Last season, the offense was supposed to run through Chris Johnson because, well, that had pretty much been the philosophy since his arrival in 2008. But Johnson missed part of training camp while holding out for a new contract, the Titans eventually relented, and by the time he showed up it was too late to get into shape, and it went downhill from there.
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Heading into 2012, Johnson is already in better condition, spending the spring and summer working out with his teammates. The bigger question is who will stand approximately five yards in front of him in the backfield.
Tennessee drafted quarterback Jake Locker in the first round of the 2011 draft, and as a rookie he played sparingly behind Matt Hasselbeck. The veteran appears to be the favorite heading into camp, though the cliche "you're only a play away" is especially true for NFL quarterbacks. Whoever ends up under center, they'll have wide receiver Kenny Britt back in the lineup after a knee injury landed him on injured reserve last season. Damian Williams has shown glimpses of big-play ability, Nate Washington is the graybeard of the bunch, and Tennessee added another outside threat in the draft with 20th-overall pick Kendall Wright. There's also tight end Jared Cook who, like Johnson, finished strong last season.
The offensive line was implicated in Johnson's poor 2011 season. Interestingly, while the run-blocking was mediocre, the pass-blocking was among the best in the league.
The defense will feature several new faces in 2012. Loved by teammates and coaches and reviled by everyone else, cornerback Cortland Finnegan signed a $50 million contract with the Rams this offseason. And disruptive defensive lineman Jason Jones is now in Seattle. Safety Chris Hope is also gone. Put differently: the front seven will have to make up for a somewhat inexperienced secondary.
This means consistent contributions from defensive end Derrick Harvey, the team's 2010 first-round pick who has yet to live up to his potential (upside: he's just 22), and big-bodied defensive tackle Jurell Casey, who showed an uncanny knack for stopping the run as a rookie. Linebackers Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers are also entering Year 2 and they'll be joined by Kamerion Wimbley, most recently of the Raiders. Wimbley, a former first-round pick of the Browns, has shown the ability to rush the passer but reliably doing so has been an issue.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray ran a 4-3 last season, citing ease of implementation due to the lockout. The results were average, at best. The hope is that youthful exuberance can compensate for lack of experience this time around.
Staff: Keith Millard was hired as a pass-rushing assistant coach.
The biggest personnel losses were on defense, but the Titans are prepared to mitigate the dearth practical knowledge. Keith Millard was hired this offseason as a pass-rushing assistant coach, a self-explanatory position tasked with improving on woeful sack numbers from a year ago. Tennessee managed just 28 sacks in 2011, second-worst in the NFL, after registering 40 the year prior. The drop was due in part to Jason Babin leaving for the Eagles. Also responsible: Morgan not yet living up to his first-round pass-rushing billing.
While there was some consternation at the play of the offensive line (primarily in the run game), the Titans didn't spend considerable time upgrading the unit this spring. They signed future Hall of Famer Steve Hutchinson, a quality player whose best days may be behind him, and that was it. Still, the perception of an o-line's worth can change drastically if other parts of the offense are clicking. A year ago, Tennessee had a coach, a new system and two new quarterbacks trying to run it. They also suffered injuries to key players. Now, Hasselbeck and Locker have a year under their belts, Britt is healthy and Johnson is in shape. Hutchinson could be all the upgrading this line needs.
Head coach Mike Munchak enters his second season and now has the benefit of an entire offseason to get his team ready. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has been happy with Johnson's progress, probably because a running game will open up the vertical passing game that Palmer favors. Defensively, Gray has his work cut out for him both in terms of generating a pass rush with his front seven and avoiding the mental mistakes that often plague a relatively inexperienced secondary (particularly in the sub-packages).
X-Factor: Jake Locker
Locker was the No. 8 pick in 2011, the second quarterback off the board after Cam Newton, and going before Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and (second-rounder) Andy Dalton. In limited work, Locker played well (4 TDs, 0 INTs in five appearances) but the same issues that scouts red-flagged in college showed themselves in his first NFL season. Namely: accuracy issues. Locker completed 53.9 percent of his passes at the University of Washington and managed a 51.5 percent completion rate with the Titans. The only way that improves, of course, is if he plays.
Although Hasselbeck has the inside track on the job, he's 37. That said, owner Bud Adams was reportedly willing to pay Peyton Manning $25 million a year, which indicates that neither owner nor coach are in any rush to hurry Locker onto the field. Ten years ago, that's how every team managed its young franchise-quarterback-in-waiting. Today's NFL is much more about immediacy, about returns on investment due primarily to the size of the rookie contracts (now under control thanks to the new CBA). Either way: Locker's the future. Hasselbeck might offer the short-term dependability of a comfortable pair of old shoes but taking the long view, this team will win or lose with Locker.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner played capably during his first two NFL seasons but with Finnegan now in St. Louis, the Titans have to find depth behind him. Which means that some combination of Chris Hawkins, Tommie Campbell, Ryan Mouton and rookie fourth-rounder Coty Sensabaugh could see the field in 2012. This is something that Tennessee would like to settle sooner rather than later; they face the Patriots in Week 1.
Can CJ2K return to form?
Yes, Johnson rushed for a grand total of 302 rushing yards through the first nine weeks of the '11 season before he finished with 1,047 yards, 300 fewer yards than he gained in 2010 and almost a 1,000 yards fewer than he ran for in 2009. But this offseason, the former first-round pick did something he normally hadn't: regularly showed his face at OTAs. In previous years, he trained in Florida with his trainer, something plenty of veteran players do. Now he's working out with the team five days a week, is in much better shape than he was 12 months ago, and has drawn glowing reviews from offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Plus, now he'll have help in the form of Britt, Cook and rookie Wright.
Don't forget special teams
Often lost in the mix until something goes horribly wrong, not a week goes by in the NFL where special teams doesn't decide the outcome. The Titans are among the best special teams units in the league and 2011 was no different. Football Outsiders ranks Rob Bironas as one of the top-5 kickers for five years running and third-year player Marc Mariani remains one of the best return men in the league. Brett Kern is only an average NFL punter, but both coverage units were outstanding.
AFC scout on Tennessee: "What we've heard about [running back] Chris Johnson is that he's added five to 10 pounds of muscle and he's in incredible shape. You never know these things, and he was in terrible shape last year, but our personnel people hear his attitude and conditioning are now top notch. This is bad news for other teams in the division. When he's serious and cares, Johnson can wreck defenses and he keeps games tight. That's the only hope for the Titans ... One guy to watch closely is [6-6, 300-pound tight end] Taylor Thompson. A lot of teams liked his potential, and if he works out, is a matchup nightmare for teams."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
The Titans were the quietest 9-7 team in the NFL last year. If they didn't lose in a shocker to the Colts in December they would have been a playoff team. The offense was designed to revolve around Chris Johnson, but his contract holdout led to a shaky start for him. He finished up with 1,465 total yards and should be back on course this fall.
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2012 Preview Schedule
Texans @ Titans: 12/2 (1 p.m. ET)
Titans @ Texans: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Colts @ Titans: 10/28 (1 p.m. ET)
Titans @ Colts: 12/9 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Jaguars @ Titans: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Titans @ Jaguars: 11/25 (1 p.m. ET)
The Titans got away from what they were last year when they ran the ball just 50 percent of the time on first down, as compared to 2010 (55 percent) and 2009 (58.6 percent).
The Titans like their 12 personnel package (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) for their zone run scheme and the short passing attack. The addition of rookie WR Kendall Wright to go along with Kenny Britt and Nate Washington tells me we will see a lot more 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), and that should be good for the run game as well as the pass game.
Matt Hasselbeck can run this offense at the line of scrimmage and there will be a lot of check-with-me runs and run-pass options. The offensive line is underrated as pass blockers. Last year they gave up just 24 sacks and went 6-2 when they gave up one or less. Their offensive tackles (Michael Roos, David Stewart) are so good the offense can use scat protections and give Chris Johnson a free release or empty the backfield and get good matchups for him.
The Titans' defense is a base 4-3 that really needs to improve in the pass rush, where they only generated 28 sacks. They really need to do a better job against the run as well, giving up over 100 yards rushing in 13 of their 16 games.
William Hayes and Jason Jones were very good rotational linemen and are now replaced by rookie Mike Martin and second-year Jurrell Casey. I have feeling Tennessee is going to have to run blitz more than they want to in order to improve the 24th-ranked run defense.
DC Jerry Gray has a bigger problem in the first month of the season with CB Cortland Finnegan now a Ram. The first four quarterbacks his defense faces are Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Schaub. Tennessee will play more nickel and dime defense in those four games than they play base defense, which means the nickel and dime defensive backs better be up for the task. Keep an eye on DBs Tommie Campbell and Ryan Mouton during the preseason,
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
New Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster and head coach Mike Munchak systematically checked off team needs as the draft unfolded.
|Titans Draft Analysis|
Need a playmaker to complement the oft-injured Kenny Britt? Check. The Titans selected standout wideout Kendall Wright at No. 20 overall. Need more speed at the weak-side outside linebacker position to pair with intriguing second-year standouts at middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and strong-side linebacker Akeem Ayers? Check. The Titans handled that with the speedy Zach Brown in the second round.
Perhaps the duo's most intriguing pick, however, was Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin in the third round, especially considering the Titans' struggles at defending the run.
Martin, just like 2011 rookie Karl Klug, proved against quality competition throughout his career as well as at the Senior Bowl that stuffing the run is more of a comment on physicality, effort and leverage than just size. Martin is a high-effort run-defender whose use of leverage and explosive strength due to his championship credentials as a prep wrestler and shot-putter, make him all the more effective than his size would indicate.
The rest of the Titans' picks:
1st Round - No. 20 overall - Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
2nd Round - No. 52 overall - Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina
3rd Round - No. 82 overall - Mike Martin, DT, Michigan
4th Round - No. 115 overall - Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Clemson
5th Round - No. 145 overall - Taylor Thompson, TE, Southern Methodist
6th Round - No. 190 overall - Markelle Martin, FS, Oklahoma State
7th Round - No. 211 overall - Scott Solomon, DE, Rice