Shutdown Countdown: Tennessee Titans' top priority is Jake Locker's health

Frank Schwab
July 8, 2014
(Yahoo Sports)
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(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

With no Jeff Fisher, Vince Young, Eddie George or even Chris Johnson anymore, the Tennessee Titans have become the rare anonymous NFL team.

Quick, name a Titan. Jake Locker? Bishop Sankey? Jurrell Casey? (Extra credit if Casey was your answer; the defensive tackle is probably Tennessee's top player.) Even when the Titans molded Alterraun Verner from fourth-round pick to Pro Bowler, he bolted to Tampa Bay in free agency.

But, that doesn't mean the Titans are bad.

Jake Locker (USA Today Sports Images)
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Jake Locker (USA Today Sports Images)

Want an interesting stat? Last season the Titans were 4-2 in games Locker started and played most of the game, and just 3-7 without. Maybe that's a small-sample fluke, but the wins were against the Steelers, Jets, Chargers and Rams, and all of them were fairly good in 2013. Would things have been better if Locker, once the eighth overall pick, had stayed healthy? Perhaps.

Instead, a promising 3-1 start gave way to a tough 7-9 finish. The Titans lost four games by less than a touchdown. Tennessee could easily have been a playoff team last year with some better luck in close games.

Instead, Mike Munchak was fired as head coach, and Ken Whisenhunt was brought in to replace him. Johnson, for years the face of the franchise, was let go after the Titans delayed cutting him until a few weeks into free agency, which seemed like a petty move to punish him for some reason. The Titans drafted an offensive tackle with their first-round pick, which will help the line but not with their Q rating.

If you're optimistic, you can look at the Titans objectively and say they weren't too far off from being a good team last season. Most people wouldn't be able to recite their lineup, but there's reason to believe that if Locker stays healthy, they could surprise. That's a pretty big if, however.

2013 review in less than 25 words: A surprising 3-1 start was great, but Locker got hurt in Week 4, followed by a three-game losing streak and a 7-9 record.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Since the biggest name by far on the "added/lost" ledger was Verner, the team's only Pro Bowler last season, the answer is probably worse. The change from Johnson to second-round pick Bishop Sankey at running back might not pay off in 2014 either.  The team overpaid for offensive tackle Michael Oher in free agency, is hoping they can get more out of receiver Dexter McCluster than Kansas City ever did, and is trying to revive the career of linebacker Wesley Woodyard after he was benched in Denver last year. On the plus side, tackle Taylor Lewan was a nice pick in the first round.

Best offseason acquisition: The hiring of Whisenhunt might turn out to be pretty good. Whisenhunt had a 45-51 record as Arizona's head coach, and the record is more a reflection of Arizona's front office struggling to find answers at quarterback after Kurt Warner retired. Whisenhunt had a great year in 2013 as San Diego's offensive coordinator, rebuilding his name to get another head-coaching shot. Whisenhunt could be a tremendous asset for Locker as he enters a make-or-break season. It was a pretty good hire for the Titans.

Achilles heel: The problem with the Titans is they don't know if Locker can stay healthy. Locker has missed 14 games the past two seasons. They weren't injuries he could have played through so nobody is questioning his toughness, but it still hurt his development. The backup situation is even worse than last year, because Ryan Fitzpatrick is gone, replaced by Charlie Whitehurst and rookie Zach Mettenberger. The Titans would love if Locker had a nice fourth season, and he did improve last year in many areas. The first step to that breakthrough is staying on the field.

Position in flux: The Titans let Verner go in free agency, without any great backup plan. Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson are battling to man the cornerback spot opposite Jason McCourty. Wreh-Wilson was a third-round pick last year who played sparingly as a rookie. Sensabaugh has six career starts in two seasons. One of them might be the next Verner, an unlikely star in the making, but it's hard to not feel that there's a big drop coming at that position.

Justin Hunter (AP)
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Justin Hunter (AP)

Ready to break out: Justin Hunter had just 18 catches last year, and was suspended late in the season for a violation of team rules, so on the surface it looks like he had a disappointing rookie season after being a second-round pick. But Hunter did well with those catches, averaging 19.7 yards and getting four touchdowns. His score to beat San Diego in the final seconds of Week 3 was one of the NFL's plays of the year. Now Hunter, a tall and athletic target who played his college ball at Tennessee as well, comes into his second year with the confidence that he can play in the NFL. He has reportedly added much-needed muscle, and if he has learned some lessons in how to be a professional, the arrow should be pointed up for Hunter this season.

Stat fact: On the same play last year, Sankey broke Corey Dillon's single-season rushing record at Washington and Napoleon Kaufman's career rushing touchdown record at UW. That's some pretty good company to be passing. Sankey was the first running back off the board in the 2014 draft, at No. 54 overall, and he'll get a big role right away with Johnson's departure. With Shonn Greene's knee acting up, requiring surgery that knocked him out of the OTAs, the path is clear for Sankey to have a huge rookie year.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Going off 2013 records, the Titans have the second easiest schedule in the NFL this year, just behind Indianapolis. Games against the NFC East and division rivals Jacksonville and Houston help a lot.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Really, the Titans weren't far away from the playoffs last year. They were solid across the board, and their statistical profile looks like a 7-9 team. Their free-agent haul wasn't impressive, but the draft should produce at least two immediate starters. If Locker builds off his 2013 progress and stays healthy for 16 games, maybe Tennessee sneaks into a playoff berth. It's not like the AFC is all that deep, and the Titans' schedule is pretty soft.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Pretty much anything that includes the words "Charlie Whitehurst" or "Zach Mettenberger." Mettenberger has a big arm, but very few quarterbacks taken in the sixth round or later become good NFL starters. If Locker goes down, the Titans miss Verner more than they even expected, and Sankey struggles a bit as a rookie, it could get ugly, although the schedule should prevent their record from being that bad.

The crystal ball says: The relatively low ranking for Tennessee is a bet that Locker either gets hurt or doesn't take the next step to become an above-average starter. This doesn't look like a team that can have a winning season with average or below average quarterback play. If Locker is good perhaps the Titans can turn the corner with him, but this still seems like another building year in Nashville.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!