With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Following the Colts’ Cinderella run of 2012, the AFC South is seemingly a two-team race between Houston and Indianapolis. But Tennessee might not be far behind.
Though the Titans are in the midst of a four-year playoff drought, few teams had better a offseason. Mike Munchak’s squad completely overhauled its offensive line, adding two key pieces in Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack to jumpstart an attack that ranked 21st in the league last year. On the other side of the ball, the Titans hired Gregg Williams as a special defensive assistant, hoping to imbue an aggressive -- but clean -- edge to a defense that gave up yards in spades last season.
Improvement over their 6-10 record of last year is far from given, but as the Colts showed, surprises happen in the NFL every year.
• Biggest storyline: Can Jake Locker make the leap in Year 3?
The biggest knock on Locker coming out of college was his accuracy. In four years at Washington, he never completed more than 58.2 percent of his passes, and the results in the NFL have been just as discouraging. Locker ranked 28th among qualified quarterbacks in completion percentage, with 56.4 percent in 2012, his first season of extensive NFL action. Overall, he finished with 11 interceptions and just 10 passing touchdowns, showing little to convince skeptics he could be the Titans’ long-term answer under center.
An impressive athlete with a big arm, Locker will get another chance in 2013, and he needs to improve as a traditional passer for the Titans to progress. Case in point: Nine of the 12 playoff teams last season had a passer who ranked in the top 15 in completion percentage during the regular season.
The early signs have been encouraging. Locker has completed 61.3 percent of his passes through two preseason games, but that’s largely been a result of checkdown offense and mediocre defense. The Titans will lean heavily on Chris Johnson this season, but if Locker can’t sustain drives or keep the defense honest, the Titans have no chance of emerging in the AFC South.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Cornerback.
Jason McCourty is locked in on the left side, but the battle on the right continues to wage between Tommie Campbell and Alterraun Verner.
A tall, physical corner, Campbell is a perfect fit for the aggressive style defensive coordinator Jerry Gray wants to employ in Tennessee. But he’s been a major disappointment in the preseason, failing to show the very attributes that should make him an asset for the Titans. "His strong suit is as a press corner," Steve Brown, the Titans' assistant secondary coach told ESPN after the Titans’ first preseason game, "and we put him in situations, he was not aggressive at the line of scrimmage pressing guys, he was playing off."
This has opened the door for Verner, the Titans’ fourth-round choice in 2010. Head coach Mike Munchak has reportedly acknowledged that Verner is leading the race -- and he’s not the only one who has praised Verner and his field awareness during camp. "Verner’s one of those players you could put anywhere on the field and he will make plays," safety Michael Griffin told Titans Online. "He’s very instinctive. He’s one of those guys who understands concepts and can go make plays." A 16-game starter in 2012, Verner may be shorter and less physical than Campbell, but he appears to have the inside track on the No. 2 cornerback job.
• New face, new place: Bernard Pollard, safety.
In February, Pollard played an integral role on the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning squad. A month later, the team gave him his walking papers as it shifted to a younger, faster unit. Pollard won’t soon forget that termination, going so far as to keep his letter from the Ravens in his new locker in Tennessee.
The Titans couldn’t be happier that Pollard enters the season with something to prove. At 28, he isn’t the player he once was, but he can still play in the box (he had 98 tackles last season) and help improve a Titans run defense that ranked 24th in the league last season. He also helps restore some swagger to a Tennessee secondary that’s been in short supply since Cortland Finnegan left for St. Louis. Through two preseason games he’s already accumulated $10,000 in fines.
• Impact rookie: Chance Warmack, guard.
Revitalizing the run game was priority No. 1 for Tennessee this offseason. After the Titans ran for 92 yards in the first quarter of Week 1 of the preseason, Munchak said, "That's what we're hoping to be all about. ... If we think it's there, we're going to run the ball and take over on the line of scrimmage."
To boost their ground-and-pound game, the Titans signed guard Levitre and drafted Warmack out of Alabama with the 10th overall pick. It was the first time the Titans had used a first-round pick on a lineman since 1993.
A mauling guard many considered one of the top-five prospects in the draft, Warmack should team with Levitre to form one of the best inside duos in the league. Chris Johnson has gone on record saying that he wants to hit the 2,000-yard mark for the Titans again. With Warmack helping to clear space, Johnson just might be able to.
• Looking at the schedule: Middle-of-the-road, but challenges loom.
The Titans stumbled out of the gate in 2012 (going 1-5) and risk suffering a similar fate in 2013. Tough road games in Pittsburgh and Houston kick off the season, followed by three winnable home games against the Chargers, Jets and Chiefs. The Titans need to emerge at least 3-2 from this stretch if they hope to make the playoffs. A road trip to Seattle and a visit from San Francisco loom large before the Titans’ Week 8 bye.
The stretch run is easier, highlighted by two games against the Jaguars (home in Week 10; on the road in Week 16).
If the Titans can find wins early in the season and manage to upset a division rival or two, they have a very good chance of improving on their 6-10 record of last season. GALLERY: Biggest one-season turnarounds