The Titans will go 8-8*, and other eve of season thoughts

*-Unless they don’t.

This is my third straight year doing some sort of preseason prediction for the Titans.  Back in 2008, I wrote a post on the eve of the season about why the Titans wouldn’t win 10 games.  It took me five whole games to say that prediction was wrong, and the Titans ended up finishing 13-3.  Heedful of the lesson, I didn’t write a similar post last season, but did pick the Titans to finish over 9 wins, while noting my thoughts on how the Titans would finish had ranged from a repeat of 13-3 down to 7-9.  With an 8-8 finish, wrong again.  I’m already on record as expecting the Titans to finish under this year’s 8.5 line, but by a relatively narrow margin.

The two biggest variables for the 2010 Titans season are two things I’ve written about on here this offseason: the continued development of Vince Young as an NFL passer, and how good the defense will be.  The problem is, I’m not sure I have a much better handle on how those questions will be answered than I did when the Titans walked off Qwest Field in Seattle to close the 2009 season.

The basic questions on defense, as I see them:

D1. Who will be the starting corner opposite Cortland Finnegan?
In answering this question, I’m trying to ignore anything out of practice this week and take a more macro-level view of things.  Jason McCourty seems to probably be the winner here, at least to start the season, or at least he’s beaten out fellow sophomore Ryan Mouton.  I wrote about these guys in the cornerback positional analysis a couple weeks ago, so I won’t repeat those thoughts.  Alterraun Verner is the other man here.  I won’t go into much detail on the recent history of 4th round rookie corners the past decade; Nathan Vasher starting for the Bears and playing fairly well is clearly the exception, not the rule.  I’m still worried about this position.

D2. Who’s going to play linebacker, especially in the nickel?
The Titans assuaged one of my biggest worries this offseason by signing Will Witherspoon, who should provide exactly the skills they needed.  He won’t be 2005-era Keith Bulluck, but he could match Bulluck’s 2008 production and is an every down linebacker.  The other nickel linebacker will be Stephen Tulloch.  I think Tulloch’s been overpraised in the past by Titans fans; subjectively, I’d rate him as an average to slightly below starting middle linebacker and the Titans reflexively pulled him in every nickel situation last year when both Thornton and Bulluck were healthy.  He seems to have responded well to the increased burden this offseason, and it speaks highly that even though he missed OTAs this offseason, his teammates today voted him the defensive captain.

Depth beyond Tulloch and Witherspoon is still a big question for me, especially with McRath’s suspension.  Even though they didn’t cut David Thornton, I’m not expecting much from him this year.  I suspect putting him on the PUP list was partly to avoid injury settlement problems, and partly as insurance against failure or injury elsewhere in the linebacking corps.  I trust none of Allred, Winborn, Shaw, or Bailey to play adequate outside linebacker.  They could of course, but I’m not confident.

D3. Do the Titans have enough of a pass rush?
I recently wrote about blitzing, but I think the Titans will rely primarily on their front 4 to generate a pass rush, as they’ve done in the past.  I think Tony Brown should play well again, and a healthy Jason Jones should be a good add as well, though of course a healthy Jason Jones hasn’t necessarily been the norm.  I was very impressed by how Jones, Sen’Derrick Marks, and Jovan Haye did in the preseason game against the Panthers, so the defensive tackles should be good even without acquiring Albert Haynesworth.  I have bigger questions about the defensive ends.  William Hayes is OK but not great, I think Jacob Ford just is what he is and is unlikely to do better, and the Titans are expecting more from Derrick Morgan than what he did in college.

Morgan certainly was a good player at Georgia Tech, but I’m hesitant to project NFL greatness from him.  Part of his lack of sack production was that he had more run responsibilities than he’ll have with the Titans on passing downs, when he’ll likely line up farther outside (as the Titans are wont to do) and go after the passer with abandon, but he just hasn’t shown he can be successful doing that against quality competition.  The most obvious example of that was the Orange Bowl, which fellow first round pick Iowa LT Bryan Bulaga mostly controlled him as a pass rusher.  I like the interior guys, but just don’t see a difference maker on the outside.

On offense, these are the big questions:

O1. Will the offensive line play well again?
I thought Eugene Amano moving from left guard to center and Leroy Harris slotting in for Amano I thought would be an upgrade to an already formidable offensive line.  I think that probably should still be the case again, but the lack of rushing production is still mildly concerning, especially with Harris getting beat 1v1 and Roos’s sub-par play.  Depth is also a bigger question; with Harris stepping into the starting lineup, there isn’t the same sort of experienced backup who can step in, especially on the interior.  I think the offensive line should be at least as good as they were last year again, but any injury, especially at tackle, could be catastrophic.

O2. How productive exactly will Chris Johnson be?
Aside from not as productive as he was last year, I’m not sure.  I think he’ll be at least ok, but it’s a virtual certainty he’ll rush for nothing close to 2,000 yards.  The big question is how many carries he’ll get.  I thought the Titans would try to limit his workload, as they did the first 22 games of his career, but figured they’d add an experienced back if they wanted to do that.  I still think that’s a real possibility after Week 1, but maybe not.  OC Mike Heimerdinger said he’d give Johnson the lion’s share of the carries again so long as he was getting 6 yards per carry.  That won’t happen, so we’ll see if they do limit his workload when he doesn’t average 6 yards per carry.  My prediction for his line was 308 carries for 1357 yards, a healthy comedown to 4.5 or so yards per carry.  That carry total’s a little low, but that’s in line with what the next year has liked for backs who’s been as productive as he has.

O3. Who’s replacing Alge Crumpler?
Looks like Craig Stevens, thank you very much, who looks like he’ll be a very good blocker, though perhaps not quite at Crumpler’s level, but also a big upgrade over Alge in the passing game.  His concussion history scares me, though; one wrong hit, and he’s on the shelf for weeks or possibly forever.  That’s why I thought the Titans would keep Sean Ryan or another blocking tight end.  Like a veteran running back, maybe that’s something they add after Week 1, because neither Scaife nor Cook can do what Stevens does.

O4. Is there an upgrade at receiver?
Beyond Stevens over Crumpler, VY needs better targets for the ball.  Jared Cook didn’t have the same caliber of preseason he did last year, so there’s no hope there.  Justin Gage and Nate Washington have both spent time on the shelf, plus we pretty much know what we can get with them.  The biggest hope for improvement was Kenny Britt, who frankly may have had the worst offseason on the team in terms of actual as opposed to expected development.  He can still have a better year than he did last year, but I’m doubtful he can make the leap.

So, I look around the 2010 Titans and I see a lot of question marks. In the end, they’ll probably end up on the whole about how they were in 2009, with an average to slightly above offense and a below, but not hugely so, defense.  To me, that says another season of 8-8 and another season of fans acting like Jeff Fisher should be on the hot seat even though he won’t be.

If you like other predictions, the official Football Outsiders DVOA projection has the Titans 22nd, 7.2 wins, slightly below average at both offense and defense and with average special teams.  As noted above, the wisdom of Vegas has the Titans over/under set at 8.5 wins, with under at -145 and over at +115 (so, more likely to go under).  PredictionMachine.com has them with 9.2 wins.  We’ll see how I look at the end of the year in comparison to those.

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