Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Tennessee Titans check in at No. 17.
Peyton Manning’s Tennessee homecoming parade has been cancelled, and Vince Young is on his second team since being booed off the stage in Music City following the 2010 season. It is up to either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker to win the Super Bowl that has eluded 89-year-old owner Bud Adams, who founded the Houston Oilers (and co-founded the AFL) in 1960.
Second-year coach Mike Munchak will have an open competition to determine the Titans’ starting quarterback. Entering his 14th season, the 36-year-old Hasselbeck is an above-average passer who can beat bad teams and keep it close against superior competition — which, in a mediocre AFC South, may be all Tennessee needs to do to sneak into the playoffs with a wild card berth. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Locker heads into his second season with the type of big league arm (MLB’s Angels own his rights until 2015), mobility and moxie not seen in Nashville since Steve McNair’s co-MVP, Super Bowl runner-up heyday.
With the Colts starting No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck (a Pac-10 rival of Locker) and the Jaguars turning their team over to Blaine Gabbert (a 2011 draft classmate of Locker), now is a perfect time to go with the young gun — who threw for 542 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 99.4 rating, along with a highlight-reel diving score on the ground, in limited action (66 pass attempts) as a rookie. The loser of the Locker-Hasselbeck showdown will be arguably the best backup in the league.
Whoever plays quarterback will have the luxury of a loaded arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Chris Johnson follows in the footsteps of former franchise workhorse runners Eddie George and Earl Campbell. But not since the days of Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins and Drew Hill have the Oilers-Titans had a fleet of receivers like 6'3", 215-pound athletic freak Kenny Britt, 1,000-yard wideout Nate Washington, first-round pick Kendall Wright and 6'5" rising star tight end Jared Cook. That doesn’t mean Warren Moon’s Run ‘n’ Shoot offense is making a comeback, but second-year coordinator Chris Palmer will have options.
Still, the Titans are coached by a Hall of Fame O-lineman in Munchak — whose right-hand man, O-line coach Bruce Matthews, is a fellow Hall of Famer and former Oiler-Titan — and will remain a ball-control offense. Johnson is the straw that stirs the drink. The Tennessee faithful are eager to see the track star formerly known as CJ2K return to his All-Pro form and earn the $53 million deal he signed last offseason. The perfect storm of NFL lockout, contract holdout and new coach-coordinator-QB slowed Johnson out of the gate. But the interior of the offensive line was arguably the biggest problem with the running game last season. The signing of 11-year veteran guard Steve Hutchinson will help solidify the line — which boasts strong bookend tackles Michael Roos, a dancing bear on the blindside, and David Stewart, a nasty mauler on the right side as well as the team’s resident enforcer. The line did suffer a significant loss at the start of training camp, however, when center Eugene Amano suffered a season-ending triceps injury. Right guard Fernando Velasco has slid over and it appears the job is his to lose.
The return of a reliable ground game will open up the play-action passing attack, which could be especially dangerous depending on the health and behavior of Britt, who tore his ACL and MCL in Week 3 last season after posting 14 catches for 271 yards and three TDs the first two weeks. Although Britt required multiple surgeries this offseason, including two different procedures since May alone, his continued off-the-field trangressions may end up being the biggest hurdle to overcome. After being arrested and charged with another DUI in July, Britt could be subject to punishment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, which could delay his return to the lineup further. Between questions about his health and his behavior, it's becoming clearer why the Titans drafted Wright in the first round.
The losses of scrappy corner Cortland Finnegan and versatile lineman Jason Jones will hurt, but maybe not as much as many believe. The secondary is led by safety Michael Griffin — who signed a new five-year contract in June after getting the franchise tag — and talented young corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty (twin brother of the Patriots’ Devin McCourty). Second-year coordinator Jerry Gray mixed and matched his base 4-3 with a slew of nickel packages last year, which will mean plenty of playing time for veteran safety Jordan Babineaux as well as rookies Coty Sensabaugh and Markelle Martin.
Up front, tackle Jurrell Casey enters his second season riding a wave of positive momentum. The 22-year-old 300-pounder flashed signs of stardom as a rookie and is being counted on to anchor the D-line, a unit that lacks the luxuries of proven depth or a dominant Albert Haynesworth or Jevon Kearse-caliber playmaker. Free agent Kamerion Wimbley and high-intensity hustler Dave Ball are both predictably solid pros at end. The spotlight is on 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, a high-profile underachiever who has compiled nearly as many injuries as sacks (four) over his first two years. Karl Klug, Sen’Derrick Marks and rookie Mike Martin headline the rotation of big bodies set to line up next to Casey inside.
Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy wears No. 52 and thinks he’s Ray Lewis. As long as no one tells him otherwise, expect the young tackling machine out of Miami to continue to run through brick walls in search of the football. McCarthy’s toughness is contagious, but his wrecking ball style of play may impact his long-term durability. On the outside, Akeem Ayers looks the part and runs well but had a knack for missed tackles and poorly timed mental mistakes as a rookie. Fans are concerned that second-round pick Zach Brown may be a less physical version of Ayers. The fastest linebacker in the draft (4.50 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine), Brown was accused of being “allergic to contact” by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock.
The creative Gray may also implement a few 3-4 hybrid looks with Wimbley — who was an outside backer in Oakland — standing up to rush the passer.
A fan favorite, kicker Rob Bironas is one of the best in the business, hitting 29-of-32 field goals, including 6-of-7 from over 50 yards out. Punter Brett Kern had a career year in 2011, with a 43.6-yard average and 31 kicks downed inside the 20. Return specialist Marc Mariani was hurt by kickoff rule changes but had a 79-yard punt return to the house.
Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC South
The Titans were the only team with a winning record (9–7) to miss the postseason in 2011. A Week 15 loss at Indy — which was the Colts’ first win of the season — was essentially a playoff-elimination game. Munchak’s second campaign should run much more smoothly, at least after the dust has settled on the quarterback competition in camp.
Houston is the overwhelming favorite in the AFC South, while Indianapolis and Jacksonville appear to be two of the least talented teams in the league. Tennessee is flying under the radar but has a chance to win its way into the playoffs. A front-loaded schedule includes four 2011 playoff teams in the first six weeks. If the Titans can survive early on, they could thrive once the season heats up — especially if CJ-barely-1K plays closer to the CJ2K level he’s proven capable of.
Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Big Orange vs. Orange Crush
The Titans came painfully close to signing Peyton Manning, a former All-American at the University of Tennessee and Titans owner Bud Adams’ top offseason priority. “He is the man I want. Period,” said Adams. “I will be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.” It didn’t happen, but the state’s hopes were high after Manning was seen wearing a UT-orange shirt on his visit to Nashville. But Manning picked the Rocky Mountains over Rocky Top.
Emerald City South
New GM Ruston Webster is the latest in a growing line of key Titans who have roots in the Seahawks’ organization. The list includes Webster’s predecessor, new senior executive VP and COO Mike Reinfeldt; quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; guard Steve Hutchinson; and safety Jordan Babineaux. Even quarterback Jake Locker hails from Ferndale, Wash., which is about 100 miles north of Seattle.
Gotta Be the Shoes
@ChrisJohnson28 teased his Twitter followers in late May, tweeting: “I wish I can post these new CJ2K cleats for this year but I can’t yet y’all gonna see the fye.” Along with building suspense for the unveiling of his new shoes, Johnson also let his Tweeps know he bowled a 177, made a YouTube video stir-frying Ramen noodles with Orlando rapper Pressure Dommer and told USA track star Tyson Gay that he wanted to be on the 4x100 relay team at the London Olympics. Who knows? Maybe the gold-grilled runner would have worn Michael Johnson-style gold cleats?
Jake Locker nearly pulled off a pair of come-from-behind wins after coming off the bench to replace an injured Matt Hasselbeck at Atlanta and against New Orleans. The Locker-led Titans scored 14 unanswered points in the Georgia Dome and were a late-fourth quarter third down stop away from getting the ball back with a chance to win before ultimately losing 23–17. Locker was one play away from upsetting the Saints but failed to pull the trigger on 3rd-and-goal as time expired on a 22–17 defeat. Overall, the Titans were plus-12 on the scoreboard with Locker in the game in 2011.
Locker vs. Luck
Jake Locker and Andrew Luck played against each other twice in college, with Luck’s Stanford Cardinal owning a 2–0 edge — winning 41–0 in 2010 and 34–14 in 2009 — over Locker’s Washington Huskies. Locker and Luck have yet to make their first NFL starts, but the duo already has a history in what could be a long AFC South rivalry.
Owner Bud Adams received an Honorary Doctorate of Business from his alma mater Menlo College on May 5. Adams graduated from the small Atherton, Calif., private school in 1942 and established the K.S. Bud Adams Jr. Endowed Scholarship, which “provides assistance for nearly 20 Menlo students each year.”
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16: Fri., Aug. 10
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Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis