While the celebrated return of Jevon Kearse has received the majority of attention from Titans observers, it's the homecoming of Justin McCareins and Mike Heimerdinger that may have the biggest impact in Tennessee in 2008.
McCareins, the team's fourth-round pick in 2001, returned to the team this offseason after spending the past four seasons with the Jets. Though the signing received little fanfare due to his disappointing tenure in New York, team officials have been pleasantly surprised by McCareins' play during workouts and hope that eight-year veteran is able to add a vertical element to their passing game.
"He has been impressive," said a Titans' official. "We thought he would compete for a backup job, but he has done well with his opportunities. Despite being an older player, he still shows the ability to get down the field and make plays."
McCareins' potential return to prominence is not unexpected when you consider his most productive season as a pro came under the guidance of another former Titan returning to Nashville -- offensive coordinator Heimerdinger. During his final season with Heimerdinger in 2003, McCareins set career-highs for yards (813) and touchdowns (7). After a productive minicamp, McCareins now has the inside track on the starting spot opposite Justin Gage and is being counted on to emerge as the big play threat the offense lacked last season. Heimerdinger first ran the Titans offense from 2000-04 and favors a unit that features more vertical routes than predecessor Norm Chow.The familiarity with McCareins has helped Heimerdinger incorporate the veteran into the game plan. "Heimerdinger knows McCareins' potential," said a Titans' official. "His current role in the offense plays to his strengths, and he should have plenty of opportunity to make plays."
Last season, the Titans' offense ranked 29th in passing plays over 20 yards and only produced nine scores through the air. Although McCareins only had three receptions over 20 yards in 2007, the Titans believe he still possesses enough speed to be the vertical playmaker in their lineup. With four-time Pro Bowler Alge Crumpler working effectively over the middle and the Titans' formidable running game forcing eight-man fronts, McCareins will get plenty of opportunities to connect with Vince Young off deep, play-action passes. If he can recapture some of the playmaking skills he displayed during his first tour of duty, the Titans' much-maligned offense may possess enough punch to earn a return trip to the postseason.
The potential long-term absence of Cleveland receiver Joe Jurevicius due to another knee surgery could severely hamper the Browns' offensive production this season. Though Jurevicius was only counted on to fill a role as the team's third receiver, his value to the Browns should not be underestimated. "He is a tough guy," said an AFC scout. "He is a consistent player who does so many things that go unnoticed for them. Not only is he a valuable receiver, he is a leader and a good blocker. Don't underestimate the loss of him in the running game. He is one of the few guys willing to go inside and dig out linebackers and safeties. His loss would impact Jamal Lewis' production."
As a starter last season, Jurevicius put up modest numbers (50 receptions for 614 yards and three scores), but his penchant for producing clutch plays on third down gave Derek Anderson a security blanket in pressure situations. Without that steady presence in the lineup, the pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of No. 2 receiver Donte Stallworth to produce when defenses take away Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow II in the passing game. Although Stallworth brings an added dimension to the team as a deep threat, he lacks the skills to fill Jurevicius' void completely. "Stallworth is a solid player, but he is not as consistent as Jurevicius," said an AFC scout. "They will miss Jurevicius' reliability."
At the No. 3 spot, one of the Browns' unproven young receivers (Travis Wilson, Syndric Steptoe, Joshua Cribbs or Kevin Kasper) will be counted on to take Jurevicius' place in the lineup. The team also might utilize more double tight end sets with rookie Martin Rucker pairing with Winslow. Regardless, the Browns need to make a plan for dealing with a long absence from their unsung playmaker.
Bills safety Donte Whitner put his teammates on the spot by guaranteeing a playoff berth, and the defense will have to make major strides for his prognostications to be valid by season's end.
The Bills made several moves during the offseason to shore up their 31st-ranked defense. First, they acquired former Pro Bowl DT Marcus Stroud via a trade with the Jaguars, and they complemented that move by adding DT SpencerJohnson, LB Kawika Mitchell and CB William James during free agency. With the goal of fortifying the middle of their defense, the Bills are depending on Stroud to dominate the interior of the line to create numerous opportunities for his teammates along the front seven. But some scouts question whether the former Pro Bowler can be an impact player along the line. "Stroud is good enough to create opportunities for others, but he hasn't been a difference maker in years," said an AFC scout.
However, Stroud's ability to attract a double team may be enough for the Bills' unheralded set of linebackers to make plays. "Kawika Mitchell played well for the Giants, and (linebacker Paul) Posluszny was on his way to a solid rookie season prior to his injury," said an AFC scout. "If Johnson and Stroud can keep blockers off their linebackers, they could blossom into a formidable unit." Defensive end Aaron Schobel could also benefit from the addition of Stroud. Coming off a season where he recorded a career-low 6.5 sacks, Schobel could see more one-on-one opportunities coming off the edge.
Although the defense looks improved against the run, questions persist about a secondary that allowed a league-leading 55 completions over 20 yards. The Bills' secondary is anchored by cornerback Terrence McGee, but the presence of several players with three years or less experience (Whitner, Ko Simpson, George Wilson and Ashton Youboty) resulted in a number of mistakes, as the unit has endured its share of growing pains. And the trend may continue with as many as three rookies (Leodis McKelvin, Reggie Corner and Kennard Cox) vying for significant playing time this fall.