Tennessee Titans: 5 Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2014
The Tennessee Titans are a team in a state of transition. There's a new head coach, meaning a new offensive coordinator for the third time in three years, and the defense will play in 3-4 formation for the first time since moving to Tennessee.
How the new coaching staff uses the current players is still up in the air, but we should be able to deduce which players are most likely to get a bit more usage than in last season.
Taking a look at the Titans' roster, there are a lot of returning starters and a logjam of quality talent at a couple of positions. The logjams will have to work themselves out before a definitive case can be made, but there are favorites.
Here are the guys who appear to be the next men up on a roster which is still evolving.
During the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Tennessee Titans drafted Justin Hunter, making him the fifth wide receiver or tight end to be drafted in the first three rounds since 2009.
His arrival all but guaranteed the departure of the oft-troubled Kenny Britt. Hunter's production on the field was rather sporadic during his first season, but he showed what he could be capable of in the future.
He had two 100-plus yard games in three weeks, sandwiching in a game in which he was injured early on. Through the entire season, Hunter played just 340 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), making 18 catches for 354 yards and four touchdowns.
With another year under his belt and the arrival of offensive mastermind Ken Whisenhunt, Hunter is expected to play a much larger role in the upcoming season.
Kendall Wright made a leap forward from last season, jumping from 64 catches to 94 and 453 more yards from his rookie season to his sophomore year.
Nate Washington has been a quality veteran for the team, but in the final year of his contract, he may begin to take a step back.
The San Diego Chargers had three receivers with more snaps than Hunter, so even if Hunter doesn't earn a starting role, we can expect to see more of the young talent in 2014.
With Alterraun Verner departing in free agency, the Titans have a spot open in the starting lineup at cornerback. Verner and Jason McCourty proved to be a quality duo over the last couple of seasons, while giving rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson the chance to assimilate into the NFL.
Wreh-Wilson didn't even touch the field until Week 9 and only saw 93 snaps from that point forward. He played well during his limited time.
Wreh-Wilson will likely have to compete against Coty Sensabaugh and a late addition via the draft for a larger role in 2014, but his play over the final three weeks of the season should earn him a longer leash in the competition.
Brian Schwenke played well when given the opportunity during his rookie season, but an ankle injury noticeably hampered his level of play to finish the year.
He is still recovering from surgery on his injured limb, according to John Glennon of The Tennessean: "I'll be running in about a month, probably mid-April," Schwenke said. "Hopefully I'll be ready to go by the first mini-camp, but if not, then shortly after that."
Schwenke is part of the overhauled interior of the offensive line general manger Ruston Webster focused on last offseason.
Free-agent signee Andy Levitre was also hindered by injury and fellow rookie Chance Warmack is expected to improve as well.
Schwenke is the odds-on favorite to start when the season begins, but the roster does currently lack any depth along the interior of the unit.
Since being drafted in 2011, Akeem Ayers has been the subject of high hopes from the Titans. He was not an ideal fit for the team's 4-3 defense, but they had him split time between strong-side linebacker and a defensive end on obvious passing downs.
Overall, the experiment has not worked the way Titans brass had hoped, but Ayers has still been a solid player in the starting lineup. With a switch to a hybrid 3-4 defense, Ayers appears to be a much better fit for the new coaching regime.
Ayers will likely spend the majority of his time splitting reps with free-agent signee Shaun Phillips on the strong-side rushing opposing quarterbacks, but Ayers also does very well in stopping the run.
With the look of a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker, Ayers may finally be able to reach his potential.
Sammie Lee Hill
When Sammie Lee Hill was signed as a free agent last offseason, the expectation was that he may be a perfect complement to Jurrell Casey in the middle of the defensive line and would help stuff the run.
Casey was much better but Hill had little to do with that, having played just 389 snaps throughout the season. Hill missed Weeks 3 through 5 with injury and was limited in the two weeks before.
As the heaviest defensive lineman on the roster, Hill appears to be the likeliest candidate to fit into the team's scheme change on the defensive side of the ball.
Hill has the size to play either nose tackle or as a defensive end. The other two likely starters on the defensive line are Casey, who could also play nose and end, and Ropati Pitoitua.
The Titans have a lot of depth on the defensive line, but no one is certain how everyone will fit in. Hill appears to be a lock to fit in well no matter what the scheme, so expect to see his snap count improve should he avoid injury.