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2012 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: G

We continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2012 offseason by moving outward on the offensive line from Andrew’s look yesterday at the center position and taking a look at the offensive guard position.

If you looked at it from the right perspective, 2011 seemed like it might be a good year for the Titans’ offensive guards. After all, both starters were returning. Jake Scott had struggled a bit in 2010, but had previously played well for the Titans, and Leroy Harris‘s play filling in for Kevin Mawae in 2008 had people wishing he’d been installed at the pivot position when Kevin Mawae retired instead of Eugene Amano.  In his preseason preview of the position, Andrew was not looking at things from that perspective, instead concentrating on the guards’ disappointing play in 2010 and a mostly mediocre preseason, and expected more of the same.

Unfortunately, the Titans didn’t even get quite that from the guard position in 2011. The good news, such as it is, is that Jake Scott is a free agent. The bad news is, well, the Titans need to find his replacement, and it seems unlikely that player is on the roster.

Leroy Harris started all 16 games for the Titans at left guard, and had somewhere between an average and deeply disappointing season. My colleague at Football Outsiders Ben Muth described most of the criticism as unwarranted or overblown. I respect Ben’s opinions a lot, but he’s a little higher on Harris than I am.

Harris does pull fairly well, but he struggles to pick up twists and stunts in the passing game and doesn’t always anchor well. I don’t think he does a good job getting off of combo blocks and getting to the second level either. I’d rate him as a Just A Guy as a starter, certainly not a strength but not a massive liability either. He’s under contract for 2012 but not beyond that. I don’t think there’s a real chance he’s not the starter in 2012, but I’d prefer to see the Titans look in another direction for 2013 and beyond.

Jake Scott started all 16 games for the Titans at right guard for the fourth consecutive season after signing his four-year deal to join the Titans after the 2007 season, and, well, the less said about his play the better. Like Harris, he’s not much of a drive-blocker, and even worse than Harris, he tended to get moved in the running game, and in the wrong direction. Even when all he had to do was anchor and not allow penetration, he struggled to do so.

Really, there’s not a lot nice I can say about Scott’s game in 2011. He didn’t have a bad year in pass protection, not forcing Hasselbeck to deal with a lot of quick unplanned pressure, but did at times break down when Hasselbeck (primarily) was unable to get rid of the ball quickly. Another FO colleague, J.J. Cooper, tracks every NFL sack, and “credited” Scott with 2.5 sacks allowed, while Harris was credited with 2.0. (I plan to expand on this in a post later this offseason.) Based on J.J.’s work, both numbers are in the average to good range for starting guards.

If the Titans choose to fill Scott’s right guard job from among players on the roster right now, the first candidate that comes to mind is Fernando Velasco. EDIT: Velasco is an exclusive rights free agent, not a restricted free agent, and will be back with the Titans in 2012 if they want him at all. He’s played primarily left guard and center, filling in for Amano and Harris, the past two seasons. Officially about ten pounds heavier than Harris and twenty than Scott, he’s more highly regarded as a run-blocker, but may not have the quickness to be a good pass blocker. Given that right guards tend to play in a little bit more space when it comes to pass blocking, I’m uncomfortable of the idea with him starting at right guard.

Like Velasco, Eugene Amano is listed at both center and guard on the official site. He played left guard in 2008 and 2009, but I don’t think the Titans like Harris as a center and believe they’re much higher on him than the general fan consensus. I have zero expectation of him playing left guard this season unless the Titans get desperate.

Ryan Durand was a seventh-round pick in 2009 and has kicked around the fringe of the Titans’ roster since then, playing in one game in 2010 but spending all of the 2011 season on the Titans’ practice squad. It’s possible he could surprise us and have developed enough that he wins a competition for the starting job, but I’m certainly not expecting him to. The Titans signed him to a futures contract shortly after the 2011 season ended, as they did the other members of the practice squad.

Duke Robinson was another of those players the Titans signed to futures contracts shortly after the 2011 season ended. Originally a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2009 by the Panthers, he was active for three games as a rookie, then spent 2010 on injured reserve and was cut in the 2011 preseason by the Panthers. Some prognosticators had him going much higher in the draft than he was anticipated to go, but he fell because he’s a big guy (330 pounds, 40 more than Scott) and not a plus athlete. The Panthers started him off on PUP in training camp in 2010 because of poor conditioning, and he also was suspended for substance abuse. In a hypothetical world, there’s a good-Leonard Davis-type player here, a punishing drive-blocker who needs help as a pass-blocker, but that hypothetical world seems unlikely to intersect with this world.

Like Durand, Troy Kropog spent 2011 on the practice squad and signed a futures contract with the Titans. Another member of the draft class of 2009, he was chosen in the fourth round and spent 2009 and 2010 on the active roster before being cut at the end of the 2011 preseason. He’s listed as primarily a tackle but also at guard, and I’m pretty sure has played some right guard in the preseason. That the Titans cut him and were willing to risk losing him off the practice squad after keeping him on the active roster for two seasons, plus nobody claiming him, leads me to temper my expectations for him.

Rounding out the list of guards is Mike Otto, who’s an unrestricted free agent after spending the last couple seasons as the Titans’ swing tackle. He’s played some right guard in the past, but I don’t expect the Titans to retain him, and if they do, expect him to remain the swing tackle instead of being installed as a starter.

Outlook: Leroy Harris is virtually a lock to be the starter at left guard in 2012. I think there’s virtually no chance Jake Scott returns as the starting right guard in 2012. Given the unimpressive array of options in Velasco, Durand, Robinson, and Kropog, I expect the Titans to make a serious investment in a starting right guard, either in free agency or the NFL draft. Given the likely guard market, my guess is the Titans look to spend a relatively high pick on a guard with the idea that he’ll start unless manifestly unready (think Kevin Zietler in the second round, perhaps?), but we’ll see about that. I also want them to acquire and identify Leroy Harris’s eventual replacement, but that’s a leser priority.