After a look at the perennially static, not to say staid offensive tackle position, our next on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season is a look at the offensive guards, where change is the order of the day. That's right. A year after the Titans had new starters at both left guard and right guard, the Titans will once again have new starters at both left guard and right guard. If things go anywhere close to the way the Titans planned, 2013 will be the last year for a good long while that will be true.
The reason for that? The Titans saw the same thing I and everybody else did, that neither of last year's starters at guard was good enough, and depth was even worse. Mike Munchak has spoken recently about how he hoped 2013 would be a year where the Titans could make a last run with a collection of interior linemen they planned to replace in relatively short order. Steve Hutchinson was an acceptable starter, once the Titans learned his limitations, until his inevitable trip to injured reserve. Likely informed the Titans were unwilling to pay $4.75 million for another year of that, he retired rather than be released. Leroy Harris was a least worst option at right guard whose virtue was he was marginally better than Deuce Lutui, who replaced him when he went to injured reserve at midseason.
Enter two new starters, acquired at the combined total price of almost $59 million between the free agent and the high draft pick. That's an extraordinary investment in what's generally been regarded as a non-premium position, one where the Titans were able to get by for so long with relative value picks and recently have just been buying, albeit at a more modest dollar amount than they paid this offseason. This had better work, but will it?
Looking at, say, his Pro-Football-Reference page, it's hard to spot the reasons the Titans gave Andy Levitre $46.8 million over six years to play left guard. He was a reasonably high pick for a left guard, 51st overall, but he's never made the Pro Bowl or earned any sort of postseason honor. He's shown some positional versatility, playing left tackle (out of need) in 2011, but he's primarily a left guard and that's what the Titans signed him to play. A team he's played on has never finished better than 6-10, so it can't be explained by a "winning pedigree" or somesuch. The Bills ranked in the top ten in rushing yards once in his tenure and the top 20 in points per game once. Football Outsiders' efficiency rankings are somewhat kinder to the Bills, but only somewhat; the early-mid 1990s Dallas Cowboys the Levitre-era Bills were not.
I don't mean to sound too pessimistic about Levitre. For one, that he missed OTAs with a knee injury didn't bother me, since he's healthy and fully participating in training camp. Second, offensive lineman, particularly interior offensive line, is a position where players are particularly hard to measure by stats. In my free agent guards preview, I identified Levitre as the clear best option at a position of extreme need. That I have a fundamental philosophical belief that you don't pay a freakin' left guard almost $8 million a year is irrelevant, since the Titans clearly don't share that belief. Maybe he's not the solution for J.J. Watt, but he's a fine pass protector and an excellent mover in the run game, which matches what the Titans want and need. To maximize their chances of winning the division in 2013, the Titans needed Andy Levitre.
But Levitre wasn't all they needed. As I said in my hypothetical drafting to win the AFC South piece, the Titans need to block J.J. Watt and if that meant using the 10th overall pick on a right guard, they would go ahead and use the 10th overall pick on a right guard. Enter Chance Warmack, guard, Alabama, selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft.
I broke down Warmack in detail before the draft. As a collegiate left guard, I was a bit uncomfortable with projecting him to be an NFL right guard and do the sorts of things he'll have to do to be successful at that position. He could be fine, but I'll have to see him successfully handle NFL-type players 1v1 in pass protection for me to be comfortable with his ability to do so. He plays with great strength, but his most impressive physical performances came in dominating smaller second-level players. He's quicker than I thought, but that's more quick for a right guard and Ruston Webster indicated the Titans will be doing most of their pulling with the left guard. While pass protection is my bigger concern, I didn't see the same movement I expected in the snaps I saw of him against bigger defensive linemen either. Again, he could easily be quite fine and what the Titans were hoping for, but I'll need to see it first. The holdout was business and resolved before it got to be a big deal, which is why I didn't bother covering it. He'll be starting Week 1 at right guard unless he's injured.
Should either Levitre or Warmack get hurt, a player in the mix at the center position, Rob Turner or Fernando Velasco or Brian Schwenke, all of whom I'll break down in that positional analysis, will be the primary backup. I don't love any of the three of them as a right guard option. The training camp media release unofficial depth chart has Velasco and Schwenke at listed at center, with Turner the second-string man behind Warmack at right guard. The second-string left guard is Chris Spencer, a former first-round pick of the Seahawks at center who excites me to no end. He started a couple games at right guard for the Bears last year, then got benched, though he did return to the lineup at left guard, where he played in 2011. I'm sure his versatility attracts the Titans, but missing OTAs didn't help his slim chances and there's been a noticeable lack of praise regarding his play relative to the other offensive linemen.
Kasey Studdard is a guard. He played left guard for the Texans as an injury fill-in, mostly, in 2009. He's not a center, and I'm not sure he's a right guard either. Listed at third string left guard on the unofficial depth chart, he excites me even less than Spencer. Undrafted free agent Oscar Johnson rounds out the guards on the roster. A left tackle at Louisiana Tech, his foot speed indicates he's a guard in the NFL. A big man at 6'5, 330 pounds, his ceiling barring something unexpected is the practice squad. Otherwise, I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.
The Titans invested serious resources at both guard spots this offseason and are expecting big, big things in return. I can see a pessimistic case for Andy Levitre, but I'm at least mildly optimistic he can be what Andy Levitre has been. I can see an optimistic case for Chance Warmack, but until I see him be a good player at the NFL level I'm a touch skeptical (this may be my glass-mostly-empty nature coming out). Depth in the form of the backup centers I'll discuss in more detail in my next post should be a big upgrade over last year, but once again the Titans are really hoping they won't need that depth at all.
There's much more justified reason for optimism than there was last year, but it's too easy for me to see them coming under too much criticism next February when they turn out to be mortals with human failings who can't solve every offensive linemen rather than superlinemen who are only missing their capes (NSFW: language).