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2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: RB

SELF-PROMOTIONAL ITEM: Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, a.k.a. “the annual Football Outsiders preview” or “that thing that kept me away from here from post-draft until a couple weeks ago,” is available for purchase. You can get the book in PDF form at Football Outsiders, while the print copy is currently available through CreateSpace and on Amazon proper. I did the Broncos and Raiders chapters, while my FO colleague Rivers McCown did the Titans chapter. (As I noted on Twitter, I didn’t do the Titans chapter because I’d done it three of the past four times and we like to switch things up.) /end plug

For the first time in six or maybe seven seasons, the story of the running back position for the Tennessee Titans will not be the story of Chris Johnson after the man formerly known as “CJ2K” was released in March. Instead, the story will be that of the first running back taken in this year’s draft and, well, hmm, that’s a really good question. Unlike the past couple seasons, there’s no way to pencil in a single player for the vast majority of the carries the way CJ got at least 70% of the work from 2009-2013.

Let’s start with the one semi-known, that rookie Bishop Sankey. I went in depth on him at the beginning of this month. I won’t rehash that analysis in detail, but a couple points are worth noting. First, the Titans like both his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his ability to run the ball successfully between the tackles on first and second downs. He’ll play a fair amount and is probably the best bet among all the backs to get a CJ-like workload. General manager Ruston Webster, though, has often indicated the Titans plan to have running back by committee.

Just how big a role Sankey will play in the committee is the major question. Jim Wyatt’s projection is for him to have nearly 1,000 yards rushing, which would seem to imply 200-odd carries and him as the clear lead back. (Using a range of 4.2-4.5 yards per carry and based on the average team having 372 running back carries last year, that would give Sankey 59-63% of the handoffs. Last year’s average lead back (defined simply as the back who had the most carries) got 59% of the handoffs.) My rough estimate, which is not to be relied upon, is that’s toward the upper end of what I expect his workload to be. My personal prediction, which has a strong chance of being very wrong and is based on little concrete evidence I can specifically point to to convince you I’m right and you’re wrong, is that the likely low in carry mark for a healthy Sankey is down around 120 carries and he’s unlikely to exceed 250 carries.

That’s only half of Sankey’s workload, with the other half coming in the passing game. Wyatt’s projection is for only 24 receptions. My personal prediction, just as likely to be wrong as my estimate of his carries, is that he’ll have more receptions than that, possibly a good bit more. I’ll get to more detail on that and why I might be wrong below.

All rise. The case of “the internet football commentariat” versus “the general manager who gave Shonn Greene $10 million over three years and a head coach with a history of giving power backs lots of carries” is now in session.
“Look at the time he missed last year!”
“Look at how terrible he is!”
“Look at his lack of burst!”
“Look at his offseason knee injury!”
Me: “Look at the signs of non-support he’s not getting!”
And Monday we finally got our first sign of non-support, with Ken Whisenhunt noting Greene came into camp over their targeted weight. That knee injury probably contributed to that, but it’s really the only, albeit a potentially important, crack in the armor of the idea that Greene will get a good chunk of carries as a first and second down back this season. In a vacuum, I’d suggest a back of Greene’s salary, age, injury history, and general (lack of) productivity would be a serious candidate for the chopping block. In this specific situation, my expectation is that if he manages to stay healthy the first digit in his season-ending carry total will be 1, and it will be followed by two other numbers. That 1XX-odd carries will probably include some short yardage and goalline work, even though it’s never been clear to me he’s particularly good at either of those things. (Shockingly, he did not actually bring some mystical ability to convert third downs to the Titans.)

I’ll discuss Jackie Battle when I get to the fullbacks tomorrow, since that seems to be where he’s been lining up in practice even though he’s the most natural backup to Greene on the roster. That makes offseason addition Dexter McCluster the next back to discuss. The key question I have for McCluster is, “Will he get LaRod Stephens-Howling’d?” The man known as LSH was a player of similarly small stature (though he was listed at 180 pounds to McCluster’s 170) who served primarily as a satellite back for Whisenhunt in Arizona, though he did lead the Cardinals in carries in 2012 thanks to injuries to the top two backs. McCluster spent the past two seasons in Kansas City as a wide receiver, and his only time seeing extensive work in the backfield came in 2011. I reviewed his work that year earlier in the offseason and came to the conclusion he was a gadget back only.

The “internet football commentariat” sees McCluster as potentially having a role similar to the one Danny Woodhead played last year; as I’ve indicated, I don’t see that at all. Woodhead is much bigger (listed at 200 pounds to McCluster’s 170) and a better between the tackles runner and pass protector. I would expect McCluster’s usage to look more like LSH’s his first three years in Arizona and McCluster’s usage the past two seasons in Kansas City, namely 15-40 carries.

McCluster’s reception total is a more interesting question to me. If he’s in the backfield on third downs, he probably won’t pass block more than a couple times. Playing him a lot on third downs is a commitment to 5-man protection or keeping a tight end to block. The other minor technical detail is that Woodhead was an amazingly effective receiver for the Chargers last year, while McCluster has been an amazingly ineffective receiver every year he’s played in the NFL. His repertoire of lots of short passes has produced a rightly high catch rate but a below-average yards after catch. While they’re not the same player, the best Titans comparison I have for McCluster’s career receiving productivity to date is Lavelle Hawkins with better speed. Before Woodhead’s 76 catches last year, the only Whisenhunt-coached or coordinated back to have 35 or more catches was Tim Hightower in 2009 (Kurt Warner’s last season). McCluster has caught passes in Kansas City, but he’s also been the best slot receiver on his team, which he isn’t on the Titans. He may end up with 40 catches, and I’ll probably ask why on 35 of them.

The Titans have no other backs on the roster I rate as “of particular note.” Leon Washington was re-signed, but he is a return specialist who played 0 snaps on offense for the 2013 Titans. I will discuss the competition for the returner jobs when I get to the special teams analysis. There are two rookie undrafted free agents, Antonio Andrews and Waymon James. I covered both in my UDFA post. Andrews is the higher-profile of the two, with a lot of productivity at Western Kentucky. Some people liked him, while I saw, oh, maybe a poor man’s Shonn Greene. James is a short back, but Woodhead-sized instead of McCluster-sized, who showed some explosiveness early but didn’t do much in 2013 after a tearing an ACL in 2012.

Conclusion-Type Things
Bishop Sankey will play a role. Shonn Greene will probably play a bigger role than you think. Dexter McCluster will play a role until the Titans realize and acknowledge he won’t be effective in that role, which could happen at any point between as I’m writing this right now (when they may be reviewing tape from the first padded practice on Monday) and not until after the season is over. Leon Washington could win one or both of the return jobs but seems unlikely to do anything interesting on offense. On the whole, this is not a position group that excites me in any way. Then again, it doesn’t have to. The group just has to play effectively enough, which they could if the offensive line is good enough.