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Preseason Power Rankings No. 30: Tennessee Titans

Jake Locker AP

The Titans have been decidedly solid yet uninteresting the last several years, floundering between six and nine wins for each of the last five.

They responded by firing the solid coach, and perhaps the most interesting player in franchise history.

While they’ll get a shot of energy from new coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff, there are serious questions about how much he can do with this offense.

Running back Chris Johnson might not have been Chris Johnson any longer, but his absence still leaves a big hole, and there’s no way to have enough confidence in quarterback Jake Locker to fill that void.

With that much uncertainty, our PFT panel voted the Titans close to the bottom, at No. 30. They could end up better than that, but we’ll delve into the reasons why below.

Strengths.

Nothing against former coach Mike Munchak, but the Titans traded up in coaching staff.

Former Cardinals boss Ken Whisenhunt brought a good staff with him, as well as a reputation for working well with talented quarterbacks.

If he can get Locker to resemble a first-round pick, there’s a chance for the Titans to surprise people. But the first step will be keeping Locker on the field, and that’s been difficult.

With new defensive coordinator Ray Horton comes some new responsibilities for guys who were settled into a 4-3 scheme.

How he works Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips and Akeem Ayers into the mix could define how successful their defense can be this year.

It’s a deep group of players who have shown they can rush the passer, and the shift could benefit Ayers, who has never lived up to his draft status.

The good news is they might be able to get by without him, as Phillips is the kind of solid veteran addition they made several of this offseason.

Their offensive line should be solid, and they have a good first three wideouts in Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Coupled with a versatile tight end in Delanie Walker, there are options on offense if the run game stabilizes.

Weaknesses.

The Titans figure to play aggressively up front on defense.

Which should help, as their secondary could be a bit of a mess.

They never really replaced free agent departure Alterraun Verner, and have a committee of young players with chances to shine.

A solid group of safeties headlined by Bernard Pollard (who frankly had more in the tank than we expected last year) should help, but there are many question marks around the edges.

Of course, if Locker falters (or gets hurt again — what are the odds?), the Titans are in a mess. They brought in veteran clipboard-jockey Charlie Whitehurst, and drafted rookie Zach Mettenberger, but there’s no reason to think it will be anything other than a disaster if Locker’s not well.

Changes.

Whisenhunt should help move the Titans’ offense into the 21st century, bringing an up-tempo passing game which should mesh well with Locker’s abilities.

Getting the ball out quickly and allowing Locker to take advantage of his athleticism should help a team with a good group of pass-catching options.

It’s a bit of risk with Locker, now running his third offense in four years (while coming off foot surgery).

On the other hand, the simple act of changing things should help an organization that had gotten into a significant rut in recent years.

Munchak was a good solider, and probably got more chances than his record would have indicated because of his track record with the late owner Bud Adams.

But they’re entering a new era now, and unless Locker flourishes, there will be more changes on the way.

Camp Battles.

There are many, which is part of the reason it’s hard to peg the Titans this year.

Perhaps the most interesting will be to see what they do at offensive tackle.

In a problem few teams have, the Titans have three legitimate options to start.

Veteran left tackle Michael Roos is clearly nearing the end of a very good run with the team, but should have one good year left in him.

But then they went out and signed free agent Michael Oher to replace David Stewart, and used their first-rounder on Taylor Lewan, putting a lot of resources into the position.

While Lewan is the future at left tackle, and they’ll like that pick a year from now, his selection casts a different light on giving Oher guaranteed money.

Without Johnson, Shonn Greene will go into camp as the de facto starter at running back, but there’s an opportunity there for someone to earn some serious time, because Greene is Greene.

Bishop Sankey is an exciting prospect. While he might not have the potential to run for 2,000 yards, it’s easy to see him as a quality back.

They also need to find a new kicker, after parting ways with long-time Titan Rob Bironas.

For now, they have two guys named Maikon Bonani and Travis Coons, but this could easily be a revolving door that doesn’t stop until other veterans hit the street in September.

Prospects.

It’s not an overstatement to say the entire season, and the next few, hinges on Locker.

If he can earn the trust of Whisenhunt, they’ll have an expensive decision to make this offseason. They didn’t use the fifth-year option on him, leaving this year as a carrot for him.

And while Mettenberger is an interesting prospect, he’s hardly the next franchise passer, so if Locker fails, look for a high pick next year as they hit reset at the position.

At the same time, Whisenhunt has some parts to work with, and the defense has sufficient parts to keep them in games.

If they can keep Locker on the field and playing well, they have a chance to be competitive — which they were on the fringes of already.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 31: Miami Dolphins

Ryan Tannehill

For most of the offseason, it looked like the Dolphins were on the way to better days.

They signed Branden Albert and drafted Ja’Wuan James to shore up their sickly tackle position and hired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor in an attempt to ratchet up the production in quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s third season. After losing their final two games to miss the playoffs in 2013, it looked like the Dolphins were making strides toward a better result this time around.

Then came word that center Mike Pouncey will likely miss the opening weeks after hip surgery and that free agent signee Knowshon Moreno needed to have an operation on his knee. A four-game suspension for 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan handed down last week made for three steps backward for a team that can hardly afford them.

Our PFT panel thinks those steps backward will be costly enough to drop the Dolphins all the way to No. 31 in our Preseason Power Rankings. We’ll discuss some of the reasons why in our preview of the 2014 Dolphins season.

Strengths.

The Dolphins may not get any immediate help from Jordan in the pass rush, but they are still in good shape in that area. Cam Wake and Olivier Vernon combined for 18.5 sacks last season to help the Dolphins finish in the Top 10 in points allowed and both should still be big threats off the edge this year.

Miami lost Paul Soliai in free agency, but they re-signed Randy Starks and have Jared Odrick on hand to step into a larger role. They’ll need better linebacker play to improve against the run, but the defensive line is in good shape in Miami.

Cornerback Brent Grimes bounced back from a lost 2012 season with a great year for the Dolphins and Miami was able to bring him back before another team could nab him as a free agent. The Dolphins will need to be defensively sound to compete for a playoff spot this year. Grimes helps a lot in that regard.

While the offensive line remains a major question mark, there’s no doubt that the Dolphins upgraded with the addition of Albert at left tackle. His presence should give Tannehill a bit more time to throw the ball after being sacked 58 times last year and he’s shown promise when afforded such an opportunity. It will take more than promise to make him a bona fide strength, but he’ll have to struggle behind a halfway decent line before he can be deemed a weakness.

Weaknesses.

At the risk of belaboring the point, the offensive line still has more red flags than a Chinese Olympic Team pep rally. James is a rookie and the guards will likely come from an underwhelming group that includes Shelley Smith, Daryn Colledge, Dallas Thomas and third-round pick Billy Turner. Whoever replaces Pouncey will be a major downgrade and the team will be trying to build a cohesive unit with no returning starters. Maybe the changes to the locker room and the coaching staff lead to a quick turnaround, but it’s a better bet that some of the same problems hinder the team this year and that the Dolphins struggle to consistently put points on the board.

Moreno’s injury and lack of fitness left Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas to do most of the running during spring practices. Both players have failed to grab opportunities to take the job in the past and neither one has looked good enough to thrive with a mess on the line in front of them.

The Dolphins shuffled up their linebackers last season, but neither Dannell Ellerbe nor Phillip Wheeler did a particularly good job. Ellerbe is moving out of the middle this season, swapping spots with former strong side starter Koa Misi , in hopes that Year Two bears more fruit.

Changes.

Lazor’s arrival to run the offense has people in Miami hoping that Mike Wallace can make more of the big plays that brought him stardom in Pittsburgh. With Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and Charles Clay around as possession options, a return to form for Wallace would be a major boon to Tannehill’s hopes of making the next step in his progression as a quarterback.

However those strides come, they have to come this season or the Dolphins will have to rethink their long-term plans on offense. The unit collapsed with a playoff spot on the line last year and the problems were so widespread that Lazor’s got a big job to do if the Dolphins are going to get back on track.

Grimes was a bright spot of the secondary last season and the Dolphins made a couple of free agent moves in hopes that he won’t be the only one. Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Cortland Finnegan come with questions about their health and ability to perform at a high level, but they’ve both been good in the past and that’s more than you can say about most of the other options in Miami.

Camp Battles.

Matthews and Gibson will compete for snaps after Matthews took advantage of Gibson’s injury to make his mark as a pass catcher. Both should play, though, and the same is true at tight end where Dion Sims could push Charles Clay over the summer.

Finnegan is likely to fill a prominent role with Grimes at cornerback, but things are unsettled from there. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis were both non-factors as rookies last season, which may have helped convince the Dolphins to add Walt Aikens in the draft this year. They’d benefit from one of those players stepping up as both a third corner and an alternative if Finnegan doesn’t rebound from a poor 2013 season.

Moreno’s offseason injury and reported lack of fitness are both troubling, but he can probably still move back to the top of the running back rotation with a good camp. If not, Miller’s speed will likely keep him in front of Thomas.

Prospects.

It’s likely going to come down to the offense. If Lazor can get Tannehill and Wallace going while settling on a workable mix in the backfield behind a competent offensive line, the Dolphins should be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Those are a lot of ifs for a team installing a new offensive system, though, and the defense doesn’t look quite good enough to carry the team through growing pains on the other side of the ball. Head coach Joe Philbin probably needs significant improvement to keep his job in 2015, but it is hard to see where there’s enough talent to provide it.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 32: Oakland Raiders

Matt Schaub AP

In the best-case scenario, the 2014 Raiders prove engineered to win now.

In the worst-case scenario, they are a collection of yesterday’s news.

The Raiders shook up their roster in free agency, signing at least a half-dozen players who figure as starters. They traded for Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who comes off his worst season but helped lead Houston to a wild-card win in each of the previous two campaigns.

That is the thing about the Raiders — the résumés of the assembled talent look quite good. Schaub has made two Pro Bowls, and free agent additions Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Tuck, Donald Penn, Carlos Rogers, Antonio Smith and LaMarr Woodley have combined nine Pro Bowl nods to their credit, per Pro Football Reference records.

However, of those seven players, the 29-year-old Jones-Drew is the youngest — and he gained a mere 3.4 yards per carry a season ago. Schaub, Tuck, Penn, Rogers and Smith are all 30 or older, and Woodley turns 30 in November.

The Raiders had salary-cap space to use this offseason, and they did not lack for needs. And let there be no doubt: the Raiders’ depth chart is better for all that spending. But will it be enough for Oakland to close the gap on its AFC West rivals, all of whom made the postseason in 2013?

Strengths.

The Raiders’ rushing attack should be a strength, just like it was in 2013. Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden can share the workload in the backfield, and this might be the way to keep both fresh and effective for 16 games. Versatile fullback Marcel Reece can catch, rush and block.

The defensive front seven looks solid. New starting ends Woodley and Tuck are accomplished edge rushers, and Tuck can kick inside in passing situations, too. Smith provides a stout and disruptive presence at defensive tackle opposite of Pat Sims, the lone holdover starter along the line. Rookie Khalil Mack has the talent to be a difference-maker right off the bat at strong-side linebacker — and he adds a needed dose of youth to an older club, as does second-year weak-side linebacker Sio Moore. The Raiders might be as deep at linebacker as they are at any other position.

Keep an eye on the Raiders’ receiving corps. Ex-Packer James Jones is an ideal addition to this young group; tough, dependable and productive, he can be a tone-setter. And there’s a good deal of intriguing talent beyond Jones, with Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Andre Holmes all having playmaking ability.

Weaknesses.

While the Raiders traded for Schaub and drafted a signal-caller in Round Two (Derek Carr), they might still be unsettled at quarterback. If Schaub’s 2013 struggles were no fluke, and if Carr isn’t ready for NFL play, the Raiders could be in trouble — big trouble. And let’s be frank: even if Schaub or Carr proves just OK as a starter, the Raiders’ quarterback play will lag behind that of division rivals Denver and San Diego — and perhaps Kansas City as well.

The Raiders’ secondary also looks a little shaky. The club lacks a real standout cornerback. The progress of second-year pro D.J. Hayden bears watching. If he can stay on the field and pick up his play, he’ll give Oakland someone to build around now and in the future.

Finally, we must mention the lingering concern about the age of some of the Raiders’ key contributors, as well as the wear-and-tear some of Oakland’s core players have endured. For instance, Woodley — whom the Raiders are counting upon at defensive end — has missed a combined 14 games in the last three seasons. Moreover, McFadden’s durability woes are no secret, and Jones-Drew has more than 2,000 career touches to his credit.

Changes.

The Raiders have replaced their leading passer (Terrelle Pryor), rusher (Rashad Jennings) and left tackle (Jared Veldheer). Penn, an above-average left tackle at his best with Tampa Bay, will take over for Veldheer, who signed with Arizona.

Penn’s addition is just one of several changes along the offensive line, which could have new starters at 4-of-5 spots. Ex-Jet Austin Howard could get the call at right guard, with rookie Gabe Jackson among the options at left guard. Ex-Giant Kevin Boothe could also be in the mix at guard. Second-year pro Menelik Watson, a 2013 second-round pick, looks to have a shot at right tackle.

The Raiders’ additions of Woodley, Tuck and Mack were the headline-grabbing moves on defense, but the signings of ex-49ers cornerbacks Rogers and Tarell Brown are also notable. Rogers and Brown will help replace departed starting corners Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter, who left in free agency.

Camp battles.

Carr should push Schaub, who tossed 14 picks in 10 games in 2013. The Raiders have to hope competition makes both better for the experience. If Schaub looks a little shaky and Carr is a quick study, the Raiders — a team built for today, not tomorrow — are going to have an interesting decision to make.

The Raiders could also have some competition at left guard, right tackle and cornerback.

Prospects. 

The Raiders have collected some skilled, proud players who all have something to prove. If Schaub, Jones-Drew, Tuck and Co. all find their best form, the Raiders could be significantly improved over a season ago — certainly better than the NFL’s 32nd-best club. But to make a run, the Raiders are going to need to get more than their share of breaks, especially in the turnover and health departments. Schaub must take care of the ball, and the starters need to stay in the lineup.

The Raiders must make the most of a favorable early schedule. Four of Oakland’s first six games are home, and the Raiders face just two 2013 playoff teams (New England, San Diego) in their first seven games.

Oakland just cannot afford a slow start. In their final nine games, the Raiders face the Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers and Rams once and the Broncos and Chiefs twice. If the Raiders can’t get into gear right out of the gate, the season could snowball on them, which could prove problematic for head coach Dennis Allen and G.M. Reggie McKenzie.

Here’s the good news: the Raiders have a puncher’s chance in the AFC, the weaker of the two conferences. Here’s the bad news: given their schedule, age and division, the Raiders may be the most vulnerable club in their conference. Their ceiling just doesn’t seem that high, even after they spent all that money in the offseason.

But their floor?

Oh, man.

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Who wore No. 8 better, Young or Aikman?

AikmanYoung Getty Images

For most of the PFT Planet polls posted in connection with the Prime Numbers series, we’ve had five or more options, with a goal of identifying the top two or three.

For No. 8, it’s much simpler. Two players. One winner. Steve Young or Troy Aikman.

Cast your vote below for the better of the two to wear the number, and tune in on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET to see the results. Along with the rest of the show.

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Vote for the best to ever wear No. 73

09000d5d808ce52c Getty Images

In addition to No. 7, Tuesday’s edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN will consider the best players to ever wear No. 73.

To make it work, you need to vote on the best to wear No. 73.

We’ve narrowed it down for you, as we always do.  Pick the best three.

And then tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, especially if the soccer game has become a two-nil blowout by then.

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Prime Numbers looks at No. 7 on Tuesday

Elway Getty Images

As the Prime Numbers series commences the process of pulling into the station, with the last show devoted to the topic coming on Thursday, Tuesday’s edition of NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk focuses on one of the most prime numbers.  Which also is an actual prime number in the mathematical sense.

It’s time to take up No. 7.  And it’s time for you to vote on the best three players to ever wear that number.

Cast your ballot below, and then tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET for a full hour that will look at No. 7, No. 15, No. 31, No. 71, and No. 73.

Yeah, we know the U.S. will be playing Belgium at about the same time.  So DVR our show.  Or do the split screen thing.  Or watch us during a commercial break.

(Even with this parenthetical pointing out that I realize that are no commercial breaks during a soccer game/match/whatever, there will still be at least a dozen comments pointing out that there are no commercial breaks during a soccer game/match/whatever.)

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Prime Numbers hits homestretch with No. 80

Rice Getty Images

It’s the last week for Prime Numbers on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk, and we’re getting Monday started with a bang.

The PFT Planet vote for Monday will focus on No. 80.  It’s a number that plenty of all-time greats have worn.

Vote for up to three from the 10 listed below.  The three highest vote-getters will be revealed on Monday’s show, which gets started at 5:30 p.m. ET.

The other numbers to be considered Monday include 30 (with Brian Mitchell in studio), 60, 90, and 93.

So tune in for the first of the last four shows before we conclude Prime Numbers — and before we take a pre-training camp three-week break.

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Friday’s Prime Numbers looks at No. 78

BruceSmith Getty Images

It’s time to do your civic duty.  Which for the Prime Numbers series applies on a daily basis.  Sometimes, twice per day.

For Friday’s edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN, there’s only one poll.  So only one vote.  But vote for two.

On the surface, No. 78 doesn’t seem like it would be iconic.  Based on the guys who have worn it, it surely is.

Cast your ballot now, and then dial us up at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN for a 60-minute show to wrap up the week.

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Prime Numbers looks at the best to wear No. 75

Greene Getty Images

Thursday’s Prime Number series heads back to the 70s, with a number made very famous by several all-time greats.

PFT Planet, it’s time to cast a ballot (or two) for the best to ever wear 75.  The choices appear below.

The results will appear tonight on NBCSN at 5:30 p.m. ET.  Along with a lot of other stuff we have to get to because the show is only 30 minutes long.

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Thursday’s Prime Numbers will look at the best to wear No. 84

Moss Getty Images

We’ve covered plenty of Prime Numbers over the last few weeks, but we’ve got plenty more to do.  A doozy comes on Thursday — No. 84.

Pick the best three of the eight guys listed below.  And then tune in on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET for NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk to find out who made the list.

You’ll find our plenty of other stuff, but only 30 minutes of it.  The show is shorter than usual on Thursday.

But you can watch whatever is on after our show ends.  OK, you should watch whatever is on after our show ends.

(Does that mean I get my check now?  Or will it be cash?)

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Cast you vote for the best to wear No. 82

Stallworth Getty Images

It’s Prime Numbers time on Wednesday, where the lottery ticket of jersey numbers includes a fan lottery (or more accurately a vote) on the best players to wear No. 82.

So get your No. 2 pencils ready (or more accurately your mice) to pick the best two to ever wear that specific number.

And then get your dial-changing hand ready (or more accurately your remote control finger) to turn the TV to NBCSN at 5:30 p.m. ET for the latest edition of Pro Football Talk.

 

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Prime Numbers takes up No. 55 on Wednesday

Brooks Getty Images

Prime Numbers shifts from No. 99 on Tuesday to another double-number number on Wednesday when NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk can drive 55.

PFT Planet can vote on the best to wear No. 55, picking the top two to ever don a pair of fives on the front and back and (for many teams) shoulders of their jerseys.

Do it now, and then dial us up on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET.  We’ll also take up No. 25, 37, 50, and 82.  A poll for another one of those numbers is coming later tonight.

If I remember to post it.

Please remember to vote on the best players to wear No. 55.  If you do it now, you won’t have to remember.

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Prime Numbers looks at No. 99 on Tuesday

Sapp AP

When Pro Football Talk on NBCSN returns to the air on Tuesday, the Prime Numbers series will take a look at the highest number that can be worn by any player in any sport.

Unless and until a sport expands to three digits.

Vote for the best of the best to wear No. 99 from the names listed below (pick one — or two or three if you want), and then tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday to see the results.  We’ll also be joined by one of the best players to wear No. 99 — defensive end Jason Taylor.

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Prime Numbers looks at the best to wear No. 24

Woodson AP

We’ve still got plenty of prime Prime Numbers to address on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk.

Tuesday’s edition of the show takes up one of the most prime:  No. 24.  We need your help to pick the best of the best players to wear that specific number.

Vote below, and then tune in on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. ET for the results.  Before then, tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET on Monday for today’s version of the show, with Tom Curran of CSN New England and Bob Glauber of Newsday joining Erik Kuselias in the studio.

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Monday’s Prime Numbers looks at No. 34

Payton Getty Images

The Prime Numbers series on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk continues Monday, with a number that has been worn by multiple Hall of Famers and one guy who would have made it if his hip hadn’t been irreversibly damaged in January 1991.

No. 34 takes center stage, and we’ll look at the results of your votes for the best to ever don the digits.

Go ahead and vote for two, since we assume Walter Payton would get 100 percent of the vote if we allowed only one.

Then, tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET Monday for the one-hour edition of the program.  Unless you live in Portugal.  If so, you’re not invited.

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