Tennessee Titans: What to Expect from Last Year's Rookies in 2012
The Titans front office really blew the draft out of the water last year. The big story of the draft was the selection of Jake Locker in the first round, but it was the rest of the rookies (especially on the defensive side) that had the biggest impact.
So, after the youngest defense in the league helped the Titans to a 9-7 record in 2011, what does 2012 hold for them?
Jake Locker Will Become the Starter
I think, by the season's end, Jake Locker will be the starting quarterback for the Titans.
Now, saying that Locker is the future starting quarterback isn't news to anyone.
The real question is when he'll assume the role.
Hasselbeck was very good last year overall. Considering that he was without Kenny Britt for most of the season, he put up some good passing numbers, but he started to struggle at the season's end.
Hasselbeck will probably start the season, but since he isn't getting any younger, I'm willing to bet that when he struggles around midseason, Locker will be sent in to take over.
Locker already showed a lot of potential last season. His accuracy came as advertised, but he already looked like a guy that the team could rally around and a good decision-maker.
Now that he's had an entire offseason under the tutelage of Chris Palmer, he'll be better.
That potential that he showed last season will stop being just potential by next year.
Akeem Ayers Will Get More Sacks
Akeem Ayers was a great player at strongside linebacker last season.
However, he regularly made some rookie mistakes that resulted in big plays.
After a year of playing and a full offseason, I expect that those mistakes will be minimized. I also think he'll get to the quarterback a little more often.
Last season, Ayers only had two sacks. That isn't very good.
However, he was fantastic in containing the run on the outside, and totaled 76 tackles.
Next season, he's going to be looking at getting to the quarterback. With the Titans grabbing Kamerion Wimbley in free agency and potentially taking another defensive end in the draft, Ayers will not be the only outside presence for linemen to stop.
With fewer offensive linemen focusing on Ayers and more defensive linemen applying pressure, Ayers ought to at least triple his sack output, but don't expect as many tackles (those will come from Casey and McCarthy).
Jurrell Casey Will Be More of the Same
Jurrell Casey may have made the best immediate adjustment to the NFL of all the Titans' rookies last season.
The third-round defensive tackle had 52 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his first season, and that's without playing the whole year.
Although the Titans will probably take a defensive tackle early in the draft next season, he'll be there to play next to Casey, not in front of him.
Now, 2.5 sacks isn't a lot, but as the Titans' (presumably) starting nose tackle, Casey's job is not to get to the quarterback but to close running lanes and prevent the rush. Sacks are nice, but they're just a bonus.
I don't see a reason for Casey to struggle after he adjusted so beautifully to the NFL in his first year.
Colin McCarthy Will Lead the Team in Tackles
Colin McCarthy led the team in tackles during the preseason, but veteran player Barrett Ruud landed the starting job at the season's opening.
However, when Ruud went down with an injury, McCarthy took over and proved to already be the better player.
This season, I expect him to step in as the full-time middle linebacker and get more tackles than any other player on the team.
In his limited playing time last season, McCarthy racked up 68 tackles and an interception.
Now that he'll have a whole year playing in the middle, he'll have well over 100 tackles next season. However, like Casey, don't expect him to get too many sacks.
Jamie Harper Will Have Lots of Third-Down Runs
The Titans drafted Jamie Harper to be a power back.
Now that it's clear that the game plan "give Chris Johnson the ball every time" doesn't work, I think the Titans will move to a more logical, multiple-back system.
Even though Harper had a fantastic preseason, he didn't see a ton of time at running back last season.
Now, with Chris Johnson taking a more limited role in the running game, Harper will get his time in, but it'll be on short downs.
Harper is a big running back. At 6'0" and 235 lbs, Harper has plenty of size to be a power back, he just needs to work on running with more force.
Hopefully, Harper and Johnson will be as good a smash-and-dash combo as LenDale White and Chris Johnson in 2008. I'm not that optimistic, but I think it'll still look good.
Karl Klug Will Become a Pass-Rush Specialist
Karl Klug led the team in sacks last year, but he doesn't have the size (275 lbs) to be an every-down defensive tackle.
What he is perfect for is a role as a pass-rushing specialist on the interior.
Klug raked in seven sacks last season as a rotational defensive tackle.
He could move to defensive end, but I think that would be a mistake. I see Karl Klug as very similar to Jason Jones. They're great interior pass-rushers, but that's pretty much their only real strength.
Lots of teams have pass-rush specialists on the outside, but not too many make use of them on the interior. This is what the Titans should do with Karl Klug.
Casey and whatever defensive tackle the Titans take this year should be the starting defensive tackles, while Klug should come in on 3rd-and-long to do what he does best: take down quarterbacks,
Byron Stingily Will Sit on the Bench Again
Mike Otto is the the backup right tackle (and if Michael Roos goes down, David Stewart will just slide over to the left), so if Stewart goes down, he's the guy that'll be stepping in.
It's what happened last year, and if either tackle is injured in 2012, it'll happen again.
I just don't see a scenario where both Michael Roos and David Stewart are injured, so don't expect to see Stingily on the field.
I have no idea how Stingily's development is going because he plays a position that doesn't tend to rotate players often.
It is possible that he could take Otto's spot as the third offensive tackle, but it seems unlikely.
Zach Clayton Will Be Fighting for a Spot on the Roster
Zach Clayton flashed some potential in the preseason but didn't get much playing time in the regular season.
Clayton only got a little playing time and only had three tackles.
The Titans have Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, Shaun Smith, Malcolm Sheppard and Leger Douzable probably in front of him.
What's worse, the Titans will probably take another defensive tackle early on in the draft.
That means that at least four (Casey, Klug, Smith and the draftee) will certainly be in front of him on the depth chart, and as many as six could be.
Unfortunately, that's probably too many guys for the Titans at that position. Clayton will have to fight to not get knocked down to the practice squad.
Tommie Campbell Will Start to Get Time in at Corner
Tommie Campbell was drafted out of California University (PA) for his athleticism, and so far on special teams, he hasn't been a disappointment.
What I'm curious about is how well he'll do at corner.
Now, I still think that he'll primarily be a special-teamer next year, but with Cortland Finnegan gone, the depth chart for the Titans will be changing. It's likely that Tommie Campbell will start seeing a little time at cornerback.
With his blazing speed and his great height (6'3"), Campbell could turn into a solid corner if he gets his technique down. This year, we're going to get to start seeing whether or not he's starting to follow in the footsteps of Cortland Finnegan, who was also drafted in the seventh round.