32 Teams in 32 Days: Tennessee Titans
Head coach Mike Munchak’s second season at the helm in Tennessee was a mess from the beginning. The defense crumpled out of the gates giving up 30+ points the first five games. Jake Locker won the starting quarterback job over incumbent Matt Hasselbeck, but Locker went down with a shoulder injury Week 4 against Houston. After a 1-4 start all hope of the playoffs was lost and the Titans bumbled their way to a 6-10 record.
General manager Ruston Webster wasn’t happy with the results and took an aggressive approach to the offseason. He brought in many new faces through free agency in attempt to re-energize the team. Andy Levitre, Bernard Pollard, Delanie Walker, Sammie Hill, George Wilson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Moise Fokou, Shonn Greene, and Robert Turner are the most notable new names. All received significant playing time last year, and the first four mentioned are likely to be starting for the Titans this season. This is a team that had a winning record just two years ago and Titans fans are hoping their free agent additions, and a former first-round quarterback, can lead them back to the playoffs.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Another Year of Development
Two years into the Jake Locker experiment in Tennessee and the Titans still don’t know exactly what they have. The sample size isn’t big enough yet. Locker was healthy for just 11 games last season and the Titans went 4-6 in games where he took over half the snaps. The worrying part though is that the struggles with consistency and accuracy that plagued Locker in college were still present last season. He ended the year with an Accuracy Percentage of 69.7 and an interception rate (interceptions/attempts) of 3.5%, which was sixth-highest among starters.
One silver lining to these stats though was that almost all of Locker’s tribulations came under pressure. He had the worst Accuracy Percentage in the league when facing pressure and finished with a grade of -10.4. He finished with an unpressured grade of +17.5. This suggests he can be a successful quarterback when afforded the protection. It was only Locker’s first year starting so panicking under pressure is to be expected. If he can move forward in his development and perform better under pressure, there is a very high ceiling for the Titans’ quarterback.
2. Changing of the Guards
Disappointed with their rushing attack last season, the Titans added not one, but two shiny new starting guards. Ruston Webster kicked off the offseason by signing our ninth-ranked guard last season, Andy Levitre. He then followed that up by drafting Alabama guard Chance Warmack who was fresh off his dominant performance in the BCS championship game. Levitre and Warmack have the type of talent that should pencil them in as the starting left and right guards respectively for much of the foreseeable future. Last season guard was arguably the weakest position on the offense, which must have made draft day feel like Christmas morning for Chris Johnson. In 2012 the guard combination of Steve Hutchinson, Deuce Lutui, and Leroy Harris combined for a grade of -15.4, so even average play out of both Warmack and Levitre will be a substantial step up.
3. Vast Four
Not too many teams can say they go four deep with quality defensive tackles. With Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin, Sammie Hill, and Karl Klug however, the Titans are one of the teams that can. Of the four, only Hill, the free agent signee from the Lions, has ever graded negatively for a season — and that season was all the way back in 2009. Hill, Klug, and Martin all played spot roles last season, totaling 1,107 snaps and a combined +22.1 grade between them. Casey himself played 789 snaps and finished with a grade of +15.8. Amazingly, all four are under 27 years of age. As it stands now Hill and Martin are likely to start in base as Klug and Martin will see more sub-packages with their propensity for pass rushing. Martin and Klug had Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) ratings of 8.5 and 8.0 respectively, which was good for fourth and fifth among defensive tackles. The Titans truly are stacked at interior defensive lineman.
4. Deep at WR
Before Saturday’s game Locker said that this is the most talented wide receiving corps he has ever had, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Even though there is just one 1,000-yard receiving season in the whole group, the depth and potential is obvious. The five deep looks like this — Kenny Britt (first-round pick), Nate Washington, Kendall Wright (first-round pick), Justin Hunter (second-round pick), and Damian Williams (third-round pick). The only problem is that Washington is the only guy to have produced for an entire season. Britt and Wright have flashed major potential at times, but haven’t put it together as of yet (Wright was just a rookie last season). To be fair though, both have played their entire careers without high quality quarterback play. If Locker doesn’t improve this season, it won’t be from lack of talent at wide receiver.
5. Late Bloomer
It took him until his third season to do it, but Derrick Morgan finally proved he was not a bust. Morgan’s career will forever be linked with New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul because of their back-to-back selections in the 2010 NFL draft. When 15th pick Pierre-Paul was leading the Giants to a super bowl victory in 2011 it was easy to think the Titans got the raw end of the deal with 16th pick Morgan. Morgan had missed almost all of his rookie year with a torn ACL and then returned from the injury to put up just three sacks in his second season in the NFL.
Then, during Week 8 of last season against the Colts, a switch inside Morgan was flipped. The former Georgia Tech defensive end compiled 10 pressures in that game for a grade of +5.8. In the last nine games of the season he earned a combine of +23.3 and finally lived up to his draft status. For the season he had just nine sacks, but he received the fourth-highest grade, and third-best PRP, among all 4-3 ends. Morgan has continued to look good throughout the preseason and shows no signs of slowing down.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Quarterback Driven League
Ultimately, this team will only goes as far as Locker takes them. In his 610 snaps last season the Titans’ quarterback graded slightly above average at +3.2. Only two teams, the Bengals and Vikings, made the playoffs last season with a starting quarterback that graded out lower than Locker (and both barely made it as the last wildcard). Minnesota and Cincinnati had an elite running game and elite defense respectively, whereas Tennessee has neither… yet. Last year the average grade for quarterbacks that made the playoffs was +23.4, which would be quite the jump for Locker to make. I’m not saying Locker won’t carry them to the playoffs (he certainly looked like he could in the third preseason game against Atlanta), but for the Titans to make the playoffs he must stay healthy and make that jump to the next level.
2. Hot Potato
The Titans had a very sloppy 2012 season, and this was especially apparent in their starting receivers. Drops can be a product of poor hands, but more often than not it comes down to lack of focus. That is why it’s unsettling to see such high Drop Rates from the Titans’ starting receivers. Washington (13.21), Britt (13.46), and Wright (9.86) all had below average Drop Rates for the season. Coach Mike Munchak must not think its too much of a problem though as they brought in tight end Delanie Walker, whose Drop Rate of 30.00 was the worst in the NFL last season. Drops can fluctuate considerably year to year, but it’s still something to be concerned about when a quarterback’s top four targets are coming off such putrid seasons.
When people talk about the importance of passing in today’s NFL they also imply the equal importance of stopping the pass. In 2012 the Titans’ safeties were some of the worst in the league at doing just that. Last season Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux had the second-worst combined grade of any starting safety duo. The signing of Bernard Pollard should be an upgrade over Babineaux, but the question mark will be how Griffin performs. As Neil pointed out in his roster breakdown of the Titans, the former Texas standout’s performance has been up and down the past few seasons. His ranks at the safety position the past four seasons are as follows, 64th (2009), 31st (2010), 10th (2011), 56th (2012). Last season he had 31 plays that received grades of -1.0 or lower, the most such grades of any safety. If Griffin’s play doesn’t see a marked improvement early on it could mean we see George Wilson sooner rather than later.
4. Which Chris Johnson?
PFF grading has never been favorable to Chris Johnson. There are a couple reasons for this. The first comes from his lack of targets in the passing game. Last season Johnson had the third-worst Yards per Route Run of any running back even though he ran the second most routes. The other reason is that Johnson’s ‘swing for the fences’ running style makes for a lot of bad runs, and a lot of bad games. Last season he had just the 39th-best Elusive Rating, at 18.8. It is clear that Johnson relies on large holes from his offensive line because he rarely breaks tackles at the line of scrimmage. When he gets those holes though he is one of the most dangerous runners in the NFL.
The problem that has plagued Johnson ever since his 2000-yard season has been just that, a lack of holes. The Titans’ run blocking grades the last four seasons are the following — +47.5 (2009), -59.2 (2010), –13.7 (2011), +9.5 (2012). So instead of the question being ‘which Chris Johnson?’, the real question might be which offensive line? That answer will depend on a lot on the two newcomers, but there is good reason to believe it will be improved.
5. Wrapping Up
The Titans suffered from some of the worst tackling in the NFL last season and the bad news is that all the main culprits are returning. Akeem Ayers (6.7), Colin McCarthy (6.8), Zach Brown (6.6), and Michael Griffin (4.4) were all in the bottom five at their position in Tackling Efficiency last season. Griffin was dead-last among safeties, while only Asante Samuel (surprise) had a worse tackling efficiency of any starting defender. If you were wondering how the Titans gave up the most points in the league last season, look no further. A defense cannot possibly be effective missing tackles at the rate the Titans did last season, and it will be a major point of concern this season.
What to Expect?
The Titans are getting almost no national media buzz this preseason, which is to be expected from a team coming off of a 6-10 season. This year’s squad has more talent than a six-win club, though. An elite quarterback would transform the Titans into Super Bowl contenders overnight and that’s the biggest takeaway here. All expectations begin and end with one Jake Locker. He may not have to put up gaudy stats, but he must be more efficient than he’s been so far in his career for the Titans to have a shot at the playoffs. I believe this is an 8-8 ball club that could tilt either way depending on the development over last season of the man under center.
32 Teams in 32 Days, previous editions:
ARZ | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN | CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC
MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | OAK | PHI | PIT | SD | SF | STL | SEA | TB |TEN | WAS
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner