6 Tennessee Titans Bound to Break out in 2014
Jurrell Casey exceeded everyone's expectations, while Akeem Ayers and Derrick Morgan took a step back. Kendall Wright established himself as a dangerous receiving threat and netted over 1,000 receiving yards, but he didn't post the huge numbers everyone was hoping for.
So, with that in mind, let's look to next year and predict who might be due for big things in 2014.
1. Akeem Ayers
I thought Akeem Ayers was about to dominate the league at the start of last season, and I wasn't alone. Former defensive coordinator Jerry Gray thought he same thing, per John Glennon of The Tennessean.
For whatever reason, Ayers had an off season in 2013, posting the worst numbers of his young career. However, I'm inclined to believe this season was the exception, not the rule.
Ayers was playing better near the end of the season anyway. Four of his five tackles for loss came in the last seven games, as did his only forced fumble and his sole interception.
Furthermore, with the Titans bringing in several coaches used to running a 3-4 defense (Ken Whisenhunt, Ray Horton and Lou Spanos), I expect that Ayers will be used as a 3-4 rush linebacker a lot more.
That means more blitzes and more sacks, at least in theory. It doesn't hurt that new linebackers coach Lou Spanos has coached players like Anthony Barr and Brian Orakpo.
2. Coty Sensabaugh
I had Coty Sensabaugh on my list last year as well. He actually met my expectations this season, becoming a solid backup corner and playing pretty well in the nickel defense.
Still, he's just in his second year and has a ton of room to grow as a player. With Alterraun Verner likely gone, and the Titans looking at pass-rushers in the draft, according to John Glennon of The Tennessean, the chances that one of Tommie Campbell, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Sensabaugh will end up with Verner's old job are high.
Campbell was competing with Verner for the starting spot in the preseason, and Wreh-Wilson was considered a steal when the Titans nabbed him in the third round, but the smart money is on Sensabaugh.
Sensabaugh had seven deflected passes, a couple of recovered fumbles and 31 total tackles in pretty limited playing time this year. For the sake of comparison, Verner had eight deflected passes, one interception and 49 total tackles in his second season, and he saw the field more than Sensabaugh did.
Now to be clear, I'm not saying that Sensabaugh will be as good as Verner, but I do think he's a better player right now than people realize, and he'll turn some heads next season.
3. The Interior Offensive Line
This is actually three players, but individual interior offensive line guys don't tend to see a lot of praise. They work as a unit, and they receive praise and criticism as a unit, usually.
In 2013, the Titans' offensive interior was made up of Andy Levitre, who had been one of the better guards in the league for years, Chance Warmack, who was considered one of the best guard prospects in recent history, and Brian Schwenke, one of the best center prospects in the 2013 draft class.
Needless to say, expectations were high, and needless to say, the players fell short of expectations. Levitre had an off season, Warmack struggled more than many thought he would (though that shouldn't have been surprising), and Schwenke only played for part of the season due to injury.
They improved as a unit toward the end of the season, and offensive lines tend to play that way. They take some time to jell.
Levitre was a great guard for several years; he's not gonna stay down long. As for Warmack and Schwenke, they'll be a year bigger, stronger and more experienced in 2014.
I expect the group to be much better next season.
4. Justin Hunter
Justin Hunter already had a very impressive rookie season, but like Kendall Wright before him, he's just giving a preview of what's to come.
Hunter is tall, fast and has shown that his hands are much more reliable than many feared. In very limited playing time, Hunter had 354 receiving yards and four touchdowns, more than any other Titans receiver.
He also led all Titans receivers in yards per catch with 19.7. After he's had another offseason to add some muscle onto his slight frame, he'll be a monster. If he can post numbers like that in his rookie year and in limited playing time, the sky is the limit.
Of course, that said, he will need to add more weight if he's going to be a full-time starter. His injury history while in college is still worrying.
5. Lavar Edwards
The Titans were thin at defensive end at the season's start, but with Ropati Pitoitua hitting free agency and Kamerion Wimbley looking like a potential cap casualty, they're going to enter 2014 even thinner.
Enter Lavar Edwards. He's got the right size for a 3-4 defensive end, but has been playing in the 4-3 for all of his college and professional career so far. Even though the Titans are likely to spend a high pick on a pass-rusher, Edwards will almost certainly see more playing time.
Now, I'm not expecting double-digit sacks from Edwards, but I am expecting him to make the jump and become a contributing member of the Titans defense.
In 2013, he only played in seven games, where he notched nine tackles (one for a loss) and a deflected pass. However, in the preseason, he was very impressive. In his first preseason game, he came away with three tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss.
In total, Edwards had a sack, three tackles for loss and another quarterback hit in the preseason. Not a bad start, so look for Edwards to contribute more in 2014.
6. Zaviar Gooden
With the Titans likely to play in something resembling a 3-4, there's going to be a lot of shifting around among the linebackers.
Akeem Ayers will likely play rush linebacker. Zach Brown will likely become an inside linebacker, but has the size to move outside if the Titans like him there more. Moise Fokou and Colin McCarthy will obviously stay on the inside.
But what about the Titans' newest linebacker, Zaviar Gooden? Gooden is too small to play outside, so he'll have to move inside, and he just might have a chance to start.
Fokou wasn't impressive in 2013, and McCarthy is always injured. Neither are locks to start, leaving the door wide open for Gooden to come in and take one of the starting spots, because after all, there are two inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense.
Gooden only started one game in 2013, and in it, he had seven total tackles. Furthermore, if he and Brown were paired as the inside linebackers, the Titans would have two of the fastest, if not the fastest, inside linebackers in the league.
If nothing else, Gooden will see a good chunk of playing time in 2014.