Tennessee Titans Free Agency 2011: Can They Compete for a Title Soon?
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After a disappointing and tumultuous year for the Titans, 2011 will be led by some fresh faces.
Kerry Collins decided to hang up his cleats. The season's starter at QB, Vince Young, will be promptly traded or released once the CBA is completed, putting Washington rookie and eighth overall pick Jake Locker at the helm.
Despite only appearing in one Super Bowl with the club, Jeff Fisher was a consistent coach that had a knack for maximizing his team's talents and locker room. That is, until the Titans nabbed a former Longhorn third overall in 2006.
Vince Young's inconsistencies in both his play and mental toughness contributed mightily to the derailing of a successful coach's career. Young showed an aptitude early for winning games, but his accuracy and inability to handle criticism from fans and coaches really hurt his development. He was quickly in Fisher's doghouse, which just as hastily put Fisher in team owner Bud Adams' doghouse.
Thus, after a few seasons of verbal sparring in the media, the longtime coach and owner parted ways, opening the door for Mike Munchak to take over.
The one constant has been GM Mike Reinfeldt, who has been steadily accumulating a lot of talent through the draft.
With all this change at arguably the two positions (QB and HC) most pertinent to winning games, the Titans are going to get a lot worse before they get better, right?
It all starts with RB Chris Johnson, a year removed from a 2,000-yard season. Expectations have a tendency to cover up success. While some peg his 2010 season a "disappointment," he still rushed for 1,364 yards and 11 TDs. He accomplished this while dealing with a lot of instability at the QB position, which makes his total even more impressive.
Of course, having a talented back is futile unless you have an offensive line that can open running lanes for him. The Titans employ one of the best tackle tandems in the league in Michael Roos and David Stewart. Eugene Amano is probably a better guard, but he can hold his own at center. The team hopes to retain LG Leroy Harris, with veteran Jake Scott playing solid at right guard.
A productive running game and good protection are commodities that a rookie QB dreams of having. Throw in a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver (when he's not getting chased by the cops) and a young, developing safety valve in tight end Jared Cook, and Locker will have some places to go with the football.
Defensively, the team is a bit of a wildcard. New defensive coordinator Jerry Gray wants to get bigger, which could spell the end for last year's team-leading sack artist Jason Babin. For Gray's scheme, he'd prefer to line up his defensive ends over tackles more, as opposed to sending them out so wide. It would be surprising to see a team let a 12.5-sack player walk through the door, but the team does have some talent upfront regardless.
2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan should be recovered from his ACL tear that ended last year very prematurely for him. I felt that he was the most complete defensive end in the rookie pool last year and should become a Pro-Bowl player for the team soon.
At defensive tackle, the team has some pieces. Jason Jones can get to the passer in a hurry. Tony Brown needs to stay healthy but is effective when available.
The real gem is 2011 third-round steal Jurrell Casey out of USC. Electing to declare early in a year deep with with defensive line talent was a mistake, but the Titans are going to capitalize on it. I had him graded out to be mid-first round talent,, and when they do a draft re-do in three years, expect him to be a top ten selection. He's undersized, but he's one of the most violent defensive tackles I've ever scouted. He hits like a missile.
The team has talent at linebacker as well. SLB Gerald McRath is a player, as is inside backer Stephen Tulloch (who should be re-signed by the club). Veteran Will Witherspoon has been around the league for awhile, but second rounder Akeem Ayers will probably beat him out in training camp.
I feel that Ayers has a "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" condition, but he can become a borderline starter as a result of his athleticism. If Tulloch cant be retained, look for the undersized Rennie Curran to fill his shoes. He's an underrated thumper.
The strength of this defense may prove to be the secondary. As much as I dislike his antics and personality, I can't dispute Cortland Finnegan's effectiveness as a player. On the other side, one of my favorite sleeper's from last year's class, UCLA's Alterraun Verner, turned in a good year as a rookie. He should continue to develop his already impressive instincts and ball skills.
SS Chris Hope is starting to show his age and may be asked to play in the box more this season to hide his declining range. Breathing down his neck (with a much smaller cap hit) will be Robert Johnson, who is still a bit raw but has good athleticism and may be subbed in on obvious passing downs.
The key to the defensive backfield will be free safety Michael Griffin, who has shown flashes of being a play-maker but gets beat too often getting caught out of position. If he cleans it up, he could be a force.
From top to bottom, the Titans are one of the league's most talented teams. I believe in Jake Locker's ability and I think he'll end up becoming one of the league's better QBs, though I wish he could red-shirt his first year. He has self-confidence to the point where I don't think he'll get rattled if he struggles early, though.
Besides retaining the key players already on the roster, the most pressing needs in free agency should be to pick up a legitimate receiver, a veteran back-up QB, and another defensive end.
Kenny Britt has demonstrated a lot of ability, but he is just such a headache off the field. That puts the Titans in a bit of a predicament. They'd probably like to add more of a complementary receiver, but may be forced to spend a bit more for a guy that could potentially be a No. 1 if Britt gets suspended or they decide they're sick of him.
While they'd love to add a little speed to open up the field, I feel that Britt is fast enough. They just need another receiver who can consistently get open and catch the football. If I were a Titans fan, I'd be hoping the team targets Giants WR Steve Smith. He has soft hands, runs good routes, and can work the middle of the field. He'll have to check out medically, but he's a safety net for a QB. First though, they'll have to unload Nate Washington and his $4.5 million he's due in 2011.
Most of the available veteran signal callers are looking for a chance to start, not groom a youngster and hold a clip board. Ideally, Matt Hasselbeck would be a good fit though.
The pass-rusher dilemma may be legitimate. First off, there is not a lot of depth at the defensive end position beyond the starters for the Titans. Second, if the team is concerned that Babin isn't a great fit, now's the time to pull the trigger.
For the money it will take to re-up Jason, they could probably add a bigger, more complete end in Ray Edwards, who is somewhat overrated but would play the run more effectively. He doesn't have the speed or quickness of Babin, however.
If the team is looking to keep Babin but bring in a solid third rusher, their best bet may be going the trade route. The defensive end free agent class is pretty top heavy.
With a lot of talented young players peppering the roster, the Titans don't appear to be that far off from my vantage point. I think it would be overly optimistic to say that they're ready this year, seeing that rookies that were much more NFL-ready than Locker have been unable to accomplish that feat.
You could say the team just needs another receiver or defensive end to add to the rotation.
More than anything, however, this team just needs time.
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