Hopes are high for the 2016 Tennessee Titans season, and part of that hope is for improved play along the offensive line and in particular the tackle positions where the team now has two first round draft selections to bookend the line.
In the next in our series previewing the Titans roster, we look at the tackles and what we feel the depth chart will look like when the Titans open the regular season on Sept. 11 when the Minnesota Vikings visit Nissan Stadium.
Projecting the starters will be an easy endeavor, but just who will fill the backup roles and the all important role vacated by the season ending injury to Byron Bell is more of a challenge.
There are currently seven players listed as tackles currently on the roster, with four of those being rookies and two other entering their second season. Bell's experience will be missed, and could make general manager Jon Robinson look to add a veteran of two once cuts begin from other teams.
Here's how we see it before the start of training camp.
STARTING LEFT TACKLE- Taylor Lewan: Entering his third year, Lewan has battled injuries and at times inconsistent play while learning the ropes of being a left tackle in the NFL. During the recently completed OTA's and mini-camp, Lewan played with great effort and intensity, running around the field every play as if his life depended on it. That type maximum effort from Lewan should be contagious as he is now the leaders of the offensive tackles.
Lewan played well and graded highly during the latter part of last season, and his continued improvement and nasty streak must provide protection for the blindside of Marcus Mariota. Lewan will man the left tackle spot and if he can reach his lofty potential, the left side will be in great shape.
STARTING RIGHT TACKLE- Jack Conklin: The rookie first round pick was not supposed to assume the position so quickly, but Bell's unfortunate injury hastened Conklin's entrance onto the first unit. His play during the OTA's and mini-camp could best be described as up and down, which is to be expected of a rookie who has yet to see his first game action in the league.
Conklin has the size and physical tools, including a nasty streak in the run game but he must learn and improve as a pass protector. He has work to do, as with any rookie, but the desire is there and by all accounts, he has worked hard and is a playbook devotee. He will have his moments, but it is on-the-job training that will develop Conklin fastest.
BACKUPS- William Poehls and Josue Matias: Poehls is entering his second season with the Titans out of Montana, but he has spent most of that time on the practice squad and has no game experience to his credit.
Matias (Pronounced Ho-Sway Ma-tee-us) came to the Titans as an undrafted free-agent last year out of Florida State as a guard. He worked at both guard and tackle during the OTA's and mini-camp after spending 2015 on the practice squad. He could become the swing player that can fill Bell's role backing up at both guard or tackle.
Rookies Sam Carlson, Nick Ritcher and Tyler Marz are all on the roster and showed flashes during the OTA's and mini-camp, but it is hard to imagine that Robinson is happy with his current situation behind his starters.
This is the one position that is most likely to have additions when cuts begin.
Second year pro Jeremiah Poutasi could also see action at tackle, though he struggled there last season and seems best suited as a guard going forward.
PRACTICE SQUAD: Poehls could find himself back on the squad if Robinson adds sufficient backups after cuts. Likewise for Matias, though he could find himself on the roster because of the versatility to play both guard and tackle. Any of the three rookies could also find themselves on the practice squad, and it is likely that one or more of them will make the squad anyway.
As I mentioned, this is a hard position to handicap after the starters because there is no experience among them and with a rookie starter at right tackle, it is hard to imagine Robinson would be happy entering the season with this much inexperience behind them.