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2011 Tennessee Titans preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Chris Johnson has led the NFL in rushing for two seasons, but is a no-show in camp. (US Presswire)  
Chris Johnson has led the NFL in rushing for two seasons, but is a no-show in camp. (US Presswire)  

2010 RECORD: 6-10 (tie for third, AFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore, 13-10, in AFC divisional round

COACH (RECORD): Mike Munchak (first season with Titans, first overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Chris Palmer

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jerry Gray

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 17th rushing, 25th passing, 17th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 20th rushing, 29th passing, 15th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Matt Hasselbeck (free agent), LB Barrett Ruud (free agent), QB Jake Locker (first round, Washington), DT Shaun Smith (free agent), LB Akeem Ayers (second round, UCLA), S Jordan Babineaux (free agent), DT Jurrell Casey (third round, USC), CB Frank Walker (free agent).

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Vince Young (to Philadelphia), LB Stephen Tulloch (to Detroit), DE Jason Babin (to Philadelphia), WR Randy Moss (retired), QB Kerry Collins (retired), DT Tony Brown (released), LB David Thornton (retired), TE Bo Scaife (to Cincinnati).

WILL CHANGE BE GOOD? Kicking off with the January departure of Jeff Fisher, formerly the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL, the Titans have undergone a major overhaul. There's a new head coach (Mike Munchak), new starting quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) and new coordinators on both offense (Chris Palmer) and defense (Jerry Gray). Forced to choose between Fisher or Vince Young, the embattled quarterback, owner Bud Adams instead chose to replace both. The position remained open following Kerry Collins' retirement, but the Titans' solved their dilemma by agreeing to terms with Hasselbeck two days after the lockout ended. Hasselbeck, who enters his 13th season, will mentor rookie Jake Locker and provide veteran leadership to a locker room sorely needing a voice. Though the former Seahawks quarterback must make the transition from a West Coast offense that became second nature to him, he has the intelligence to quickly pick up Palmer's system before the Sept. 11 opener at Jacksonville. Whether Hasselbeck has the downfield accuracy to flourish in the Titans' offense is another question. Hasselbeck completed fewer than 25 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more in eight losses last season. He joins a Tennessee offense that attempted more passes between 21-30 yards last year than any team in the league.

C.J.'s RUN FOR A RECORD-SETTING DEAL: As of the start of the second week of training camp, Chris Johnson remained in Orlando, far from the Titans' practice facility. Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher over the past two seasons, is holding out for an extension of the contract he signed as a rookie in 2008. This season, Johnson is set to earn just $850,000 -- a salary that will pay him less than seldom-used linebacker and long snapper Ken Amato. Both GM Mike Reinfeldt and Joel Segal, Johnson's agent, agree that the fourth-year back deserves a new contract. Reinfeldt, though, will not negotiate with Segal until Johnson returns to camp, and Johnson will not return to camp without a new deal. In the past year, Johnson has expressed a desire for a contract that will pay him $30 million guaranteed – an amount that may be higher after DeAngelo Williams received $21 million in free agency. In Johnson's absence, third-year running back Javon Ringer has filled in admirably. He's a quick, powerful runner that fits well in Munchak's zone-running scheme. In limited action, Ringer has a career average of 4.9 yards per carry. He does not possess Johnson's world-class speed, however. Few do.

LOTS OF GRAY AREAS ON NEW D: While Cortland Finnegan appeared to become the team leader the Titans needed in the offseason after organizing several player workouts, the Pro Bowl cornerback caused a team distraction with a one-day holdout early in camp. Finnegan, who missed Tennessee's scrimmage at LP Field on Aug. 6 because of a contract dispute, has since returned to camp and apologized to the team. The sixth-year cornerback received an extension after only his second season in 2008 and is set to make $3.8 million this year. On the field, Gray needs his speed off the edge on the corner blitz. Even with Finnegan, the Titans' pass defense sputtered in the final 10 weeks of the season when they allowed 24.6 points per game, a 300-yard passer five times and a completion percentage over 70 percent in nearly half of their remaining nine games. The other spot will be determined in camp via the battle between incumbent Alterraun Verner and the feisty Jason McCourty. Gray has yet to determine a starting tackle next to Shaun Smith or starters at either of the end positions. The defensive coordinator has abandoned the wide-nine technique that defined the ends under Fisher, forcing linemen such as Derrick Morgan, Jason Jones and Dave Ball to find new ways to attack the passer. Barrett Ruud and Akeem Ayers will likely start at linebacker, but the weak side is still unsettled.

BRITT-LE SITUATION AT WR: Electrifying wide receiver Kenny Britt is coming off a tumultuous offseason. He was arrested in April during an alleged car chase, and then again in June for resisting arrest when detectives allegedly suspected him of possessing marijuana in New Jersey. Titans officials said they have no plans of disciplining the team's leading receiver, but Britt could still be disciplined by the league. He has yet to suit up for a practice at training camp because of a lingering hamstring injury that plagued him throughout the second half of 2010. After torching the Eagles for 225 yards and three touchdowns in late-October, Britt missed four games due to the injury and had just 341 yards for the rest of the season. Hasselbeck has an emerging star at tight end in Jared Cook, who has arguably been the team's top performer early in training camp. Palmer likes to split Cook out wide and the third-year veteran from South Carolina has displayed soft hands and deft route-running on slants, comebacks and go's. Nate Washington is fresh off a career-high season in receiving yards and Damian Williams has the physical tools to make a greater contribution in his second year.

FINAL WORD: Though Munchak, Hasselbeck and team management would like to win immediately, 2011 likely is a rebuilding season for the Titans. While Tennessee oozes talent at the skill positions, neither Britt nor Johnson are in training camp and questions remain on Britt's durability. On defense, Gray is preaching stopping the run in camp, but the Titans ranked 29th against the pass last year -- which for now is a more pressing concern. In the first half of the season alone, the Titans will face the Ravens, Steelers, Texans and Colts. If the playoffs become out of reach by late November, Locker could see the field sooner than expected.

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