Outlook: Every year, at least one team in the NFL has to conduct a fire sale to clear their roster of overpaid or non-contributing veterans in order to free up money so that they can stay under the league-mandated salary cap. The Tennessee Titans were this year's team, undergoing a huge roster transformation this offseason and the team that takes the field in September will look vastly different from the team that finished the 2004 season.
Head coach Jeff Fisher is one of the best coaches in the NFL. He motivates players to play for him, instills discipline in his troops and makes sound gameday adjustments. During the offseason, Fisher hired former USC offensive guru Norm Chow to be the Titans' offensive coordinator. Because Chow is dealing with many young players, he should be able to relate to them well.
As stated earlier, the turnover of players during the offseason was massive and included several leaders on both offense and defense. WR Derrick Mason, both starting cornerbacks (Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson), FS Lance Schulters, DE Kevin Carter, K Joe Nedney and OT Fred Miller all were either released or allowed to leave. Most of the acquisitions made to replace departed players were draft choices and rookie free agents. The team is confident it can replace the players it lost, but how these new players play will go a long way in determining the final record for the Titans.
Quarterbacks: For the last two off-seasons, 10-year veteran QB Steve McNair has been rumored to be considering retirement. With the hiring of Chow, McNair seems rejuvenated. He went on a steady regimen of conditioning and weightlifting that has him lighter than he has ever played and in the best physical condition of his life.
McNair is a gamer. He isn't super-quick and he doesn't have a cannon for an arm, but he's a leader, he's tough as nails and he's got plenty of heart. In 2005 he was only able to start eight games because of a sternum injury. When he did play, he managed to complete 60% of his passes for 1,343 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.
When McNair was out, veteran Billy Volek filled in admirably finishing with an 87.1 rating. He completed 61.1% of his passes for 2,486 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Volek has good feet, an above-average arm and makes excellent decisions. He is also very tough. While he will never beat out McNair for the starting spot, the backup position is in good hands as long as Volek is around.
Following the draft, the Titans signed four rookie free agents to battle for the third spot on the depth chart. Of the four, Gino Guidugli and Jason White appear to be the front-runners. Guidugli has impressed coaches with his solid decision-making and live arm and he seems to have the inside track at this point in earning a roster spot.
Running Backs: This unit was upgraded significantly when the team traded a 2006 third-round draft choice for former Buffalo Bills starter Travis Henry. Henry was unhappy with his role in Buffalo and begged for a trade. Now that he has gotten his wish it's time to perform like his abilities say he can.
Henry is a tough inside runner for his size (5'9", 215), but he also possesses enough speed to get to the outside. He isn't the shiftiest runner, but he can make people miss when the need arises. His only drawback has been that he is a bit of a fumbler and has suffered some minor injuries during his career.
Last year's starter, Chris Brown, suffered a broken wrist during the team's first mini-camp, but he is expected to be ready by the beginning of camp. Brown has excellent size, good speed and great vision. He glides into his cuts and thus doesn't always hit the hole as hard as the team expects. He led the team in rushing last season even though he missed five games because of a turf-toe injury. His 1,067 yards rushing and six touchdowns gave coaches and fans hope that he is the answer for the Titans at running back.
Unlike Henry, Brown is not a good receiver out of the backfield and he could lose time to Henry because of it.
FB Robert Holcombe left during free agency, but the team feels secure with second-year FB Troy Fleming. Fleming is an excellent athlete, who catches the ball well and is an excellent blocker. His abilities in pass-protection make him the odds-on-favorite to stay in on passing downs.
Wide Receivers: The departure of Mason could be a big hit to the offense, as McNair constantly looked for him when the going got tough. One player who can pick up Mason's slack is fifth-year WR Drew Bennett.
Bennett really came into his own in 2004, catching a career-high 80 passes for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns. Bennett runs excellent routes and is very quick out of his breaks. He also uses his big frame to shield defenders from the ball. Last year he struggled with a case of the "dropsies" and the team needs him to be more consistent this season.
The other veteran wideout on the roster is Tyrone Calico, who possesses the talents and skills to be a super-star in the league, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. He lost all but one game with a knee injury last season, but he appears to be 100% heading into camp. He is big, strong and has excellent speed, but his hands are iffy at times and he still needs to work on his routes.
During the draft the Titans took three wideouts and all three will be counted on early in their careers to contribute on a regular basis. The best of the three is fourth-rounder Roydell Williams. His only drawback as a possession receiver is that he isn't the most durable player. Brandon Jones and Courtney Roby both have good deep speed, but neither is very adept at running good routes. The learning curve needs to be very short for these players or the Titans could be in trouble.
Second-year TE Ben Troupe could alleviate a lot of the depth problems at wideout with a solid sophomore season. As a rookie it took him a little time to get up to speed in the pro offense, but toward the end of the season he was consistently showing his outstanding athleticism and catching most everything in sight. He finished the year with 33 receptions (third on the team) for 329 yards and one touchdown. Chow loves to get his tight ends in favorable matchups with linebackers and safeties and Troupe is an excellent candidate to fill that spot in the offense.
Backup tight end Erron Kinney is a good receiver and a solid blocker when needed. Sixth round choice Bo Scaife has the tools necessary to earn a roster spot and could push Kinney for playing time by the end of the season.
Offensive Line: The backbone of the line is LT Brad Hopkins who returns for his 13th season with the Titans. Hopkins continues to play at a very high level and uses his athleticism and competitive drive to keep pass rushers and run defenders at bay.
The loss of Miller could be a big problem for the Titans if they don't find a replacement during camp. Jacob Bell, who filled in for LG Zach Piller when he was out last season, is the logical replacement. Bell also has some experience blocking on the right side from playing there in college. The problem is that Bell is recovering from knee surgery and may not be ready for the start of the season.
The three interior spots are set with Piller and RG Benji Olsen flanking C Justin Hartwig. Piller absolutely mauls defenders and his presence along the line was missed last season. Olsen gets by on his technical superiority over his athleticism. His footwork is outstanding and he always takes good angles.
Hartwig is one of the better pivot men in the league possessing great hands and the athleticism necessary to pull on sweeps. He also is very intelligent and makes all of the line calls.
Michael Roos, selected by the Titans in the second round of the draft, will back up one tackle spot while two other tackle draft choices (David Stewart and Daniel Loper) battle it out on the other side. The interior spots will be backed up by Todd Williams and Eugene Amano.
This unit needs to be much improved over last season in order for the Titans to get the most out of their running game and to keep McNair on the field for as many plays as possible.
Defensive Line: The interior of the Titans defensive line is set, but the outside remains a mystery at this point. With Carter and DE Carlos Hall departing in free agency the Titans will be relying on some young players to step up big-time.
Rookie ends Antwan Odom, Travis LaBoy and Bo Schobel each struggled to adapt to the speed and tenacity of the pro game last year, but the team is expecting them to make some big strides in 2005. LaBoy ended up with 21 tackles and 3.5 sacks in limited action while Odom saw more time and posted two sacks. Both struggle against the run and need to improve their lower-body strength if they hope to improve in this phase of the game.
Veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch was added to the roster during free agency, but he remains an enigma because of injuries.
Along the interior DT Albert Haynesworth has Pro Bowl talent, but still hasn't tapped his vast area of abilities. Haynesworth is an excellent athlete, possessing rare speed and quickness for a man of his dimensions. Haynesworth missed six games last season with a dislocated right elbow. He still managed 37 tackles, one sack, 6.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three passes defensed and 13 quarterback pressures.
The other starting tackle is third year player Rien Long. Long is very lean for a defensive tackle (6'6", 300), but he has excellent pass-rush skills and a knack for always being around the ball. Long has very good hands, allowing him to fend off blockers, and he has also improved his pad-level off the snap allowing him to be better against the run. Long started 15 games in 2004 and finished with 26 tackles and five sacks. Look for him to improve on those numbers as Haynesworth becomes more active along the front.
Second-year player Randy Starks showed a ton of promise as a rookie, recording 28 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He needs to improve his technique, but he is very strong and an excellent athlete. He completes a great trio on the inside and guarantees that the play at defensive tackle will not fall off when he is in the game.
Jared Clauss is the other tackle on the roster and while he has good tenacity, he is undersized so he has trouble holding up against the run.
Linebackers: Led by five-year veteran Keith Bullock, the linebackers are very active and very athletic. Bullock had a Pro Bowl-worthy season last year, leading the entire league with 152 tackles while also posting five sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, one fumble, two interceptions and 13 passes defensed.
Bullock was all over the field and seemed like a man possessed at times. He's very smart, has excellent range and is solid against the run and in coverage.
Peter Sirmon is the other outside linebacker and while he missed the entire season with a knee injury, the team expects him back to 100% and ready to pick up where he left off following the 2003 season. Sirmon isn't as strong as Bullock is in space, but he is a sure tackler who is solid against the run.
The middle spot will be a battle between Rocky Calmus and Brad Kassell. Kassell finished second on the team with 103 tackles, but is a liability in coverage. Calmus is very athletic but has struggled with injuries during his short career.
One player who could step up and make a significant contribution this fall is another Rocky – Rocky Boiman – but he too struggled with injuries. Boiman can play any spot in the linebacking corps but his main contributions thus far have been on special teams. Another player to watch is Cody Spencer. Spencer is an aggressive player who will definitely see time on special teams.
Defensive Backs: This is the thinnest part of the Titans' roster, and cause for the biggest concern among the front office and coaching staff. Over the last few years the team has been able to wall off one side of the field with Rolle and then concentrated their zones on the other side. The additional loss of Dyson makes the corner spot shaky at best.
During April's draft, the team spent the number six choice in the first round on West Virginia CB Adam "Pacman" Jones. Jones isn't big, but he is an incredible athlete (possessing a 40 inch vertical), quick feet and good ball skills. The problem? He's had some off the field trouble of late (assault and felony vandalism charges stemming from a fight at a nightclub) and his representatives and the team are at a stalemate over his contract. If a protracted contract problem arises, Jones could find himself playing catch-up for most of the season.
Andre Woolfolk and veteran Tony Beckham are the likely starters and while both are decent corners, filling in for Rolle and Dyson may be too much to ask. Woolfolk, like seemingly the rest of the Titans roster, has struggled with injuries, but when he has played he has been pretty good. Playing in the nickel, Woolfolk posted 41 tackles, one interception and six passes defensed.
Beckham is strong and likes to compete. He suffered a knee injury last year and missed most of last season, but he is 100% heading into camp.
Second-year players Michael Waddell and Rich Gardner will both be in the mix at corner as well.
The safety spots may be even shakier than the corners. Schulters' release and the unknown status of SS Tank Williams' knee could lead to even more issues in the deep patrol.
Second-year S Lamont Thompson had an outstanding season last year in place of Williams and he is the likely replacement for Schulters. Thompson's 65 tackles ranked third on the team and his four interceptions were second to Dyson's six. He has great instincts and his athleticism allows him to cover a lot of ground.
Williams will be the starting strong safety if his knee is healthy. If not, Donnie Nickey or rookie Vincent Fuller could see significant time – something the team would like to avoid.
Special Teams: Punter Craig Hentrich just keeps getting better. His 40.2 net average in 2004 was the best of his 11-year career. He gets great height on his punts allowing the coverage units to rank near the top of the league every season. His "knuckleball" punts are infamous with return men and he is also very adept at placing punts inside the 20.
Ola Kimrin was signed in the offseason and he will be given every opportunity to win the job in camp. If not, the Titans could be in a world of hurt as veterans Joe Nedney and Gary Anderson were given their walking papers.
Jones will be the punt returner, but the kickoff job is up for grabs. Jones is a dynamic return man and will add some flair to an otherwise mundane unit.
Final Projection: The Titans have a nice core of players on offense and some talented men along the defensive front seven. The problem is that they may have lost too many leaders and playmakers to be competitive this season. The depth of the team will be severely tested this fall, with no experienced depth at wideout and very little along the offensive line or the secondary.
With McNair you can never count the Titans out and with a solid running-game they may be able to control the clock. Defensively, this team could be great against the run, but they may struggle against the pass with an inexperienced secondary and no proven pass-rush at this point.
With a very tough division in front of them and tough road games at Pittsburgh and St. Louis, five to seven wins is probably the most this team can hope for this season. Watch out in 2006 as this team should be able to develop some experienced depth during the season and be primed for a playoff run next season.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opponent Preview: The Tennessee Titans
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