As is our custom, we begin our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head in the direction of the regular season with a look at the quarterbacks.
When I did the offseason version of this little exercise, there was still at least a theoretical question as to whether Jake Locker would head into the 2014 regular season as the presumptive starting quarterback. For purposes of that post, I assumed he would be, and that is in fact the case. Like last year, the Titans begin training camp with a clear-cut first quarterback and a clear-cut backup. Once again, the Titans will sink or swim based on the play of Jake Locker.
My schedule didn’t allow me time to dive into Jake Locker’s 2013 quite as thoroughly this offseason as I dove into his 2012 last offseason. Still, the basic questions are the same ones I outlined in that offseason positional analysis. Namely, his 2013 performance, while on the whole better than his 2012 performance, was a Rorschach blot with ample evidence for whatever belief about Locker you previously held. Think he’s good? Point to the Chargers and Jets games. Think he’s awful? Point to the Jaguars game, maybe the Rams game, or his struggles driving the field. I’ve never tried to hide that I’ve been a doubter of Locker’s long-term potential since he was one of the most enjoyable late night watches in college football as a young quarterback at Washington, but even I believe he should and will be the Titans’ starting quarterback this year, and it’s a new season with a new head coach and a new offense.
Hey, I made it to the third substantive paragraph before getting to maybe the biggest question Locker must answer, his ability to stay healthy. In the two seasons he has been the starting quarterback, he has played into the second half of precisely one-half of those games. In the other 16 games, he twice left games for good before halftime and was injured badly enough to miss completely 14 games. Does that make him “injury prone”? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I’m looking at this from strictly an instrumentalist perspective, which holds that’s not acceptable in the NFL, where availability on Sundays is paramount and talented but unreliable players are routinely discarded even at positions where players are subbed in and out much more frequently than they are at quarterback. Heading into the final year of his contract after the Titans (unsurprisingly and rightly) declined to pick up his fifth-year option this offseason, Locker has to be on the field a lot more than he has been the past two seasons if he is to earn another starter-level contract, either from the Titans or another team. Just how much more does he need to be available? A lot. If I ran the Titans, I would look for a playing time percentage of at least 95%, which was somewhat less than the 16th-ranked starting quarterback played in 2013 (Peyton Manning, 95.8%), before even considering re-signing Locker to be my potential 2015 starter.
Beyond his health, the other big question is how Locker will fare in new head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s offense. Whisenhunt’s offenses have frequently featured a higher percentage of intermediate and deeper throws than the average NFL team, though the offense he coordinated to much improvement in San Diego last year focused much more on shorter throws than the offense he had the previous season. That could mean that Whisenhunt is a flexible adapter to the strengths of his players, that Mike McCoy really ran San Diego’s offense last year, or a bit of both. Frankly, I’m not sure what Whisenhunt will try to do with Locker, whose only consistent strong point has been running. It could be a very interesting make-or-break season for Jake.
Charlie Whitehurst is the backup, after the Titans played switcheroo at that position by signing him and releasing Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has been in the NFL for eight seasons and been allowed to attempt a pass in two of those seasons. He has started and played the majority of three NFL games, two of which featured a DVOA worse than -85% (last game the Titans had a passing DVOA of -85% or worse: Green Bay, 2012). When the Titans signed him, I wondered if they did so because they wanted to lose all their games if Locker got hurt. Whisenhunt is familiar with him from their time together in San Diego last year, and Whitehurst played a valuable role in early OTAs as someone already acquainted with the offense. Whisenhunt knows his game and strengths and weaknesses much better than I do and obviously targeted him for a reason. As a Titans fan, I hope he was right in the all-too-likely event that Whitehurst does have to play, because the analyst in me sees a repeat of my experience watching Whisenhunt’s inept 2012 Cardinals passing game.
I recently covered Zach Mettenberger in some detail, so I won’t rehash his strengths and weaknesses as a sixth-round pick in too much detail. He was “just” a sixth-round pick, and we don’t really know how much the Titans thought of him. He could be a lock to make the team and a serious contender to start if Locker goes down or could get bumped off the roster with training camp struggles like last year’s sixth-round pick Khalid Wooten. Should he play in 2014, expect him to struggle like virtually every quarterback picked outside the top 40 does.
It’s not that I don’t understand why Tyler Wilson is still on the Titans as much as I’ve lost sight of what his raison d’etre for being on the team is, with a new staff and their predilection for tall, strong-armed traditional pocket passers not fitting the 6’2″ Wilson, whose style at Arkansas was reminiscent of Tony Romo’s improvisational scrambling. I know, general manager Ruston Webster acquired him. I credit inertia, since there was a party with an interest in his presence and no specific reason to cut him. While I don’t consider Mettenberger a lock to make the team, my tentative pecking order has Wilson as a distant fourth, in need of an especially impressive performance in camp to seize any opportunity a Mettenberger faceplant might create.
It is still all about Jake Locker, who has to play more and with more consistent success than he has had in the past.