This probably seems a little low for a team that went 9-7 last year.
But the uncertainty stems largely from their own about the quarterback position, which will only define the direction of the franchise.
Even though free agent pickup Matt Hasselbeck came in and posted his best season since 2007, they’ve opened the job for competition. Last year’s first-round pick Jake Locker is obviously the guy they’d like to have the job long-term, but as well as Hasselbeck played last year, the temptation is to ride him until he falls.
A safe hunch is that the job will be Hasselbeck’s until he coughs it up, at which point the Titans can declare new direction and move on with Locker.
Of course, the Titans have an owner in Bud Adams who’s never been afraid to meddle. He forced Vince Young on Jeff Fisher, and reportedly was prepared to offer Peyton Manning $25 million to come back to his old college home state. So handicapping this one for the long term has to include the possibility he’ll wake up in a bad mood and want to make a change at any moment.
For a team that hasn’t quite settled on its quarterback, the Titans have an impressive array of skill position talent.
Of course, that assumption begins with the idea that Chris Johnson is closer to the pre-contract 2,000-yard rusher than the guy who barely broke 1,000 last year. For the distractions and change that comes with a new system and no prep time, we’re inclined to give him a pass this time.
Where the Titans are positively thick is wide receiver. Kenny Britt was emerging as a legitimate star before blowing out his knee early last season. Nate Washington responded to the absence with his first 1,000-yard season, and then they added Kendall Wright in the first round of the draft, picking up what some considered a top-10 talent. Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins will compete for fourth-wideout reps, and Marc Mariani will likely be stuck as a returner.
They’re also quite good up front, with underrated tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart getting a boost with the addition of veteran guard Steve Hutchinson, even though that’s a signing in hopes of adding toughness and attitude as much as anything he’ll deliver on the field.
The Titans were next-to-last in the league with 28 sacks last year, and have tweaked the coaching staff (bringing in Keith Millard to focus on pass-rush) and the personnel to try to fix it.
They gave former Browns and Raiders OLB Kamerion Wimbley a five-year, $35 million contract to add a little pop to a unit grown stale. They’re moving him back to a 4-3 end, a position he hasn’t played full-time since college. He had 7.0 sacks last year, and 42.5 in six seasons. That kind of steady production will be huge here. They’re also counting on former first-rounder Derrick Morgan finally being healthy.
Their interior line isn’t bad at all, but rookie DT Karl Klug led them with 7.0 sacks this year, and they’d like to not repeat that this year. Getting some push both inside and out will be a focus.
There’s also a reasonable concern about the interior offensive line, which was partially to blame for RB Chris Johnson’s drop-off last year. While free agent LG Steve Hutchinson is a name-brand, most around the league feel his best football is behind him. The Titans also looked high and low for a way to replace C Eugene Amano, including attempts to lure Jeff Saturday (Packers), Scott Wells (Rams) and Chris Myers (Tennessee).
Losing CB Cortland Finnegan was as damaging as it was predictable. He signed a five-year, $50 million deal to follow old coach Jeff Fisher to St. Louis, and left a huge hole.
They have confidence in starter Jason McCourty, but what happens on the other side remains to be seen.
Alterraun Verner will probably start and replace the tough-as-nails Finnegan inside in the nickel package, with Tommie Campbell coming on to play outside. It’s nice to have faith in in-house options, but replacing Finnegan will be difficult, as he lent a personality to the defense as well.
They also decided to part ways with long-time long snapper Ken Amato. May seem like a small deal, but any disruption to the process can bug kickers and punters, and that’s a risk that’s often not worth the money saved.
The Titans have a pair of second-year linebackers they love in Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers, and they may get even younger.
Second-round pick Zach Brown is a dynamic player with great speed, and he may unseat steady veteran Will Witherspoon sooner rather than later. Witherspoon is incredibly smart and doesn’t take false steps, but Brown has the kind of athletic talent that will be hard for him to hold off for long. Brown could play an early role on passing downs for his ability to turn and run with tight ends, and Witherspoon may have to prove himself to keep his job in the base defense.
The Titans showed last year they could still move the ball without Chris Johnson doing all the work. If they could get him back to earning his money, they’re a potentially dangerous team.
Of course, that assumes Matt Hasselbeck either wins the job of Jake Locker plays well enough to replace him.
Then again, the first month of the schedule is potentially brutal. They start with New England, followed by a trip to San Diego, Detroit at home and a trip to Houston. That could at once push them toward Hasselbeck for a steady hand at the wheel, but then back to Locker if things don’t go well.