5 Tennessee Titans Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2014
In the NFL, every season has its surprise team—or teams—that surges from being a cellar dweller the year before to a bona fide playoff team.
There are a lot of factors that go into those teams showing significant improvement, but the biggest of those is the improvement from within.
Take the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs for instance. Obviously, the arrivals of Andy Reid as a head coach and Alex Smith at quarterback played a role, but other players improved significantly from the year before.
Last year, the Tennessee Titans saw similar improvements from Kendall Wright, Jurrell Casey and Alterraun Verner. Unfortunately for them, the improvements were not enough to show up in the win column.
This year, as we all know, the Titans have a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt and are in the midst of creating a new identity.
With the creation of a new public persona in play, it's time to take a look at a few Titans players who should break out campaigns to help form the team's new identity in Whisenhunt's image.
Zach Brown, Inside Linebacker
Over the first four four games of the 2013 season, Akeem Ayers and the rest of the Tennessee Titans linebacking corps played extremely well. From Week 5 on, however, the unit's play steadily declined to the point of near ineptitude.
One misconception about the team's linebackers is that while they did perform well as a unit over the first month of the season, Ayers' performance was nearly nonexistent. Moise Fokou and Akeem Ayers, especially, were terrific.
Through the first six games of the season, Ayers made a paltry 12 tackles, with five of them coming as assists, according to NFL.com. He had three games with one tackle or less in that span as well.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ayers saw his usage rate drop to the lowest of his career, while his pass-rush attempts went up.
|Play Counts: Akeem Ayers|
|Year||Total||Run Defense||Pass Rush||Pass Coverage||% Snaps|
Despite Ayers' increase in pass-rush opportunities under the tutelage of Gregg Williams, finished the season with just one sack. In the meantime, Zach Brown racked up four sacks with a mere 66 pass-rush opportunities all season.
While it's not a forgone conclusion that Ayers may be a lost cause, the amount of attention paid to Ayers' transition to a scheme that would seemingly suit him better has overshadowed a better talent in Brown.
I'm expecting Brown to win one of the starting inside linebacker roles in Ray Horton's 3-4 hybrid scheme and perform well. He has the size and burst to close on plays and is adept in coverage. His unique athleticism for the position should give opposing offenses fits.
The one concern for Brown going forward is his strength and ability to shed blocks. With fewer defensive linemen in front of him, opposing offensive linemen will be freed up to block the Titans linebackers more often.
This is where I expect Brown's speed to help him immensely. Expect to see Brown's opportunities to rush the quarterback to continue to rise along with his tackle numbers.
Justin Hunter, Wide Receiver
While you certainly could argue that Kendall Wright already had his breakout campaign, I am of the opinion that the the arrow is still pointing up in his development.
My reasoning includes the success receivers have had in Whisenhunt's system everywhere he's gone.
Hines Ward saw little decline despite Ben Roethlisberger's arrival, Larry Fitzgerald had one of the best seasons of his career and the rookie campaign that Keenan Allen just put shows Whisenhunt's ability to get the best out of his receivers.
However, there's another young receiver on the roster who's in prime position to make a leap in his play. Justin Hunter took a while to get things going in his rookie season, and he was hardly consistent from week to week.
With a year under his belt and another offseason to get himself physically prepared for a grueling NFL season, Hunter should make strides toward becoming a starting receiver for the team.
Per John Glennon of The Tennessean, Hunter spent the offseason working out and packed on 15 pounds of muscle after playing his rookie season at 193 pounds.
In today's NFL, the tall, physical receivers are the ones who dominate opposing defenses. Of course there are the Wes Welkers, DeSean Jacksons and Kendall Wrights of the league, but the big guys dominate the position.
It's not that speed and shiftiness doesn't matter at the position, but the ability to out-leap (a la the above picture) and "box out" a defender is even more important.
At 6'4", with more bulk and more opportunities to produce, Hunter's paltry rookie totals of 18 catches for 354 yards should show some sizable improvement.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Cornerback
Despite seemingly constant protests by draft experts and NFL analysts, the Titans have been just fine without drafting a cornerback early for some time now.
Perhaps the team's last draft in which they took a player at the position early—Adam "Pacman" Jones, in 2005—convinced the team they can wait on the position.
The team also drafted Reynaldo Hill in the seventh round of the same draft. Since 2006, the Titans have not started a corner drafted earlier than the fourth round and have gotten quality results.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson is likely the next in line to continue that trend. The departure of Alterraun Verner has left a gaping hole at starting corner and a positional battle will ensue.
Coty Sensabaugh and Tommie Campbell top the list of players battling Wreh-Wilson for the starting role. The team has a history of success in drafting corners—Hill, Cortland Finnegan, Verner, Jason McCourty—I don't expect Wreh-Wilson to disappoint should he win the role.
Delanie Walker, Tight End
Last season, the Titans brought in Delanie Walker to replace the disappointing Jared Cook, who bolted to St. Louis when free agency began.
However, the team was also headed in the direction of finding a more versatile talent for the position, capable of being an effective blocker and receiving threat.
The move proved to be a positive, as Walker put up career bests across the board at nowhere near the price tag that Cook was seeking from the team.
So why should we expect to see Walker improve on his career bests in receptions, yards and touchdowns?
In Pittsburgh, coach Whisenhunt got the team to spend a first-round pick on tight end Heath Miller in 2005 and made him a key cog in the team's play-it-safe offense. During his time in Arizona, he had a bevy of receivers on hand and used a more spread offense.
In San Diego, he had the opportunity to work with a declining Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates and helped Gates turn in the second-most receptions of his career and the most receiving yards in four years.
Since the Titans aren't boasting a receiving corps as talented as the one Whisenhunt had in Arizona—Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Bryant Johnson—we should expect to see an offense similar to the one we saw in San Diego.
While Walker is nowhere near the talent that Gates is, despite Whisenhunt's comparison of the two, it's safe to say we should expect even more from Walker in the upcoming season.
"I had a lot of respect for him there, so needless to say I'm excited that he's on this team and I'll have a chance to work with him," Whisenhunt said. "Working with Antonio Gates got me excited about the position, and I think there's a lot of elements to what Delanie does that are similar in that capacity."
Bernard Pollard, Safety
T.J. Ward and Adrian Wilson are the two strong safeties whom defensive coordinator Ray Horton has been given to work with in his two prior defensive coordinator opportunities.
An injury-ravaged Wilson performed admirably in what may be the final two seasons of his career, posting solid tackle numbers and sacks. Ward just finished up a Pro Bowl-caliber season and cashed in with a big new contract during the offseason.
He posted 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2 INTs in his only season under Horton's tutelage. Now Bernard Pollard takes up the mantle as Horton's starting strong safety and should have no issues with surpassing Ward's numbers.
Pollard already led the Titans in tackles in 2013 with 99 tackles. He has 9.5 sacks in his career, proving he's capable of getting after the quarterback. I expect Horton to give Pollard more opportunities to blitz in 2014.
Pollard should be more comfortable with his supporting cast in the secondary his second go-round, and I expect him to blossom in Horton's more aggressive scheme.