Tennessee Titans 2014 Season Preview

Tennessee Titans 2014 Season Preview

<p>While the Titans cut ties with the long-time running back Chris Johnson in the offseason, allowing him to sign with the New York Jets, the club brought in a head coach with Super Bowl experience -- something Johnson didn't have.</p>

While the Titans cut ties with the long-time running back Chris Johnson in the offseason, allowing him to sign with the New York Jets, the club brought in a head coach with Super Bowl experience -- something Johnson didn't have.

Whisenhunt led the Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII with Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin leading the offense. The question for Whisenhunt is: Can he duplicate that success with Jake Locker under center and even less around him? Because even with a Super Bowl appearance, the one thing Whisenhunt doesn't have this time around is an offensive juggernaut, something the departed Johnson could've helped create even if he is late in his career.

As a result, the Titans are entering a rebuilding period. Even though they went 7-9 last season, finishing second in a weak AFC South, the upside of this club is minimal. Locker is an injury-prone signal caller who isn't surrounded with much firepower and the defense isn't a group that will be able to allow the offense to steal some wins.

Tennessee did do itself a favor by cutting ties with trouble wide receiver Kenny Britt. Although he showed glimpses of stardom, his off-field issues were too much for the organization to deal with, giving the club another reason to start over.

The rebuilding began in the draft, as the Titans selected offensive lineman Taylor Lewan out of Michigan, adding depth to a solid offensive line. Starting in the trenches with a lineman who is expected to be a star is a good move. The club also hedged its bets with Locker and took Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round. A strong-armed quarterback, Mettenberger brings some off- field issues with him, but if he can learn for a year behind Locker, his maturity might catch up.

Whisenhunt also has a knack for giving life to QBs. He did it in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger, in Arizona with Warner and in San Diego with Phillip Rivers.

It's going to be a tough year for the Titans. However, they put a couple of pieces in place, including Whisenhunt, that should lead the fan base to think things will be better in the near the future.

2013 RECORD: 7-9 (2nd, AFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Ravens in AFC Divisional Round

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Ken Whisenhunt (first season with Titans, 45-51 record in six seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jason Michael (first season with Titans)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ray Horton (first season with Titans)

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Dexter McCluster (from Chiefs), OT Michael Oher (from Ravens), DE/OLB Shaun Phillips (from Broncos), QB Charlie Whitehurst (from Chargers), LB Wesley Woodyard (from Broncos)

KEY DEPARTURES: WR Kenny Britt (to Rams), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (to Texans), RB Chris Johnson (to Jets), CB Alterraun Verner (to Buccaneers)

QB: Locker returns for a fourth season with the Titans. A first-round draft pick in 2011, Locker has started only 18 games over the last two years after serving as a backup in his rookie season. During his injury shortened season last year, he completed 60.7 percent of his passes for just 1,256 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He got the team off to a quick start, going 3-1 through four games, but he suffered a Lisfrac injury in Week 7 and missed the rest of the season.

He knows how to manage a game, but injuries are a concern. He played in just 11 games the year before due to injury and thus doesn't have a great deal of experience despite being around for three seasons. For his career, he's thrown for 3,974 yards with 22 TDs and 15 picks.

Whisenhunt has been pleased with Locker so far this preseason.

"I'm happy with the way Jake's working," Whisenhunt said. "I'm happy with a lot of little things that we're seeing him doing here, but there's no substitute for seeing what happens in a game. When we get to some of these controlled, for a lack of a better word, scrimmages, then you get a better sense."

Locker is entering a contract season, so the pressure is on a little more than usual, but the dollars aren't motivating him.

"I care about winning football games and doing it with a good group of guys that I've gotten to know really well," Locker said.

The Titans did spend a sixth-round pick on the former LSU standout Mettenberger in the most recent draft, as they are probably not convinced of Locker being the long-term answer, and did go out and get Charlie Whitehurst as a backup in case of Locker getting injured -- again. So, it looks like the Titans have put some serious planning into this.

"I think we've got something with Mettenberger." said Whisenhunt. "He's doing a lot of good things, but he's making a lot of rookie mistakes, too. We're going to keep working with him. It's such a long process with young quarterbacks. He's done a nice job in these games for the most part."

GRADE: C

RB: Exit Johnson. Enter a backfield by committee.

On paper, Shonn Greene is listed as the starting running back for the Titans. However, Greene voluntarily missed most of the voluntary workouts in the offseason and he might be the odd-man out.

The Titans spent a second-round pick on Bishop Sankey out of Washington and it is believed that the coaches want to see him get most of the touches out of the backfield. Sankey, the first running back selected in the draft, is athletic with down field vision. He should be a nice compliment to offseason signing Dexter McCluster, who the Titans see as a jack of all trades.

With the combination of both Sankey and Bishop, Greene and his salary might be a casualty before the season even starts.

Regardless, this group isn't overwhelming and unless one of the group surprises us, it doesn't look like the Titans have a reliable choice in the backfield to turn to when running out the clock or trying to get the tough yards, especially if Greene disappoints.

GRADE: D

WR: Kendall Wright is focused this year on becoming the star wide out for the Titans and he will have every chance to do so after Britt left. Entering his third season, the year most wide outs have a breakout season, Wright is coming off a 94-catch, 1,079-yard campaign a season ago. So, if he is to have a bigger year in 2014, he is going to be a star.

The downside from last year was that Wright had only two TD catches, so focusing on the big play was Wright's offseason motivation.

Nate Washington will be opposite Wright. The 10-year veteran had just 58 catches for 919 yards and three scores a season ago. He will be pressured this year, by a group that includes Justin Hunter and Derek Hagan, who was out of football last season, but has returned and appears to be focused on getting into form. He last played in 2012 with the Raiders, posting two catches for 20 yards in 14 games. Hagan has 129 catches for 1,480 yards and six touchdowns with Miami, the Giants, Oakland and Buffalo.

"He's really been impressive," Whisenhunt said. "I wasn't sure what to expect from that standpoint, but he's learned very well and we've been able to move him in different spots and he's made a lot of plays. So it's an impressive camp so far for him."

Hunter, meanwhile, had an up and down rookie season. He had just 18 catches, but four went for touchdowns. He has also been performing well in the preseason.

GRADE: C

TE: The Titans will rely heavily on Delanie Walker at the tight end position. After seven season with the San Francisco 49ers, Walker came to Tennessee last season and put up a career year. He recorded career highs with 60 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns, becoming only the second TE in franchise history to have at least 60 catches (Frank Wycheck 1997-2001).

At 6-foot, 248-pounds, Walkers brings a unique element to the offense and poses match-up problems for defenses with his ability to line up in the backfield, on the line, in the slot and as a wideout.

Walker's primary backup is Craig Stevens, who is known for his blocking ability than his pass-catching skill. Last season, he posted career highs with 23 catches for 275 yards.

GRADE: B-

OL: Despite the lack of play makers, the offensive line could be one of the strengths of this team. In addition to adding Lewan with the 11th overall pick, the Titans went out and signed right tackle Michael Oher, a proven, battle-tested lineman who hasn't missed a start since coming into the league with e 23rd overall pick by the Ravens in 2009.

This was the second straight year the Titans focused efforts on the line. In 2013, the squad draft right guard Chance Womack in the first round, center Brian Schwneke in the fourth round and signed left guard Andy Levitre. Add that group to left tackle Michael Roos, who has been a staple on the offensive line singe 2005 when he was drafted by the team, and this is a strong group.

The one future concern is that Roos is in the final year of his contract and Lewan might be getting groomed to be his replacement.

GRADE: B+

DL: The Titans are moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this season and this puts more pressure on NT Sammie Hill to produce. He had 25 tackles last season, his first with the Titans, but the team had higher expectations after signing him to a three-year, $11.4 million contract. He missed time with a knee injury, but after a healthy offseason, it will be interesting to see if he will be up to the challenge.

Jurrell Casey returns for his third season with the Titans and stays at a defensive end position in the new formation. Coming off a career season that saw him record 55 tackles and 10 1/5 sacks, Casey in the only legit pass rusher on the line.

Ropati Ritoitua is expected to be opposite Casey and coming off a 44-tackle, four-sack 2013, he will have to step up his production to help the defensive unit.

GRADE: C

LB: The starting group of linebackers looks like Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley on the outside with Wesley Woodyard and Zach Brown on the inside.

A fifth-year veteran, Morgan played in 15 games and started 14 for the Titans last season, recording six sack and 34 tackles, while Wimbley, a nine-year pro, appeared in 16 games with one start a season ago, recording three sacks. It was his second year with the squad after spending three years with the Raiders and four with Cleveland.

"They've been good. They've been solid," said Whisenhunt of Morgan and Wimbley. "I think Derrick (Morgan) especially has played outside of his position very well, and Kamerion (Wimbley) has, too. They haven't gotten a sack, but they've certainly done the things that we want them to do, as far as a lot of the other things."

Shaun Phillips is expected to push these two for a starting spot. Coming over after one season with the Broncos and nine with the Chargers, Phillips is a veteran who can get after the quarterback. He has 10 sacks last year and has 79 1/2 for his career.

Woodyard signed with the Titans after spending the first six years of his career with the Denver Broncos. In 10 starts with Denver a season ago, he had 1 1/2 sacks, 84 tackles and one interception. He is a veteran of the 3-4 scheme and should be a good mentor for the group.

Brown, in just his third season, started 13 games in 2013 and had four sacks and one pick.

The odd man out could be Moise Fokou, who started all 12 games he appeared in last season, recording 78 tackles and a sack.

This is a solid group, but lacks a play maker.

GRADE: C

DB: Jason McCourty highlights this group. He is the team's featured cournerback, starting every games he has appeared in the last three years.

Opposite McCourty will be either Coty Sensabaugh or Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Sensabaugh started three of the 14 games he played in last year, while Wreh- Wilson didn't start a game, but appeared in 13 games. One of the two will have to step up this preseason.

"We've still got more time to evaluate," said Whisenhunt late in camp on who he is going with. "We're still in the evaluation process with that."

Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin are expected to take the safety duties, both veterans were mainstays in the defensive backfield a season ago for the Titans.

GRADE:

SPECIAL TEAMS: McCluster and Leon Washington should give the Titans some life in the return game. Both are seasoned veterans who have made a living at this part of the game and should benefit the team.

After parting ways with longtime kicker Rob Bironas this offseason, the Titans have brought in rookie Maikon Bonani. This is a risky move as Bironas made 86 percent of his field goal attempts in five of his 10 years in the league and missed only two PATs, bot in his rookie season.

Punter Brett Kern returns for his sixth season with the Titans. He pinned opponents inside the 20 32 times last season and had only two touchbacks. With those numbers, he is a valuable asset to the Titans on defense.

GRADE: B

COACHING: Whisenhunt brings a great deal of experience to the Titans. After serving as head coach of the Cardinals for six seasons, he spent last year as offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. He helped revamp Phillip Rivers' career and looks to do something similar here by kick-starting Jake Locker's.

On the offensive side he bring offensive coordinator Jason Michael with him. Michael was tight ends coach for the Chargers the last three seasons. This will be his first season as an offensive coordinator, but he will still be working under Whisenhunt, who will be utilizing his own game plan.

Ray Horton comes to the Titans after spending 2013 with the Browns and revamping their defensive unit into one of the toughest in the league. Horton transformed the defense into the ninth best in the NFL, raising it 14 spots above the previous season. Cleveland also ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards per opponent pass attempts (6.15) and ninth in pass yards allowed. From the Dick LeBeau coaching tree, this will be his fourth season as a defensive coordinator in the league.

The coaching talent is here for the Titans.

GRADE: B

THE SKINNY: The Titans are a team looking for an identity. Whether is be as a defensive unit or offense, they need to find one. Hopefully, Whisenhunt can work his QB magic and turn around Locker or develop Mettenberger. This season will help the organization determine what it actually is.

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