We begin our trip around the Titans position by position as we approach the start of the 2013 regular season with a look at the quarterback position.
Unlike last year, the depth chart at quarterback is absolutely clear. Jake Locker is the unquestioned starter, and the man with whom the 2013 Titans will sink or swim. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the backup. He will play if Jake Locker gets hurt. Rusty Smith will be the third quarterback, if the Titans keep a third quarterback.
I think I've belabored the point enough, writing about Locker late last season, in the offseason positional analysis, and looking at more micro areas like sacks, the red zone, and interceptions. Short version: He wasn't good enough in 2012, and outside of running well it was hard to find a consistent bright spot. That was no surprise to me, since I doubted coming out of college whether he'd be a good enough NFL passer. The good news is, he's a young quarterback, there's plenty of time to improve, and 2013 is a new season.
The designated solution for of "fixing Locker" and "winning games with Jake even if he's not fixed" came in a comprehensive passing game overhaul, away from Chris Palmer's pass-oriented option route-heavy attack to something I expect will look a lot more like Mike Heimerdinger's more run-focused offense with a more streamlined and unitary quarterback decision-making tree. Will it work?
At this point, it's hard to say. We haven't seen Jake Locker actually play in this offense yet. The Titans have done what they can to make it work-adding pieces to a run game that could put Locker in more third-and-shorts and -mediums and fewer third-and-longs. Justin Hunter is physically talented. Delanie Walker's ability to threaten defenses from multiple positions could make it easier for Locker to identify coverage schemes and potential mismatches. It could work, but Locker has to make it work. I'll be watching intently to see if he does.
If all goes well, Ryan Fitzpatrick will not take any regular season snaps for the Tennessee Titans in 2013. Think of him as basically Matt Hasselbeck from last year, except Fitzpatrick may be closer to the average "high football character" NFL quarterback to the "very good guy, even by high NFL quarterback standards" Hasselbeck was. He has similar strengths and weaknesses to Matt, including an ability to make plays that are there within the short-to-intermediate quick passing game but does not threaten defenses vertically and must operate within the confines of the offense to be successful. Barring an injury to Locker, I expect Fitzpatrick will only play if Locker is both (a) awful and (b) costing the Titans otherwise winnable games.
Rusty Smith's continued presence on the Tennessee Titans depends on how worried they are about Jake Locker's ability to stay healthy. I think the Titans are worried enough about a repeat of the "having to start rookie sixth-rounder Rusty Smith" experience that given Locker's injury history they'll keep a third quarterback. Smith is entering the final year of his rookie deal, which is why I thought he might be on the bubble for the QB3 job. Nathan Enderle's release, which Mike Munchak explained was due to the difficulty in finding enough reps for quarterbacks other than Locker and Fitzpatrick, obviated that particular question, but whether the Titans will keep three quarterbacks is yet to be determined and subject to what happens elsewhere on the roster.
It's all about Jake Locker, who has to play better than he has in the past.