After spending OTAs and minicamp installing and refining their new offensive and defensive systems, the Tennessee Titans hope to hit the ground running once they have their first training camp practice on July 26.
New coach Ken Whisenhunt has been busy installing a new more up-tempo, pass-friendly offense that might finally bring the Titans into the 21st century on that side of the football, after years of a plodding ground attack run by both Jeff Fisher and Mike Munchak.
Defensively, the Titans are shifting to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who has been busy sorting through the personnel he inherited and the free agents and draft picks acquire to see who fits as outside linebackers, nose tackles and five-technique ends.
Whisenhunt said he believes the Titans can contend out of the gate, even with all the changes, but even he seems to admit it will take everything clicking and coming together from the start of camp, so there is no backsliding with the playbook.
"I think as a coach in your first year with a new team probably, you're never where you want to be. But I think as far as establishing the way that we work and from an installation perspective, I think we got a lot done," Whisenhunt said. "But when we come back, it's gonna be tough. We've got to really pick it up and get going. That's gonna be the next test for this group is how they handle the next five weeks. The rookies, they don't know what's coming from the standpoint of how long this season can be. But the veterans do, and I hope they understand what it takes during this time to be ready when we start."
Whisenhunt has been pleased with how the players have worked in gaining an understanding of his expectations in learning the system through OTAs and minicamp and hopes to carry that over into training camp. In the five-week break, Titans players will have their iPads with them to study playbooks and stay on top of things.
"I think probably the No. 1 thing is how these guys work. You never know when you're with a group for the first time from a standpoint of working on a field and how they study. We put a lot in. I think the iPads obviously helped tremendously," he said. "But one of the things you're looking for, when they're walking around the building or sitting in the dining hall, they're looking at their iPads and they're studying the plays. That's an important piece of it, because it becomes part of it and how they work. On the field, it's tough and they've worked well. I like that. Everybody seems to be into football."
Players report: July 25
First practice: July 26.
Joint practice at Falcons: Aug. 4
--First-round pick Taylor Lewan, the only one of the Titans' six draft picks to remain unsigned, is scheduled to appear in court July 17 regarding what role he allegedly had in a bar fight with some Ohio State fans following the Ohio State-Michigan game last year.
Lewan faces three charges of assault in the case, and has claimed that he was acting as a peacemaker when he shoved a man. There have been conflicting accounts of the incident.
Lewan was supposed to have been in court in Ann Arbor, Mich., on June 16 to answer to the charges, but the matter was postponed until July 17, just eight days before Titans players are to report to training camp.
--Rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the Titans' sixth-round pick, said his knee is "100 percent structurally" just five months removed from ACL surgery.
Doctors who performed the surgery used a hamstring graft rather than a patella graft, and while there are pros and cons to each type of ACL repair, Mettenberger said he is pleased with the progress he has made. He was able to work at LSU's Pro Day just three months out of surgery and was a regular participant in the Titans' offseason work.
He will stay behind in Nashville during the dead period before training camp continuing to strengthen the area around the knee.
"Structurally it's 100 percent. It's just the strength of my quad and hamstring that I've got to keep developing. By training camp, I should be much better," Mettenberger said. "I think I showed everyone that I was moving pretty well being five months out of surgery. It's just going to be about continuing to work hard and when training camp comes, I'll be further ahead than I am now."
--Team strength: Offensive line.
The Titans have gone to great lengths to rebuild an offensive line eroded over the past several years, and this unit -- on paper at least -- would appear to be the strength of the team.
The Titans signed left guard Andy Levitre last year as a free agent and drafted right guard Chance Warmack and center Brian Schwenkie. This year they added free agent right tackle Michael Oher and took future left tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round as an eventual successor to stalwart Michael Roos, who is entering the final year of his contract.
--Breakout player: Wide receiver Justin Hunter.
Last year, the Titans traded up to draft Hunter in the second round, believing he had first-round talent and could become the type of stretch-the-field deep threat that Kenny Britt and Tyrone Calico before him were supposed to be. Hunter had his moments, catching four touchdowns among his 18 receptions. Now, Tennessee is expecting more from him in year two, as he is solidly among the team's top three receivers with Kendall Wright and veteran Nate Washington, and should get plenty of opportunity not only to catch the ball downfield, but showcase his speeds for yards after the catch as well.
--Fantasy football reality check: Running back Bishop Sankey.
With the Titans moving on from Chris Johnson as they install a new offense that will have the running backs in a different role, enter Sankey. The rookie from Washington should take over as the Titans' primary ball-carrier this season, even though he is initially projected to be in a tandem with Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster. If Sankey shows the type of versatility as a runner/receiver/pass protector the Titans believe he can be, he could end up with the lion's share of the playing time at running back this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Titans declined Locker's 2015 option, meaning the quarterback is in make-or-break mode this season. First, Locker has to stay healthy, and second, he has to show he can execute Ken Whisenhunt's quarterback-friendly offense. Whisenhunt has previously tutored a young Ben Roethlisberger and revived the careers of Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers. Now, it is Locker's turn, provided he can stay healthy. He is coming off foot surgery and has missed 14 starts the past two years. Behind him, depth is thin. Whisenhunt brought clipboard carrier Charlie Whitehurst with him from San Diego, while Mettenberger, a rookie sixth-round pick, is a future starter option if Locker doesn't work out and could push Wilson off the roster.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Bishop Sankey. Backups - Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster, FB Collin Mooney, Jackie Battle, Leon Washington.
With the Chris Johnson era over, the Titans have overhauled the running back position. Sankey, their second-round choice, is a versatile back, who initially will split time with Greene and McCluster. Greene is targeted as the power back, but missed the offseason because of a knee procedure. McCluster will be a gadget player, lining up in a variety of spots. The traditional fullback looks to be a thing of the past, as Quinn Johnson was let go, leaving Mooney and Battle as hybrid-type fullbacks/running backs to fight for a spot. Washington will make or not make the roster based on his return skills.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens. Backups - Taylor Thompson, Dorin Dickerson, Adam Schiltz, Jason Schepler.
Walker came on at the end of last season both as a receiver and a locker-room leader. The Titans will continue to expand his role. Tennessee could use a lot of two-tight end sets with Walker as H-back, and Stevens, a forgotten man in the passing attack a year ago, on the field together. Thompson, a converted defensive end two years ago, needs to take a step forward as a pass-catcher. Well-traveled Dickerson joined the team at the final minicamp and will compete for a backup spot against undrafted free agents Schepler and Schiltz.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter. Backups - Nate Washington, Michael Preston, Marc Mariani, Derek Hagan, Brian Robiskie, Jaz Reynolds, Derel Walker.
Wright has emerged as the best of this group in his two years in the league. Now, Whisenhunt wants to challenge him to take his game to the next level. Somewhat pigeon-holed as a slot receiver, Wright needs to develop as a deep threat, and a receiver down the seam on occasion as well. Hunter is being counted upon to make a big leap after occasional flashes as a rookie, while the steady Washington will still get plenty of work, as the Titans may use three-receiver sets a lot. Behind those three, things are murky, where Preston and Mariani (out two years with injuries) try to fend off journeymen pickups Hagan and Robiskie. Undrafted free agents Reynolds and Walker are long shots and don't rule out a waiver pickup inching someone off the roster following final cuts.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Michael Roos, LG Andy Levitre, C Brian Schwenke, RG Chance Warmack, RT Michael Oher. Backups - C/G Chris Spencer, T Taylor Lewan, G/T Byron Stingily, C/G Eric Olsen. C Gabe Ikard.
This group has been revamped over the past two seasons with only Roos surviving from when Ruston Webster first became general manager in 2012. He is in the final year of his contract, and has first-round pick Lewan waiting in the wings. Lewan could pull the upset and start this year, if he can beat out free-agent signee Oher on the right side. The interior group of Schwenke, Levitre and Warmack should be better with another year of working together. Behind the starters, Spencer was re-signed and will compete for a backup spot. Stingily has flashed in the past, but as with all of them, with a new regime will have to prove himself again in camp and preseason.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Ropati Pitoitua, NT Sammie Hill, DRE Jurrell Casey. Backups -- E Karl Klug, NT Antonio Johnson, NT/DE DaQuan Jones, NT Al Woods, E Mike Martin, E Lavar Edwards.
As the makeover to a 3-4 begins, the Titans have done a lot of shuffling in the front seven. Three-fourths of last year's 4-3 line appears to be on track to start initially, with Casey (10.5 sacks a year ago) being the most intriguing of that bunch.
The Titans are high on fourth-round pick Jones, who can play in the middle or on the end in the 3-4. Johnson and free-agent pickup Woods will also compete with Hill for the nose spot. Players like Klug, Martin and Edwards will be adjusting to new roles. There is the chance that a usable part or two from last year's 4-3 might not fit at all in the new scheme.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Derrick Morgan, LILB Wesley Woodyard, RILB Zach Brown, ROLB Kamerion Wimpley. Backups -- OLB Sean Phillips, OLB Akeem Ayers, ILB Zaviar Gooden, ILB Colin McCarthy, ILB Patrick Bailey, ILB Moise Fokou, ILB Avery Williamson.
One thing is certain here: Not all of this group will make the final 53-man roster, simply for the fact of numbers alone. Morgan, a career defensive end, is learning to play standing up as a rush linebacker, while Wimbley may have a new lease on life getting to go back to linebacker after being miscast as a free-agent end two years ago by Tennessee. Free-agent pickups Phillips and Woodyard figure to help out, while Brown and Ayers, both former second-round picks, are being challenged by the coaching staff to produce more consistently in the new scheme than they did in the old one.
Gooden has the speed to convert to the inside, but might get passed by Williamson, a rookie fifth-rounder who will learn on special teams. Bailey has been a special teams ace, while McCarthy, a former defensive captain in 2012, and Fokou have to show they can fit in the new system in order to stick.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Jason McCourty, FS Michael Griffin, SS Bernard Pollard, RCB Coty Sensabaugh. Backups -- CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S George Wilson, CB Tommie Campbell, S Damion Stafford, S/CB Marqueston Huff, S/CB Micah Pellerin, CB/S Khalid Wooten.
The interesting storyline here will be the battle for Alterraun Verner's old spot at cornerback between Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson. Sensabaugh was the Titans nickel back a year ago and played pretty well, while Wreh-Wilson also turned the coaches' heads in offseason work. Elsewhere, starters return as McCourty has been solid, Pollard brought needed attitude and Griffin seems rejuvenated after Pollard's arrival.
Wilson provides good depth at safety, while Stafford has done well on special teams and has shown a nose for the ball. The previous regime gave Campbell multiple chances because of his size and speed, but it never translated, while rookie Huff could be a player to watch, both as safety depth and a possible nickel candidate against the Sensabaugh/Wreh-Wilson cornerback battle loser.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Maikon Bonani, K Travis Coons, P Brett Kern, KOR Leon Washington, PR Dexter McCluster, KR Marc Mariani, LS Beau Brinkley.
There will be a training camp battle between two unproven kickers in Bonani and the rookie Coons. Bonani was in camp with the Titans last year and showed a strong leg, but needs to work on accuracy. Kern is set at punter and Brinkley is on solid footing at long snapper, but the return battle will be interesting to see how it is split up as well. All three candidates can do both duties, but the job may be split, depending upon who wins it. Washington came in late last year and ended the circus that had been going on for two-thirds of the season. McCluster will be a Swiss Army knife player and had two punt-return touchdowns for the Chiefs last year. Mariani is a former Pro-Bowl returner, trying to come back after two years out with leg and shoulder injuries.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--C Kevin Matthews (not tendered as RFA); once his father, Bruce Matthews, was relieved of his duties as offensive line coach, the writing was on the wall for Kevin Matthews, who was a fringe player re-signed in the middle of the season after injuries.
--T Mike Otto (not tendered as UFA).
--C Rob Turner (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
UNSIGNED DRAFT CHOICES
--T Taylor Lewan (1/11).
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--RB Bishop Sankey (2/54): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--NT DaQuan Jones (4/112): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Marqueston Huff (4/122): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Avery Williamson (5/151): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--QB Zach Mettenberger (6/178): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Jackie Battle: Potential UFA; $855,000/1 yr.
--DT Antonio Johnson: UFA; terms unknown.
--WR/KR Marc Mariani: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Ropati Pitoitua: Potential UFA; $9.6M/3 yrs, $2.175M SB.
--S Bernard Pollard: Potential UFA; $6.3M/2 yrs, $850,000 SB.
--C/G Chris Spencer: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--RB Leon Washington: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Dorin Dickerson: Not tendered as RFA by Lions; terms unknown.
--WR Dexter McCluster: UFA Chiefs; $12M/3 yrs, $4.5M guaranteed.
--OT Michael Oher: UFA Ravens; $20M/4 yrs, $4M SB/$9.35M guaranteed.
--LB Shaun Phillips: UFA Broncos; $6M/2 yrs.
--WR Brian Robiskie: FA; terms unknown.
--QB Charlie Whitehurst: UFA Chargers; $4.25M/2 yrs, $1M SB/$2M guaranteed.
--DE Al Woods: UFA Steelers; terms unknown.
--LB Wesley Woodyard: UFA Broncos; $16M/4 yrs.
--K Rob Bironas (released).
--WR Kenny Britt: UFA Rams; $1.4M/1 yr, $550,000 guaranteed.
--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (released).
--RB Chris Johnson (released).
--FB Quinn Johnson (released).
--QB Rusty Smith: UFA Giants; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--T David Stewart (failed physical).
--CB Alterraun Verner: UFA Buccaneers; $26.5M/4 yrs, $14M guaranteed.
--WR Damian Williams: UFA Dolphins; $800,000/1 yr.
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