Over the past 15 years, the Titans seem to have had a fairly well-defined philosophy in the middle of the offensive line. In years of transition for the franchise, when the rest of the line is being turned over, the Titans have imported perhaps the marquee free agent at the position, bringing in a good player who’s had some success. That player is around for a few years, and, once the tone is established and the player’s contract is up, the team is content to make do with a player they haven’t invested significant resources to acquire.
We first saw this trend with the acquisition of Mark Stepnoski in the 1995 season as a free agent from the best line of the past two decades, the Cowboys of the early 90’s. This high-priced free agent was then replaced by a former 7th round pick, Kevin Long. After a year of Bruce Matthews (the one quasi-exception to my theory), the Titans started street free agent Gennaro DiNapoli and 6th round pick Justin Hartwig. Then, coming off 4 and 5-win seasons and looking at possibly starting three linemen with four years’ experience in the league, combined, the Titans went out and acquired …
Kevin Mawae. The former Seahawk and Jet had had a string of six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances snapped in 2005 after only playing in 6 games, but rebounded to start all 16 games for the Titans in 2006 in the middle of the offensive line and helped establish an attitude for Roos, Bell, and Stewart, the aforementioned trio of youngsters. After starting out as a rock, Mawae’s now-38 year old body has started to betray him, as he was physically abused by Kris Jenkins in the loss to the Jets and ended both 2007 and 2008 not on the active list. Offseason surgery for the latest injury would seem to indicate he’s looking forward to coming back to finish out the fourth and final year of the deal he signed before 2006. Of course, for $2.5 million, I would, too, but my guess when he signed was 2008 would be his last year. In 2009, I’d look for Mawae to continue to be a professional who struggles with some of his stronger foes, and probably doesn’t finish out the year. If he does go down with an injury, then his replacement might be
Leroy Harris, who started the playoff game against the Ratbirds in Mawae’s stead. I’ll have a post later at the offseason looking at the play of Harris that depressing Saturday in greater detail, but he would probably be an adequate replacement for Mawae, and one who would hold up better against a player like Jamal Williams of the Chargers. I agree with Andrew’s take, though, that Harris will likely pose a strong challenge to take over the left guard spot that Eugene Amano filled adequately, if not particularly well, last year.
If Harris does take over the left guard spot, that means the replacement for Mawae at center would follow the center acquisition theory outlined above, as Eugene Amano was a 7th round selection back in 2004. I thought his roster spot was in trouble after the drafting of Harris, but he earned an extension through 2009 and filled in rather ably, I thought, for Mawae after the latter’s season-ending injury in 2007.
Beyond the big three, all of whom should be locks to make the 53-man roster come this fall, the Titans have three guys on the practice squad capable of playing the in middle of the offensive line. Jason Murphy has been there for the past year-plus, and I believe is out of practice squad eligibility come this fall. If Mawae was retiring, he might have a shot at the backup center position, but will probably be looking for work elsewhere. Former Ohio State Buckeye Doug Datish was added to the practice squad after Mawae’s injury this past year, and is probably a longshot to make the Titans or any other NFL team’s active roster. Ex-Dawg Fernando Velasco rounds out the trio, and I have nothing to say about him.
Outlook: The Titans are set at the center position for 2009, with Mawae starting and whichever of Amano or Harris doesn’t start at left guard in line to replace him after the inevitable injury. With three practice squadders already, expect no draft picks and probably not even another street free agent to be signed.