Tennessee Titans 2008 Preview Report

July 10, 2008 by

Tennessee Titans

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 4th

2007 Record: 10-6 (3rd AFC South)

Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (15th year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Vince Young Electrifying talent who has a knack for winning games. Can these traits continue to overshadow his flaws as a passer?

RB: LenDale White A poor man’s Jerome Bettis. Was showing commendable maturation until his run-in with Denver police in March.

FB: Ahmard Hall Adequate lead-blocker who is slightly more finesse oriented than the archetypal FB.

WR: Justin Gage A decent 55-catch season earned him a four-year contract in spring. But still, he’s your No. 1 WR? Really?

WR: Roydell Williams Had 55 receptions in ’07 but spent all offseason recovering from a serious ankle injury. Still wasn’t ready to go in mid-June.

TE: Alge Crumpler** Missed playing with Michael Vick so much that he decided to team up with Vince Young. Expect his career to be revived.

LT: Michael Roos The best kept secret in the NFL. Easily a top 10 OT––might even be top 5.

LG: Eugene Amano A backup C who, quite frankly, should still be playing backup C.

C: Kevin Mawae Thirty-seven years old but remains one of the upper-echelon players at his position. President of the Players Association.

RG: Jake Scott** Solid tactician who can survive any matchup, but Titans are kidding themselves when they say he’s an upgrade over departed LG Jacob Bell.

RT: David Stewart If 10 is great, 8 is good, 7 is solid and 5 is average, he’s a 6.

—————

QB: Kerry Collins Strong-armed veteran who offers a lot off the bench. His presence is important for this team.

RB: Chris Johnson* A multipurpose weapon who possesses 4.24 speed. How will he translate to the pro level?

WR: Justin McCareins Athleticism and good-looking 6’2”, 215-pound frame suggest he should be better than he is. But at 29, he’s a finished product. A very mediocre finished project.

WR: Brandon Jones Effort is there, but doesn’t capitalize on enough playmaking opportunities.

TE: Bo Scaife Serviceable receiver whose long arms help his run-blocking. Great rapport with former college teammate Vince Young.

Defense

LDE: Jevon Kearse** Hoping to enjoy a Renaissance back home after injuries depleted his career in Philly.

DT: Albert Haynesworth Ah, so he can play. Incredibly well, in fact. Titans would love to have him in a contract year for the rest of his career.

DT: Tony Brown On just about any other team he’d be a pass-rushing reserve.

RDE: Kyle Vanden Bosch Owner of the hardest-working motor in football. An everydown impact.

LOLB: David Thornton Was more physical last season, leading the team with 122 tackles.

MLB: Stephen Tulloch Will start for a suspended Ryan Fowler the first month. Superior speed suggests he should start for Fowler the rest of the season.

ROLB: Keith Bulluck Raw athleticism has carried him thus far. But at 32, how much further will it go?

CB: Nick Harper Solid zone defender who is really more of a No. 2.

SS: Chris Hope Productive all-around player but is coming off neck surgery. Titans need him in the lineup.

FS: Michael Griffin Shows star potential but someone needs to tell him that. Won’t fully blossom until he becomes more confident and aggressive.

CB: Cortland Finnegan Should be used as a case study for how to progress as a professional CB. Once a 7th-rounder, now an excellent all-around defender.

—————

DL: Bryce Fisher Can make plays against the run and pass but must be on the move in order to do so.

LB: Ryan Fowler Good size but not asked to carry nearly as heavy a load as most MLBs. Recorded a measly 53 tackles in 14 starts last season.

NB: Reynaldo Hill Possesses natural man-coverage skills but lack of technique gives him trouble playing the ball.

Players Acquired

TE Dwayne Blakely (Atl)

DB Chris Carr (Oak)

TE Alge Crumpler (Atl)

DE Jevon Kearse (Phi)

WR Justin McCareins (NYJ)

G Jake Scott (Ind)

LB Josh Stamer (Buf)

Players Lost

G Jacob Bell (Stl)

RB Chris Brown (Hou)

LB Gilbert Gardner (Det)

WR David Givens

TE Ben Hartsock (Atl)

CB Kelly Herndon

CB Pacman Jones (Dal)

DE Travis LaBoy (Ari)

WR Eric Moulds

DE Antwan Odom (Cin)

G Benji Olson (retired)

DT Randy Starks (Mia)

TE Ben Troupe (TB)

CB Michael Waddell (Oak)

Regardless of what the Titans may say, Scott is a downgrade from Bell and Olson. He doesn’t match their sheer power in the run game. If Crumpler stays healthy, he will be the veteran go-to receiving threat that Moulds never became. He already has the blocking abilities that Troupe couldn’t offer. Carr can play in dime packages, but he was brought in to be a return specialist. The Titans would be pleasantly surprised if McCareins and Kearse prosper in their second stint with the organization. LaBoy and Odom both broke out last season––just in time to garner bigger contracts elsewhere. Starks never developed, Brown never stayed healthy and you’ve probably heard about that Pacman guy.

2008 – Tennessee Titans

RdSel # Player Position School

1 24 Chris Johnson RB East Carolina

2 54 Jason Jones DE Eastern Michigan

3 85 Craig Stevens TE California

4 103 William Hayes DE Winston-Salem State

4 126 Lavelle Hawkins WR California

4 134 Stanford Keglar LB Purdue

7 229 Cary Williams CB Washburn

The Titans needed a receiver, which is why there was a noticeable murmur when they passed on a chance to take the first wideout off the board and instead went with the small school RB Johnson. His 4.24 speed (fastest at the combine) was obviously a factor. Jones is a former TE who the team believes can learn to play DT and contribute right away. Stevens is a blocker. They traded a 5th-round pick to move up and get Hayes. Hawkins is one of nine WR’s who has a chance at making the final roster. Keglar and Williams are both special teamers for now.

2008 Tennessee Titans Preview Report

You walk into the Tennessee Titans office and are immediately overwhelmed by the amount of clutter. There are piles of notebooks everywhere. Sloppy stacks of paper cover the desk. Books crowd every corner of the room. Some are stacked high, others stacked low. Most are not stacked at all. Sticky notes pock every inanimate object. The lighting is poor, thanks to two burnt out bulbs overhead. On the wall hangs an off-kilter calendar four months behind.

This seems like the type of environment that only a college professor could function in. You stop a Titans employee walking by. She tells you that the denizens of the office went 10-6 and reached the playoffs last season. All you can think is, “How?”

Perhaps there’s a semblance to the clutter––a method to the madness. You walk over to the desk and examine the first pile. The sloppy penmanship on the yellow sticky note label says “Wide Receiver Projects.” You start rummaging through the myriad of papers. The first one reads, Biren Ealy––fringe guy, maybe a No. 4 if lucky. The next says Chris Davis––talented but turbulent…too many fumbles. You start flipping through quicker. Brandon Jones––inconsistent; Lavelle Hawkins––another mid-round rookie…must learn the offense.

You look at the scattered papers next to this pile. The sticky note on it says “Williams Wide Receivers.” You pick through it. Paul Williams––bust. Edward Williams––free agent, camp body. Mike Williams––loafer. Roydell Williams––Rising….Serious ankle injury a concern. You notice another pile––a “Justin Receivers” pile. You find reports on two veterans named McCareins and Gage. Backup players who the team will likely force into the starting lineup.

From the piles on the desk you count nine different wide receivers who have a chance to make the Tennessee roster in 2008. None of them seem very good.

Your curiosity rising, you make your way over to a book shelf. The texts on the shelves are veiled by a faint layer of dust. But you notice the books dumped on the floor appear to have been recently used. You pick up the first book. It’s titled “NFL and Suspensions, 5th edition.” The editor is Paul Tagliabue. Next to it is the same book, only 6th edition, edited by Roger Goodell.

There are folders stuffed with ruffled papers strewn near the suspension books. One of the folders is labeled Albert Haynesworth. The first paper inside is dated 2006. It’s about a face-stomping. There’s a newer looking folder labeled Ryan Fowler. Papers in there read 2008 and regard a performance enhancing drugs violation. Together, the two folders are maybe one-tenth the thickness of the third folder you find. The label on that folder has been crossed out, but you can still see what it said: Pacman Jones.

You continue to scour the room. There is a stack of index cards in one of the corners. On the sticky note, someone has scribbled “Running Back Search.” The cards are about LenDale White. There are cards about character issues, distractions, toughness, maturation, fatness, power, speed limitations and hope. Halfway through you realize that some of the cards are about Chris Henry. With Henry and White both drafted in the second round just one year apart, it’s apparent that someone mistakenly mixed the two piles. You’re befuddled when you noticed there are cards about a third running back, named Chris Johnson, who was just drafted in the first round.

Incredulous that any team would select a running back in Round Two or higher three years in a row, you begin to search for piles containing information on Tennessee’s draft history. The clutter makes the office nearly impossible to navigate.

You come across notes about finesse outside linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton playing with a meaty middle linebacker, Ryan Fowler (the suspended guy, you recall).

There are piles of notes on cornerbacks. Then, piles of notes on safeties. You notice that reports on several players––Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Reynaldo Hill, Chris Carr, Vincent Fuller––turn up in both piles. You wonder if this is by design or just bad filing.

You find gobs of documents about the defensive line. There’s a rookie end named Jason Jones who may play tackle. There are two defensive ends who finally developed. Their names are Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom. Wait….evidently they’re now gone. There’s a defensive end named Kyle Vanden Bosch. Papers on him highlight his immense injury history and limited skill set. But the next papers trumpet his remarkable production. It doesn’t seem to add up.

Juxtaposed to the Vanden Bosch notes are writings about a tackle named Haynesworth––another guy from the suspension folder. Haynesworth seems to be Vanden Bosch’s foil: vastly talented but widely unproductive. Then you notice a document from 2007 that contradicts every word of this. Haynesworth––NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, it says. Your confusion mounts.

Still nothing about the team’s drafting history. You cross the room and sift through a pile of notebooks. The label has fallen off but you notice a yellow sticky resting on the carpet nearby. Someone wrote on there “Titan Renaissance Hopes.” This notebook contains documents about guys who once left the organization but, just this past year, returned. The first is about Jevon Kearse. You realize he’s the same guy in the framed Super Bowl photo that’s hanging at a slant on the back wall. There’s material about one of the Justin receivers….the McCareins one. You find a report on an offensive coordinator named Mike Heimerdinger. It says he was with the team from 2000-2004. The next paper you read is bizarre. On it, someone has written “Heimerdinger + Vince Young = Steve McNair II?” You have no idea what that means.

You’re about to give up your search for the draft records when you notice a paper sticking out from an enormous pile near the back leg left of the desk. The paper is about Tennessee’s 2005 draft. There are more just like it. Some are from other years. You realize you’ve found what you’re looking for.

This is perhaps the sloppiest pile yet. You’ve never seen so many draft picks. Eleven from 2005. Thirteen from 2004. You gather ten more that were scattered about, all from 2006. Short on time, you only skim the ’05 pile. You’re impressed to find that eight of the eleven picks are still on the roster. Of course, the first one, the one they called Pacman, is not. And neither is the third one, Courtney Roby. And the fourth one, Brandon Jones, who was their other third-rounder that year, you remember as the inconsistent guy from the “Wide Receiver Projects” file. But as you keep reading you notice there were still four key players chosen in the ’05 draft, including starting offensive tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart. What kind of draft class was it?

Hard to say. But better than the ’04 draft, you figure. That draft produced only one contributor….an offensive lineman named Eugene Amano. Most of the other ’04 pages have been wadded up or torn in half. It’s trash that was just recently thrown away.

Intrigued by all the other piles that you don’t have time to explore––the collection of wrinkled dark and light blue jerseys and pants and other white and red pieces of clothing that is thrown in the corner near the coat rack seems particularly fascinating….you figure these are probably some of the seven different uniform combinations that this eccentric team wore in ’06––you reluctantly leave the room.

You see a staffer as you exit. You can’t resist asking her how any team can operate––let alone win 10 games––in such a muddled office.

“It’s no big deal,” she says. “The guy in charge has been here a long time.”

“Who is the guy in charge,” you ask.

“Well, technically its owner Bud Adams,” she replies. “But the guy I’m talking about is Jeff Fisher. He’s been here 15 years. You know…he’s been around the block….he just always seems to get the most out of this team, no matter how chaotic things are.”

At that moment, another staff member walks by, carrying a big box. You hear her dump the contents of the box in the office you just left. You go back and sneak a peak. On the floor is a new pile, containing hordes of DVD’s and video tapes. The staffer left the empty box sitting next to the pile. Written in bold black marker on the side is “Vince Young Lowlights.” Before you can leave again, another staffer squeezes by you. He’s carrying a slightly bigger box, also filled with DVD’s and tapes. He empties it into the same pile. Then, he picks up the smaller box, nestles it into the bigger one and heads out. The two of you exchange nods. You glance at the now-empty box that he’s carrying. It too has black writing on it. The man’s hand obstructs some of the words, but you’re able to decipher what they say: “Vince Young Highlights.”

You look back one last time. The DVD’s and tapes make up the largest pile in the cluttered office.

Offense

Is Vince Young a good quarterback? The question seems silly considering the former first-round pick has a record of 17-11 as a starter. But those who love to wax theoretic can easily point out Young’s sporadic accuracy, inconsistent decision making and over-reliance on raw athleticism. His quarterback rating of 71.1 last season is nothing to applaud. He threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and routinely struggled when forced into obvious passing situations.

Keep in mind, however, that when Young first entered the league, few figured he’d see much, if any, action his first two seasons. Thus far, the 25-year-old has been playing with house money––and mainly winning. Rough around the edges, yes, Young certainly is. And he still has fleeting bouts of immaturity. But clearly, signs of greatness leak out of him.

It is up to the Titans to harness that greatness. To help do so, Jeff Fisher brought back offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, a curmudgeonly experienced coach. One of Heimerdinger’s key tasks will be helping Young learn how to balance the use of his legs with the use of his arm. You don’t want to tell a runner as good as Young to stay in the pocket. But at the same time, you don’t want Young’s athleticism to become a crutch for shoddy throwing fundamentals and remedial reads. You also don’t want Young to get too comfortable taking big hits. Fourteenth-year veteran Kerry Collins, Tennessee’s best downfield passer, is a tremendous insurance policy, but that’s it.

The Titans have the weakest receiving corps in the AFC. There are indeed nine players who can potentially contribute, but not one of them would start on a typical pro team. Justin Gage was given a four-year, $16 million contract over the offseason and has earned the status as Tennessee’s No. 1. If Roydell Williams can come back from a broken ankle suffered in the playoff loss at San Diego, he’ll be the second wideout. If not, the job will go to Justin McCareins. Two other names to keep in mind are Chris Davis and Lavelle Hawkins. The former is a quick-twitch return specialist who could, with good coaching, evolve into a slot receiver. The latter is a fourth-round pick from Cal who, unlike the rest of the wideouts, hasn’t had a chance to underachieve yet.

Regardless of what the wide receivers do, new tight end Alge Crumpler will be Young’s favorite target. Crumpler is a four-time Pro Bowler who should help improve this team’s 32nd-ranked red zone offense. He saw his career start to go down with the ship in Atlanta, but if he’s healthy, Crumpler’s a tremendous blocker and productive receiver. (In other words, he is a shinier version of Bo Scaife). Another former Falcon, Dwayne Blakely, was brought in to handle much of the blocking duties. However, Blakely will have to beat out third-round rookie Craig Stevens, a highly-regarded blocker from Cal.

Last season, the Titans ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing but only 21st in yards per attempt. This shows how often they pound the rock. They have the right guy for the job in 235-pound LenDale White. The third-year pro is coming off a 1,110-yard season in which he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry but got stronger down the stretch. White is built like a workhorse, and he does a great job of following fullback Ahmard Hall and setting up his blocks. However, with the arrival of faster-than-light rookie Chris Johnson, there may not be 25 carries a game available for White.

Johnson is more of a utility weapon in the mold of a Reggie Bush. Unlike the disappointing Chris Henry, Johnson’s a guy Tennessee must get on the field. He offers a unique skill set (not to mention, he came at a first-round price).

The offensive line will be at least a cut below what it was last year. Starting guards Jacob Bell and Benji Olson are gone. In their place are former Colt Jake Scott and either backup center Eugene Amano, backup tackle Daniel Loper or second-year man Leroy Harris. Whatever way they spin it, it’s a downgrade.

Left tackle Michael Roos is the best player you’ve never acknowledged. He is superb in pass protection, thanks to wonderful technique and 6’7”, 315-pound size. Not yet 26 and having learned the position only a few years ago, Roos is still improving. The Titans are aware of this––they wisely gave him a new six-year, $43 million contract over the offseason. Roos takes excellent angles as a run-blocker, though he could stand to move the line of scrimmage a little more. That’s what mudder right tackle David Stewart does. (Stewart was also given a long-term contract over the offseason: six years, $38.9 million.)

Kevin Mawae remains the venerable presence in the middle. The 37-year-old is not at the level he was in his prime, but he’s still better than at least 25 of the starting centers in this league.

Defense

Jim Schwartz’s unit carried Tennessee to 10 wins last season after the front four came back alive. At the heart of the rebirth was defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. With the 320-pound monster in the lineup, the Titans were 10-3 and allowed only 76.7 yards rushing per game. When Haynesworth was out of the lineup with a hamstring, Tennessee went 0-3 and surrendered 160 yards on the ground per game. They also gave up three of their four highest single-game point totals.

There is much-deserved skepticism about Haynesworth’s output. He spent the first five seasons of his career underachieving and misbehaving, then conveniently broke out in the final year of his contract. To Haynesworth’s chagrin, the Titans slapped him with the franchise tag over the offseason, forcing the 27-year-old to prove his merit once more in a one-year deal.

No one ever questions the effort of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. The hardest-competing individual in football is coming off his second 12-plus-sack season in three years. Vanden Bosch plays with perfect leverage and is a force against the run and pass.

Such was once the description of fellow defensive end Jevon Kearse. Humbled and older, Kearse returned to Tennessee after spending the last four years in Philadelphia. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll regain his All-World form, which is why backups Sean Conover and Bryce Fisher will be factors in ’08.

The other starting defensive lineman is Tony Brown, a one-gap tackle who should be coming off the bench. The Titans would love to see second-round pick Jason Jones emerge right away, though Jones is more of a pass-rushing specialist himself at this point.

Outside linebacker Keith Bulluck has been underappreciated throughout most of his nine-year career. However, with the Titans gaining a greater national television presence since Vince Young’s arrival, the scenario has flipped. Bulluck is now over-appreciated. He is a fine player in space, but he’s horrible at taking on blocks. And his speed––which, at 32, is soon to abate––has allowed him to thrive despite questionable diagnostic skills.

David Thornton is not quite as good as Bulluck in pass defense, but he is the team’s most productive run-stopper. Part of that has to do with the futility at middle linebacker. Ryan Fowler is a second-string player working in the starting lineup. It’s perplexing that undersized but sound third-year pro Stephen Tulloch has not officially taken Fowler’s job yet.

Nick Harper is Tennessee’s most experienced cornerback, but Cortland Finnegan is fast becoming their most appealing. Harper remains a solid zone defender who can pickoff and break up just enough passes to get a quarterback’s attention. Finnegan, on the other hand, is almost a pure stopper. He is outstanding against the run and very prideful in one-on-one coverage. He’s capable of defending the deep ball without a lot of safety help.

Michael Griffin was miscast as a corner early on but is settling into his free safety position. The first-round pick from a year ago needs to play with more assertiveness in 2008. He has the athletic prowess to make plays, particularly in coverage. Chris Hope is the strong safety. He’s looking to bounce back from what was thought to be a career-threatening neck injury last November. Hope’s successful surgery lends optimism for ’08 and beyond. If he is unable to go, Tennessee will have to call on Calvin Lowry or Vincent Fuller. Neither man thrived at safety last season. Fuller, in fact, makes a better cornerback and should end up one spot behind nickel back Reynaldo Hill.

Special Teams

Rob Bironas has cemented his spot among the elite kickers in the game. Blessed with a powerful foot and unwavering poise under pressure, the former Arena Leaguer is due to receive a substantial long-term contract in the near future (he’s currently signed under a one-year, $1.4 million tender).

Punter Craig Hentrich has been very solid for the better part of 15 years. A recurring back problem raises a few red flags, though, which is why the team is carrying Josh Miller on the roster in training camp.

Chris Johnson is an electrifying kick returner, and Chris Davis has shown a few positive signs returning punts. However, the Titans signed former Raider Chris Carr over the offseason, expecting him to be their return specialist.

Bottom Line

We learned last year to be careful when picking against Tennessee, but all we can do at this point is gauge teams on paper. The paper says that Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Houston are all better right now. Tennessee’s offense is still being pieced together, and downgrades on the front line present problems. The defense is sturdy but not elite.

Myth Buster

Jake Scott is an upgrade over departed Jacob Bell

Rubbish. What Scott is, is a player the Titans could afford to sign. Hence, the fabrication about him being at a higher level than last year’s guard, Bell. Don’t misconstrue this and think Scott isn’t a good player. He converted from college tackle to NFL guard very well in Indy and was a starter for four years in football’s most powerful offense.

However, Scott is more of a tactician than road-grader. This approach is fine for the Colts but mildly misaligned for the Titans. Bell was a mauler who could make noise at the second level. He was a player to focus your rushing attack behind. That’s why the Rams paid him $36 million over six years. The Titans paid Scott $19 million over four years. The two salaries are commensurate with talent.

Open Thought

One thing that Jeff Fisher does that you have to admire is he always runs out on the field to check on his injured players. A surprisingly low number of coaches do this in the NFL. And none do it on as regular a basis as Fisher.

Fisher is an ex-player who understands his guys. He has firm authority over the team but has never been regarded as a dictator. In other words, he’s respected.

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