Monday, March 5, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Tennessee Titans

I guess I'm just not sure what's going on with those teeth...
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with a team that features the only bald starting QB in the NFL, the Tennessee Titans. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Tennessee Titans

2011 Record:  9-7
PPG For: 20.3 (t-21st)
PPG Against:  19.8 (8th)
2012 Cap Number:  $92,739,765 (prior to Michael Griffin being tagged)
Draft Position:  #20 Pick

Titans fans may be disappointed that their team missed out on the playoffs, but considering the upheaval at the end of last season and the talent drain that it seemingly wrought on the team, a 9 win “rebuilding” season has to be considered a rousing success. What’s more is that the team can reasonably expect an even better year in 2012 thanks to the return of a couple injured stars in Kenny Britt and Chris Johnson (Wait, he wasn’t injured? He played all year?! My bad…), and a return to form from several players who simply had rough seasons. Unless, of course, the Titans decide they need to bring Kerry Collins back for the twelfth time…

The Good: 

Quietly, the Titans have assembled an impressive group of young talent. Just three of their regular starters were 30 years old or over, and only one of those starters (Matt Hasselbeck) could be described as a key player. Defensively, Akeem Ayers and Jurrell Casey proved to be steals in the second and third round of last year’s draft, and both players appear poised for even bigger sophomore seasons. And if Kenny Britt can make a healthy return, the Titans will have plenty of young receiving talent in Britt, Nate Washington, and Damian Williams.

The Bad:

Several key players regressed big time last season, and that has to be concerning for the team. The most notable of that group was Chris Johnson, who just wasn’t the same player after signing that massive contract. I’m not saying the contract did it to him, but the explosiveness that earned him the contract in the first place was simply missing. Of course, the regression of Michael Roos and David Stewart probably didn’t help either. The two tackles have been the bookends of some pretty solid offensive lines, and both players were rated near the top at their respective positions. At just 29, it was very odd to see them struggle as much as they did. Perhaps they were never able to get into proper game shape after the lockout, or perhaps there was a scheme shift after Jeff Fisher left. Either way, Tennessee needs all three players to bounce back big time if they want to compete with a fully healthy Texans team for the division.

Key Free Agents:  S Jordan Babineaux, DE Dave Ball, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Michael Griffin (Franchised), S Chris Hope, DE Jason Jones, LB Barrett Ruud, G Jake Scott, TE Craig Stevens

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Is Chris Johnson declining, or was 2011 just an aberration?

We all know that Father Time is especially cruel to running backs, but 26 seems a bit early even for that position. But hey, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, and for a player like Chris Johnson who relies so much on speed and explosion, even the smallest of declines can make a huge difference. Then again, maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. Maybe we should have seen this coming. Maybe the decline started a year earlier. Here’s what Johnson’s last three seasons have looked like:


Look, I’m not saying Johnson’s 2000 yard season was a big fluke or anything, but the numbers are pretty telling here. Chris Johnson in his first two seasons was a totally different, and far better, player than Chris Johnson in his last two seasons. Maybe his lack of production last year was just a product of his holdout and/or poor offensive line play, but don’t be shocked if he never looks like CJ2K again.

#2 – Is Jake Locker the QB of the future?

There’s a chance this question isn’t answered this year, especially if Peyton Manning is brought on board. For what it’s worth, I think that would be a great move by Tennessee, as three or four years of guaranteed winning (as much as anything in the NFL is guaranteed, that is) is preferable to the uncertain possibility that Jake Locker is a stud. To that end, however, I will say this – I think Jake Locker is a stud. I know, I know, I was the guy killing Tennessee for “wasting their pick” on a “bust” like Locker. Trust me, I remember. To be fair, his work in college left a lot to be desired. But it’s impossible to not be impressed with this guy in the small amount of work he got last year. Now, he still needs  a lot of work if he’s ever going to achieve his potential (accuracy, accuracy, accuracy), but he’s reputed to be an extremely coachable, hard working guy who is deeply invested in both his own improvement and the team’s success. That’s exactly the type of guy I want as my QB of the future. And, of course, there are the obvious physical gifts (ie. Arm strength, athleticism) that simply can’t be taught. I say this in all seriousness – I think Locker is VERY MUCH like Steve McNair, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t have similar careers. For Tennessee fans, that has to be music to their ears.

#3 – How active should they be in free agency?

Tennessee hasn’t typically been a big player in free agency, and I think their franchise has been all the better for it. But they have a ton of money to spend this offseason, even after placing the franchise tag on Michael Griffin. Many of their own free agents should be relatively cheap, and it appears as if the team is ready to part ways with Cortland Finnegan. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best idea in the world, but Finnegan hasn’t been nearly the impact player his reputation would lead one to believe. So, assuming all those things, that leaves Tennessee with quite a bit to play with. The most obvious target would be Peyton Manning, but looks more and more like that isn’t going to happen. Regardless, I think the idea of being aggressive is a good one for the Titans. They really aren’t that far away from contention, and they seriously need to consider speeding up the process while that window is open.  Here are two guys I think they should pursue:

G Carl Nicks:  Nicks is arguably the best guard in all of football, and at 27, he would be a great long term investment as well.  I already mentioned the Titans struggles up front, so it’s clear that this type of signing would have a big impact on the team. Better interior blocking could very well be what Chris Johnson needs to return to form. With all the money they have available, the Titans could afford to put a big first year number on the board to trump other offers.

DE Cliff Avril:  Former first round pick Derrick Morgan looks like he’s just not going to pan out, and he and the rest of the DE’s combined for just 8 sacks last season. Suffice it to say, Tennessee needs to improve the pass rush. Badly. Avril and Mario Williams would both be excellent targets, but I think I’d prefer Avril since he’s a year younger and is more durable. Of course, landing Williams brings the added advantage of plundering a division rival, so there’s that. Either way, the Titans should go all out to land one of these guys.

Draft Thoughts: 

Mel Kiper currently has them taking DE Whitney Mercillus, and I don’t see a problem with that pick unless a good value falls to them. After Coples and Melvin Ingram, there seems to a tightly clustered group of 4-3 DE’s that are borderline first round players. Mercillus has consistently been rated the highest in that group, though Vinny Curry, Andre Branch, and Nick Perry are all viable options. I don’t know enough about these players to make an informed opinion as to who is the best, so I’ll just say that Tennessee would be wise to grab one of them.

Summary Thoughts:

One of the worst places to be in professional sports is in the middle. Not good enough to contend but not bad enough to truly rebuild. I don’t know if that is Tennessee’s fate, but it will be interesting to see if they have any upward mobility. With Matt Hasselbeck at the helm, I’d have to seriously doubt it. He showed that he still has enough game left to keep a team competitive, but expecting anything more than 8 or 9 wins from him is probably too much. The future of this team is clearly Jake Locker. His development will determine how far they go. But that’s likely way out in the future…for 2012, I’m expecting 7-9 wins.

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