Ranking the 5 Biggest Upgrades the Tennessee Titans Made This Offseason
The Tennessee Titans have missed the playoffs five straight seasons, finishing with a winning record just once in that span.
After releasing Chris Johnson and losing Pro Bowl corner Alterraun Verner in free agency, the team lost its only familiar face in the eyes of the media and its best player.
Despite those two departures, the Titans should be a team on the rise. Much of their success will rest on the shoulders of Jake Locker, who has missed 14 games over the last two years due to injury.
With a healthy season and tutoring under Ken Whisenhunt, this will be Locker's last opportunity to prove himself with the Titans.
While improvement at quarterback may rely mostly on health, there are plenty of upgrades all over the Titans roster. Let's take a look.
5. The Return Game
The Titans saw firsthand what can happen to a team without a talented kick/punt returner on the roster. Darius Reynaud handled the main duties for the team last season up until the bye week during Week 8.
He was cut two days after making yet another mistake, fumbling a return against the San Francisco 49ers. Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com chronicled the assortment of mistakes Reynaud had made in just that game:
In Sunday’s 31-17 loss to San Francisco, he touched the ball seven times and five of them had bad results. ... he dropped a third-down pass to end the Titans first possession.
He also spun and circled back on a punt return that netted him a negative return, allowed a kickoff to bounce over his head, fair caught a lined punt he might have had a chance to do something with, and muffed a late punt when the Titans were threatening to make it a game that instead produced a 49ers special teams touchdown.
After Reynaud's dismissal, the team tried Damian Williams, Jackie Battle, Alterraun Verner and Devon Wylie out before finally bringing in Leon Washington.
Washington remains on the roster, along with Marc Mariani and Dexter McCluster. All three talents have produced Pro Bowl-caliber seasons and have the potential to make the final roster.
McCluster is a virtual lock to make the team, but one of the final roster choices could come down to returners. Either way, the Titans will be in much better hands for the 2014 season.
4. Linebacker Corps
The Titans defense is transitioning to a 3-4 base, putting more linebackers on the field after a poor season from the unit in 2013.
The transition has shifted former defensive ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley to outside linebacker, where they will compete with free-agent signee Shaun Phillips and Akeem Ayers.
Ayers had a very productive 2012 campaign but struggled in 2013 after playing the entire season on two injured knees.
Can't Believe I Played An Entire Season With A Bad Knee That Needed Surgery— AKEEM AYERS (@Akeem_Ayers) January 18, 2014
He should prove to be a better fit as a 3-4 rush linebacker than an oversized 4-3 'backer.
Wimbley started out his career in the NFL as 3-4 rush linebacker and excelled in the role. The transition should be smooth for him as well. The outside linebacker roles appear to have a quality rotation in place.
At inside linebacker, Wesley Woodyard is locked in as a starter, coming over as a free agent from the Denver Broncos.
The other spot comes down to a battle between Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, Avery Williamson, Colin McCarthy and Moise Fokou.
The amount of competition at every position in the linebacker corps will foster improvement across the board.
3. Offensive Line
With a year of playing together under their collective belts, the Titans offensive linemen should show better cohesiveness and do a better job of holding pass-rushers at bay and opening up running lanes.
Andy Levitre and Brian Schwenke are both healthy, which are immediate boosts to the unit's productivity.
There will be one new starter among the group, at the very least, after longtime right tackle David Stewart was cut early in the offseason.
Stewart had been a pillar of the Titans offense since being drafted. The tackle brought some much-needed physicality to the unit. However, over the last two seasons, Stewart's level of play tailed off immensely.
He was often an observer at practices throughout the season, struggled to generate his typical push on runs and was beaten by speed-rushers on passing downs.
Michael Oher is a downgrade in all aspects from my perspective, but the opportunity for first-round pick Taylor Lewan to man the position remains available.
2. The Ground Game
With the 54th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, the Tennessee Titans made Bishop Sankey the first running back selected.
Though he may not have anywhere near the breakaway speed of longtime former face-of-the-franchise Chris Johnson, Sankey and a running back by committee will show improvement in the team's running game.
Shonn Greene will handle the tough, short yardage and goal line carries while Dexter McCluster will serve as a scat back. When combined with Sankey, the three will utilize their strengths and versatility to improve on Johnson's limited skill set.
Over the past few seasons, Johnson has been increasingly lacking in his ability to make defenders miss in the open field and decisiveness to run through open running lanes.
Johnson averaged a career-low 3.9 yards per carry in 2013, struggling to show the burst and breakaway speed that made him famous. He failed to finish with a successful run on far too many occasions and never displayed a natural ability to make catches out of the backfield.
With the team prepared to deploy a three-headed rushing attack in 2014, Tennessee may not get the big-play potential that Johnson used to bring, but the team should get better production from the position.
1. The Ken Whisenhunt Regime
I won't claim to have any inside information on the coaching abilities of Mike Munchak and the coaching staff from the 2013 season. However, he was hardly revered as a top coaching mind.
In his three seasons with the Titans, they consistently lost to teams within the division, despite their poor records, finishing with a 6-12 record.
The allowed a franchise-worst, and league-worst, 471 points in 2012 en route to a 6-10 record. Penalties have been an issue, as the team has finished in the bottom half of the league in penalties per game over Munchak's reign, per NFL Football Stats.
In the end Munchak was an offensive line coach who was promoted to a head coaching role and didn't appear prepared to handle the responsibility. The majority of his coaching staff wasn't well-regarded either.
Ken Whisenhunt is a coach who has shown a knack for fielding some of the league's best and most creative offenses. He has coached in two Super Bowls as both an offensive coordinator and head coach.
He has several long-tenured coaching talents on board, including a former head coach in Mike Mularkey. The importance of a quality game plan to the success of an NFL team is paramount, and taking major strides toward improving in the category under Whisenhunt should prove to be a boon for the franchise.