In 2011, the Titans allowed just 19.8 points per game, 8th best in the NFL. In 2012, they were dead last, allowing 29.4 points per game, with essentially the same personnel. In 2013, they were right in between, ranking 16th, allowing 23.8 points per game. What happened? Well they got huge years from Jurrell Casey and Alterraun Verner, while Michael Griffin bounced back from a horrific 2012 season. However, in spite of an improved defense, the Titans still finished just 7-9 and fired head coach Mike Munchak.
Ken Whisenhunt has taken over for him and brought in Ray Horton to be his defensive coordinator, as was the case when Whisenhunt was the Cardinals’ head coach in 2012. Horton will be transitioning the Titans to a 3-4 defense, which might be a mistake. While some players like Akeem Ayers will benefit and Horton is a well-respected defensive coordinator, Jurrell Casey is arguably their best defensive player and he might not be a good fit at 5-technique defensive end at only 6 foot 1. At the same time, the Titans will have to re-sign stud cornerback Alterraun Verner if they want to continue being a solid defense.
That being said, the bigger issue is the offensive side of the ball. Jake Locker has yet to establish himself as a starting caliber quarterback going into his 4th season, which also happens to be his contract year. Ken Whisenhunt is an improvement as an offensive head coach over Mike Munchak and overmatched offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains so we’ll see if he can bring it out of Locker. At the moment, it looks like the Titans might be stuck in the mud as a middling team for at least another year.
The Titans are moving to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Zach Brown will be moving from outside linebacker to one of the middle linebacker spots, but they still need someone else at the other spot. Currently, the man slated to fill that role is Moise Fokou, who started at middle linebacker for the Titans in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked middle linebacker this season. Someone like Alabama’s CJ Mosley will be an option for them with the 11th overall pick in this upcoming draft.
Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard, and George Wilson might all not be back next season. Griffin played alright this season, but he’s been very inconsistent in his career and he has a cap number of 8 million in 2014. The Titans can save 2.6 million on the cap and 6.2 million in cash by letting him go. Bernard Pollard, meanwhile, is a free agent. Finally, Wilson is going into his age 33 season and could be cut, a move that would save 2.5 million in cap space and cash. Chances are, they’ll need to add at least one new starter at safety this off-season.
The Titans brought in Delanie Walker as a free agent, but he didn’t pan out as the pass catcher they were expecting him to be. He caught 60 passes, but they went for just 571 yards on 505 routes run. He’s really just a blocking tight end whose role is being overstretched. Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson, meanwhile, are also just blocking types. They need a strong pass catcher over the middle from the tight end position.
Chris Johnson is expected to be a cap casualty this off-season, as they’d save 6 million on the cap and 8 million in cash by cutting him, going into his age 29 season after a year in which he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. They’d need a new lead back in that situation. Shonn Greene is his backup and he has starting experience and is being paid like a starter, but he’s proved to be overstretched as a lead back in the past, averaging 3.9 yards per carry in 2012, the last time he was a starter. He’ll have a bigger role in 2014 than the 77 carries he had in 2013, but they need someone to pair him with at the very least.
Is Jake Locker the answer? After 3 years, we still don’t have an answer for that question about the former 8th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Part of that is because he’s only played 23 games and thrown 563 pass attempts in 3 seasons, as a result of Matt Hasselbeck’s presence and a variety of injuries. He’s definitely flashed at times, but he has about a season’s worth of pass attempts under his belt now and he’s thrown for just 3904 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, while rushing for another 502 yards and 4 touchdowns and completing 57.2% of his passes. He’s heading into his contract year in 2014 and the coaching staff that drafted him is gone, so they might want to start to go in a different direction at quarterback or add some extra competition, much like the Buccaneers did with Mike Glennon last year.
The Titans could cut David Stewart this off-season, to save 6.4 million in cash and cap space this off-season, after he had a middling season in 2013, going into his age 32 season. Even if they don’t, he probably won’t be around much longer so they could start looking to develop a successor even if they don’t cut him and need a replacement.
Jurrell Casey will be a starter at one 5-technique spot, but things are pretty fluid at the opposite spot. Ropati Pitoitua and Antonio Johnson are free agents, which leaves talented reserves Karl Klug and Mike Martin at the position. If they don’t bring back Pitoitua and Johnson, they’ll probably need to add some depth this off-season.
I don’t know why the Titans cut Fernando Velasco, a perfectly functioning starting center, in order to give the starting job to veteran journeyman Robert Turner. Turner struggled mightily and was benched for 4th round rookie Brian Schwenke, who wasn’t any better. Despite splitting playing time, they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd and 29th ranked centers respectively out of 35 eligible. Schwenke is young so he could get another chance at the starting job, but it might be wise to bring in some actual competition.
Key Free Agents
CB Alterraun Verner
Alterraun Verner had his “breakout” year this year because he had 5 interceptions and that’s all a lot of people care about with defensive backs, but he’s actually been very good since his rookie season in 2010, despite a combined 6 interceptions from 2010-2012. He’s been a top-24 cornerback on Pro Football Focus’ in all 4 seasons, making all 64 starts since being drafted in the 4th round out of UCLA in 2010. Verner rode those 5 interceptions, along with a 49.4% completion percentage allowed, to a 12th ranked grade on Pro Football Focus and he’ll see a big paycheck this off-season, probably upwards of 40 million over 5 years. He could be a candidate for the franchise tag.
S Bernard Pollard
It’s weird to say considering he’s already been on 4 teams and could be going on a 5th, but Bernard Pollard is only going into his age 30 season in 2014. He was a solid starter once again this season, this time for the Titans and could serve as a cheap short-term starter at the safety position for some team again this off-season, much like he did last off-season for the Titans, with whom he made just 2 million this season.
DE Ropati Pitoitua
A talented reserve 5-technique defensive end in Kansas City, the Titans attempted to turn Ropati Pitoitua into their version of the Seahawks’ Red Bryant this season. It didn’t go as well as they would have liked. He didn’t get any pressure on the quarterback, as you would expect from a 6-8 290 pounder trying to play on the edge, and he didn’t do enough against the run to make up for it. He wasn’t terrible, but his best fit is probably in a traditional 5-technique defensive end position. Fortunately, the Titans are switching to a 3-4 so they could bring him back as a cheap starter opposite Jurrell Casey.
DT Antonio Johnson
Antonio Johnson is a reserve and little else. He graded out well below average on Pro Football Focus in both 2011 and 2012, grading out 79th out of 88 eligible defensive tackles in 2011 and 80th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles in 2012. He was a better in 2013, but only on 386 snaps and he’s going into his age 30 season so he’ll probably have to wait a while to get a new job.
WR Kenny Britt
Kenny Britt had a ton of promise. Before tearing his ACL early in the 2011 season, the 2009 1st round pick had caught 56 passes for 1146 yards and 12 touchdowns over his last 14 full games, despite inconsistent, at best, quarterback play. He struggled in 2012 with injury and off the field problems, catching just 45 passes for 589 yards and 4 touchdowns, but had a chance to make up for it in his contract year in 2013 and get a good chunk of cash in free agency. Instead, his contract year was rock bottom. Despite playing just 305 snaps, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked wide receiver. He caught just 11 of 33 targets, taking them for just 96 yards and getting 6 yards total after the catch. He also committed 6 penalties and was a healthy scratch in 4 games. Between his struggles on the field and his off the field baggage, Britt is going to have to wait a long time for the phone to ring this off-season, if it rings at all, in spite of his raw natural ability and athleticism.
Cap Casualty Candidates
RB Chris Johnson
The Titans overpaid Chris Johnson based off of his insane 2009 season, in which he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and rushed for over 2000 yards. Since that season, he’s rushed for 4731 yards and 27 touchdowns on 1133 carries, an average of 4.18 yards per carry. Last season, he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and now he’s going into his age 29 season. The Titans can easily get out of the final 3 years of his deal, a total of 23 million, and save 6 million on this year’s cap by cutting him. They can easily replace him, so he’s as good as gone.
DE Kamerion Wimbley
Kamerion Wimbley lost his starting job to Ropati Pitoitua this season and only played 360 snaps. Owed 6 million in his age 31 season in 2014, Wimbley could easily be cut, which would save the Titans 2.4 million on the cap. The only way he stays is if new defensive coordinator Ray Horton recognizes how much better he fits in a 3-4 than a 4-3, but it’s looking doubtful considering his age and their lack of need at the rush linebacker position.
WR Nate Washington
Nate Washington has 178 catches for 2688 yards and 14 touchdowns over the past 3 seasons, but he’s going into his age 31 season and could be cut, which would save 4.8 million in cash and cap space. The Titans have used a 1st and 2nd round pick on Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter in the last two drafts so Washington is becoming superfluous as he heads into the tail end of his career.
OT David Stewart
The Titans could cut David Stewart this off-season, to save 6.4 million in cash and cap space this off-season, after he had a middling season, going into his age 32 season. He’ll be a free agent after next season anyway.
S Michael Griffin
Michael Griffin had a solid season this year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked safety. However, he’s been very inconsistent in his career. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked safety in 2012 and 2nd worst ranked safety in 2009, but he was also 10th highest in 2011. He could be cut, which would save the Titans 6.2 million in cash and 2.6 million on the cap.
S George Wilson
Cutting George Wilson would save 2.5 million on the cap and in cash for 2014. He’s a talented player who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked safety in 2012, but he played just 420 snaps in 2013. He played well in 2013 on those limited snaps, but he’s going into his age 33 season so the Titans might not see him as a startable player for 2014. If they don’t, he’s not worth what he’s owed.
TE Craig Stevens
Craig Stevens is purely a blocking tight end who caught just 2 passes for 5 yards on 95 snaps this season. Considering fellow tight ends Delanie Walker and Taylor Thompson are also blocking types, Stevens is pretty superfluous. Owed 3.4 million in cash, the Titans would save 2.4 million in cap space by cutting him this off-season.