high 107, earning his second Pro Bowl nod. After a difficult '09 season in which he dealt with a shoulder ailment and took too many chances while playing with inexperienced corners, the playmaking Griffin rebounded nicely last season. SS Chris Hope struggled in '10, in part because he was asked to do too much in space. Hope is a natural leader who is better playing close to the line of scrimmage than in coverage. Jordan Babineaux is a very good tackler and blitzer who could compete with Hope for playing time. Injury-plagued Nick Schommer is a tough player who will also push for snaps. Veteran DB Vincent Fuller and rookie CB Tommie Campbell add depth.
PK Rob Bironas, who tied a franchise record by converting 92.3 percent (24-of-26) of his FG attempts last season, is one of the more dependable kickers in the league. P Brett Kern tied for sixth in the league in net average (39.1 yards) and had 24 punts downed inside the 20. Marc Mariani, who returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns, led the league in combined kick-return yards (1,859), breaking Derrick Mason's franchise record. Tim Shaw led the team in special-teams tackles with 19.
The first year of the Mike Munchak era in the Music City is likely to feature some growing pains. Matt Hasselbeck has shown he still can be productive and win games, but that will be dependent on him staying healthy and grasping a new system quickly. The importance of getting RB Chris Johnson a new deal, as well as sending a message to immature WR Kenny Britt, cannot be overstated. The defense has some promising young talent to build around, but a lot of coaching is needed before this unit can meet its potential. Munchak and his staff will have to be patient, as it figures to be a few years before the Titans are ready to contend in the division.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.