We continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position was we head into the 2013 offseason with a look at the offensive guards.
What did the Tennessee Titans learn from their two new starters at the two guard positions in 2012? Well, if a player is moved from left guard to right guard and has never in his life played right guard before, there's a pretty good chance he won't be as good at right guard as he was at left guard. Also, thirty-something offensive linemen who've ended the past two seasons on injured reserve have a pretty good chance of ending the season on injured reserve.
As a result, the Titans head into the 2013 offseason at guard in pretty much the same situation they were in heading into the 2012 offseason, with one starter a free agent who seems unlikely to be retained and the other a bit of a disappointment, plus no good internal candidate to replace either the impending free agent or the disappointing starter. Will the Titans dive into the veteran free agent pool and see if they can get it right this offseason? Do they have another choice?
Leroy Harris of course was the right guard who'd never played right guard before, a problem that was only exacerbated by his slow recovery from offseason surgery that robbed him of valuable practice time. As Andrew wrote in our preseason preview, he was little more than a stopgap at right guard, signed because the free agent right guard market was incredibly thin and the Titans did not find anybody in the draft they liked. He was better than his replacement, but that's about the only nice thing I can say about his play. Lost for the season with an injury suffered Week 8 against the Colts, he is a free agent this offseason. The Titans apparently plan to talk with him about a new contract before his contract officially expires, but expect him to be plying his trade elsewhere in 2013.
Harris's shift to right guard was precipitated in part by the addition of Steve Hutchinson in free agency last year. Both Andrew and I were skeptical of him before the Titans signed him, citing his age and injury history. He managed 12 games before going on injured reserve, which is about what the Titans should have expected. When healthy, he was probably the Titans' best interior offensive lineman, though still a far cry from the player he was earlier in his career.
Mike Munchak at his season-ending press conference expressed the idea that Hutchinson might retire, as he'd reportedly told people around the Vikings he might after the deal he signed with them expired in 2012. Matt Hasselbeck recently indicated that might not be the case, as Hutchinson was seriously working out like a player who planned to return for 2013. He's due $4.75 million in salary and a $500,000 roster bonus in the second year of the three-year deal he signed with the Titans last March. Objectively, that's entirely too much money for someone who's close to an average starter and can only be counted on for about 12 games. The roster bonus is due March 14, so we should know quickly if the Titans will be looking to replace him as well as Harris.
Deuce Lutui was signed to the active roster Week 2 and played right guard for the final eight games. While in the lineup, he looked like a player who wasn't on a roster Week 1 because he didn't deserve to be on the roster. Never a quick or particularly agile guard even in his best days, he's almost painfully slow. My all-22 game reviews typically revealed a couple plays each game that were almost laughably bad. He's somewhere around replacement-level at best and turning 30 in May is not an ascending player. Not under contract for 2013, I would not be surprised if his NFL career was at an end.
While most of his time was in the pivot position, Fernando Velasco played a little guard for the Titans in 2012. He was the primary interior backup in the past, and might have played more for Harris had Amano not gone down. I expect his future with the team to be at center, though it's possible he could be a stopgap at left guard should the Titans opt to part ways with Hutchinson. A restricted free agent, I expect the Titans to spring the extra $680k for the second-round tender amount and to happily wave goodbye if somebody swoops in with an offer (hint: they won't).
With Velasco moving into the starting lineup, Kevin Matthews served as the interior backup. He saw spot duty for Harris and Hutchinson at various times during the season and started two games before an injury sent him to the shelf (though not injured reserve) for the final two games. Even more than Velasco, he's a center and not a guard. Depending on what else the Titans do this offseason, he may be the interior backup again. I'll cover him and Velasco in more detail in the center positional analysis.
Mitch Petrus was snagged off waivers late in the season and started at right guard Week 16 against the Packers. After he blew a protection call and gave up a sack, he got yanked. Under contract for 2013 at a modest price, he's in the left guard mix. The mistake for which he was benched was an unsurprising result of line-shuffling and inexperience on a new team, so he probably won't be permanently buried for it. Still, he's been kicking around the fringes of different rosters for a reason. He might be in the starting guard mix, but only if other plans don't work out. I don't expect him to be a member of the Tennessee Titans Week 1 2013 roster.
The Titans signed Kasey Studdard to a futures contract after the season ended. He spent 2007-2010 with the Texans, starting most of 2009 at left guard thanks to injuries. I'm normally very dismissive of the chances of players who sign futures contracts, since they're guys who didn't finish the season on a roster. Studdard is harder for me to completely dismiss. Like Petrus, throw him in the left guard mix, but don't expect him to make the Titans either.
Kyle DeVan played center for the Titans in 2012, but he's actually played right guard before, spending time there with both the Colts and the Eagles. My understanding is he's a free agent, but I wouldn't put the chance of a return gig at absolutely zero.
Unless I'm terribly underrating one of the bit players who passed on the scene, Leroy Harris's likely departure leaves the Titans looking for at least one new starting guard, and Steve Hutchinson's age, salary, and injury history could very easily make it two. Do not be surprised at all if the Titans delve into the free agent market once again for at least one and possibly two starting guards. As we get closer to free agency, I'll break down the candidates who might be available and fits. My guess right now is the Titans look to sign a starter, preferably at right guard, in free agency while also drafting at least one and possibly two guards in the draft, with the idea of one potentially starting as a rookie and definitely starting in 2014.