Tennessee Titans Training Camp Preview: Grading Every Position Unit
The long wait for the start of training camp has finally come to an end, and the critical nature of this time period is magnified for a team like the Tennessee Titans.
Ken Whisenhunt takes over a team that has been stuck in mediocrity for over five years now. Patience is growing thin, and there is unrest at the quarterback position.
It will be a very interesting training camp for fans to observe, with so much hanging in the balance on the depth chart.
This is the current state of the Titans' roster in terms of strength as training camp gets underway later this week.
Players: Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, Zach Mettenberger, Tyler Wilson
This is the primary reason why the expectations are so low for this team in 2014. There is little confidence that Jake Locker will be able to make it through a full season and maybe sustain the success he enjoyed during the first four games of 2013.
When you combine Locker's injury history with what he has lining up behind him on the depth chart, it makes for a mediocre grade for this unit.
Charlie Whitehurst is a career backup quarterback, while Zach Mettenberger still has a lot of development left before we can be confident in him as a solid starter in the NFL.
Heading into training camp, this is easily the team's biggest question mark. If Locker has a strong season that allows him to make it through 16 games, then the Titans may take some people by surprise in the AFC South. My faith is low that he will manage to do that, and it will force the Titans to turn to a bleak backup plan at the most vital position on the field.
This grade has room for improvement if Mettenberger shows a ton of progress and gives me at least some confidence that he could manage an NFL game if Locker is injured again.
Players: Bishop Sankey, Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster, Jackie Battle, Antonio Andrews
I actually believe this unit improved with the loss of Chris Johnson. Think of it as an addition by subtraction: Johnson was tying up the rest of the offense in hopes that he would make that home run play that rarely ever happened.
Now the Titans shift to a committee of running backs that will likely be led by rookie Bishop Sankey, who I think was the team's best draft pick this season. Sankey is extremely versatile and will have his fingerprints all over the offense.
Sankey has some veterans who will be sharing the load with him, with Shonn Greene looking to return to his old form when he was with the New York Jets.
The Titans added Dexter McCluster this offseason, who will see much more time at running back than he saw last season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
There's room for a fourth player to come in and make a modest impact, and I believe Jackie Battle is perfect for this role. Battle can offer value as both a fullback and short-yardage back.
This unit is balanced and complete. It should be the part of the offense that the Titans will lean on most to be effective, which should surprise you if you have watched the Titans over the years.
Players: Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington, Michael Preston, Marc Mariani
Inexperience and depth are my two concerns with this unit, but they're somewhat compensated by the upside of Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Both of these guys look to have high ceilings.
Nate Washington is the glue that should hold this unit together as the reliable veteran. Expect him to end up chipping in another 700-plus yards.
Someone is going to need to replace the production of Damian Williams, who was a really tough loss. The table is set for Michael Preston to emerge as a reliable complementary receiver.
I'm interested to see if Marc Mariani can finally prove himself as a wide receiver, because there's no room for him as just a kick returner. He'll have to prove he has value as a receiver if he is going to make the 53-man roster.
There's an open competition to see who rounds out this receiving corps, and veteran Derek Hagan is a strong possibility. An undrafted free agent might surprise some people and win this role as well. Any way you slice it, this unit is still very young.
Players: Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson
This is one of the few areas of the roster that hasn't really gone through any changes from last season.
Delanie Walker is the sole reason why I gave this unit even an average grade. He played extremely well in his first season with the Titans but needs help in a passing league.
An ideal situation for the Titans would be for the athletic Taylor Thompson to finally show some progress in his transition to tight end from defensive end. He's had plenty of time to start making an impact.
Craig Stevens was virtually nonexistent last season after having a respectable 2012 campaign. If he can return to 2012 form it would be very beneficial for the passing game to have another option, and he's also a formidable blocker.
Players: Michael Roos, Taylor Lewan, Michael Oher, Chance Warmack, Andy Levitre, Brian Schwenke
The Titans have shown a great deal of attention to the offensive line over the past few seasons and should start seeing positive results in 2014.
A curveball was thrown by the Titans when they decided to draft Taylor Lewan with the 11th overall pick despite already having two veterans in place to start.
There's no question that Lewan makes this offensive line better for both the immediate and long-term future. It will be a great battle to witness if Lewan can overtake Michael Oher for a starting position at right tackle.
I'm eager to see if Chance Warmack can make a considerable jump from his rookie season. It was obvious that Warmack still has some developing to do, but the promise is still there that he will turn into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Brian Scwhenke is another player on this offensive line with a great mean streak, and I expect him to really have a big season at center to round out this offensive line. You also can't overlook the solid depth this entire unit has if injuries do occur.
Players: Jurrell Casey, Ropati Pitoitua, DaQuan Jones, Antonio Johnson, Sammie Hill, Karl Klug
A lot of changes have been made to the defensive line this offseason, and I believe it's been for the better. There's been plenty attention paid to how the Titans are changing to a hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme that will be very aggressive. It will ask for a ton of bodies shifting in throughout the game.
Both Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley are transitioning to outside linebacker roles, leaving room for Jurrell Casey to shift over to defensive end. This should allow him to really showcase the pass-rushing abilities that he showed off as a defensive tackle last season.
Lavar Edwards is heading into his second NFL season and will get an opportunity to make a bigger impact as a defensive end.
The Titans have plenty of competition set for training camp on the defensive line, and a good player or two will probably be cut from the roster. Karl Klug or Mike Martin may end up being one of those unfortunate losses.
Quite frankly, this is a good problem to have if you're a coach. The draft pick of DaQuan Jones really crowded this position, and his raw athleticism and size will earn him a lot of playing time.
There will be plenty of firepower for this aggressive defensive line led by Ray Horton. It should make for a lot of sacks and forced incompletions. However, I still can't give this unit a top grade until I see them prove it on the field with so many new faces.
Players: Shaun Phillips, Wesley Woodyard, Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Avery Williamson, Moise Fokou, Colin McCarthy, Zaviar Gooden
Much like the defensive line, the linebacker position is going to have so many fun training camp battles to watch. The biggest thing to observe will be how Derrick Morgan will adapt to dropping into coverage as an outside linebacker.
Shaun Phillips was a great addition to this unit and will bring some leadership in a defensive scheme with which he's very familiar. The other outside position will be up for grabs in training camp, but I like Kamerion Wimbley as the front-runner.
Inside linebacker is much more tricky to understand right now. You have Wesley Woodyard as another new addition who lost a lot of playing time last season with the Denver Broncos. Now he gets a fresh start with a new organization that really needs him to perform well.
The spot for the other starter on the inside will be contested by several different players, but Zach Brown is my early favorite to win the job. However, don't count out rookie Avery Williamson out of Kentucky. He's a tackling machine with great intangibles who will showcase his value in training camp.
This unit is going through too many changes to give them anything more than a slightly above-average grade. It's pieced together by a lot of newcomers who have to prove it on the field with a new team. We have few positives to go on from last season, which makes this unit an unknown until further notice.
Players: Jason McCourty, Coty Sensabaugh, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Tommie Campbell, Marqueston Huff
There is a common theme with much of this defense: A lot of new players will be elevated to starting roles. That could end up being death sentences or opportunities for new stars to emerge.
Alterraun Verner's departure gives a handful of players the opportunity to break out in 2014, with Coty Sensabaugh being my early candidate to win that chance. He has played really well in the limited chances he's been given in big moments.
However, it wouldn't surprise me much if Blidi Wreh-Wilson wins that role, as he is such a solid player in man-to-man coverage. It will be a fun battle to watch.
As much upside as these guys have shown, they still have very little experience.
Depth concerns me with this unit, along with inexperience. Injuries happen all of the time in the NFL, and there's a good chance that someone is going to be forced into a game when he probably isn't ready.
Tommie Campbell has never been able to prove that he's a reliable NFL cornerback, despite his great athleticism.
Marqueston Huff was drafted in the fourth round this year and could possibly develop into a gem. I'm not sure if he'll reach that level in 2014, meaning that the Titans need to keep their fingers crossed that no major injuries occur to this unit.
Players: Bernard Pollard, Michael Griffin, George Wilson, Daimion Stafford, Hakeem Smith
Retaining Bernard Pollard might be the win of the offseason for this team. His leadership and intimidation factor is vital, and he really elevates this unit's grade for me.
Michael Griffin will look to build off a strong 2013, and George Wilson will be a versatile backup to these guys. These three veterans make my expectations for the safety position very high.
Another youngster will have to elevate his game to solidify this unit, and the hard-hitting Daimion Stafford is the perfect candidate. He needs to have an impressive training camp for the Titans to feel completely comfortable at safety.
Hakeem Smith is an undrafted free agent who has a decent chance to make the team to provide quality depth.
Going deep on this defense should be a tall order for opposing offenses in 2014.
Key Players: Dexter McCluster, Leon Washington, Maikon Bonani, Brett Kern, Beau Brinkley
Special teams was disastrous in 2013 for the Titans, showing its ugly face on the first play of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the form of a safety.
It will be nearly impossible for the Titans to get off to a worse start than that on special teams. I expect them to be much better with Dexter McCluster and Leon Washington being the primary kick returners.
The placekicker situation troubles me at the moment. It's understandable that the Titans didn't want to pay up for an aging Rob Bironas, but now they'll have to turn to inexperience in a game that is often decided by three points or less.
Maikon Bonani will probably win this role but has to prove during the preseason that he can make accurate kicks outside of 40 yards. His leg strength definitely isn't the issue.
Punting shouldn't be an issue with Brett Kern and Beau Brinkley. Hopefully the Titans won't have to rely on Kern as much as they have in the past.
Some key draft picks will look to make quick impacts on special teams, including Avery Williamson. This guy is a great open-field tackler who will be helpful in kickoff coverage.