As the Vikings close out their preseason schedule with the majority of their first- and second-team players on the sidelines watching the 22 players who won't make the final roster get most of the playing time, they will do so against a Tennessee Titans team that has a lot of similarities to the Vikings and a head coach in Mike Munchak that is facing a career crossroads in his coaching career.
Munchak came to Tennessee in 2011 after the team parted ways with longtime head coach Jeff Fisher. In his first season with the Titans, they were a surprise playoff contender, finishing 9-7 and in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season – losing out on a wild card tie-breaker to Cincinnati. Entering last season, expectations were high, but the Titans fell flat, finishing 6-10, including a 2-4 record following their bye week. This season could well be a make-or-break year for Munchak and his coaching staff. If they lose double-digit games again this season, the Titans may again be looking for a new head coach.
Like the Vikings, the Titans have pinned their hopes on a 2011 first-round quarterback – Jake Locker. He went through growing pains in his first year as a starter – missing six games due to injury – but, like the Vikings, the team got rid of his initial competition (Matt Hasselbeck) and brought in a veteran starter with experience as his backup (Ryan Fitzpatrick). The fate of the offense will largely be based on how effective Locker can be.
Much like how the Vikings offense runs through Adrian Peterson, the Tennessee offense runs through Chris Johnson. A member of the exclusive 2,000-yard club himself, Johnson is a home run hitter who is the centerpiece of the Tennessee offense. The only question heading into the 2013 season is who will be his backups on the roster. The team brought in former Jet Shonn Greene to be a between-the-tacklers banger and short-yardage/goal-line specialist, but the battle for backup positions is between former Viking Darius Reynaud, who doubles as a return specialist, and veterans Jalen Parmele and Jackie Battle. One of those two may end up a cap casualty.
The pecking order at wide receiver is also a big question mark, not because of the lack of talent but because of competition. The team has used premium draft picks on Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. They also have veterans Nate Washington and Kevin Walker in the mix, which may not leave much room for the other five wide receivers still on the roster. Given that they held onto them through the first round of cuts, it is likely the Titans will keep six wide receivers. With Walter on the PUP list, it may open a spot for returnee Marc Mariani, fourth-year pro Damian Williams or youngsters Michael Preston, Rashad Ross and Dontel Watkins.
Perhaps the biggest move the Titans made in the offseason came along the offensive line. With Steve Hutchinson retiring, the guard position became a glaring need. Not only did the Titans spend millions in free agency to land Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, they used the 10th pick in April's draft on Chance Warmack – turning a weakness into a strength for years to come. With Pro Bowler Michael Roos at left tackle and solid play from center Rob Turner and right tackle David Stewart, the Titans will have one of the league's most formidable offensive lines in the league. The only real competition that will play out Thursday will be which backup guard the Titans keep – nine-year veteran Chris Spencer or sixth-year pro Kasey Studdard. A player to watch Thursday is rookie center Brian Schwenke. The Titans invested a fourth-round pick in him – very high for a center – so don't be stunned if next year he is competing for the starting spot if he doesn't win it this year.
There are a lot more questions on defense that need to be resolved, especially at defensive tackle. The Titans still have eight defensive tackles on the roster and will likely only keep five at the most. Starters Jurrell Casey and Sammie Hill and top backups Karl Klug and Mike Martin are likely locked into roster spots, which won't leave a lot of open space for the other four players competing for what will likely be one roster spot. If the competition is close, Thursday night is the final chance for them to make an impact on the coaching staff before the final cuts on Saturday.
There are still some roster questions at outside linebacker and cornerback, where rookie LB Zavier Gooden and rookie CBs Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Khalid Wooten are looking to lock down roster spots. While Wreh-Wilson and Gooden – both third-round picks – likely have their spots secured, Wooten will have to fight for his.
The Titans have a lot of similarities to the Vikings, including that most of the players who will be critical to their 2013 success won't be playing Thursday night. But, as is the case with the final game of the preseason, many of the players who see action won't be on the roster next week. The tough cuts are coming and the Titans will give the players they do release a lot of film for other teams (including the Vikings) to analyze. Over the next several days, NFL general managers and player personnel directors will have a lot of interest in games like the Vikings and Titans. The fans likely won't resurrect Thursday "Must-See TV" on the Twin Cities NBC affiliate by showing inordinate interest, but the game will be (NFL) life and death for a lot of the players seeing action in the second half.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Titans offense similar to Vikings
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