Tennessee Titans: 10 Early Winners and Losers of the Offseason
As the franchise moves forward with dreams of playoffs, division titles and championships, some players are not coming along for the ride. A full, unvarnished offseason is critical, so the coaching staff can install the offense and defense after winging it last year with a lot of leftover concepts from the Fisher Era.
Both quarterbacks vying for the starting job have to be happy with the offseason moves. A number of young defenders are going to get their opportunity to shine in Jerry Gray's defense. For some veterans, offseason changes means a decreased role, if not an eventual removal from the roster.
Winner: Jason McCourty
When negotiations with Cortland Finnegan never took off, the Titans looked like a franchise that would draft his replacement in the first round, if not find another cornerback on the free-agent market. They already had their replacement in house.
Jason McCourty is ready to be a No. 1 cornerback. Alterraun Verner had a great rookie year and was the starter, but during the 2011 training camp McCourty passed him and started 15 games. This young and talented duo was the reason why the Titans waited until the fourth round to draft a cornerback, and so far, no free agents at the position have been signed.
Just like the Titans did with Finnegan, talks have commenced on giving McCourty a contract extension. His price is only going to go up this year, and the team has the cap room.
As we found out with Finnegan's eight-figure extension, cornerbacks are not cheap.
Loser: Eugene Amano
It's true that Eugene Amano, scapegoat for much of the poor run-blocking from last year, could be considered a winner seeing that he's still listed as the team's starting center. If you've witnessed nearly half a dozen people interview for your job, you are not feeling secure about continued employment.
Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday, Chris Myers and Dan Koppen visited the team, only to sign elsewhere. Jeff Faine visited and has not signed.
Amano recently returned to camp after missing time due to knee and ankle surgeries. The team signed Jon Cooper this week to fill in during training camp. Third-year player Kevin Matthews has taken a lot of OTA snaps. Cooper and Matthews have two combined career starts, so it's doubtful that either will take Amano's job.
If the Titans are serious about bringing in real competition for Amano or outright replacing him/moving him to right guard, it needs to happen soon.
Winner: Entire Coaching Staff
The Titans hired Mike Munchak on February 7, 2011. The new labor deal was signed on July 26, 2011. Munchak had to wait for almost six months to work with his players. He gets an entire offseason this time and so does the staff.
Chris Palmer gets to unleash his offensive weapons including a healthy Kenny Britt and rookie Kendall Wright. Jerry Gray can install his own defense and decide how to best deploy free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley.
Last year, both quarterbacks had less than a month to prepare for the regular season. Chris Johnson held out, which gave him even less time than usual to figure out the blocking—when there was blocking.
With opportunity comes responsibility. Both sides of the ball need to show marked improvement. Munchak was a rare head-coaching hire in that he never was a coordinator. Jeff Fisher needed five seasons to make the playoffs. With Bud Adams getting close to the end of his life, he's not going to have that kind of patience with the Hall of Fame offensive lineman.
Loser: Chris Johnson
News is all good this offseason for Chris Johnson: He's put on muscle; he's training with the team; he's not holding out for a new contract; he thinks he can get 2,000 yards in a season again and is the best running back in the NFL.
Confidence is a wonderful trait in an NFL player, especially a guy coming off a statistical disaster of a season.
Chris Johnson isn't an offseason loser because of anything he's done on or off the practice field. He's an offseason loser because of the direction the offense is headed. The team passed 200 more times than they ran last year. The pass/run ratio was consistent in the first and second halves of the season, and Johnson had some of his best games in the second half of 2012.
The trend is not his friend. In 2009, Johnson had 10 20-carry games. In 2010, that number dropped slightly to eight. Last year he had five 20-carry games. Johnson started all 16 games for the third year in a row, yet his carries dropped by almost 100 from his 2,000-yard season in 2008.
Chris Palmer already said that C.J. will not get 25 touches a game. That adds up to 400 touches in a season. Chris Johnson had 319 touches last year, which is one shy of 20 per game. Expect that kind of workload this season.
Winner: Kenny Britt
Recent news of a clean-up procedure on Kenny Britt's knee caused a minor panic for Titans fans. Any time a player who had ligament reconstruction surgery gets a follow-up procedure on the same body part, it doesn't sound good.
Britt will be fine, though.
Kenny Britt proved himself as the team's number one receiver in barely more than two games last year. Had he not been injured, he might have joined Calvin Johnson as an All-Pro. That the injury happened so early last year gives even more hope that he will return to the promise that he's showed in his first three years in the league.
Britt hasn't played 16 games in his career. For him to make it that far would be a major win for the team. This would help the other receivers on the team and the run game.
Another item in Britt's favor is his zero arrests this offseason. Britt was constantly in legal trouble last offseason, and that contributed to his "immature" label. Britt got married in the last year, and a year of rehab has made him hungry for a return to the field.
Britt is the key offensive player for the Titans in 2012.
Loser: Marc Mariani
Marc Mariani had nowhere to go but down in last year, after the seventh-round rookie out of Montana set a franchise record for return yards and finished the season in the Pro Bowl.
When the NFL Competition Committee changed the rules and moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, kickoff returns as a whole declined. Mariani went from 60 returns in 2011 to 32 last year. He's not going to get a lot more opportunities this year.
After Mariani brought back one kickoff return for a touchdown and one punt as a rookie, he failed to score on kickoff returns last year. The only such touchdown came on a reverse to Tommie Campbell. Campbell has the speed that Mariani lacks, but he isn't going to take the return job.
Kendall Wright and Damian Williams will get kickoff and punt return reps in camp this year, according to Chris Palmer (h/t MusicCityMiracles.com). Both players are going to contribute as receivers as well. The wide receiver depth chart doesn't have any room for him, so Mariani has to make an impact as a returner or his career isn't going to be long.
Winner: Alterraun Verner
Last season had to be somewhat frustrating for the second-year cornerback out of UCLA. Verner earned a starting cornerback job during his rookie year, but watched Jason McCourty start opposite Cortland Finnegan last season. Verner did play a lot as the team's nickel corner, though.
When Finnegan left for St. Louis, Verner got his starting job back. Not only that, Verner wants Finnegan's third-down role of covering the slot receiver.
There is confidence from the front office that the current players on the roster can cover what they lost when Finnegan left town. Verner's a major part of the youth movement on defense.
Loser: Ryan Mouton
Ryan Mouton was in trouble before an Achilles' tear ended his 2011 season. After starting two games as a rookie, he watched Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner pass him on the depth chart.
Mouton's part of a group that includes Tommie Campbell, Chris Hawkins and rookie Coty Sensabaugh. The winner gets to be the nickel cornerback. In Mouton's case, if he loses, he could be off the roster.
There's been a lot of positive notes about second-year cornerback Campbell, but not so much for Mouton.
Winner: Kendall Wright
There have been minor concerns about Wright as he transitions to the NFL. Baylor didn't have a playbook. Wright's already learning both outside wide receiver roles this offseason. A shoulder injury suffered this week in practice turned out to be no big deal.
He's not just earning praise for his skills as an athlete. Wright's asking questions and picking up the offense quicker than a normal rookie wideout. Proving that he can learn as fast as he can run means that Wright will be on the field a lot his rookie year.
Loser: Matt Hasselbeck
Matt Hasselbeck is the favorite to start for the Titans on opening day. He started all 16 games last year and put together the best QB season for a Titan since Steve McNair. He could start 16 games again this season, but the quarterback seat is only staying warm for Jake Locker.
Locker's splitting starting reps with Hasselbeck this offseason. When Kendall Wright injured his shoulder diving for a Locker pass, Locker took the blame.
In an interview with The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt after practice, Locker said: “That’s my fault. I always hate to see a guy get injured trying to make a play. He made a great effort at it, and I hope it’s nothing serious.”
A humble starting quarterback is a breath of fresh air after the roller coaster five years with Vince Young.
Matt Hasselbeck's been a great quarterback in the NFL. He's in the top 30 all-time in passing yards, attempts and completions, and that's after sitting behind Brett Favre for his first two seasons in Green Bay. At age 37, Hasselbeck's next injury could be his last. He has been a great bridge to the next franchise quarterback.
Considering all of the offseason moves and changes, Jake Locker is the ultimate winner for the Tennessee Titans.