Is this the year the Titans become Jake Locker's team? (Getty Images)
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
For the first time in seemingly forever, the AFC South was wide open in 2011 thanks to Peyton Manning's neck injury. The Texans noticeably took advantage, and the Jaguars noticeably didn't. But what of the Titans?
Tennessee flew under the radar despite a three-win improvement in coach Mike Munchak's first season. Their 9-7 record was pretty indicative of how they played, as Football Outsiders ranked them 15th -- slightly above average -- in both offensive and defensive efficiency last year; they actually improved on offense from 2010 despite Chris Johnson being an utter non-impact player. It was good enough of a performance to tie them with the Bengals for the last playoff spot in the AFC, though tiebreakers kept the Titans from the dance.
The team overhauled its quarterback depth chart last season, bringing in Matt Hasselbeck and drafting Jake Locker, and the moves paid off. Hasselbeck starred, especially early in the season, and Locker showed incredible promise in three games of relief duty late in the season. The showing from the rookie was strong enough -- two games with a rating over 100 and YPA over 7.0 in Weeks 14 and 15 -- to wonder if the Titans should give Locker the starting job. But the Titans lost all three games Locker played a significant part in, the only three losses the Titans suffered from Week 10 on, and so Hasselbeck finished the year in charge.
The new season, however, might be different. Is the future now?
2011 Record: 9-7 (second in AFC South)
Key Additions: G Steve Hutchinson, DE Kamerion Wimbley, WR Kendall Wright, LB Zach Brown
Key Subtractions: CB Cortland Finnegan, G Jake Scott, DT Jason Jones
Team Strengths: RB, WR, OL
Team Weaknesses: DL
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Chris Johnson regain his form?: Chris Johnson's holdout was one of the primary stories of the 2011 offseason. The large extension he signed in early September was enough to get him in the fold 10 days before the season began, but that wasn't enough time for Johnson to hone the speed and instincts we've grown accustomed to seeing from the back since 2009. The result was a brutal 1,047-yard showing, with a lowly 4.0 average and remarkable 12 games with less than 70 rushing yards. Johnson seemed to be turning a corner, rushing for 130, 190 and 153 yards, respectively, in Weeks 10, 12 and 13. But the end of the season was the same as the beginning, with 195 total rushing yards over the last four games. We discussed Johnson's woes often last season (here and here).
But expect big things again from him. For the first time ever, Johnson has spent the entire offseason with the team, and he's added quite a bit of muscle. Having that time around the team, and Hasselbeck/Locker, will be invaluable. An added boost will come from the addition of Steve Hutchinson, who makes a pretty good offensive line a lot better.
This is not a fantasy column, but I feel safe saying this: You will be able to draft Chris Johnson later in your draft this year than normal, and you will get a steal.
2. When will this be Jake Locker's team?: Despite Locker's lofty draft status last year, it was obvious that Hasselbeck was the Titans' quarterback. The job might go to the young gun this season.
Put simply enough, despite not starting a game in 2011, Locker showed that he has the ability to be at least the second-best quarterback drafted in 2011, and he may even give Cam Newton a run for his money over the long haul. Again, very small sample size, but there's some serious upside in Locker's arm strength, poise, toughness and mobility, all traits he flashed in game action last year. The one hole you can poke in Locker's performance is in his accuracy -- if you take away a game against the powder-puff Colts, Locker completed just 46 percent of his passes against the Saints and Falcons -- and that was the one knock on him entering the draft. Still, Locker has shown improvement in that regard, and he's got a talented bevy of pass-catchers that should benefit from Kenny Britt's return (even if it takes him a while to get back into game form) and the selection of rookie Kendall Wright.
At the very least, the Titans' big-play offense would improve with Locker at the helm; 12 percent of his passes last season went for over 20 yards, while Hasselbeck was at an eight percent rate. The elder quarterback has the experience, and might be a safer play with a higher floor and a lower ceiling. But the Titans drafted Locker to be their franchise quarterback, and nothing Locker showed in his limited playing time indicated that he wasn't capable of being just that.
3. Can the defense sack the quarterback more?: A solid secondary in 2011 took a turn for the worse when Cortland Finnegan signed with the Rams this offseason. If the pass defense hopes to just recreate its middle-of-the-pack performance in 2012, it'll have to help make up for that big loss by getting more out of a pass rush that was virtually non-existent last year (the Titans' 28 sacks was 31st in the league). Six of those sacks came from the back seven, and DE Jason Jones' three sacks left for the Seahawks in the offseason. So, yeah. Some work needs to be done there.
In comes Kamerion Wimbley to start at end. He's never been an elite rusher, but he's always been a consistent sack artist who gets pressure on the quarterback even when he can't bring him down. Third-round pick Mike Martin also brings a decent pass rush from defensive tackle; at the very least, he excels at occupying blockers, which opens up more room for the other rushers. He'll fight for a starting job in camp.
But the onus, really, is on Derrick Morgan. The former 16th overall pick has underwhelmed mightily. An injury ended his rookie year, and with 10 starts in a shake-the-rust-off second season Morgan had 2.5 sacks. He'll start opposite of Wimbley, and he needs to begin to show that he's worthy of his draft slot and pre-draft reputation as a pass rusher.
With Peyton Manning now throwing passes in mile-high air, the AFC South is up for grabs for good (or, at least until the light turns on for Andrew Luck). The Texans looked like a potential Super Bowl champion last year until injuries hit them under center, but after an offseason of tremendous upheaval in Houston, there's no guarantee they look the part again.
So why not the Titans? They appear, as of now, to be the Texans' lone threat to the division crown, and they're a more talented team than they were last year when they almost snagged a wild card spot. Despite getting no hype last season, and no hype this offseason, the Titans are a good team.
There's one problem: a brutal early stretch to the schedule that sees games against the Patriots, Chargers, Lions and Texans in the first four weeks, then the Steelers and what should be a much improved Bills team after a one-week respite in Minnesota. It's entirely possible that Tennessee enters its Week 8 game against the Colts at 1-6 or 2-5, and that would essentially sink the Titans' playoff hopes right off the bat, no matter how talented a team they boast. It's a cruel fate, but not an uncommon one -- other good teams have been undone by tough slates, and especially if Locker wins the starting job out of camp, that opening gauntlet might be just a bit too much as the signal-caller more fully adjusts to the NFL life.
Still, this is a team on the rise, and at the very least one to look out for in 2013 -- no matter what their record looks like after this season.
– Tom Mantzouranis