When the Tennessee Titans selected former East Carolina running back Chris Johnson in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, I have to admit that I was very surprised. Not because Johnson was a reach, he wasn’t; he was one of the best running back prospects in that draft class. It was because of the stockpile of talent the Titans already had at the position. Prior to ’08, the Titans spent second round picks in ’06 and ’07 on LenDale White and Chris Henry respectively, and to use a high pick once again to select another running back was questionable. The only thing that’s questionable now is the people who doubted the selection.
The No. 1 prospect in the organization, Johnson, stormed on the scene last year and quickly became “Must See TV” every time he touched the ball. Known for his 4.24 40-time, Johnson used his elusiveness effectively and put together a memorable rookie year where he rushed for 1,228 yards on 251 carries and nine touchdowns. In addition to his tremendous running skills, Johnson showcased his receiving skills and caught 43 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown. His quick rise landed him in the Pro Bowl, and the future looks bright for the 5-foot-11, 200-pound dynamo. This year, Johnson will be utilized even more, both as a runner and a receiver. His ability to make plays is uncanny, and the Titans want to get him in space as much as possible. The Titans have to be careful not to overwork Johnson; at his size, giving him premium touches puts him at risk for an injury. And without Johnson in the lineup, the Titans offense is not nearly as intimidating.
Intimidation is a word that describes the second rated prospect in the Titans organization, free safety Michael Griffin. The Titans first round pick in 2007 has developed into one of the league’s brightest stars on defense and was recognized as such last year by being named to his first Pro Bowl. As a rookie, Griffin played in all 16 games, starting 10, and immediately made his presence felt by contributing 54 tackles and three interceptions. The durable 6-foot, 202-pound playmaker started all 16 games in ’08 and didn’t disappoint. The Titans have an outstanding secondary and three of the four starters [Griffin, Chris Hope and Cortland Finnegan] were Pro Bowl selections last year. But it was Griffin who displayed the most promise by recording 75 tackles, a sack and a team-high seven interceptions. The growth that Griffin has shown in his first two years in the league is amazing. He’s not just a ballhawk in the secondary who gambles on every down looking to make a play; he can actually cover. It’s that versatility that makes him special and it will ultimately lead him to being the best safety in the NFL.
The aforementioned LenDale White enters his fourth season in the league, and in this series, a prospect is classified as a player who’s entering his third year or is under 25. At just 24 years old, White makes the cut. Breaking in as the third rated prospect in the organization, White has been very productive his first three years in the league and is the perfect compliment to Johnson. At 6-foot-1 235 pounds, White has nimble feet, deceptive speed and great strength. One of the premier short yardage backs in the league, White had an impressive showing in ‘08 sharing the backfield with Johnson; he had 200 carries for 773 yards and led the NFL with 15 rushing touchdowns. In 2007, White started all 16 games and amassed 1,110 yards on 303 carries and scored seven touchdowns. Coming out of USC, White was labeled as being soft, but so far in his young career he’s demonstrated toughness. The Titans have a great situation at running back with White and Johnson, and the two of them make great music together on the field. Even though the duo has split from their “Smash and Dash” nickname, it won’t stop them from being one of the most feared tandems in the league.
The running game is one area on the offense that strikes fear into the opposition, and for the Titans to keep defenses honest, the passing game will have to be improved. Knowing that they can’t rely on their rushing attack forever, the Titans did something this year that they haven’t done since 1998, and that was drafting a wide receiver in the first round; enter Rutgers Kenny Britt, who enters his first year as the Titans No. 4 prospect. At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Britt is a physically gifted receiver with tremendous upside. He has great size, good strength and is a dynamic playmaker down field. He’s versatile; he can play inside or outside, he runs good routes and uses his long strides to his advantage. He’s not afraid of contact and makes a lot of receptions over the middle. He’s outstanding after the catch and runs with purpose. He has to improve his blocking down field and be more disciplined. As talented as Britt is, he plays with a lot of emotion, and in the past, that emotion was displayed in a negative manner. Some consider him a prima donna and a player that has the attitude of a Terrell Owens or Jerry Porter. Either way, Britt will see a lot of action this year and could eventually emerge as the No. 1 receiver the Titans desperately need.
Another player entering his fourth year, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, breaks into the top-five as the Titans fifth ranked prospect. Tulloch, 24, is a durable, hardworking defender who started his career as a special teams terror and ascended into being a starter. A former fourth round draft pick from NC State, the 5-foot-11, 235-pound Tulloch is undersized, but has great instincts and plays the game with great passion. After being a situational defender and a special teams ace during his first two years in the league, Tulloch got his big break last year and started 12 games. As a starter, Tulloch displayed his hard knocks style and registered 84 tackles. He’s not a flashy player and doesn’t bring much in the playmaking department, but he’s a fundamentally sound linebacker that doesn’t make many mistakes. Entrenched as the team’s starter at middle linebacker this season, Tulloch, along with Keith Bulluck and David Thornton make up a hard-hitting trio that leaves it all out on the field.
Rounding out the top ten are second year defensive tackle Jason Jones (No. 6), 2009 second round picks, tight end Jared Cook (No. 7) and defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks (No. 8); third year center Leroy Harris (No. 9) and sophomore receiver Lavelle Hawkins (No. 10).With Albert Haynesworth no longer in Tennessee, Jones and Marks will vie for the starting job in the trenches next to Tony Brown. Free agent acquisition Jovon Haye will also be in contention, but Jones and Marks are younger and have a more promising future with the team. The tight end depth chart is crowded with the likes of Alge Crumpler, Bo Scaife and Craig Stevens. Cook is a very talented player with tremendous athletic ability, and it will be hard not to put him on the field. The good news for Cook is that Stevens, a third round pick in ’08, is primarily a blocker and it’s possible that the team carries four tight ends as they run a lot of two tight end sets. Veteran center Kevin Mawae continues to be an effective starter and made his seventh Pro Bowl last year. But he had elbow surgery during the offseason, and if he struggles coming back from the injury, Harris is more than ready to take over the starting role. Hawkins has a lot of talent, and with the Titans receivers not being amongst the best in the league, there’s a chance he could win the No. 3 or 4 receiver job. At 5-foot-11, 187 pounds, Hawkins is a perfect fit in the slot, but he also has the speed and ability to be an option on the outside.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.