After quarterback, running back, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, and tackle, our penultimate offensive stop on our tour around the Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season.
Guard was supposed to be a position of strength for the Titans in 2013 after the addition of two really big, high-profile additions. It wasn’t, really, as both the big dollar free agent and the really high draft pick underachieved relative to just about any reasonable expectation. Both players return for their second season and will have their name written in pen at the same spot, as they did last year. Both had clear issues that affected their play that are theoretically very solvable. It will be up to them and new line coach Bob Bostad to solve them.
Of the two, my general impression was that Andy Levitre was generally considered the more disappointing of the two. As I indicated in the offseason positional analysis, though, I thought for most of the season Levitre was relatively close to the player I expected him to be. There’s no question, though, that as the year went on the hip injury he had surgery on in the offseason affected his play. Normally a rock-solid pass protector, he showed a lot more faults in that area than he had in 2012. Assuming he stays healthy, I expect him to be better in that area. He’s not the strongest guard, so some specific rushers may give him trouble again, especially since he doesn’t have elite strength. That lack of elite strength shows up in the run game; he’s definitely a left guard and the primary puller, especially if the Titans run more of the power/man-blocking type plays they ran a lot more frequently in 2013. He’s mobile enough to be that pulling guard and execute those pull blocks successfully.
The appendectomy at the start of training camp didn’t help, but he’s already off the Non-Football Illness list and was playing with the first-team offensive line for Monday’s practice against the Falcons. I expect the Titans to steadily increase his workload, but I don’t expect him to have an issue playing the 10-15 plays I expect the starters to play in the first preseason game and to have absolutely no issues going forward. I am also not worried about his injuries generally; last year’s problems with the knee injury in the offseason and the hip during the season didn’t seem to have been an issue during OTAs and minicamp, an appendectomy is a one-time issue and straightforward medical procedure we saw Michael Roos recover without issue from a couple years ago, and he hasn’t missed a game in the five seasons he’s been in the NFL.
When people talk about “X factors” or “key players” and the like for the Titans, especially on offense, the names you hear the most seem to be Jake Locker and Justin Hunter, for obvious reasons. Were I do make a similar sort of list, Locker would obviously be first on the list by a ridiculous margin, particularly because quarterback is the most important position on the field. In a virtual tie with Hunter for me in the second tier would be Chance Warmack. The Titans made him the tenth overall pick in the 2013 draft because they had a ridiculous glaring need at right guard and thought he could step in and play successfully. He did play every snap at right guard, but he wasn’t very good.
Warmack still pulled effectively and could bury linebackers who were lined up, but some things he wasn’t asked to do frequently at Alabama, like pass-protect one-on-one and block on the backside of zone plays, went poorly. For such a strong player, he too often failed to demonstrate that, playing with poor leverage and getting bull rushed backwards. As I noted in the offseason analysis, defensive line games, like stunts and twists, seemed to give him problems as well. With Michael Oher and Brian Schwenke practicing and eventually playing next to him, that’s an area where the Titans should be much improved. Those, including the zone backside blocking, are generally technique issues, and we often see players at technique-heavy positions like O-line and cornerback improve a good bit from their first to second seasons. Another thing the Titans have been working on with Warmack where you sometimes see players change a lot from their first to second seasons is body shape. Warmack is a big guy and will always be a big guy, but even as a big guy there are better and worse body shapes and playing weights.
In the event Levitre or Warmack misses time, it’s not clear who would play guard. While he’s a tackle, Taylor Lewan is an obvious candidate since he filled in for Levitre during the appendectomy and also spent time practicing at right guard earlier on the offseason. Chris Spencer, likely to be the other active lineman on gamedays, is the other most likely fill-in; I’ll discuss him with the centers. Of the other guards on the roster, Eric Olsen is the most experienced, seeing a little bit of action for the 2012 Saints. The others include rookie UDFAs Kevin Danser, a recent addition when Levitre was injured, and Justin McCray, plus Tyler Horn, a former practice squadder listed at on the roster as a C/G but whom Mike Munchak indicated in a press conference last December wasn’t a center. Maybe that’s changed, though with Spencer around any additional backup interior lineman doesn’t have to be a center.
Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack will be starting. Their play may be the two biggest keys to whether the Titans have a really good offensive line, one of the best three in the league as they’re capable of being, or an offensive line much closer to average, like it was in 2013. There’s a reasonable case for optimism and even a Glass Mostly Empty type like me expects improvement over 2013. Just how much will be the key question. The backup question should be irrelevant; if it’s not, then that could be an issue, especially if the Titans suffer multiple injuries on the line. Granted, that’s your worst case scenario, so concentrate on how well those two starters are playing, both individually and in working together with their linemates to form a cohesive unit.