Titans training camp, first week recap

Saturday afternoon’s practice at LP Field, billed as a “simulated game,” was one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen in Titans training camp.  Only a few of the practices which were devoted exclusively to special teams work, such as kickoffs/kick returns or field goal attempts, were less thrilling.

Not much to report from Saturday afternoon, and no practice again until Monday afternoon, so I’ll use this time for a recap of the first week of camp with a few observations and questions.

Free agents weren’t able to practice until after the new CBA was ratified by the players on Thursday.  Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Smith, Daniel Graham, Barrett Ruud, Frank Walker and Jordan Babineaux were latecomers but fit in quickly.  Leroy Harris, Ahmard Hall, Jacob Ford and Dave Ball all re-signed but were likewise unable to practice until Thursday night.

Quarterbacks – Jake Locker began camp as the #1 but gave way to Hasselbeck.  Locker was erratic the first few days but has improved somewhat since then.  They’ve been getting the bulk of the reps the last few days at the expense of Brett Ratliff and Rusty Smith.  Camp battle: Smith v Ratliff for a possible #3 QB spot.

Running backs – Javon Ringer is the #1 for now but Stafon Johnson and Jamie Harper have also been getting plenty of reps.  Harper has flashed some running ability though he doesn’t appear to be as big as advertised.  Johnson’s best chance of making the roster is if Chris Johnson continues to hold out.

Fullbacks – Joe Tronzo and Patrick Hill were the FBs during Hall’s absence in the first several days of camp.  They’re both squat, muscular types who I‘d like to watch more when I devote some more time to watching the backs.  I haven’t seen either of them getting much work and don’t know if that means the fullback won’t play a big role this year.

Receivers – Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Marc Mariani and Lavelle Hawkins have all had some good days so far.  Gage will need to keep it up or he may become a victim of his $3.5 million salary.  Kenny Britt has not yet practiced, due to concerns over his hamstring.  Damian Williams has also been held out of a few practices.  Veteran Yamon Figurs and  UDFA rookie James Kirkendoll have shown flashes but are on the outside looking in.

Photo by Andrew Strickert for Total Titans

Tight ends – A month ago, Drexel asked if now was the time for Jared Cook.  Based on his performance in the first week of camp, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”  Hasselbeck seems to be building some chemistry and is bonding with Cook, who he’s targeted often and spoken with frequently on the field.  Cook has made quite a few catches 20 yards or so downfield.  Daniel Graham looks like a good pickup as another inline blocking TE.

Offensive line – Saturday’s “simulated game” was the best performance by the line as a whole so far.  The starting five from last year have not yet practiced together though, as Harris missed the first practices and Michael Roos has missed the last three or four.

Photo by Andrew Strickert for Total Titans
Bruce Matthews, Stewart, Scott, Velasco, Amano, Harris, Roos

Defensive tackles – I’ve been impressed by the new d-line.  It’s easy to see how much bigger they are compared to last year and they’re obviously stouter against the run.  The three rookie DTs have been a force, as has newly acquired Shaun Smith.  Sen’Derrick Marks has not yet practiced but he’ll have one of three DT spots, along with Smith and Jurrell Casey.  Camp battle: Zach Clayton and Karl Klug will battle for the fourth spot.  Jovan Haye is probably toast.

Photo by Andrew Strickert for Total Titans
Zach Clayton digs out. 

Defensive ends – Derrick Morgan hasn’t had a lot of reps yet.  Looks like he’s gradually being eased back into things.  Jason Jones and William Hayes have been switching back and forth between LDE and RDE.  Ball and Ford didn’t begin practicing until Thursday.

Linebackers – Second-round draft pick Akeem Ayers has taken over as the Sam and veteran FA Barrett Ruud as the Mike.  Camp battle: Will Witherspoon v Gerald McRath for the starting Will position.  Colin McCarthy ought to have a roster spot as Ruud’s backup.  I don’t think Rennie Curran survives the final cut.

Photo by Andrew Strickert for Total Titans
Mike Reinfeldt (background) watches Verner, Witherspoon, McRath and Ayers.

Cornerbacks – Cortland Finnegan is a holdout, says Jason Cole.  Earlier in the week, Finnegan was blitzing a lot from the slot when the Titans were in nickel and I had wondered if that would be something we‘d see more of during the season.  For the time being, at least, we won’t see the expected battle between Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty for the spot opposite Finny.  Newbie Frank Walker has probably clinched a roster spot as the next man.  Seventh-round draft pick Tommie Campbell has a chance to claim one too, now that Ryan Mouton is on IR.

Safeties – Chris Hope stuck around long enough to earn his $500k roster bonus and will probably still be the starter this season.  Jordan Babineaux provides much needed depth.  Michael Griffin and Vince Fuller are comfortably in place.  Nick Schommer, Robert Johnson and Myron Rolle will have a tough row to hoe.  Question: will Jerry Gray employ a strong/free tandem, a right/left, or a combination?

Coaching – This camp is quite different than previous Titans camps.  Mike Munchak has set a palpable new mood and tone.  Practices (at least before today’s snoozefest) are more upbeat and have more tempo.  Some of the new assistants, particularly Tracy Rocker and Dave Ragone, are energetic and have creative drills.

Titans training camp, first week recap

Now that the Titans have held seven practices open to the public, we can begin to form some ideas on what the 2010 team might look like. I attended all seven practices and following are some of my thoughts and observations after the first week of camp.
QB – All four have been hot and cold thus far, which doesn’t bother me. Vince has got a month to get into a groove and become more consistent. I’m impressed with Rusty Smith’s arm.

RB – Chris Johnson’s temporary holdout did nothing to diminish his speed. Although Javon Ringer is getting the ball more than he did in last year’s camp, it’s difficult to tell how much he’s improved, since he’s often behind a suspect #2 o-line. He’ll get a lot more carries in the preseason games, many of them behind the first o-line, which will give us a better idea. LeGarrette Blount is a pile-mover.
WR – The wideouts have been the stars of training camp so far, often making difficult catches and with relatively few drops. While Justin Gage has been very good and Nate Washington has had his moments, Lavelle Hawkins and Marc Mariani have stood out. Dominique Edison has also been catching the ball. The Hawkins-Mariani-Edison trio looks to be in good position to give the Titans the best #4-6 WRs they’ve ever had. Third-round draft pick Damian Williams hasn’t seen the field yet but he’ll figure somewhere in that #4-6 mix. Mariana has great hands, he’s looked like he’s using stickum. 
TE – Craig Stevens is showing that he’s more than just a blocking TE. The QBs have been throwing to him often, usually on 6 to 10-yard dump-offs over the middle, and he’s showcased some reliable hands. Bo Scaife hasn’t been utilized quite as much, though he caught a bomb from VY. Stevens and Scaife have been getting all of the first-team work, often together. Jared Cook had been rather quiet with the second and third-string offenses but had a fine day as the team was fully padded today (Saturday.)
O-line – The first unit looks about as good as it did in last year’s training camp; it ought to since it’s the same except that Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris have switched positions. The second unit, which often has individual matchups against d-line starters, has had its issues. I’m concerned about the depth here. Now that Harris is starting, I don’t see any backups as being ready to start if necessary. Hopefully one of them will show something as the preseason progresses.
Most improved offensive players: Hawkins and Stevens
Most impressive newcomers: Blount and Mariani
D-line – Jovan Haye and Sen’Derrick Marks seem to be doing well. Marks has been hustling a lot, even chasing backs downfield like KVB used to do. New DE Justin Babin has a motor too. He and Eric Bakhtiari remind me a little of Travis LaBoy, though both are better against the run and neither is quite as fast off the edge. As a whole, the d-line has been extremely active, something I expect we’ll continue to see throughout the year.
LB – If the first week of camp is any indication, Will Witherspoon will lead the Titans in tackles this year. There’s no hesitation in his first step; he’s all over the field and around the ball. Spoon seems to be picking up the defense quickly and fitting right in. Gerald McRath is noticeably more vocal. I am not particularly impressed with any of the other LBs outside of Stephen Tulloch. Rennie Curran is showing a lot of potential but he’s awfully small.
CB – This is a tough one. The WRs have been making a lot of plays, so how much of that is on the corners? The CBs have often been in decent position and the WRs have been making some tough catches. Still, when backups like Hawkins, Edison and a seventh-round draft pick are getting a step on them and making plays, imagine what opposing starters will do. The corners have also been moving around like a game of musical chairs. Jason McCourty, Ryan Mouton and Alterraun Verner have been alternating as the #2 starter. Nickel back Vincent Fuller, once a boundary corner in college, has filled in for depth and to help carry some of the workload. Verner had a good day today, breaking up a potential TD pass and making an interception on another play.
S – I have the same problem here as with the corners. How much of the good showing by the WRs and TEs is on them? The number of bombs the secondary has given up is also troubling. I haven’t seen enough of the rookie safeties to give me any good feelings. Robert Johnson was getting an earful from secondary coach Marcus Robertson in Friday’s practice. How much of that was constructive criticism and how much was simply instructional, I don’t know, but it seemed to be more of the former. One good sign – Michael Griffin was doing some hitting today.
Most improved defensive players: Marks and McRath
Most impressive newcomers: Witherspoon and Verner
Finally, a photo from Titans training camp at sunset.
Photo by Andrew Strickert for Total Titans