It’s finally season preview week. My goal is to have multiple pieces, probably two, instead of just one ridiculously long one like I had last year. The first element of any season preview is understanding what you have.
As the process played out, I chronicled what the Titans did to get to 53 men on their roster. Since then, they’ve made a couple further transactions, some I understood and some I disagreed with. I’ll get to those, and why I think the Titans made the moves they did. First, though, the overall shape of the roster. This was one of the big imponderables in my roster prediction, as the Titans could have plausibly gone one or two players heavier or lighter at a number of different positions. Here’s what the roster looks like, with the number of players at the position on the roster for the first game of the regular season last year in parentheses:
QB: 3 (2)
RB/FB: 5 (5)
TE: 3 (3)
WR: 6 (6)
OL: 8 (9)
DL: 7 (10)
LB: 9 (6)
CB: 5 (5)
S: 4 (4)
ST: 3 (3)
Obviously with the shift from the 4-3 to the 3-4, you see fewer defensive linemen and more linebackers on the roster. On the whole, though, it looks pretty similar-more similar than I expected it to be, really. I had 11 defensive backs in my initial roster projection and 10 on the second one. I came around to 16 front seven players on the second one, which meant I went a body light on offense instead of hewing to the 25-25-3 split. The third quarterback spot had to come from somewhere on offense; I wouldn’t have picked offensive line like the Titans did and consistently had them keeping only five wide receivers, but that’s their evaluation.
Now, the position by position breakdown of who was kept and who was not, and what the Titans may have at each position.
QB: Jake Locker, Zach Mettenberger, Charlie Whitehurst
Analysis: Absolute chalk, at least once Mettenberger didn’t completely facepalm and people got over the Tyler Wilson chimera. As I outlined in the positional analysis, it all depends on Jake Locker. The “Mettenberger could challenge Locker” talk I regard as meaningless talk, unless Locker gets hurt (maybe that should be an “until” based on his history) or he completely facepalms so badly he’s costing the team winnable games with his play.
RB/FB: Jackie Battle (FB), Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey, Leon Washington (ret.)
Analysis: Not much surprise or suspense here; I kept trying to kick Washington off the team because I don’t think there’s much point in keeping a pure kick returner around. In retrospect what looked like a potential bubble player was just the Titans keeping a veteran mostly in bubble wrap. Whether he has a role on offense on the team is still a question to me, especially given the other bodies at the position. What’s the over/under on how many snaps Washington plays on offense this year, 100? Lower?
Since I did the positional analysis, it’s become clearer, I think, that Shonn Greene will very likely play a larger role than most people expected. When in the positional analysis I had it as a 60/40 split in Sankey’s favor, I felt like I had the most optimistic Greene prediction around. Given Sankey’s preseason usage (no snaps with Locker?!) and his position as #2 on the unofficial depth chart, I think that’s a more popular position. Game situation may change things, but given even odds my guess is Greene leads the team in carries.
The Patriots alas did not cut either Brandon Bolden or Stevan Ridley, so Antonio Andrews was signed to the practice squad. I still think he’s a poor man’s Greene who needs to develop a three down skill set, but that the Titans disagree with me on a running back evaluation should hardly be news at this point.
TE: Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, chalk. I found a room for a fourth on my initial projection, but Dorin Dickerson went to injured reserve.
I thought Jason Schepler had a good shot to stick as a practice squadder and develop into Taylor Thompson’s job when Thompson graduates into Stevens’ role next season. Instead, the Titans added Orson Charles, a 2012 Bengals fourth-rounder who seemed like a potentially decent prospect coming out of Georgia but has yet to turn into anything useful. He started six games as a rookie, and the Bengals liked what he did in 291 snaps on offense so much they drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round to take his place. He’s still only 23 (24 in January), so maybe there’s something there.
WR: Kris Durham, T.J. Graham, Derek Hagan, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright
Analysis: Like many people, I thought there might be a waiver wire claim here, and the Titans made two of them. When the initial roster had both Hagan (not on my prediction) and Michael Preston (on my prediction) on it, I didn’t think that roster would be too long lasting, given that I viewed them as playing similar roles and having similar value. It wasn’t, as the Titans claimed Durham and Graham off waivers.
The Graham claim made more sense to me, as the Titans lacked a true downfield speed threat outside of Hunter. When you want to run a downfield vertical passing offense like Ken Whisenhunt does, that sort of thing is useful. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Graham can do much aside from run down the field in a straight line pretty fast. His route tree is about as sophisticated as Hunter’s was last year, and catching the ball can be an adventure; Football Outsiders numbers have him with 9 drops on 105 targets the past two seasons, and N.B. Football Outsiders drop numbers tend to not treat contested catches a receiver should make as drops so his real drop rate may be even higher. This shows in FO’s Catch +/- numbers, which has him catching 12.5 passes fewer than he should have the past two seasons.
Durham played for wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson in Detroit. For the Titans to claim Durham off waivers, it must mean Jefferson likes Durham an awful lot. I wish I knew what he liked, because I don’t see an NFL player when I see Durham. He got 85 targets last year, for reasons possibly related to him being Lions quarterback Matt Stafford’s buddy and college roommate, and caught 9.7 fewer passes than an average receiver would have. That’s not “2013 Kenny Britt” territory, but it’s about as close as you get from a wide receiver with a non-terrible quarterback. Again, drops were a major issue; Football Outsiders numbers have him with 7, while I believe Pro Football Focus had him with 10. That he was a starting wide receiver last year should play as much role in your thinking as that Brian Robiskie was a second-round pick was, namely an excuse to laugh at what that team was doing and despair they didn’t do better. Might be a competent special teams player, and definitely has very good height at 6’6″.
One practice squad spot; I had Isaiah Williams as the informal favorite for it, but it ended up going to Rico Richardson. I thought the Titans might go for two spots here, but given the numbers and youth at the position generally I guess they decided they didn’t need to.
The Titans began the offseason likely looking at a potentially solid top three and a bunch of question marks after that. They approach the start of the regular season in the same position, and yes, I’m reserving judgment on just how much Justin Hunter has improved until the real games begin.
OL: Andy Levitre, Taylor Lewan, Michael Oher, Michael Roos, Brian Schwenke, Chris Spencer, Byron Stingily, Chance Warmack
Analysis: Seven names of absolute chalk, one I thought was pretty close to chalk in Stingily that some other people questioned. The real question was if there was room for a second interior lineman. I didn’t keep one on my initial roster projection, while I had Eric Olsen on my second one, in part because of Spencer’s injury. Steve Vallos, added after I made my second (and last) projection, made the initial 53, then was dispensed with after the initial round of roster cuts. As a vested veteran, he would likely have a claim for termination pay if he was on the Week 1 roster; don’t be surprised if the Titans add him back to the roster later in the season if he doesn’t find another job.
Two practice squad spots here as expected. Tackle Jeff Adams, on the practice squad last year, was claimed by the Texans, so the tackle spot went to Will Poehls instead. Especially since they only kept eight interior linemen, I expected a center-type from another team to get the other one, but instead it went to guard Justin McCray.
I never thought there would be a competition for Michael Oher’s starting spot at right tackle, and indeed there never was. He’s done well enough in the preseason, and now the real test begins. Barring injury, preseason was unlikely to answer any of the real questions about the offensive line. Now we will get good answers, or at least much better ones, about whether Oher can be effective, or effective enough, and just how much Brian Schwenke and Chance Warmack have improved in their second season.
DL: Jurrell Casey, Sammie Hill, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Mike Martin, Ropati Pitoitua, Al Woods
Analysis: I over- and under-thought this group in my initial roster projection, then got it exactly right in the second one. Like the offensive line, preseason was going to give us only hints of what this position could do. The regular season brings the real test, and to their good fortune it doesn’t appear to be a very stiff one. If they flunk it, be worried.
As I predicted, Chigo Anunoby gets a practice squad spot here.
OLB: Akeem Ayers, Quentin Groves, Derrick Morgan, Shaun Phillips, Kamerion Wimbley
Analysis: Relative to the initial 53, I got this group right in my second roster prediction. The aftermath of that cut saw the departure of Patrick Bailey and the arrival of Groves. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton knows Groves from Arizona in 2012 and Cleveland in 2013. He’s a better player than you remember from when he was a draft bust after the Jaguars traded up to take him in the second round in 2008, though he still doesn’t excite me. The Titans apparently like him as a special teams player, and unlike Bailey he offers something on defense.
The problem with this grouping is there’s no top-end player. Both Morgan and Wimbley could be useful players opposite a transcendent player on the other side. As I mentioned in the positional analysis, they weren’t a good enough starting pairing at defensive end in 2012, so what makes you think they’ll be better as starting outside linebackers and rush ends in 2014?
The other issue with this position group is Phillips and Wimbley are on the wrong side of 30, while Ayers and Morgan are heading into the final year of their deals. This probably is why the Titans devoted two practice squad spots to the position. One went to Brandon Copeland, who was consistently the fifth man at the position in the preseason, while the other went to Dontay Moch. Like Charles a Bengals castoff, Moch was a third-round pick back in 2011 after an excellent Combine. He’s done even less in the NFL than Charles has, dressing for four games for last year’s Cardinals and recording three tackles. If one of those guys turns into a roster player next year, consider it a success.
ILB: Zach Brown, Zaviar Gooden, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: Once I got over my dislike of Gooden as a player and accepted that the Titans liked him, this position group became chalk, while preseason games just reinforced my belief starters Brown and Woodyard must be protected if they are to be effective players, and there’s a good chance the defensive line won’t be able to do that.
CB: Brandon Harris, Marqueston Huff, Jason McCourty, Coty Sensabaugh, Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Analysis: Like wide receiver, this looked like a position ripe for a waiver wire addition, and it came. Unfortunately, it came in the body of former Texans second-round pick Harris. Given the way Horton and defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi had praised the Titans’ corners for their ability to run, I found it very, very odd the Titans claimed off waivers a player that doesn’t run well enough to be a good NFL cornerback. As with Durham, I’d love to know what the Titans saw in him that made them claim him. At least Tommie Campbell was a good gunner when he wasn’t committing penalties.
CB2 looked like an issue entering training camp, whether it would be Sensabaugh or Wreh-Wilson, and it’s still an issue unless Wreh-Wilson (the guy per the depth chart) really is as good as the Titans may think he is. At least he should get a fairly easy first test against a Chiefs squad missing Dwayne Bowe (more on that matchup later this week).
I thought Winston Wright might have done a little better in preseason, but the Titans gave the practice squad spot to Ri’Shard Anderson.
S: Michael Griffin, Bernard Pollard, Daimion Stafford, George Wilson
Analysis: Four pretty chalky names. The only question was whether there would be a roster spot for Khalid Wooten; I thought there might be, and there was initially, but it didn’t last. He’s back on the practice squad. Once again the answers to the question I posed in the positional analysis will come only when the regular season begins.
ST: Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis: Two chalk names. I had Maikon Bonani as the kicker on my first stab at the 53, Travis Coons on the second. Coons won it initially, but lasted about as long as I thought he’d last. In my view, Succop was the best veteran kicker available on the market by a considerable margin. He’d been an average kickoff man, by Football Outsiders metrics, over the past three seasons and a mediocre kicker who struggles more on the gimme kicks (by current NFL kicking standards) than you’d like. If like me you value leg strength and accept accuracy can be a year to year proposition, this isn’t a bad move and he’s likely to be a net upgrade over 2012/2013 Rob Bironas for likely a cheaper price.
I thought about predicting the Week 1 inactives, but aside from Stingily and Mettenberger (barring injury to a player ahead of them), I have much more confidence in positions than in names. I’m expecting to see a defensive lineman, a linebacker, a defensive back, and a wide receiver, and probably a second player down at one of those positions, with new arrivals seeming like obvious candidates for those spots.