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Titans 53-man roster prediction as training camp opens

It’s time for the latest installment of an annual tradition. Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp, I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests (see, e.g., my attempts to cut Nate Washington in 2013). Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I struggled a bit, getting just 45 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. The new scheme, and difficulty discerning what the new coaches thought of the holdover players, contributed to that, as did four players (two receivers, a corner, and a kicker) who wouldn’t join the team until after the last preseason game. After this offseason’s moves, I think this roster has fewer holes screaming the need for additions like those three positions were last year. I mentioned last year getting 48 of the eventual 53 is my baseline goal for this prediction, a competent but not particularly good job.

To guide me in this exercise, it’s useful to take a look at what the Titans looked like Week 1 of last year in terms of number of players at each position:

QB: 3
RB/FB: 4
TE: 3
WR: 6
OL: 8
DL: 7
LB: 9
DB: 9
ST: 3

Those numbers were largely in line with what past Whisenhunt teams had looked like, give or take a player or two at a particular position. One caveat, though: while Ray Horton is still the defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau is now the man in charge of the defense. Teams often break down the 53 into 25 on offense, 25 on defense, and the 3 special teamers, so I thought it made sense to look at what a LeBeau defense had looked like. He’s been a coach in the league a long time, so I limited myself to looking at the past 10 years. Here’s what a LeBeau defense has looked like:

DL: 6 (seven times), 7 (three times)
LB: 8 (five times), 9 (five times)
DB: 9 (two times), 10 (seven times), 11 (once)

Those of you who add things quickly note that doesn’t total up to 250; the Steelers only kept 24 defensive players (6/8/10) in 2005 and just 23 (6/8/9) in 2006. Even discounting those years, I think that gives us a pretty good picture. I’ve seen another roster projection or two that has the Titans keeping eight defensive linemen; I’d give very, very, very, very long odds on that actually happening. This also suggests there’s a room for another defensive back (or even two, since the Steelers kept 11 last year) than you might think.

With those in mind, here’s my 53:

QB (3): Marcus Mariota, Zach Mettenberger, Charlie Whitehurst
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, chalk, with no drama whatsoever, unless the Titans are significantly lower on Mettenberger than I think they are.

RB/FB (5): Antonio Andrews, David Cobb, Jalston Fowler (FB), Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey
Analysis: A surprisingly interesting position given that Whisenhunt has for the last five seasons kept four running backs and one fullback. Maybe the recently-added David Fluellen could impress enough to push Andrews, but his lack of pedigree and the Titans’ demonstrated affection for Andrews, plus Andrews’ kick return experience, tells me he has the lead right now.

TE (3): Anthony Fasano, Craig Stevens, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three pretty chalky names in my book. I guess you could make an argument for the recently-added Chase Coffman, but I’ve never valued him as a player. The Titans obviously like him a lot more than I do, since they keep bringing him back, but I think he’d be in addition to the three he has listed (Whiz has kept four TEs before).

WR (5): Harry Douglas, Dorial Green-Beckham, Justin Hunter, Hakeem Nicks, Kendall Wright
Analysis: My final decision came down to five or six receivers and Nicks versus Tre McBride. The kickoff return battle, if it isn’t Andrews or Sankey (not happening, I don’t think), could affect this position battle, with McBride one of the likely candidates and Nicks likely not a special teams player. I think Nicks’ size and experience will appeal to the Titans; I can’t see them primarily playing Douglas and Wright in their 11 personnel sets, yet Hunter has his pending legal troubles that could result in his involuntary removal for a week or three and DGB and McBride are rookies. I’m not a big fan of Clyde Gates or Jacoby Ford, another kick return candidate.

OL (9): Byron Bell, Andy Gallik, Andy Levitre, Taylor Lewan, Jeremiah Poutasi, Brian Schwenke, Byron Stingily, Fernando Velasco, Chance Warmack
Analysis: If I had to choose the position on offense where I am most likely to be wrong, it’s here. Whisenhunt has only kept 8 OL four of the past five seasons, including last year. The ninth OL versus a sixth receiver was my final decision, but who here to cut? After last season, i think keeping four tackles (Bell, Lewan, Poutasi, Stingily on my list) is an absolute lock, Levitre, Schwenke, and Warmack are starters, Gallik was a draft pick, and Velasco is a veteran on a young line with more versatility than Gallik. Maybe I’m just a prisoner of my own logic, but I think that’s the best way for things to shake out.

DL (7): Angelo Blackson, Jurrell Casey, Sammie Hill, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Ropati Pitoitua, Al Woods
Analysis: Three jobs here I don’t think are set in stone: Karl Klug, Mike Martin, and Ropati Pitoitua. Klug’s probably the safest of the three, as the only good backup for Casey on the roster. I don’t see Martin as a good scheme fit, and it’s his fourth season so Ruston Webster could cut a third-round pick. I’d expect only 5 or 6 players up on gameday, so versatility will be important. That helps both Jones and Woods, who’ve shown they can play NT and 5-tech. If Jones really has passed Pitoitua in the pecking order, that leaves Ropati on the bubble. The position battles elsewhere will help determine if the Titans keep 6 or 7 DL. I didn’t see a player I love enough at LB or DB to cut Pitoitua.

LB (9): Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, Jonathan Massaquoi, Derrick Morgan, Deiontrez Mount, Brian Orakpo, Justin Staples, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: The roster projections I’ve seen with 8 DL are mostly giving up on Gooden; Webster has spoken previously about the need to give highly-drafted players three years, and third-round pick Gooden is heading into his third season. This is the position where there really could be a spot for one of the UDFAs or other marginal roster players. I gave Staples the spot, since he and Gooden were roughly equal in the special teams pecking order last year, but I have very little confidence in him. Massaquoi and Mount as the OLB backups to Morgan and Orakpo are also written in pencil, and I made sure not to press as hard as I normally do so their names are easy to erase. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see names like Yawin Smallwood, Chaz Sutton, or J.R. Tavai, to name just three, on the final 53. But the other options will have to shown they deserve it before I’ll be convinced they’ll get the jobs.

DB (9): Perrish Cox, Michael Griffin, Marqueston Huff, Jason McCourty, Da’Norris Searcy, Coty Sensabaugh, Daimion Stafford, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Khalid Wooten
Analysis: Tom, you idiot, did you forget all the stuff you wrote about how LeBeau keeps 10 defensive backs basically every year? I know, I know, but where’s the 10th name? Maybe one of the UDFAs, like Cody Prewitt, or Cody Riggs, or Curtis Riley. This is still a position where I could see a player being added, either before or after the cutdown to 53, to fill a specific hole. I thought I might be being a bit aggressive in putting Wooten on the team, but having him still left me at 9.

Special Teams (3): Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, chalk. The interesting discussion involving special teams players is who the kick returner will be, which affects other positions.

I plan to do another roster prediction after the second preseason game, at which point some of this one will undoubtedly look at least a little bit silly.

UPDATE (2015-07-30, 1736 CT): No, the third quarterback on the Titans’ roster, to go with Mariota and Mettenberger, is not Ken Whisenhunt. Oops.