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Saturday August 27th, 2011

The Titans took Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick in the draft. (ZUMAPRESS)

Even in the rosy world of the NFL preseason, when every team still thinks it has a shot at the playoffs, it's difficult to conjure up a way that the Titans can make a serious run. That's doubly true if the Chris Johnson stalemate lasts into the season.

Hiring a new head coach, as the Titans did to replace 17-year head man Jeff Fisher, doesn't necessarily mean a team is rebuilding. Selecting a quarterback in the top 10 of the draft, on the other hand, tends to indicate just that. Tennessee made that commitment in April, picking Jake Locker out of Washington at No. 8 overall.

The Titans did go out and sign veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck to start for them as Locker eases his way into the NFL. But should Locker's status on the depth chart be tied to Johnson's holdout?

Without Johnson, an average Tennessee team becomes a mediocre one. If picking Locker didn't set off a full-scale rebuilding plan, losing Johnson may.

So there then would be two issues at play:

1) Would the Titans be willing to bench Hasselbeck and chalk up 2011 fully as a rebuilding year?

2) Would Locker be better served sitting and watching than playing?

Let's hit No. 1 first. Even with Johnson in the lineup, 2011 figures to be tough for Tennessee, which was relatively quiet in free agency and is looking up at Houston and Indianapolis in the division. Take Johnson out of that equation -- despite a stable of young RBs: Javon Ringer, Stafon Johnson and Jamie Harper -- and even a push for .500 seems unlikely.

No franchise wants to wave the white flag before September hits, but the Titans have to realistically look at their options. Expecting them to contend without Chris Johnson is like expecting the Colts to make a Super Bowl run without Peyton Manning.

That

brings us to that second question: Is it worth the risk to throw Locker into the fire? This is the issue every team faces with a young, promising QB.

Playing from Day One works on occasion -- Manning, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan. There are plenty of names to contradict those examples, though, including Vince Young. Tennessee took him No. 3 overall in the 2006 draft, had him start 13 games that season, then watched as his career spiraled to near nothingness. The Titans know, better than most, what the risks are here.

That said, Tennessee can't let Young's failures dictate its course of action with Locker.

Even after this year's draft, there are several teams debating this very topic: Carolina with Cam Newton, Cincinnati with Andy Dalton, Jacksonville with Blaine Gabbert.

The situations in Jacksonville is the closest to what Tennessee's facing. You have veteran David Garrard and Gabbert dueling for playing time on a team that has an elite running back (Maurice Jones-Drew), a few good players here and there, and very little chance of being a major threat this season.

And Jacksonville is asking the same thing about Gabbert that Tennessee needs to decide about Locker: Learn by playing or learn by watching?

For whatever it's worth, and it may not be much, Locker's two preseason performances were a mixed bag. He looked solid in the opener against the Vikings, then took a step back against the Rams.

That's bound to happen with a rookie. Tennessee's challenge is to decide if it would be better to work out those kinks in 2011 or to wait until 2012 or '13, when the team is closer to contention.

The latter prospect is a tricky one. Hasselbeck's contract runs for three years. Say he steps in this season and plays well, then the Titans upgrade at a few positions before 2012. Now what? Do you bump Hasselbeck from the lineup when you're ready for a playoff run? Or do you keep your highly paid draft pick stuck to the bench?

Johnson's presence could be the tipping point in all this.

With him on the field to start 2011, the Titans have hope -- however little it may be -- that they can win games and get new coach Mike Munchak off on the right foot. Without him, there's no point in avoiding reality: Tennessee won't be very good in 2011, so there may not be a better time to give Jake Locker a chance.

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