Florida S Matt Elam in action against Missouri
With Super Bowl XLVII now in the rear-view mirror, it's officially time for teams to set their sights on their futures. As crazy as it sounds, the NFL Scouting Combine is less than three weeks away, followed closely by free agency and, finally, the NFL draft.
The good thing about being in the Titans' situation is that they know pretty much exactly what positions they need to focus on in order to make any strides of improvement next season.
Tennessee's biggest draft needs, before going through free agency, are (in no specific order): guard, tight end, running back (depending on whether Chris Johnson is released), defensive end, defensive tackle, inside linebacker and safety.
Let's take a look at which positions the Titans will likely target when April rolls around.
The Titans have done well to rejuvenate their linebacker corps through the draft over the last two years in the form of Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown. Colin McCarthy showed himself to be better than your average fourth-round selection during his rookie season, but injuries muddled what looked like a promising sophomore season.
The difference between McCarthy and the other two starters on the outside is athleticism. Ayers made major strides in his second year to improve in his pass-rushing ability and run-stopping. On the other side, Brown excelled in coverage and making plays.
What the Titans need in the middle is a quality combination of both. Enter Alec Ogletree.... ESPN's Mel Kiper had this to say (paid subscription required) about him:
He missed the first four games of 2012, but once he stepped onto the field for the Bulldogs, the defense was immediately better. He covers the field from sideline to sideline, and I think could play anywhere at linebacker effectively.
The importance of a strong group of linebackers is vital to stopping teams implementing hurry-up offenses and utilizing two-tight end sets. Ayers, Brown and Ogletree could be a devastatingly good corps of linebackers for years to come.
The Titans absolutely must improve their play at both safety positions, but they've trapped themselves with an albatross of a contract for Michael Griffin with four more years left on the deal.
Griffin possesses the athleticism to be one of the league's best free safeties for years to come, but has rarely put things together for a quality season. 2012 might have been the worst season of his career. Over the last four seasons, Griffin has finished ranked No. 56.5 according to Pro Football Focus' (paid subscription only) rating system.
Jordan Babineaux has a much more replaceable deal with only one year remaining on it, leaving the door wide open for the Titans to shore things up at strong safety while hoping for a turnaround from Griffin at free.
Matt Elam has been a terrific hard-hitting playmaker for Florida all season, according to NFL Draft Scout. If corners Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner can get some improved play over the top, the Titans defense can return to being top 10 in scoring.
After going defense in the first two rounds, it's time to bring in the help the offensive line needs. Warford possesses the size and skill to be just the type of player coach Mike Munhcak used to enjoy coaching up.
Guards Steve Hutchinson and Leroy Harris both struggled in pass and run protection this year, and it's time for the coaching staff to do something about it. While many people may want Chance Warmack to be the Titans' first-round selection, the position simply doesn't have the value to warrant a top-10 pick.
Warford is flying under the radar a bit due to all the praise Warmack and Johnathan Cooper are getting, but he is a quality guard in his own right. Coming from an SEC team, we know the quality of opponent he has faced is a close as it gets to the NFL level and his stock is only rising since the Senior Bowl, according to ESPN's Chris Low.
Last year's draft showed how far the highest rated guards can fall, with David DeCastro falling past the Titans and to the Steelers at 24. Quality guards can be had later in the draft and Warford will help open up some lanes for Chris Johnson to burst through and help keep Jake Locker upright.
The Titans' defense racked up 20 of its 39 sacks during the last month of the season, but it still needs more help along the defensive line. Derrick Morgan showed why the team used its first-round pick on him three season ago, as he finally seemed to be injury free.
Kamerion Wimbley struggled to transition back to his college and early career position of defensive end, but showed flashes of his ability to stand his own on the line. Still the unit could use some better backup in the unit, because there's not much there after the starters.
At 6'7" 285 lbs, Wimbley easily possesses the size and strength to play in the NFL. While his 2012 stats may have been modest (59 tackles, including 13 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and added 10 pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a safety), Gholston could blossom into a key cog on the defensive line from day one.
Call me a homer for going with my alma mater's tight end again here, but Ryan Otten has the talent to earn this draft spot. Otten showed well at the Senior Bowl and NFL teams are always looking for big bodies (6'5" 245 lbs) at the position.
Here's NFL.com's overview of Otten post Senior Bowl:
Speed isn't among Otten's greatest attributes, but the 2011 first-team All-WAC selection's reliable hands and ability to tough out yards after the catch make him one of the most productive tight ends in the country (52 catches, 739 yards, five touchdowns) – and his effort as a blocker should earn him a mid-round selection and playing time at least as a regular reserve contributor in the NFL.
The likely departure of Jared Cook means there's a hole to fill on the tight end depth chart. Craig Stevens remains the team's best blocking tight end but has showcased the ability to make catches.
Taylor Thompson is still a work in progress as he continues to develop his route-running and pass-catching skills.
Otten could provide a solid go-between for Tennessee if Thompson struggles to continue with his development. Either way he would provide some nice depth for what has been an underutilized position for the team since Frank Wycheck retired.
Javon Ringer and Jaimie Harper have left much to be desired as backup running backs over the years and it's time the team do something about it. Because it pays Chris Johnson so much money, however, the front office won't make spending much more money at the position a priority.
Cierre Woods has the size and speed at 6'0" 215 lbs to be a great complement to CJ2k. Good running backs can be found at any point in the draft. The Titans will hope to find some more thunder to go with Johnson's lightning with this pick.