Titans filling in the blanks in offseason
FEB 27, 2013 5:36p ET
From on-site analysis at various all-star games to the Scouting Combine to impending free agency to Pro Day workouts to player visits to the Draft, moss doesn't grow on coaches and player personnel staff in February, March and April.
The Tennessee Titans are coming off a 6-10 season that didn't sit well with owner Bud Adams. Third-year coach and favorite son Mike Munchak, whose team went an encouraging 9-7 in his 2010 debut, knows expectations have been heightened by an aging owner.
Coming out of the Combine and heading into free agency, which begins March 12, here are Tenn -- uh, make that 10 -- questions, concerns, affirmations and general quibbling about where the Tennessee Titans are now and could be headed.
1. What to do with Jared Cook?
The tight end will head into free agency if the Titans don't re-sign him or designate the franchise tag for roster security next season. He's an athletic and promising tight end in the mold of the mobile receivers who are tough to defend because they're too elusive for linebackers and too big for defensive backs.
Oft-injured but productive when he plays, Cook claims he should be listed as a wide receiver if franchised because he took more than half the offensive snaps this past season lined outside of the traditional tight end spot. The difference in salary is getting the average of the top five-paid tight ends compared to the top five-paid receivers in the league, a difference of close to $4 million per year. If the Titans can't re-sign Cook, he will most certainly be franchised. He's not going anywhere, unless he forces a trade.
2. Do you really draft a guard in the first round?
Munchak is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for stellar play at guard for more than a dozen years with the Houston Oilers (now the Titans). Before becoming the team's head coach, he was considered one of the best offensive line coaches in the league. His running mate during their playing days was Bruce Matthews, also a Hall of Famer and now Titans offensive line coach. Safe to say those two know something about offensive line play, and what the Titans got last season was poor at best.
Tackles are solid with Michael Roos and David Stewart, but the interior is a problem, especially at guard. The Titans, who pick 10th, surely will find a guard of first-round quality, especially if Alabama's Chance Warmack is still on the board. Other choices later, should they trade out of their first pick and drop back in the first round, are North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper and Kentucky's Larry Warford. Either through draft or free agency, the Titans will have new guards.
3. How are the coaches meshing?
All eyes will be on the Titans' defense and the relationship between coordinator Jerry Gray and the newest member of his defensive staff, Gregg Williams. Yes, that Gregg Williams, who was reinstated by the league after a year's suspension for his role in Bounty Gate with the Saints. Williams returns to the franchise that gave him his NFL coaching start and eventual platform to launch into being considered one of the top defensive minds in the league and, soon enough, head coach at Buffalo.
Remember, it was Williams who took Gray, the Titans' secondary coach at the time, with him to the Bills as defensive coordinator, so there is a lot of good chemistry and history between the two. In all, there were 14 changes on the coaching staff, so it is still a work in progress. That includes Dowell Loggains, who turns 33 in October, being promoted to offensive coordinator.
4. Is wide receiver Kenny Britt dependable?
That question goes for both on and off the field for the former first-round draft pick, who was destined to become the team's lead receiver. He is, when he's healthy, which gets rarer by the season. Heading into the last season of his contract, Britt is trying to return to full speed after struggling most of 2012 while coming back from a knee injury.
Off the field, Britt has been arrested and/or connected with nine run-ins with the law since being the No. 30 overall pick in the 2009 draft. He was suspended one game last season by the league for a DUI arrest, and he is in the midst of dealing with another off-the-field incident in his home state of New Jersey where a person was stabbed, although he has not been implicated. After drafting Baylor receiver Kendall Wright in the first round last season, don't look for another receiver to be taken in the first few rounds, unless it is just too good pass up.
5. Can quarterback Jake Locker become the man?
When drafted No. 8 overall in 2011, Locker was ordained the franchise quarterback. But the Titans would bring him along slower than most teams do these days, having him sit behind veteran Matt Hasselbeck his rookie season before stepping into the starting job last season. The jury is still out on Locker, who has shown flashes of play-making and big-arm ability but a frustrating lack of consistency with his accuracy and decision making.
Injured in the fourth game of 2012 to miss the next five, Locker hasn't had a full season to show his wares. He gets a new offensive feel in his third season under Loggains, the former quarterbacks coach who had the interim tag lifted when he followed Chris Palmer, who was fired in late November. One sidebar at quarterback is Hasselbeck, who becomes a free agent if not signed by the March 12 deadline. He has indicated a desire to restructure a contract and take less than the $5.5 million due this season that counts $7.5 million against the salary cap. It would be a surprise if Hasselbeck is not back.
6. Is safety fixed or still being fixed?
The Titans signed veteran strong safety George Wilson to a two-year, $4 million contract soon after he was released from the Bills. He played nine seasons there, making 362 tackles with 12 interceptions. The signing of a potential team leader shows a desire to have a new strong safety.
Veteran Jordan Babineaux didn't get it done last season at strong safety, forcing Griffin to slide there and play out of position early in the season to stop the bleeding. His permanent place as leader of the secondary needs to be playing free safety, where he has been a Pro Bowl player. The Titans will keep looking, though, for competition at strong safety.
7. Will the Titans show balance between finding players to fill immediate needs to that of signing players with long-term development potential?
There is no secret Adams expects progress this season. Anything short of the playoffs might not be good enough for Munchak to keep his job, even if he has been with the organization as player or coach since 1982. General manager Ruston Webster feels the heat, too. This year is the first he will not work under former Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt, who was promoted by Adams after five years as GM to oversee all Titans operations.
After one year, Reinfeldt was fired, leaving Webster as “the” personnel guy with a team after 25 years in the league. Munchak and Reinfeldt know they need to fill holes this season for immediate improvement, but they have also espoused a consistent philosophy of building a roster with quality depth for the long term, too.
8. Can the Titans keep one and add one on the defensive front?
Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, a solid performer whose best play is ahead of him, appears headed to free agency, where he will probably get a deal from another team the Titans won't be willing to match or surpass. Re-signing Marks is key for the Titans, who do have quality players at tackle in Mike Martin and Jurrell Casey.
Former first-round draft pick and oft-injured Derrick Morgan finally showed last season he might be able to rush the quarterback from the end slot with the best of them, but it needs to happen over a sustained period of time. Veteran Kamerion Wimbley is solid, but not overwhelming. Don't be surprised if the Titans step up in pay scale at this position, either through free agency or the draft.
9. Do Titans want running back Chris Johnson to do it all?
The really good years for Johnson came when Lendale White, the former Southern Cal bull, was his running mate. The change of pace played into Johnson's hands, uh, make that feet, especially when he rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009, becoming just the sixth back at the time to surpass 2K in a season.
For many reasons -- like a training camp holdout for a new contract to his own sub-par performances to inadequate offensive line play -- Johnson has slid from the elite category of NFL running back. But it has been Johnson alone in carrying the rushing load, so look for the Titans to get some help there. Also, a shift in offensive philosophy back to more of a traditional running game and offensive attack should benefit Johnson, if the proper line help arrives.
10. Are the fans starting to stray?
While the record book shows the Titans have sold out every home game since the start of the 1999 season, empty seats at some home games and influx of opposing fans to others might suggest the bloom is coming off the rose for fans of the hometown NFL team. When former coach Jeff Fisher resigned to sit out a season before taking over the St. Louis Rams, he was the longest-tenured coach with the same team in the league. From the move from Houston in 1997 to Nashville that included playing games in Memphis in 1997 and Vanderbilt Stadium in 1998, the city embraced the NFL in general and their Titans in particular. And when the Titans made the Super Bowl run during the 2009 season, the first campaign in their new stadium located downtown along the Cumberland River, a love affair was born between city and team.
But Fisher's tenure eventually developed into mediocrity and lack of postseason success, and the new regime under the familiar face of Munchak has taken over to lukewarm reviews thus far. The Titans will sell out games for years to come. The waiting list for season tickets is that long. But the fan base, which carries with it a mentality of win-or-else from their collegiate sensibilities, is starting to grow weary of watching a team finish close to but hardly ever in the playoffs during most seasons.
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