When a team fails to make the playoffs, its fans get a head start on digging into optimism season. It's a new era of Tennessee Titans football, with Tommy Smith taking over for the late Bud Adams and Ken Whisenhunt being brought on as the team's 17th head coach.
There was a general consensus that one of the team's primary needs was keeping Mike Munchak for another season. Defensive end, middle linebacker and offensive tackle stood out as the top three areas of concern.
Coach Whisenhunt's history shows a preference for a 3-4 defense, and that has been exemplified by the hiring of Ray Horton as the defensive coordinator on Monday, per the team's website. While the initial plan appears to be playing a hybrid defense, the necessity for more versatile defensive talent has increased.
A hybrid defense incorporates aspects of both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive scheme. Finding guys who are capable of playing sound defense in both defensive sets is no easy task, but there is talent hitting the free-agent market who could prove to be quality signings.
The offense isn't a perfect unit, either, and there are clear points of need on that side of the ball as well. Free agency begins on March 11, and the current free-agent market is sure to change between now and then, but here are a few players the Titans could take a look at when the market opens up.
*All stats gathered from NFL.com. PFF denotes the overall grade of a player according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Salary cap information taken from spotrac.com. All other sourcing is otherwise labeled.
Titans Free Agents: Rusty Smith
On the Radar: None
Coach Whisenhunt appears prepared to start the 2014 season with Jake Locker, but he has been hesitant to give him a ringing endorsement. Having Whisenhunt as the new head coach should help develop Locker after he showed improvements over last season before suffering another season-ending injury.
Depth at the position is where there could be a shakeup. The Titans got an extended look at Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2013 and can't exactly be thrilled with what they saw. While he completed 62 percent of his passes, Fitzpatrick threw 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and had lost two fumbles over nine starts.
The Titans would save $3.25 million by cutting Fitzpatrick. He could be replaced by a free-agent talent, but the more likely option is via the draft. Whisenhunt has had the most success with the prototypical dropback passer in his career (Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers), and the Titans could target a player who fits that description in May.
Titans Free Agents: Leon Washington, Jackie Battle, Herb Donaldson (RFA)
On the Radar: Joique Bell (PFF: 15.1), LeGarrett Blount (PFF: 10.1)
It was rumored that Chris Johnson would be released from his contract before the firing of Mike Munchak, and it has not dissipated since Whisenhunt has taken the head coach position, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. Johnson is simply not an effective enough runner for his current $10 million cap hit.
That leaves the team with Shonn Greene as the lone running back set to return for the 2014 season. Bell is a restricted free agent, so the Detroit Lions will have the option to match any offers made to him.
However, Bell represents an option that could take up the role Danny Woodhead played in San Diego this season. Bell offers a solid combination of rushing talent and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Blount may be a bit similar to Greene, but a tandem of the latter and former would create an extremely physical backfield in Tennessee. Both backs are capable of pushing the pile and running in between the tackles.
Titans Free Agents: None
On the Radar: Alex Smith (PFF: -2.2), Andrew Quarless (PFF: -5.1), Clay Harbor (PFF: -7.1)
Craig Stevens is a bit pricey at $4.4 million as a No. 2 tight end, but he does what the Titans drafted him to do: block. Pro Football Focus has Stevens ranked third in run blocking and tied for 12th in pass blocking. He was not given many chances to help the team by making catches this season, despite an increase in passes.
Delanie Walker showed himself to be capable of handling the role of a starting tight end by posting career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns with 60 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns.
Where there could be a change is at third-string tight end. Taylor Thompson has not shown any tangible improvement in running routes or catching the ball, and it proved to be a detriment to the team when Walker was injured.
The Titans' free-agent approach could go in two directions: stand pat with Walker and Stevens and improve the depth beyond them, or cut Stevens and find a bigger dual-threat to replace him.
I lean toward the team standing pat at the position, as there are much more pressing needs elsewhere on the roster.
Titans Free Agents: Kenny Britt, Damian Williams, Kevin Walter, Marc Mariani.
On the Radar: Damian Williams
The Titans have drafted heavily at this position over the past few years, and the talent looks to be developing well under receivers coach Shawn Jefferson. Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter look as though they could be a quality duo for years to come—Wright especially.
While Hunter and Wright are clearly the team's future, Nate Washington is the unit's leader and has taken a leadership role on the team as well. Washington finished the year with 58 catches for 919 yards and three touchdowns, providing quality numbers with Kenny Britt's complete collapse.
Despite all that, there remains a very real possibility that Washington will be cut due to his $4.8 million cap hit and his age (30). If he can be convinced to take a pay cut, he will remain with the team, but otherwise he is likely a candidate to be cut.
The team would be wise to bring Williams back into the fold. He provides quality depth capable of playing all three receiver positions. He did not make any major contributions this season, but having him on the roster as depth has been an affordable luxury that remains a possibility.
If Williams cannot be retained, Michael Preston is next in line on the roster, but he presents a drop in talent. Overall, there is not a major need for a signing at this position.
Titans Free Agents: Michael Otto, Robert Turner, Chris Spencer, Kevin Matthews
On the Radar: Eugene Monroe (PFF: 20.4), Anthony Collins (PFF: 14)
The draft is the most likely path for improving this position, but the team could opt to find a tackle of the future through free agency if the right talent can be had at a team-friendly rate. David Stewart hasn't been himself over the last two seasons.
He's been unable to get his usual push on running plays and was beaten soundly and consistently on running plays this season. His $6.4 million cap hit doesn't do him any favors for staying on the roster for another year, as he can be dropped with no penalty.
If Eugene Monroe can be had at a low cost for the first season playing at right tackle, the Titans would have found its next left tackle for the 2015 season, when Michael Roos is unlikely to be with the team after his contract expires at the end of 2014.
Monroe is just 27 years old, and he would allow the Titans to save one of their six draft picks on another position.
Anthony Collins only played 592 snaps last season and could thrive given the opportunity to start. Playing typically as a reserve throughout his career, Collins could be had on the cheap and provides a stopgap while the team develops a tackle for the future.
Titans Free Agents: Ropati Pitoitua, Antonio Johnson
On the Radar: Lamarr Houston (PFF: 11.4), Randy Starks (PFF: 28.8), Linval Joseph (PFF: 9.9), Antonio Smith (PFF: 12.6), Arthur Jones (PFF: 15.7), Tyson Jackson (PFF: 14.6), Ropati Pitoitua (PFF 2.8), Antonio Johnson (PFF: 2.3)
As I stated earlier, the Titans are in need of more versatile talent on the defensive side of the ball. With the Titans set to incorporate a hybrid defense, the need for defensive linemen and linebackers to be able to play both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses are a major necessity.
The Titans have a lot of players under contract along the defensive line, with some of them appearing to be very capable of fitting the team's needs. Sammie Lee Hill looks to be a good fit for nose tackle in 3-4 sets, while Jurrell Casey looks like a 3-4 end and 4-3 tackle.
Kamerion Wimbley seems to be a sure-fire cap casualty, having clearly underperformed as a defensive end. Wimbley has experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he is on the wrong side of 30 and is expensive at $7.8 million.
Derrick Morgan, Karl Klug and Lavar Edwards look to be undersized to stay on the line in 3-4 sets but could attempt to play outside backer. Mike Martin has the size to provide depth but isn't likely to start.
Lamarr Houston and Randy Starks are both guys capable of playing on the line in any defensive scheme. Houston appears capable of creating a push as a 3-4 or 4-3 end. However, both of those options could prove costly.
Tyson Jackson would be a quality signing, but he is likely to be retained by Kansas City. The Titans' two impending free agents at the position have experience playing both schemes and could probably be had for team-friendly deals.
Titans Free Agents: None
On the Radar: Karlos Dansby (PFF: 13.3), Brandon Spikes (PFF: 9.8), Brian Orakpo (PFF: 24.9), Jason Worilds (PFF: 9.5)
There are quite a few players currently under contract with the Titans at linebacker, but some cuts may have to be made. Moise Fokou seems like a possible cut that would provide a savings of $1.4 million.
With a shift to a more 3-4 heavy approach, the linebackers may have to get used to some new duties. The change in scheme could prove to revive Akeem Ayers' career, as he seems more suited to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Zach Brown started the year playing lights out but ended the season in Munchak's doghouse. He could be moved to one of the inside linebacker spots, where speed is needed to avoid blocks and get to the ball carrier quickly.
Colin McCarthy is likely to provide depth after proving incapable of staying healthy when given a starting role.
Karlos Dansby played for Whisenhunt and Horton in Arizona and excelled in his role. The Titans have a need at inside linebacker, and Dansby can provide leadership and experience for a young team transitioning to a new scheme. He finished fifth among inside linebackers on PFF's overall rating system.
One of Tennessee's major areas of need on defense is adding a real pass-rushing threat. Brian Orakpo would give the team another pass-rusher. After missing almost all of the 2012 season, Orakpo returned to the Redskins' lineup and produced 10 sacks, finishing fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers.
Brandon Spikes and Jason Worilds provide cheaper, younger options with plenty of upside and would be quality signings for the defense.
Titans Free Agents: Alterraun Verner
On the Radar: Alterraun Verner (PFF: 9.5)
The Titans do an incredible job of finding talent at cornerback late in the draft seemingly every other year. While the team is likely to attempt to re-sign Verner, if the bidding for his services begins to reach Cortland Finnegan territory, the Titans are sure to fold.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh, Khalid Wooten and Tommie Campbell all offer some quality depth that can be developed and added to with another late selection in the draft. Verner's presence would be missed if he signs elsewhere, but the Titans have prepared themselves for the possibility.
Titans Free Agents: Bernard Pollard
On the Radar: Bernard Pollard (PFF: ), T.J. Ward (PFF: ), James Ihedigbo (PFF: )
The acquisition of Bernard Pollard last offseason proved to be a boon for the Titans, as he provided the team with all of the characteristics of the more physical and hard-nosed defense general manager Ruston Webster seeks.
Pollard brought a physicality and swagger to the defense, while also becoming a vocal leader who preached accountability. After leading the defense in tackles with 99 last season, the Titans would be hard-pressed to replace him at the low cost they could likely re-sign him for.
T.J. Ward provides a younger, more athletic option at the position and has experience playing in Horton's defense, having played in Cleveland this past season. He finished the season with 122 tackles, six passes defensed, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks and a touchdown.
At 27, Ward's experience in Horton's scheme could prove to be an enticing option for Webster to pursue in free agency. James Ihedigbo is not a long-term answer at safety due to his struggles in pass coverage, but he would come at cheap rate and is a sure, physical tackler.
Titans free safety Michael Griffin expressed concern over being a possible cap casualty this offseason, according to The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt, but given the penalty of $5.4 million to the salary cap and lack of a capable replacement, the possibility seems to be unlikely from my perspective.