Examining Tennessee Titans' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles
If you thought Chris Johnson’s record-breaking 2009 campaign was impressive, just wait a few more months.
The Tennessee Titans’ All-Pro running back tallied 2,509 yards in that historic campaign, and he did so without a high-powered passing attack to balance things out. He also did it with an offensive line that has since been decimated by age, injuries and free-agent departures.
That all changed this offseason as general manager Ruston Webster went to work to give both Johnson and quarterback Jake Locker a big boost on the offensive line.
Seven-time All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson retired after 12 seasons (one with the Titans) following the 2012 campaign, and Tennessee was already weak on the interior offensive line. Knowing how important the guard and center positions are to the health of the team’s offense, Webster made a couple high-profile moves.
First, the second-year GM took to the free-agent market in search of a guard to replace Hutchinson, finding a tremendous one in former Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre. While interior linemen aren’t typically brandished with massive contracts, Levitre certainly deserved one as one of the best guards in the league.
Tennessee locked up the versatile blocker with a six-year, $46.8 million contract, effectively giving its offensive line a solid foundation on which to continue building on the interior offensive line.
Webster also went against the grain in the 2013 NFL draft, selecting Alabama guard Chance Warmack with the 10th overall selection. Again, interior linemen aren’t typically valued that highly in the first round, but Webster identified the player he wanted and pulled the trigger.
With the agile, crafty Levitre at left guard and a road grader in Warmack at right guard, it’s going to be fun to watch Johnson this season. We’ll discuss that aspect of the offense later in this slideshow.
Webster also went to work on the team’s defensive secondary, first in free agency with the signings of safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson, and later in the draft with the acquisitions of cornerbacks Blidi-Wreh Wilson and Khalid Wooten.
After finishing 26th in the league in passing defense last season, it was obvious additions had to be made. Tennessee’s pass rush ranked ninth in the NFL last season, and the disconnect between those two facets highlighted the need for personnel changes in the defensive backfield.
The Titans also added a serviceable backup quarterback in former Bills signal-caller Ryan Fitzaptrick, tasked with replacing veteran Matt Hasselbeck following his free-agent departure to the Indianapolis Colts. Likewise, Webster brought in former New York Jets running back Shonn Greene to fill the void in the backfield left by Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper.
The Titans experienced more roster turnover than many teams in the league, in fact, but after a 6-10 2012 campaign and a third-place finish in the AFC South, changes had to be made.
Those changes didn’t happen at the head coaching or starting quarterback positions, but that may not be the case next season if things don’t improve this season. As it stands, this season will be on the shoulders of Mike Munchak and Jake Locker.
We’ll take a closer look at many of Tennessee’s offseason moves in the following slideshow, as well as the team’s 2013 draft class and some positions to watch as the season draws near. Read on.
2013 NFL Draft
Round 1 (Pick 10): OG Chance Warmack, Alabama
Round 2 (Pick 34): WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee
Round 3 (Pick 70): CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut
Round 3 (Pick 97): LB Zaviar Gooden, Missouri
Round 4 (Pick 107): C Brian Schewenke, California
Round 5 (Pick 142): DE Lavar Edwards, LSU
Round 6 (Pick 202): CB Khalid Wooten, Nevada
Round 7 (Pick 248): S Daimion Stafford, Nebraska
Selecting Chance Warmack with the 10th pick was a bold move given the perceived value of interior linemen in the first round, but the new rookie wage scale outlined in the league’s current collective bargaining agreement makes selecting a player at a lower-paid position much more manageable.
And for those who don’t feel guards aren’t as valuable as players at more high-profile positions, it’s important to remember that sometimes talent trumps positional value.
Warmack is a mauler at the right guard position, and at 6’2” and 317 pounds, he’s also a lot more agile than his size would suggest. Considered by many the elite interior lineman in the 2013 draft class (a class that also featured Jonathan Cooper), Warmack deserved a high first-round selection, regardless of perceived positional value.
And in the second round, Ruston Webster made up for whatever value he may have skipped over in the first round with a terrific value pick at No. 34.
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter was among the most explosive athletes in the entire 2013 draft class, and the Titans were lucky to find him at the top of the second round. While he suffered an ACL tear in 2011 and didn’t seem to fully recover in 2012, he has all the physical tools to be an elite deep threat at the NFL level, especially with a strong-armed quarterback like Locker getting him the ball.
After focusing on offense in the first two rounds, Webster switched gears and selected two defensive players in Round 3—cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and linebacker Zaviar Gooden.
Neither player is in line for a starting gig out of the gates, but both have the potential to see considerable playing time this season in backup roles and on special teams. And in the third round, Wreh-Wilson and Gooden also presented some solid value and significant upside.
Lavar Edwards, Khalid Wooten and Daimion Stafford will also add some youthful depth to the Titans' offense, but the trio isn’t likely to see much action in 2013.
But perhaps the most underrated Day 3 addition came in the form of California center Brian Schwenke—arguably one of the most versatile interior offensive linemen in the 2013 class.
Schwenke spent time at both guard positions in 2011 and moved to center in 2012 as the team’s full-time starter. With quickness off the snap, solid technique and the ability to play with exceptional leverage against bigger defensive linemen, it was a bit of a surprise that he fell to the fourth round.
Schwenke finds himself behind the talented Fernando Velasco on the depth chart, but he’ll be a key rotational piece should Tennessee suffer injuries on the interior offensive line this season. Value, need and upside all converged with this pick, and the result was the addition of a player who could surprise a lot of people in the coming seasons.
In all, it was a very strong draft class from Webster in his second offseason at the helm. The Titans got the players they wanted and filled some positional needs in the process, taking advantage of value in nearly every round.
Re-Tooling in the Trenches
Tennessee focused a lot of attention on its offensive line this offseason, and that’s where we’ll start as well.
Last season, the Titans fielded an offensive line that surrendered 39 sacks in 16 games (21st in the league) but yielded 4.5 yards per carry—tied for 10th in the NFL. Part of the problem was related to injuries. Part of it was talent.
While traditional wisdom suggests sacks and pressure come from the edge, there’s something to be said for interior pressure. Tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart comprise one of the best bookend combos in the league, and while both battled injuries last season, the tackle position wasn’t a concern—nor will it be in 2013.
Stewart broke his leg last season, but he should be ready to go when the 2013 campaign starts up. Likewise, Roos has been battling some back issues this offseason, neither player having participated in the team’s three-day camp in June, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
If Stewart and Roos are healthy, there won’t be any questions regarding the starting tackle roles. But given their 2012 injury issues, depth might come into play in 2013.
As Wyatt noted, Mike Otto could be first in line for the swing tackle role this season with a 2013 salary of $1.7 million. While monetary issues don’t always come into play when deciding depth chart positioning, Otto was serviceable in relief of Stewart in 2012 and has plenty of experience as a backup at both guard and tackle.
Byron Stingily and Barry Richardson will also be competing for the third tackle role, Stingily entering his third season with the team and Richardson in his fifth in the NFL with 49 career starts under his belt.
Tennessee doesn’t want to see Stewart or Roos on the shelf this season, but depth shouldn’t be a major issue should either experience injuries. As it stands, the tackle position is fairly solid.
Likewise, the Titans’ starting guards in 2013 have the potential to be one of the best tandems in the league.
Andy Levitre quietly played his way into a huge contract this offseason, but he was well worth the money. The Oregon State product has made tremendous progress since being drafted by the Bills in 2009, and as long as he’s healthy, he’ll be a huge boost to Tennessee’s offensive line in both the running and passing game.
Given his mobility and fluidity in pulling and trapping, Levitre will be an excellent fit at left guard in Tennessee’s blocking schemes. He’s also a capable pass protector—something Locker needs a lot more of from his interior offensive line this season.
Warmack compares favorably to Mike Iupati of the San Francisco 49ers, then considered one of the best run-blocking guards to come out of college when he was drafted in the first round in 2010. Warmack is a wide-bodied mauler with surprising agility whose power-blocking prowess is going to open a lot of holes for Chris Johnson on the right side of the line.
The center position may be the least stable of all five spots, but that doesn’t mean Tennessee doesn’t have talent to fill it.
Fernando Velasco was extremely consistent in 2012, playing the entire season at the keystone position. The 28-year-old started all 16 games last season, and likely won’t be usurped in 2013.
But Brian Schwenke and Rob Turner could make things interesting—or at least give Velasco a little motivation to continue improving at the position.
Schwenke could be the future of the position, and given his impressive 2012 campaign at California, there’s reason to be hopeful for a bright NFL career. He may need some time to develop, though, and Schwenke doesn’t exactly have the body type of a traditional NFL center. As of right now, he’ll probably be a depth play to fill in at both guard positions and at center.
Turner signed with the Titans this offseason after spending five years with the New York Jets and a season with the St. Louis Rams. Given his experience (18 games started), he may be the most likely candidate to fill in for Velasco should the starter spend time on the shelf in 2013.
There aren’t many positional battles to speak of on Tennessee’s offensive line, but the unit needed to be examined. After Ruston Webster’s impressive offseason of retooling the line, the Titans appear poised to field a much more aggressive, cohesive unit this season.
The Titans gave up far too many yards through the air last season, despite boasting a top-10 pass rush. While Tennessee’s rushing defense wasn’t any better, Ruston Webster made sure the former wouldn’t be as big of an issue in 2013.
No. 1 cornerback Jason McCourty returns this season as the unquestioned starter. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, McCourty ranked 19th among all cornerbacks last season, and he certainly looked the part in recording 92 tackles, four interceptions and 15 passes defended in 16 games.
Per Craig Peters of TitansOnline.com, the position opposite McCourty is likely still up for grabs, naming Tommie Campbell, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Khalid Wooten as potential starters in 2013.
Of course, the No. 2 corner on the roster is Alterraun Verner (who started all 16 games in 2012), but at 5’10” and 186 pounds—with the mentality of a linebacker, according to Verner himself—he may see an expanded role at the nickel corner spot in 2013.
He had this to say during the team’s offseason program, per Peters:
Inwardly I’m kind of a linebacker, but my body didn’t fit that mold so I would love to be in the nickel because that’s the closest I’m ever going to be to being a linebacker. You get to mix in with the run, you can spot, you get your eyes on the quarterback, you can blitz. You can do so much at the nickel position, which I think would be a great challenge for me, but if it’s not meant for me to do that here because it’s best for me to do something else, I’m OK with that. As long as we’re winning, I’m good.
Verner is still probable to earn the No. 2 spot opposite McCourty, but it wouldn’t a surprise to see him slide into the slot in nickel and sub packages, leaving the other outside corner spot to be filled.
Campbell appeared ready for a starting role last season as he got first-team reps in training camp, but he ultimately lost the job to Verner and will have a hard time getting it back. But with Verner’s versatility and ability to play outside and in the slot, Campbell may get another shot at expanded playing time in 2013.
He has the size (6’3”, 198 pounds) to fill the role on the outside, and this offseason is going to be a huge opportunity to prove he can do the job—especially with two rookies and Coty Sensabaugh pushing him for the spot.
Despite the uncertainty, Tennessee seems to be a taking a patient approach to finding its starting corners. There’s no uncertainty at safety, however.
Free safety Michael Griffin hasn’t missed a game in his six-year professional career, and after recording 79 tackles and four interceptions in 2012, he’s primed for another terrific season at the position.
There will be a new face next to Griffin, though.
With the Baltimore Ravens retooling and repositioning to get under the salary cap, they were forced to make some difficult personnel decisions. Strong safety Bernard Pollard was a casualty in that situation, released from the team and allowed to hit free agency to sign with the Titans on a one-year deal.
Pollard had some issues in coverage last year, but he’s one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the league, and he’ll fit well next to Griffin at the back end of the defense.
Tennessee also signed longtime Bills safety George Wilson, who adds a great deal of depth and experience behind Pollard. Verner has seen some time at free safety backing up Griffin this offseason, but Robert Johnson and Tracy Wilson are the most likely candidates to fill that second spot on the free safety depth chart.
With some added depth and veteran experience—as well as a couple rookie corners who have a lot to prove—Tennessee’s secondary should be noticeably better in 2013. It may not be a top-10 unit this year, but expect to see a lot of improvement.
Locker's Top Targets
If Jake Locker is to assert himself the season as the future of the franchise, he’s going to need some help from Chris Johnson, his offensive line and a corps of young receivers poised for a big season.
The offensive line issues should be squared away—and Johnson’s production will likely benefit as a result—but it remains to be seen how Tennessee’s wide receivers will perform.
There’s certainly potential for a big season, though.
Kenny Britt made it through the offseason without making any major headlines, and his physical tools are undeniable. Injuries and off-field issues have defined his career to this point, but Britt could be in for a big season if he can avoid those pitfalls.
Britt appeared in 14 games last season, but he never really seemed to find his rhythm, leaving rookie Kendall Wright and Nate Washington to pick up the slack.
Wright led the team in receptions with 64, tallying 626 yards and four touchdowns in the process. Washington led the team in receiving yards with 746 and an impressive 16.2 yards per catch.
Washington is a tremendous deep threat who will likely line up on the outside opposite Britt for most of the season, and Wright is already an ideal fit in the slot. As it stands, the top three on the depth chart is unlikely to change at any point before the season.
But second-rounder Justin Hunter has the speed, elusiveness and pure physical talent to challenge for some playing time this year, especially if any of the team’s top three receivers miss some time. Ruston Webster didn’t use a high second-round selection on Hunter for him sit on the bench this season, and he knows what the Tennessee product is capable of.
The Titans also added former Houston Texans wideout Kevin Walter, but he’s expected to miss four to five weeks as he recovers from back surgery, per ESPN, and he could find himself buried on the depth chart with a bevy of young targets vying for additional playing time.
Damian Williams rounds out the list of receivers the Titans are likely to field this season (barring injuries), but he probably won’t see much action if Walter is healthy enough to start from the beginning of the regular season.
From the looks of the roster, this may be the most talented complement of receivers in the division. It’s now just a matter of keeping them healthy and seeing some improvement from the younger members of the team.
In any case, Locker certainly has the weapons he needs to prove his worth in 2013. If all goes according to plan, Tennessee’s passing attack is primed for a much better year.
|2013 Tennessee Titans Schedule|
|1||Sept. 8||@ Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|2||Sept. 15||@ Houston Texans||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|3||Sept. 22||vs. San Diego Chargers||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|4||Sept. 29||vs. New York Jets||4:05 p.m. ET||CBS|
|5||Oct. 6||vs. Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|6||Oct. 13||@ Seattle Seahawks||4:05 p.m. ET||CBS|
|7||Oct. 20||vs. San Francisco 49ers||4:05 p.m. ET||FOX|
|8||Oct. 27||BYE WEEK||N/A||N/A|
|9||Nov. 3||@ St. Louis Rams||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|10||No. 10||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|11||Nov. 14||vs. Indianapolis Colts||8:25 p.m. ET||NFLN|
|12||Nov. 24||@ Oakland Raiders||4:05 p.m. ET||CBS|
|13||Dec. 1||@ Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|14||Dec. 8||@ Denver Broncos||4:05 p.m. ET||CBS|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. Arizona Cardinals||1 p.m. ET||FOX|
|16||Dec. 22||@ Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|17||Dec. 29||vs. Houston Texans||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
*For a complete look at Tennessee's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.
The pieces are in place for a big improvement this season, but the Titans’ prospects of a playoff appearance are probably going to rest on Jake Locker’s shoulders.
In the modern NFL, few teams can succeed without a successful signal-caller under center. Locker has shown flashes of tremendous potential in his short career, but he’s going to have to put it all together in 2013 if the Titans are to make strides in the AFC South.
Of course, offseason additions and the presence of Chris Johnson should make that easier, but the pressure is going to be on Locker.
Improvements on the defensive side of the ball should also help the cause, but it remains to be seen if Tennessee did enough to revamp its 27th-ranked defense of a season ago.
Still, the Titans made enough progress to suggest a winning season won’t be out of the question in 2013. It just may not be quite enough to overtake the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts.
Prediction: 9-7, Third in AFC South
Realistically, Tennessee could win anywhere from seven to 11 games this season. I’m just not convinced they’ll reach the higher end of that spectrum.
The pieces are in place for an improved record and a winning season, but divisional contests with the Colts and Texans are never easy, and the Titans also face the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos this year. Splitting that stretch of the schedule should be considered a major victory.
Again, Tennessee will be a better football team in 2013. It just may take another solid offseason to break through the barrier in the AFC South.