Preview: Backup jobs on the line

The Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings will feature mostly backups in their preseason finale.

The Tennessee Titans find themselves in an interesting position as a member of the AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts have held sway in the division for a decade and the other three teams – Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville – have been forced to try to discover a way to lessen the chasm that exists between the Colts and the rest of the division.

Tennessee is the Minnesota Vikings’ opponent in their final preseason game Thursday night and the Titans have taken a time-honored approach to trying to make their run at the division’s top spot – spending free agent money to do it.

Tennessee has attempted to build its lineup through free agency, bringing in quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, running back Dexter McCluster, wide receivers Harry Douglas, Hakeem Nicks and Jacoby Ford, tight ends Anthony Fasano and Delanie Walker, offensive linemen Andy Levitre and Byron Bell, defensive lineman Sammie Hill, linebackers Brian Orakpo and Wesley Woodyard and defensive backs Parrish Cox and Da’Norris Searcy.

Most of those outside free agents are expected to play key roles for the Titans, so, as is the habit in the final preseason game, we likely won’t be seeing many of them. When it comes to the Vikings game, the focus will be on the young players Tennessee is trying to develop through the draft so they won’t have to constantly be heavy spenders in free agency. The problem they face is that they have had spotty results in drafting players over recent years.

It all starts at quarterback and the Titans made one of the biggest rolls of the dice on greatness in drafting Marcus Mariota with the second pick in the draft. Mariota was a system quarterback at Oregon and many scouts felt would have a significant learning curve, so it came as something of a surprise when the Titans turned down trade offers to select Mariota with the second pick of the draft. He has pushed 2014 rookie Zach Mettenberger to a backup spot and battling Whitehurst for the No. 2 role.

At running back, the process of replacing Chris Johnson hasn’t come easy. The team drafted Bishop Sankey in the second round last year and he had an unspectacular season, so the Titans added former Minnesota Gophers running back David Cobb to provide a challenge for Sankey’s lead back role. If Cobb can dissuade his doubters in the NFL as well as he did in the Big Ten, he could be pushing Sankey for a starting job, but he isn’t expected to play Thursday because of an injury.

The Titans have invested a first- or second-round pick three of the last four years at wide receiver – using a first-rounder on Kendall Wright in 2012, a second-rounder in 2013 on Justin Hunter and this year’s second-round pick on the enigmatic, but red-flagged Dorial Green-Beckham. The hope is that DGB can get his head right as a professional, because he has the ability to be franchise receiver. Mariota is going to need a go-to guy and, while they are completely different personalities, the Titans hope that opposites attract.

The most troubling matchup for Tennessee may well be at offensive line. Tennessee has a solid starting five, but beyond that, it’s a little sketchy. Of the eight backup linemen still on the roster, two of them are sixth-round draft picks and five of them went undrafted. The Titans will be using Thursday’s game as a final test as to who will be the next man up in injury situations and who will have to go.

Defensively, the Titans have invested in outside free agents to provide the frontline of their depth chart, but the group the Vikings are going to see is young, especially up front. In the Tennessee 3-4 defense, having a stout nose tackle is key and undrafted Toby Johnson and Isaako Aaitui are looking to provide depth behind free agents Sammie Hill and Al Woods. Both are seen as developmental types and, most likely, only one will remain with the team by Sunday.

The third line of the linebacker corps will be a battle that has been waged since the start of OTAs. With four rookies and two second-year players competing for roster spots, names like Deiontrez Martz, Yawin Smallwood and Andy Studebaker – names last heard bantered about prior to the last couple of drafts – will be looking to make their impression.

For Game 4 of the preseason purposes, perhaps the most interesting thing to watch with the Titans will be in the secondary. Over the last four seasons, they have drafted several defensive backs in hopes of providing depth and pushing the veteran starters for their spots. The group includes cornerbacks Blidi Wreh-Wilson (3rd round, 2013), Cody Sensabaugh (4th round, 2012) and Marqueston Huff (4th round, 2014), with Huff also seeing time at safety with Khalid Wooten (6th round, 2013) and Daimion Stafford (7th round, 2013). The Titans are trying to build from within in the secondary and this will be on full display against the Vikings.

The fan interest in Week 4 preseason games is about as low as it gets. Everybody wants to get the regular season going, but for the back-end-of-the-roster guys for the Vikings and Titans, their futures are on the line – whether that future is with those teams or someone else – it will be the final act of the preseason and perhaps the final chance for a lot of players clinging to the dream of playing in the NFL.

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