For the second consecutive season, the Titans were active on the first day of free agency, making multiple moves. They retained one of their own players, re-signing return man/running back Leon Washington to a one-year deal. They also added wide receiver/returner/running back Dexter McCluster, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, to a three-year deal.
An all-around offensive weapon at Ole Miss, the Chiefs made McCluster a second-round selection in the 2010 NFL draft. He started out as a running back who got extensive work as a pass catcher, then formally shifted positions to wide receiver for the 2012 season (114 carries in 2011, then 12 and 8 in 2012 the two seasons since they switched). His results with the ball in his hands on offense have been mostly unimpressive. His 105 receptions the past two seasons have yielded only 963 total yards (9.2 per). While he averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2011 when he had his most extensive workload as a rusher, he was an incredibly inconsistent boom-and-bust-style running back. McCluster also has experience returning kicks, which he did in 2010 and 2011, and punts, particularly this past season. By Football Outsiders numbers, he was the most valuable punt returner in the league, though the presence of Quintin Demps towards the top of the kickoff return list and the presence of Dave Toub suggest that is a team statistic.
The natural conclusion I jumped to about McCluster's role was he will play a role similar to that Danny Woodhead played for the Chargers last year, a short player who regularly lined up in the backfield but could split into the slot or out wide and catch passes. While Woodhead and McCluster are both listed at 5'8, though, Woodhead is significantly bigger. Woodhead is listed at 200 pounds, a fine size for a running back; McCluster is only 170 pounds. The Chiefs moved him out of the backfield because they had concerns about his ability to take the physical pounding takes and be effective. Do Ruston Webster and Ken Whisenhunt think differently, or will he be just a slot receiver?
I had no particular objection to the Titans signing McCluster, aside from that I'm curious what position he plays and who loses snaps if he is in fact a slot receiver. He was an interesting player coming out of college, but frankly his results to date have been unimpressive outside of his punt returns this year. Looking at, for example, his receiving efficiency numbers at Football Outsiders, he's somewhere in Lavelle Hawkins territory and has ranked behind the other Chiefs' receivers; like Hawkins, that could be a product of both his role in the offense and his specific personal effectiveness. Especially at the reported dollar terms of up to $12 million over three seasons, including $4.5 million in guaranteed money, the challenge for Whisenhunt the offensive play-caller is to make him a significantly more effective player than he has been to date. It could happen. I hope it does.
I went over Leon Washington's 2013 performance in my recent special teams positional analysis, so I will not rehash that in too much detail. He brought stability to a position that was badly lacking it and was more effective on kickoff returns than punts. I have not seen any financial terms, but I would expect a relatively modest contract that does not guarantee him a roster spot if the Titans are comfortable with McCluster or somebody else taking the return jobs. Consider it like last offseason's multiple interior O-line signings, where the Titans are determined not to repeat the previous season's in-season struggles. As long as the money is in fact reasonable, this is a good signing. If they paid him $5 million, they'll have some 'splainin to do…
In other news, ex-49ers back Anthony Dixon, who played for RB coach Sylvester Croom in college, tweeted he will be visiting the team tomorrow. I would also expect the Titans to make a move or two on the defensive front seven, even with some potential targets like Karlos Dansby and Arthur Jones coming off the board.