The Titans gathered for camp with a long list of questions and uncertainties. Yes, Offensive Rookie of the Year quarterback Vince Young provided major cause for optimism heading into his second year, but free-agent defections on offense left the team without proven skill position players and the suspension of cornerback Pacman Jones caused major headaches and set off a series of moves intended to bolster the secondary on a team that had the NFL's worst defense in 2006.
Heading into the regular season, some questions appear to be resolved (the secondary is the deepest it has been in years) while others linger -- who will carry the load at running back and receiver?
"We're looking like a good team, we're going to do some things this year," Young said. "We're still working, every day everybody's getting better. That's all you can ask for is that effort."
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow is asking Young to run through progressions less often. Instead the Titans want Young to recognize coverage at the snap and react with the pass that goes directly to the soft spot. The Titans also expect opponents to concentrate on keeping Young from running at all costs, so they know he's going to have to be a better pocket passer to succeed.
Most concerning as the season nears is the lack of an established running back. Coach Jeff Fisher is talking about using both LenDale White and Chris Brown and shared workloads are becoming the rule rather than the exception around the league. But the Titans have struggled mightily with run game rhythm for stretches in the past, and it could be hard for either back to get going if both are in and out of the game. Behind an offensive line that is the strength of the team, the Titans need to establish they can run to give Young something to play off of.
It's also anybody's guess who might emerge as the team's most steady receivers, though veteran Eric Moulds is a physical possession guy with safety blanket potential. Through training camp, tight end Bo Scaife looked to be the most dynamic pass catcher in games, which indicted the receivers.
Through the preseason, the frontline defense looked as if it had undergone a major overhaul though it includes only a few new faces. Ryan Fowler is expected to man middle linebacker, Corey Simon should bolster the interior run defense, Calvin Lowry may shove Lamont Thompson aside at free safety, and there could be two new starting cornerbacks -- Nick Harper will be one, with first-round pick Michael Griffin looking like the other. Even before adding Simon the run defense looked vastly improved.
"We've been more specific in gap fits, we've done a better job on the edge forcing them back inside," Fisher said. "We're stressing discipline on the backside, we're not as vulnerable on the backside. And we're doing a better job staying on our feet and getting of blocks."
COACHING: Jeff Fisher, 13th year, 13th with Titans (105-93)
REMEMBERING: 2006 record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC South)
PREDICTING: 2007 regular season record 7-9 (3rd in AFC South); miss the playoffs.
--The Titans gave undrafted kicker John Vaughn a lot of preseason work, but cut him when they needed room to add defensive tackle Corey Simon. Rob Bironas was always presumed to be in line to kick for the Titans for a third season.
"(Bironas') leg is stronger than it has been in quite some time and I think the competition has helped him," Fisher said.
--The Titans like Cortland Finnegan as a punt returner. But Jeff Fisher, who's always taken a special interest in the job he once held for the Chicago Bears, wants Finnegan to try for home runs a little less often.
"He just has to learn that in some certain instances, 10 or 11 yards is sufficient -- 11 yards will put you in the top three or four in the league in punt return average," Fisher said. "So we don't need to try to break one every time we catch the ball. We just need to hit creases and take the ball north and south. The bottom line is our goal as a punt return unit is to get a first down for our offense. That's simply 10 yards."
BY THE NUMBERS: 29 -- Receptions by Bo Scaife last season, more than any member of the Titans except Eric Moulds, who played for the Texans.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I can still be the guy. I think come Sept. 9th kickoff, I'll be the guy." -- Titans running back LenDale White, on falling behind with ankle and knee injuries from the Titans first preseason game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The biggest name not to make the final roster was second-year WR Courtney Roby.
Also notable among the Titans' final cuts were WR Joel Filani, RB Quinton Ganther and OT Mike Otto.
--Corey Simon joined the Titans with a one-year contract and said he's looking forward to getting back to action after sitting out last season and having such a falling out with the Colts that he was the lone player on the roster they didn't include in any Super Bowl related fanfare. Tennessee has been good against the run in the preseason, but the Titans also haven't been challenged. If Simon can play at a level anywhere close to his peak, the Titans feel they've upgraded their rush defense and rotation.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/19, DB Michael Griffin, Texas -- Used so far as only a cornerback, he shows day to day improvement and might already be surpassing the Titans expectations.
Rd. 2/50, RB Chris Henry, Arizona -- Hasn't shown great instincts and his initial impact will come on special teams.
Rd. 3/80, WR Paul Williams, Fresno State -- May be in a battle to be active on game days.
Rd. 4/116, C-G Leroy Harris, N.C. State -- A versatile interior backup with a promising future.
Rd. 4/128. WR Chris Davis, Florida State -- Probably the front-line guy to line up in the slot as the third receiver.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Vince Young. Backup -- Kerry Collins.
Young been touted as the league's most exciting player by some analysts. In his second year, teams will key on stopping him from running and force him to play better in the pocket. His accuracy is better so far, but not by a lot and he's throwing to unproven weapons. Collins is a good practice player and mentor for Young. But if Young goes down, the Titans have to run a different offense for the immobile backup who does well only if given a lot of time.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB LenDale White, FB Ahmard Hall. Backups -- RB Chris Brown, RB Chris Henry.
Will the Titans waste the efforts of a very good offensive line by not having a proven feature back, or will the line help turn White, Brown or Henry into a capable replacement for Travis Henry, the back that helped forge a bond on offense last season? The Titans were sure White could be a productive player when they grabbed him in the second round a year ago. He showed better commitment and toughness in the preseason, but still missed some time with an injury. Brown is fit and fast, but the team's given up on him once before. Henry doesn't appear ready to carry the ball in regular-season games. He has good speed, but doesn't read holes especially well yet.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Ben Troupe. Backups -- Bo Scaife, Ben Hartsock, FB-TE Casey Cramer.
Troupe's slide continues. He wasn't the lead guy even before a foot injury cost him much of the preseason. They'd love to get the ball in his hands, but cannot count on him to be in the right spots. Scaife is completely reliable, but can he hold up for an entire season? Hartsock is slow and will block more, run fewer routes. Cramer is a valuable swing guy who can do the work of a tight end or a fullback.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Eric Moulds, Roydell Williams. Backups -- Brandon Jones, Justin Gage, Chris Davis, Biren Ealy, Paul Williams, David Givens.
Moulds is a big, physical possession type and can be an asset for Young even if he doesn't get much separation. Roydell Williams comes out of camp as the best of the three receivers from the 2005 draft, with potential to hit some home runs but questions about his ability to be consistent. Davis is the best of the bunch in the slot already. Gage made a late charge that's likely to have earned him a spot while Roby has been sinking. Ealy is a quick learner the Titans might not be able to slip on to their practice squad. Givens will be PUP and might be able to return from a major knee injury around midseason.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jacob Bell, LG Michael Roos, C Kevin Mawae, RG Benji Olson, RT David Stewart. Backups -- C-G Eugene Amano, C-G Leroy Harris, T-G Daniel Loper.
Unquestionably the starting line ranks as the best unit on the team. The group bonded big time with RB Travis Henry last year, but will have to help a replacement make a mark now. The team gave up 29 sacks in 2006, but with Young in place for the whole season, more comfortable and making better decisions, he should benefit from solid protection. Depth is the lone question mark, with Wand the top option outside and either Amano or highly rated rookie Harris the top alternative inside. Mawae is a veteran tone setter in the middle, while two kid tackles haven't peaked yet: Roos is a technician on one side and Stewart is a mauler on the other. Bell needs to get stronger and Olson may not be able to make it through the season with a bad back.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Antwan Odom, LT Tony Brown, RT Albert Haynesworth, RE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups -- DE Travis LaBoy, DT Corey Simon, DT Randy Starks, DE Sean Conover, DT Jesse Mahelona.
Vanden Bosch played just as well in 2006, when he had 6.5 sacks, as he did in 2005, when he had 12.5. The trouble was he didn't get much help, and opponents could take extreme measures to slow him down. The Titans got just 26 sacks and ranked 30th in rush defense last season, when Haynesworth's six-game suspension was a big issue. He needs to be consistent game-to-game and snap-to-snap. Simon was brought in to upgrade the rotation and the Titans are hopeful he can be effective on run downs. Odom had an excellent preseason. He is heavier and has a better chance at carrying the success into meaningful games. The Titans will still look at ends who become available.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LLB David Thornton, MLB Ryan Fowler, RLB Keith Bulluck. Backups -- MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB LeVar Woods, OLB Gilbert Gardner.
Fowler was signed away from the Cowboys as a restricted free agent and while Tulloch competed with him in camp, Fowler has always been presumed to be the guy for the starting post, which is a situational job. Thornton was slowed some by a shoulder problem in his first year with the team, but can be especially good on coverage. Bulluck was overextended last year as a top player in a bad defense. If Thornton or Bulluck goes down, the Titans would be in trouble. Tulloch is likely to be on the field in four-backer packages.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Nick Harper, RCB Michael Griffin, FS Calvin Lowry, SS Chris Hope. Backups -- CB Cortland Finnegan, CB Kelly Herndon, S-CB Vincent Fuller, CB Reynaldo Hill, S Donnie Nickey, CB Eric King.
A unit that struggled last year loses its best player with Pacman Jones suspended for the season. Harper played a ton of zone with Indianapolis and is eager to prove he's capable of the sort of man coverage the Titans prefer. Griffin was a day-to-day revelation in the preseason. If he doesn't start, Finnegan likely will. Finnegan worked outside all of camp, but could easily return to the nickel role he filled last season. Thompson could remain at free safety as Lowry hasn't exactly seized the job. Hope was excellent in his first season and has been a great offseason leader for a core of young DBs. Fuller, Herndon and King are all versatile pieces that can fit in nickel and dime packages.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Rob Bironas, P Craig Hentrich, LS Ken Amato, KOR Cortland Finnegan, PR Cortland Finnegan.
Rookie RB Chris Henry is still a possibility for KORs. Finnegan is good, but nobody the Titans have can match the dynamic Pacman Jones brought to the jobs. The special teamers blocking for the guys with the ball in their hands should be better. Hentrich has occasional back problems, but remains a clutch, versatile punter and holder. Bironas has a big leg and a new comfort level after a 60-yard game winner against the Colts last season.