After quarterback, running back, fullback, wide receiver, and tight end, the next stop on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head toward the start of the 2014 regular season is offensive tackle.
For years, offensive tackle was the easiest, least interesting positional analysis to write. From 2007 to 2012, you could pretty much write in pen the name at both positions for pretty much all 16 games. That changed a little bit heading into last season, but not much. This offseason, though, saw the first two major additions at the position since 2005. One of the stalwarts remains and will likely see his name still written in pen, which means one of the two additions will start and the other will be a backup.
The stalwart is of course Michael Roos. 2013 wasn’t one of his better years, but his better years were really good and I thought he was still maybe the team’s best player on offense. Turning 32 in October, he’s at the stage of his career where you have to at least see just how good he’ll be on an annual basis. It’s fairly common for quality tackles to play at least reasonably well into their mid-thirties, though, and I’ve never seen his game as one that relies on top level athleticism anyway. If you place more value than I do on drive blocking in the run game, especially in short yardage, and less on pass blocking, you won’t like him as much as I do and will think it’s easy to do better. Of course, you probably would have had the same opinion of his game in 2008. (I’m trying not to get worked up here and am not sure I’m doing a good job at it.) Stick him at left tackle, assume he’ll play 16 games, and if he’s one of your bigger problems on offense you’ll probably have a really good offense.
With David Stewart’s release and retirement, the Titans will have a new right tackle. With two high profile additions at the position, it would seem like there might be a competition between the two of them, and as soon as the Titans made the second addition that thought was common. I wasn’t part of that bandwagon, though, writing Michael Oher‘s name in pen at the right tackle spot the day he was signed and not even giving a thought to erasing it in anticipation of a camp competition.
I described Oher as famous but not very good when I previewed the free agent tackle group, and the internet football commentariat pretty roundly panned the signing (sample quote: “This seems to be a mistake, unless the Titans know something we don’t.”) The linked SI piece cited Oher’s lousy Pro Football Focus stats; our stats at Football Outsiders don’t always agree with theirs, but they do in this case. As noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, which I may have mentioned before on here since I wrote some of it (available in PDF and on Amazon!), FO charting had only Lamar Holmes and Mitchell Schwartz with more blown pass blocks than Oher in 2013. With the Ravens, Oher spent some time at left tackle as well as right tackle. As you might guess, he had at least as much trouble containing opposing pass rushers at that position, which makes him a sub-optimal replacement for Roos at that position should he miss time if you are of the mindset that pass blocking is an important skill for a left tackle. Oher has had better years of his career than 2013, so maybe new O-line coach Bob Bostad can do something with him.
It was the selection of Taylor Lewan with the 11th overall pick in May’s draft that got people talking about a competition for the right tackle job. I left Oher’s name in pen as he was the Titans’ biggest free agent acquisition this offseason and I couldn’t see him not starting. I got over my initial vituperation over the Lewan selection, a bit, the day after the draft. The best Titans shorthand description of him as a prospect is a Michael Roos-level player, though he’s a better overall athlete than Roos, but with David Stewart’s nasty attitude. The attitude belies that he wasn’t necessarily as powerful and effective a run-blocker as you’d expect from reading about how nasty he was as a run-blocker. Like Stewart (see the 2012 game in Houston), his temper sometimes seemed to get the better of him and hurt his team. His most likely 2014 role seems to be as the backup outside lineman on gamedays. He’s gotten work at every non-center position in the offseason, not just his natural left tackle spot but right tackle, some right guard work, and a lot of snaps at left guard early in training camp with Andy Levitre out after his appendectomy.
Had the Titans not selected Lewan, Byron Stingily would have been the backup swing tackle. He played a couple games filling in for Stewart at right tackle last year, and the Titans didn’t see enough to put him in line for a larger role. Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, his presence on the roster depends on whether the Titans want an experienced player at their second backup tackle spot. Given the often parlous state of tackle play around the league, I had him on my 53-man roster, while Paul Kuharsky does not.
If the Titans do keep a second backup tackle but don’t feel the need for an experienced player at the position, then Jeff Adams, Viondy Merisma, or Will Poehls may find themselves a roster spot. Of those three, my money would be on Adams, who spent last year on the practice squad getting to NFL size, rather than UDFAs Merisma (who at 6’2 really seems like a guard) or Poehls. Naturally, that’s arrant speculation off thin gruel, which means it’s way more likely to be right than my semi-informed considered opinions.
Michael Roos will start and should be solid or better. Michael Oher will start and I really hope he plays a lot better than he did last year. Taylor Lewan’s a swing guy, and I’ll spare any broader thoughts on Roos, Lewan, Oher, and team building until the 2015 offseason positional analysis. There may or may not be a fourth tackle. This has a chance to be an okay group, and it almost certainly won’t be one of the league’s worst units, but I’m not seeing the same level of excellence and consistency from both positions as the Titans enjoyed from 2007 to 2011 as a likely outcome.