I made some incorrect predictions last season, as anyone would, but the one I am most embarrassed about is that I thought the Titans would make the playoffs. I thought Jake Locker would continue to be the improvement over Matt Hasselbeck he was in limited action as a rookie, that Kenny Britt would be the player he looked on his way to becoming before his torn ACL to give them a very underrated and talented receiving corps, and that Chris Johnson would continue the strong 2nd half of his 2011 season into 2012. I thought Locker and Britt had some Matt Stafford/Calvin Johnson lite potential and that the Titans’ offense had the potential to be like the 2011 Lions’ lite. Defensively, I saw a unit that was 8th in the NFL, allowing 19.8 points per game the previous season despite being one of the youngest units in the NFL.
Instead, their defense allowed the most points in the NFL, allowing 29.4 points per game. Their offense improved slightly, but not much, scoring just 20.6 points per game, nowhere near enough to keep up with all the points their defense was allowing. They won 6 games, but they weren’t even as good as that would suggest, as they ranked tied for 4th worst in the NFL with a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.8 wins, getting outscored by 141 points on the season. That was despite an easy schedule and they ranked 30th in DVOA. And it’s not even that they had an unsustainably poor turnover margin or bad luck recovering fumbles. They got outgained by close to 1000 yards on the season. They were one of the worst teams in the NFL anyway you look at it.
What happened? Well Jake Locker missed 5 games with injury and struggled when he was on the field, displaying accuracy issues that date back to his collegiate days, completing just 56.4% of his passes for an average of 6.9 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Matt Hasselbeck played in relief of him, but very much looked his age, completing 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.2 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.
Kenny Britt struggled to bounce back from his torn ACL, missed 2 games with suspension and injury, and poor play by his quarterback didn’t help. Chris Johnson bounced back from his poor 2011 somewhat, upping his yards per carry from 4.0 to 4.5, but he wasn’t quite the player I was expecting him to be. His overall numbers were pretty impressive, but not quite as good as they were in the 2nd half of 2011, when he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and he was way too inconsistent. While he had 5 games of 120+ yards, he also had 5 games of fewer than 30 yards and overall spent too much time dancing.
Defensively, their struggles were more perplexing as they allowed close to 10 points more per game, despite only two players really playing significantly worse than I expected, middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and safety Michael Griffin. Derrick Morgan had a breakout year on the defensive line, opposite free agent Kamerion Wimbley and the team actually graded out just below average on ProFootballFocus, better than they had the previous season.
McCarthy issues were caused by an ankle injury and a concussion that limited him to 7 games and hampered him when he did play, while Griffin is a notoriously up year/down year type player that should be up this year if history holds. That doesn’t seem like it would be enough to reverse all of this defense’s problems though, and while they did allow fewer than 20 points per game in 2011, they ranked 18th in the NFL in yards allowed. In fact, they really only allowed about 300 more yards last season than the year before so it seems like I just overrated them to begin with. In actuality, they are probably somewhere in between the 19.8 points per game they allowed in 2011 and 29.4 points per game they allowed in 2012, but they could be closer to 2011 than 2012 if things go right.
Offensively, it’s very possible that Kenny Britt could have a much better season this year, in a contract year, coming another year removed from the torn ACL and any off the field incidents. Chris Johnson should be helped by an improved offensive line that adds Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack at guard and turns what was once a position of serious weakness at guard into a position of serious strength. The biggest concern remains Jake Locker and whether or not he’ll ever be accurate enough to be a successful NFL quarterback.
Locker still has upside and he’s not proven either way with just 11 starts under his belt, but I didn’t think he’d become a franchise quarterback coming out of Washington and the Titans have not seemed confident in him this off-season, saying that a “major goal” is preventing Locker from “feeling overwhelmed.” The Titans have added Ryan Fitzpatrick, a proven backup caliber talent, behind him this off-season, to replace Hasselbeck and he could see multiple starts, especially if Locker gets hurt again. Their quarterback play could ultimately be what holds this team back, even if the rest of the team plays well, as could happen.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Locker could be helped by a finally 100% Kenny Britt. In 2010, Kenny Britt, then a 2nd year receiver out of Rutgers and a former 1st round pick, caught 42 passes for 775 yards and 9 touchdowns. Those were impressive numbers for a 2nd year receiver, but even more impressive is that he did that in just 12 games and that he was just scratching the surface of his potential. Those numbers extrapolate to 56 catches for 1033 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Heading into his 3rd year in the league, frequently a breakout year for receiver, the 6-3 218 receiver with 4.56 speed looked poised for a breakout year in 2011, what was only his age 23 season.
Britt looked to be on his way to that breakout year early, but he tore his ACL midway through week 3 and finished the year with 17 catches for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns, impressive stats for 2 ½ games, but hardly what was expected of him. The following off-season, he got arrested again, bringing his career arrest total to 8, which earned him a one game suspension. He also had knee surgeries on both knees and was overall unprepared for the 2012 season. Despite his #1 receiver talent, he played the 3rd most pass snaps among wide receivers on the team, playing just 413 of 644 possible pass snaps. He did not play well when he did play, catching just 45 passes for 589 yards and 4 touchdowns, despite a career high 90 targets.
Now Britt is at a crossroads in his career, heading into the final year of his rookie contract. The writing is on the wall after the team used a 1st round pick on Kendall Wright, a receiver from Baylor, in 2012, and a 2ndround pick on Justin Hunter, a receiver from Tennessee, in 2013. However, he remains a starter and the #1 receiver job is his if he wants it. Britt is a more talented and experienced receiver than both of the young receivers and he’s more talented than Nate Washington as well. He has all the talent and he doesn’t even turn 25 until September. So far, he hasn’t gotten hurt or arrested this off-season and reports about him have all been positive, that he finally has things together.
If that continues, he’ll be over a year removed from any arrests or surgeries when week 1 comes around. If he puts everything together and plays all or most of his team’s games, he’s fully capable of having a thousand yard season or more. Quarterback play is a concern, but Britt has posted big time per game receiving numbers in the past with Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, and Rusty Smith throwing him the football. Britt’s skill set fits well with Locker’s desire to throw downfield.
It seems like I’ve been predicting a breakout year for Britt for each of the past 3 off-seasons, but if he keeps up this off-season, he may finally have one. Or this season could go the opposite way for him. He could get passed on the depth chart by one or both young receivers and work only as a 3rd or 4th receiver and not be welcomed back as a free agent this off-season. This season is as make or break as it gets for a former 1st round pick and it’ll all be on him how it turns out. For the time being, it looks promising and I’m leaning towards breakout.
Britt will play with Nate Washington and Kendall Wright in 3-wide receiver sets, with Washington playing his natural slot role, but other than that, it’s unclear how playing time will be divided between the trio. Britt seems like the favorite to be their top receiver, but it’s not set in stone. Wright caught 64 passes for 626 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 1st round rookie last year, which is above the average for a 1st round rookie. He should be better this year now that he’s not a rookie, but it might take until his 3rd year for him to truly breakout.
Washington, meanwhile, is a slot specialist who has been pretty productive over the past few years, catching 46 passes for 746 yards and 4 touchdowns last year, but with so much young talent blossoming around him, the arrow is trending down, especially going into his age 30 season. Earlier this off-season, there was talk that Washington would be traded for a late round pick and cut if no deal was possible, but now it looks like they’re going to hold onto him. 2nd round rookie Justin Hunter will be the 4th receiver. He’s 6-4 with 4.4 wheels, but needs to work on his route running, his hands/concentration, and bulk up. Early reviews out of Training Camp have not been positive for him, so this could essentially be a redshirt year for him.
The Titans did lose pass catching tight end Jared Cook this off-season, opting not to bring him back after he fell to 2nd on the depth chart behind blocking specialist Craig Stevens last season. He was an efficient pass catcher, but couldn’t block at all. To replace him, the Titans brought in Delanie Walker from San Francisco, undoubtedly a better blocker, but a very poor pass catcher. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked run blocking tight end last year, being used frequently (more often than any other #2 tight end in the NFL behind Houston’s Garrett Graham), but he had just 21 catches to 9 drops and has never caught more than 29 passes in a season.
He offers very little after the catch and has averaged just 1.08 yards per route run over the past 4 seasons. He’s not really that dissimilar from Craig Stevens, who caught 23 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown last season on 212 pass snaps, 1.30 yards per route run, while run blocking well. Stevens is already on their roster and, unlike Walker, did not cost 17.5 million over 4 years. Stevens looks like he’ll be headed to fullback this season.
It’s very unclear who will take over Jared Cook’s old pass catching role, but the Titans do have high hopes for 2nd year tight end Taylor Thompson. Thompson was a 5th round pick out of SMU, where he played defensive lineman, but because of his athleticism (6-6 259 4.59) and his soft hands in individual workouts, the Titans converted the collegiate defensive end to tight end, despite the fact that he hadn’t played receiver of any kind since he was a wideout in high school. He showed well as a blocker as a rookie, but caught just 6 passes for 46 yards on 83 pass snaps with 2 drops. Most of Tennessee’s receiving production will come from wide receivers, but they have a talented bunch. They just might need a different quarterback to show that.
Jake Locker should also be helped by what should be an improved offensive line. Going into last season, the interior of the Titans’ offensive line was a huge weakness, while their tackles remained a strength. A year later, the interior of their offensive line has been turned to a strength and their tackles remain sturdy. They might have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
What’s happened since the start of last season? Well, Fernando Velasco broke out in place of an injured Eugene Amano, who was one of the worst offensive linemen in the league prior to his injury. In his first year as a starter, Velasco graded out well above average as ProFootballFocus’ 11th ranked center. He’s still a one year wonder so I’ll need to see the 2008 undrafted free agent do it again, but he should be considered an above average starter.
At left guard, the Titans signed Andy Levitre this off-season. Levitre got 46.8 million over 6 years from the Titans, which is a lot for a guard, but it’s still less than Carl Nicks, Logan Mankins, and Jahri Evans and Levitre is right there in that tier below them. He’s worth what they paid him and he fills a massive hole. The 2009 2nd round pick has never missed a start and can play left tackle in a pinch. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked guard in 2012 and 6th ranked in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over the aged and since retired Steve Hutchinson at left guard.
Also filling a massive hole is rookie right guard Chance Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Along with 7th overall pick Jonathan Cooper, that was the first time a true interior offensive lineman had been drafted above 15th overall in 15 years, but it wasn’t a bad move. They needed the guard help and it was a historically poor draft in terms of top level talent. Warmack is one of the best guard prospects in a long time and might have more Pro-Bowl potential than any player in the entire draft behind Cooper and maybe the top-two tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, even if he is just a guard.
Warmack will slot in immediately at his natural spot at right guard and it would not surprise me if he was a very good starter in his first year in the league. He’ll be a massive upgrade over the Deuce Lutui/LeRoy Harris duo that split time at the position last season. Levitre and Warmack should upgrade their run blocking that graded out 16th in the NFL last season on ProFootballFocus and they’ll also help in pass protection, where they ranked 8th last season, including 5th in pass block efficiency. As I said, this could be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL this season.
Michael Roos and David Stewart remain on the outside. They’ve been starters since 2006 and both come from the 2005 draft class, Roos in the 2nd round and Stewart in the 4th round. It’s uncommon that you can find two offensive tackle starters in the same draft, let alone two that stay together as long as Roos and Stewart, are as dependable as Roos and Stewart, and play as well as Roos and Stewart. Both have graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons. Last season, Roos was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle, while Stewart ranked 28th. In 2011, Roos was 11th and Stewart was 3rd. There was some concern about Stewart’s slow recovery from a broken leg earlier this off-season, but he seems fine. The only minor concern is both are heading into their age 31 season. Still, it’s an offensive line with no holes.
An improved offensive line has to be music to Chris Johnson’s ears because of how reliant on a good offensive line he is. He’s incredibly explosive through holes, but when there aren’t holes, he doesn’t do a lot to help himself, frequently dancing around in the backfield, and getting little after contact. It’s why he has such good games against bad run defenses and bad games against good run defenses. He’s as good as anyone in the NFL when the hole is there though so he could have a very good season.
In his rookie season, he rushed for 4.9 yards per carry on 251 carries, managing 3.1 yards per carry after contact and running behind an offensive line that ranked 11th in run blocking, grading out significantly above average. In 2009, he rushed for 5.6 yards per carry on 358 carries, managing 3.0 yards per carry after contact and running behind an offensive line that ranked 12th in run blocking, grading out well above average.
In 2010, he rushed for 4.3 yards per carry on 316 carries, managing 2.8 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked dead last in run blocking, grading out significantly below average. In 2011, he rushed for 4.0 yards per carry on 262 carries, managing 2.1 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked 18th in run blocking, grading out below average. Last year, he rushed for 4.5 yards per carry on 276 carries, managing 2.0 yards per carry after contact behind an offensive line that ranked 16th in the NFL in run blocking, grading out slightly above average.
He’s done more dancing as his career has gone on and managed fewer yards after contact, but still has explosive ability to run through holes. This could be a top-5 run blocking offensive line this season, especially with their blocking tight ends and fullbacks factored in, so we could see Johnson average in the high 4s per carry even if he continues to average in the low 2s per carry after contact. It’s definitely a good situation for him.
He could see fewer carries, but only slightly with Shonn Greene coming in. Greene will serve as primarily a backup and change of pace short yardage back. He is a marginal runner with minimal explosiveness, but he does fit his new role well, even if it was an overpay to give him 10 million over 3 years to serve in that role. Unless he steals a bunch of touchdowns, he won’t hurt Johnson’s production too much. Johnson is also active in the passing game, catching 230 passes in 5 years and he’s missed just 1 game in his career. The running game will help move this offense, but Jake Locker under center could hurt their ability to go too much over the 20 points per game or so they’ve been averaging over the past 2 seasons.
While I don’t expect them to be significantly improved offensively, they’ll probably be significantly improved defensively, though it’s unclear how much. The talent is there though. On the defensive line, the Titans will be using a system similar to what Seattle and now Jacksonville use, as the NFL is a copycat league and this type of thing is catching on. Derrick Morgan will remain as an every down end in the Chris Clemons role. The 2010 1st round pick at one point looked like a bust, but he turned in a very good 2012 season.
Morgan had 9 sacks, 21 hits, and 42 hurries on 530 pass rush snaps, a 13.6% pass rush rate. He ranked tied for 5th at his position in pass rush productivity and ranked 6th at his position in pass rush grade. He also played the run well and overall graded out 4th among 4-3 defensive ends. While this was the first time he had ever played this well in the NFL, he was a 1st round pick in 2010 and a player who I thought was the top pass rusher in that draft class. He struggled with injuries through his first 2 years in the league, which is his excuse, but now that he’s healthy, I don’t see why he can’t, once again, have a strong season as an every down end.
Opposite him, Kamerion Wimbley will not remain an every down end, moving out of the starting lineup and into that Bruce Irvin type nickel rusher role. In the first season of his career playing 4-3 end (he’s played 3-4 rush linebacker and 4-3 hybrid end/linebacker), Wimbley continued to rush the passer well, with 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 47 hurries on 546 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pass rush rate. He graded out above average as a pass rusher, but his awful play against the run (2nd worst at his position) sunk his grade to below average overall. He’s undersized at 6-4 245, which is why last year was his first as an every down end and it looks like it will be his last, at least for the time being. The role change should be good for him.
Playing in base packages at that spot will be Ropati Pitoitua, who will be playing the Red Bryant role. Pitoitua is a 6-8 290 career backup who has played 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 throughout his career with the Jets and Chiefs since going undrafted in 2008. He’ll play the run well at that size, but he won’t get any pass rush and I don’t think he’ll have the same impact that Bryant has had in Seattle. He’s just not the same type of player.
At defensive tackle, the Titans will use a trio of players. Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin return and will largely play the same role. 3rd round picks in the 2011 and 2012 draft respectively, both played very well last season, Casey ranking 7th at his position on 789 snaps, excelling as a run stopper (2nd at his position) and Martin ranking 10th at his position on 435 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher (10th at his position.
The only difference is that Sammie Lee Hill comes in and will take the departed Sen’Derrick Marks’ old role, which played 691 snaps last season. Marks was awful. Last season was actually his best season in 3 years as a key contributor, ranking 73rd out of 85 eligible. He was a bottom-10 player in 2010 and 2011. Sammie Lee Hill was buried on the depth chart in Detroit behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but the 4th round pick 2009 was one of the best reserve defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 3 years, grading out above average in all 3 years and topping out at 19th at his position on just 367 snaps in 2010.
He more than deserves this chance at a starting job and will give the Titans a 3rd talented defensive tackle for their trio. They also have Karl Klug, a good situational pass rusher, as the 4th defensive tackle. He’ll probably play around the 256 snaps he did last year. On top of that, linebacker Akeem Ayers also plays defensive end from time to time as a situational pass rusher and does a very good job. Overall, it’s a very underrated defensive line with lots of talented players who fit roles and rotate. They were among the best in the NFL with 44 sacks last season and could be similarly good this season.
Despite good defensive line play, the Titans did only rank 15th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per carry. That has more to do with their back 7 play. As I mentioned, Colin McCarthy struggled mightily last season in the 7 games he did play. Struggling mightily through ankle and concussion problems, he was ProFootballFocus’ 49th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible on just 388 snaps, especially struggling against the run.
In his absence, Will Witherspoon and Tim Shaw had to see more action. Shaw wasn’t awful on 230 snaps, but Witherspoon looked completely done, struggling mightily both inside and outside on 393 snaps in his age 32 season, especially struggling against the run. McCarthy was better in a half season starting in 2011 as a 4th round rookie and showed promise for the future. If he can put his injuries behind him, he could be a decent starter, though he’ll have to hold off career backup Moise Fukou for the job. Fukou might just be limited to be a pass coverage job, which is the journeyman’s specialty.
On the outside, the Titans have a pair of recent 2nd round picks, Zach Brown from the 2012 draft and Akeem Ayers from the 2011 draft. Brown played well as a rookie and showed himself to be worthy of an every down job in 2012. He was one of my top linebacker prospects of the 2012 draft class and I thought he was a steal in the 2nd round for his coverage ability, blitz ability, and sideline to sideline ability. He might take a leap forward in his 2nd year in the league.
Ayers, meanwhile, is a solid two-down run stuffer who doesn’t cover well, but makes up for it by rushing the passer well. On 133 pass rush snaps last season, he had 7 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries and he could see a bigger role as a nickel rusher in sub packages when he’s not playing linebacker this season. He’s the linebacker who comes off the field (or at least out of the linebacking corps) for an extra defensive back in sub packages.
Along with McCarthy, safety Michael Griffin was the other starter for the Titans last year who was awful. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 86th ranked safety out of 88 eligible, only ahead of the two New Orleans safeties. He especially struggled in coverage allowing 17.1 yards per reception and 7 touchdowns thanks to a league leading 22 missed tackles. He’s been pretty much alternating good seasons and bad seasons, grading out 9th in 2008, 2nd worst in 2009, about average in 2010, and then 10th in 2011 before last year, so he could be due for a bounce back.
However, it’s also possible he struggles again and that his best days are behind him now that’s he’s gotten a big contract, as the Titans gave him 35 million over 5 million after franchising him before last season. He’s had work ethic concerns in the past and might have just coasted once he got paid. Obviously a bounce back year, even to an average player, would be very important for the Titans. If he plays like he did last year though, it could be his final year with the Titans as cutting him would save about 800K on the cap and 6.2 million in real cash. Obviously cutting him 2 years into a 5 year deal, with 15 million guaranteed down the drain, would be a huge disappointment, but at that point, they might have to just cut their losses.
Opposite him, Jordan Babineaux was not much better, grading out below average and ranking 60th out of 87 eligible safeties and getting benched down the stretch for Robert Johnson, who also didn’t play well. Babineaux has been cut and the Titans have brought in veterans Bernard Pollard and George Wilson. Pollard is the early heavy favorite for the job, but Wilson was the better player last season, grading out 8th at his position. However, he was never really that good in the past and he’s heading into his age 32 season so the Titans seem content with him as the 3rd safety behind Griffin and Pollard. We’ll see how quick they are to put him into the starting lineup if Griffin or even Pollard struggles.
Pollard is known best for being a Patriot killer, but he’s an inconsistent player who is going onto his 4th team since 2008 and has been cut/non-tendered 3 times. Pollard was once a promising young safety in Kansas City after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2006, but lasted just 3 years before being cut in training camp in 2009.
He then caught on in Houston in 2009, where he was so good the Texans tendered him at the highest possible level as a restricted free agent in the next offseason, but a year later, he was unwanted once more, as Houston non-tendered him. He was then forced to settle for just 2.7 million over 2 years from Baltimore. However, he played well enough in 2011 to get a 12.3 million dollar extension over 3 years. After a decent, but unspectacular first season of his new contract, he was cut by the cap scrapped Ravens and now heads to Tennessee for only his age 29 season.
At cornerback, the Titans have a pair of solid players in Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner. They ranked 6th and 24th respectively in 2012 and 8th and 14th respectively in 2011, though both times a lot of that was run grade. In coverage, they ranked 46th and 23rd respectively in 2011 and 39th and 50th respectively in 2012. Run play is important and both of them are consistently among the best run cornerbacks in the NFL, but coverage is what they’re out there for.
Last season, McCourty allowed 63 catches on 97 attempts for 800 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, deflecting 11 passes and committing 2 penalties, while Verner allowed 53 catches on 84 attempts for 556 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 1 penalty. They’ve lacked a good 3rd cornerback ever since they lost Cortland Finnegan. There is a 3-way battle for that job this season, between Coty Sensabaugh, who struggled in that role as a 4th round rookie last year, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a 3rd round rookie, and Tommie Campbell, a physical and much talked about 2011 7th round pick who has played just 68 snaps in his career.
There’s also been some talk that Verner is falling out of favor with the coaching staff and doesn’t fit the new coverage scheme. He may be demoted to the 3rd cornerback job if one of the aforementioned cornerbacks can establish himself. Verner has even gotten some looks at safety because of his run stopping ability, but that looks like just an experiment. At this point, I consider Verner the favorite to start. Overall, it should be an improved defense over last year’s last place finish, even if only because it’s way more talented than that.
Mike Munchak won 9 games in his 1st season with the Titans in 2011, the first time anyone other than Jeff Fisher had been their Head Coach since 1994. However, after last year’s disappointing performance, there were calls for his job, especially after Owner Bud Adams blew up at the team mid-season and said that something needed to change. I thought those talks were premature, but another rough season and he could be on the hot seat, especially since Bud Adams turns 91 in January. He fired already top executive Mike Reinfeldt, promoting GM Ruston Webster.
The Titans look like another team that will play better this year, but not really have it show up in the standings. They were one of the worst teams in the league last year, maybe outside of Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Oakland and while they’ll be better, they’ll probably still allow significantly more points than they score. They have upside and talent, but I think Jake Locker’s deficiencies at quarterback will hold them back.
They’re not better than Houston or Indianapolis and will be lucky to win more than 1 of those games, though they’ll probably sweep Jacksonville, giving them 2 or 3 divisional wins. Outside of the division, they host San Diego, the Jets, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Arizona. San Francisco will be very tough, but they could split the other 4, which puts them at 4 or 5 wins at this point. However, they have to go to Pittsburgh, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, and Oakland. Oakland is the only likely win there, though St. Louis is winnable. I have them at 5-11.
Projection: 5-11 3rd in AFC South