It’s the first Sunday without NFL football, and men all over America are experiencing withdrawal. But never fear—the NFL Scouting Combine is near.
The Tennessee Titans find themselves in a position rarely occupied by the team since Jeff Fisher took over in the mid-1990s: This team needs to shore up a multitude of holes defensively.
The good news for general manager Mike Reinfeldt and Coach Fisher is that this draft looks deep in front seven defenders who can plug some of these gaps.
Here is a ranking of positions of need and possible personnel solutions this offseason.
1. Defensive End
This is a glaring need for the 2010 season and beyond. Kyle Vanden Bosch has been an absolute warrior, but he is 31 years old, will be a free agent, and seems to have lost a step. Jevon Kearse is done physically and mentally. Jacob Ford shows flashes but is a little undersized against the run. William Hayes is solid but not spectacular.
The good news in this draft is that there is a plethora of young, talented defensive ends in this draft, as well as a couple of intriguing veterans who may be available.
The most intriguing prospect that may be available when Tennessee picks is Florida standout Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap is an underclassman with a questionable motor and a recent DUI. However, he is an exact clone of a Julius Peppers or Mario Williams in the freak athlete category.
There are possible trade and free agent opportunities that may be explored. Aaron Kampman is a free agent from Green Bay who may be a possible acquisition. The Packers switched to a 3-4 scheme in 2009 that does not fit Kampman’s talents, and a 4-3 team like Tennessee could be a mutual fit. Kampman is a younger Vanden Bosch in that he gives relentless effort on every play and is a productive pass rusher off the edge.
Osi Umenyiora is another veteran pass rusher who is rumored to be on the trade block from the New York Giants. Umenyiora has fallen out of favor with Giants coach Tom Coughlin but is a guy who has averaged 10 sacks a season since 2005.
The Titans may have to perform a cosmetic overhaul of this position in 2010. With Stephen Tulloch looking to be headed for restricted free agency, Keith Bulluck being unrestricted while recovering from a torn ACL, and David Thornton headed into the last year of his contract coming off an injury-plagued 2009, fans at LP Field may have to invest in a program to familiarize themselves with the new personnel at that position.
Gerald McRath looks like a keeper at one OLB spot, but there is the need for another young outside backer to contribute immediately. Alabama’s Rolando McClain is an outstanding prospect but probably projects best in a 3-4 scheme or as a 4-3 middle linebacker.
Anyone who knows Titans football knows that Fisher most likely is not going to spring for a MLB in the first round, considering how many multiple formation offenses the team faces in the AFC South. Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon is a player but may be a reach in the middle of the first round.
Otherwise, the pickings may be slim. All of the attractive free agents, besides an aging Karlos Dansby, are just restricted in a cap-less 2010 and would require draft pick compensation to acquire.
Anyone who watched the Titans last season knows all too well the issues they had in defending the pass. The problem is, besides Florida star Joe Haden (who should go in the top 10), there are not any highly rated corner prospects in the draft.
Nick Harper looked beyond done physically in 2009 and is headed into free agency regardless, and Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton were baptized by fire with less than stellar results in 2009 (see New England game). This is a position that needs an infusion of talent opposite Cortland Finnegan, but the options seem slim.
Boise State's Kyle Wilson is one name to keep an eye on during the draft. The free agent haul at the position is beyond bare, so the development of the two 2009 draft picks at the position is crucial. I would suspect that the team will bring in a veteran to compete with Mouton and McCourty.
4. Defensive Tackle
Where art thou Albert Haynesworth? Oh yeah, he’s stealing money in Washington. Say what you will about the contract, but the Tennessee Titans missed the big guy in the middle dearly in 2009. Teams were able to establish a running game against the boys in blue in 2009, and pass protections were simplified for opponents who no longer had to fear the big guy caving the pocket in from the middle.
Tony Brown had an excellent 2009 season (minus the stupid offsides penalties), but he may now be in line to get a big contract in free agency. If Brown leaves, this need goes to the very top of the list because that would leave the team with only talented but injury-prone Jason Jones and second-year guy Sen’Derrick Marks under contract at the position.
The Titans will have no shot at the marquee defensive tackles like Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy, but they may have a shot at a fast riser like University of Tennessee standout Dan Williams. Alabama’s Terrence Cody is thought of as only a 3-4 zero technique nose tackle, so he doesn’t fit the Titans' MO.
This may be another position where the team may look to improve via free agency or a trade. One has to wonder how available the mercurial Shaun Rogers is in Cleveland under Mike Holmgren’s new regime. He is a guy that respected Titans DL coach Jim Washburn could make elite.
5. Kickoff/Punt Returner
Remember the days of Pacman Jones and Chris Carr? Me too, and those days were miles away in 2009. In retrospect, the bumbling of this position by the front office very likely ended up costing the Titans a playoff berth in 2009, when you think of the long-term ramifications of the New York Jets game in Week Three.
Ryan Mouton’s struggles in that game had a lasting effect on the AFC playoff race. The Jets finished 9-7 and rolled all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Tennessee finished 8-8 and watched it all on TV in January.
There are some very intriguing second round draft picks, such as Alabama’s Javier Arenas or Oklahoma State’s Perrish Cox, who combine some corner skills with outstanding kick return ability. This is also what makes the previously mentioned Kyle Wilson an attractive candidate as well.
The problem is, Tennessee does not have a second round pick due to the 2009 draft day trade with New England that resulted in the drafting of TE Jared Cook. Mike Reinfeldt is going to have to be creative in order to get a shot at one of these elite return prospects.
The Tennessee Titans do have some questions offensively, especially if TEs Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler both flee via free agency. There could also be a need to acquire more depth on the OL if Kevin Mawae does not return or Eugene Amano signs elsewhere. But the team’s most apparent holes are on the defensive side of the ball and one key special teams spot.
If the scouting department and front office can adequately fill these needs, there is no doubt that Tennessee can find itself back in the AFC playoff race in 2010.