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Grading the Titans’ 2011 free agent signings

With free agency approaching next month, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the veteran players the Titans added in free agency in 2011, and see how their signings ended up working out.

Looking to move on from a 6-10 season, the Titans entered free agency with some clear needs. Though they drafted Jake Locker in the first round, the lockout meant Locker was unlikely to start, especially given the mechanical work he’d need as well. Thus, a veteran quarterback with the ability to start in 2011 but who might be fine sitting on the bench in 2012 was a high priority. The rest of the offensive starters were retained, so there weren’t any immediate needs at the position.

On defense, though, Jerry Gray had indicated a scheme change was in order. That mean some players who weren’t considered scheme fits, like Jason Babin and Stephen Tulloch, would be allowed to leave, and new blood was needed. The draft had already provided a number of players who’d become early contributors in Akeem Ayers, Jurrell Casey, Colin McCarthy, and Karl Klug, but he needed more players.

The upshot was, between their needs and the sheer number of free agents out there, the Titans ended up signing as many or more players than they had since 2006. While David Givens had been a major disappointment for injury reasons, Kevin Mawae, David Thornton, and Chris Hope were all impact additions before age and injury took their toll on them. Could the free agency class of 2011 fare that well?

Player: QB Matt Hasselbeck
Analysis: The absolute best fit on free agency for a quarterback who met the Titans’ specifications. I named Hasselbeck the Titans’ 2011 offensive MVP for his contributions. He’s far from the best quarterback in the league, but did a remarkable job of keeping the passing attack productive when it could easily have crumbled after Kenny Britt’s injury. I don’t think he should or will be the starting quarterback in 2012, but we’ll grade 2012 after that season.
Grade: A

Player: DT Shaun Smith
Analysis: Under departed defensive line coach Jim Washburn, the Titans did not place a lot of value on sheer size at the position. One of Gray’s first moves was to change that. Bringing in Smith from the Chiefs certainly did bring more size. Unfortunately, Smith also seemed to bring with him the Chiefs’ struggles in run defense. While he was bulky, he also spent too much time moving in the wrong direction. Ultimately, Sen’Derrick Marks ended up taking up a lot of his playing time. Smith did not start any of the final 10 games, and was scratched for the season finale with a pseudo-injury. The Titans thus far have said the right things, but it’s hard to see Smith returning for the final two years of his contract.
Grade: D

Player: TE Daniel Graham
Analysis: Graham was hoping for a shot at a starting job. While he did officially end up with seven starts, Craig Stevens and Jared Cook still saw the majority of the playing time, as I think everybody expected. The Titans were probably hoping for Alge Crumpler v.2.0-a player who wasn’t necessarily much of a receiver threat but was more than capable of walling off defenders in the run game. Graham not being a factor in the passing game proved accurate, as he had only two receptions. I didn’t think he came anywhere close to living up to his rep as an excellent blocker, though, which in my eyes made him pretty close to useless. He’s making too much to be a bad third tight end. For some reason, I expect him to be back for 2012 and probably even 2013 anyway.
Grade: D-minus

Player: MLB Barrett Ruud
Analysis: Part two of Gray’s scheme makeover reinforcements in free agency. Ruud provided more or less the level of play I was expecting. As I’ve written before, I think he’s gotten a worse rap than he really deserves. Unfortunately, when your middle linebacker is playing a more passive read-and-react and the defensive tackles can’t keep him clean, he’s going to struggle. He also showed a knack for being in just good enough position not to break up passes, which for some reason is considered worse than some other players’ habits of being nowhere close enough position to break up passes. The shoulder injury that eventually put him on inujured reserve and sent Colin McCarthy to the starting lineup ends up looking like an act for mercy. For most people, it was good riddance to bad rubbish. For me, the Ruud signing was an experiment that failed.
Grade: C-minus

Player: CB Frank Walker
Analysis: A much lower-profile signing than the four previous ones, Walker was added to provide competition for the fourth spot at corner after Ryan Mouton went on IR with his injury. The Titans ended up deciding Chris Hawkins had shown enough for a roster spot and cut Walker before the regular season began.
Grade: C

Player: S Jordan Babineaux
Analysis: More defensive back depth, this time at safety. Babineaux had played both corner and safety in Seattle when Gray was the defensive backs coach. With the young players not panning out and Chris Hope and Michael Griffin in their final years of their deals, safety was definitely a need. Hope’s injury gave Babineaux the starting job, and he kept it even when Hope returned. I didn’t think he was that much better than Hope (who had a great case of Barrett Ruud Disease), but he wasn’t a liability either.
Grade: A

Player: OT Pat McQuistan
Analysis: Training camp depth chart fodder, more or less. I never quite got the McQuistan signing, and any major analysis would be over-reading the bottom of the offensive line depth chart. Didn’t make the team.
Grade: C

Player: S Anthony Smith
Analysis: Another signing that didn’t completely thrill me, like Walker, Smith had already shown he wasn’t really any better than a marginal NFL player. He ended up playing a smattering of defensive snaps, I think almost exclusively in dime packages, and special teams. Made such an impact I’d actually forgotten for the moment his injury was why Robert Johnson was promoted to the active roster.
Grade: C

Player: OT Adam Terry
Analysis: Another “so why’d they sign this guy” tackle signing. Like McQuistan, analysis requires over-reading fluid depth charts. Didn’t make the team.
Grade: C

Player: RB Kestahn Moore
Analysis: Stretching the definition of “veteran” here, Moore was at least not a rookie undrafted free agent in 2011. Strictly training camp fodder, Moore did not make the active roster.
Grade: C

Player: WR Kevin Curtis
Analysis: A late addition off the street (signed on August 26), Curtis actually showed some nice promise in the offense. In an alternate world, I think he makes the team and ends up having a year at least as good as the one Lavelle Hawkins had. In this world, he broke his hand in the final preseason game against the Saints and was placed on injured reserve.
Grade: Incomplete

Conclusion: A mix of the very good and the very bad. I’ve listed the signing by the date on which they took place. The first signing, Hasselbeck, was the biggest need, the most important, and the most successful. I’ve tried not to let my thinking Gray’s experiment was an unwise one color my grades for Ruud and Shaun Smith, but I haven’t seen much praise for their play in 2011.
GPA: C/C-plus (2.13). If you weight Hasselbeck and throw out the roster fodder, it’s a straight C-plus (2.33). I hate reducing things to a single number like that which is why this post is over 1200 words. On the whole, I think that’s a fair grade on a true 4.0 scale.