As we normally do, we begin our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the player personnel portion of the offseason with a look at the quarterback position.
When new head coach Ken Whisenhunt was hired, the first question at his hiring press conference was about Jake Locker. That came as no surprise, as quarterback is the most important position in the league, Whisenhunt has a reputation as a good offensive mind, and Locker's status is still up in the air after he was healthy enough to finish only five of the seven games he started in 2013 and has now played the majority of the snaps in only 16 of the 32 games for which he has been the starting quarterback of the Tennessee Titans.
Understandably, Whisenhunt punted on the Locker question. He had just arrived from coordinating the San Diego Chargers offseason in the postseason. His decision on Locker and the offense going forward will drive what the Titans do at the quarterback position. But from what he said then, what he said more recently (he was on the radio in Memphis Friday), and what general manager Ruston Webster has said all make me believe that, health permitting, Jake Locker will be the Titans' starting quarterback Week 1 of 2014.
The uncertainty over Locker's long-term status makes this a difficult post to decide how to write, so I'll treat Locker as though there was no question about his status. Locker played the first four games and performed reasonably effectively. The Titans hid him behind a run-heavy gameplan for much of the first two games, though in Week 2 against the Texans he mixed some good plays on the two touchdown drives with some much worse play (airmailing Kenny Britt on the last offensive play still gets me to wince). He played better in Week 3 against a bad Chargers defense and did well against the Jets in Week 4 before getting hurt. When he returned after missing the next two games, he seemed to play reasonably in an offensive performance that was completely inept for three quarters against the 49ers, was lousy much of the game against the Rams, then stunk against the Jaguars before suffering a foot injury that cost him the rest of the season.
The full-season stats were … better. He completed 111 of 183 passes, 61%. He threw eight touchdowns (a league-average rate) and four interceptions (above-average). He was sacked 16 times, an above-average rate (by Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack rate, 8.2%). He fumbled three times, losing one of them. He finished the season ranked 22nd (of 45) passing in Football Outsiders' per play DVOA metric and 24th in the cumulative DYAR metric (again, passing only). He was again a fairly effective runner and that, combined with some narrativity (winning the San Diego game with a late TD pass), pushed him to a 15th-place ranking in ESPN's Total QBR metric. Better. Not great, but definitely better.
Evaluating Locker's season is difficult because of the two seemingly stints in which he played. In the first four games, before he got hurt, he had probably the two best games of his NFL career (against the Chargers and Jets) and two good drives against the Texans. He played conservatively at times, but effectively. He did not throw any interceptions, a big key for such a Life on the Margins squad. He wasn't nearly as good when he came back. Was that the result of playing the 49ers and the Rams, two at times and in some ways quite formidable defenses, and a misguided run-heavy gameplan and an early deficit against the Jaguars? Was that him compensating for having not fully recovered from the hip injury he suffered against the Jets? Was the first four games a fluke, the latter three games an easily-dismissible piece of evidence like the final five games of 2012 played with a disaster group of offensive linemen, or were those just seven games in the life of Jake Locker as an NFL quarterback?
Listening to Whisenhunt talk about Locker and the quarterback position in general, he noted Locker's love for the game and desire to work towards being a better quarterback. Even Locker's detractors (and I generally count myself in that category) believe that is a strength of his. Whisenhunt has noted the Steelers' success with Kordell Stewart, not known as a particularly proficient pocket passing quarterback, in discussing Locker. Obviously, Locker needs to be healthy. I do not generally find the "is Player X injury prone?" question an interesting one as a general matter. But, Locker can probably do a better job of using his body more intelligently. Plus, Whisenhunt will probably not call any option plays when he's already banged up. Whisenhunt has also noted he won't really know about Locker until he gets on the field with him. That probably will not be until OTAs. I generally do not get worked up over offseason injuries, so I do not particularly care if Locker is back for the first OTAs in April or not until May. Missing everything through mandatory minicamp (likely in June) would concern me some, but that's a bridge to cross when we come to it. Even so, my guess is what I wrote up-thread, that Locker is the starting quarterback Week 1.
While the injury prone question is not a useful one, I think Locker's history of absences does suggest the need for a quality veteran backup. Ryan Fitzpatrick more or less fit that mold in 2013. As I noted in my when the Titans signed him and in the preseason positional analysis, Fitzpatrick's strengths and weaknesses were very similar to those of the man he replaced, Matt Hasselbeck, and not quite as similar to those of Locker. We saw that when he struggled against the Chiefs and Seahawks in Locker's first absence, when the Titans tried to run the Jake Locker Offense. Fitzpatrick simply lacks Locker's arm. Locker plays best under center, going to the huddle, with "traditional" formations and personnel packages. Fitzpatrick plays best in a shotgun spread, operates the no-huddle well, and needs to get the ball out quickly. When now-departed offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains adjusted the offense to fit Fitzpatrick's strengths after Locker was lost for the season, he played more effectively. By Football Outsiders numbers, he was a more effective passer and more efficient runner than Locker was. Of course, his 3-6 record as a starter also brings to mind Bill Walsh's quote about Steve DeBerg, "He plays just well enough to get you beat."
The Titans will not get a veteran backup clearly better than Fitzpatrick. That's basically a given, considering the need for quality quarterback play in the NFL and the paucity of good options. Any clearly better player will go somewhere where they will be the presumptive starter and paid like it. Fitzpatrick is not badly paid, by any means, with a $2.75 million base salary, but a starter-type would likely be looking at double that. The Titans could still choose to make a change, though, given the apparent match between Locker's strengths and what Whisenhunt is looking for and Fitzpatrick's strengths. We should have a decision on this relatively quickly, as Fitzpatrick is due a $500,000 roster bonus on the fifth day of the League Year (March 15).
Fitzpatrick (680 of 1074, 63%) and Locker (394 of 1074, 37%) were the only quarterbacks to play for the Titans in 2013. Rusty Smith was the third-stringer when Locker was healthy and the backup when he was not, on a season split between the practice squad and the active roster. I believe he is slated to be a free agent. Given that the 2013 Titans did not trust him to be the backup to Locker and he will be entering his fifth season removed from Florida Atlantic, it is difficult for me to see him returning to the Titans. Best of wishes to him in his future endeavors.
Tyler Wilson is the other quarterback on the Titans' roster. The Arkansas product was a fourth-round pick of the Raiders in 2013, but lost a roster battle to undrafted free agent Matt McGloin and did not make the team out of training camp. The rest of the league then passed on the chance to claim him off waivers. He spent the season between the street, the Raiders' practice squad, and the Raiders' active roster until the Titans signed him late in 2013. Opinions on Wilson coming out were all over the map, with some internet scouts having him as a borderline first-round pick and Trent Dilfer describing him as undraftable. That he passed through waivers told me NFL teams were generally closer to Dilfer's opinion, seeing a player whose Tony Romo-like collegiate performance would translate in the NFL to too many attempts to write checks his body couldn't cash. My guess is he will be viewed as somewhere between a developmental QB3, where hopefully you get something and probably you don''t, and a pure camp arm like Nathan Enderle was for a while last year. Given that Loggains probably had some input on bringing in Wilson, it would not surprise me to see the Titans add a UDFA rookie if they do not draft a quarterback and prefer to groom him instead of Wilson.
I fully expect Jake Locker to be the Titans' starting quarterback in 2014. The big question is what they do behind him. Will they go for a veteran backup? If so, will that be Ryan Fitzpatrick or a stronger-armed player whose strengths (and weaknesses) may more closely match Locker's? My current leaning is it will be Fitzpatrick, just because I look a list of free agent quarterbacks and ask myself if Chad Henne and Derek Anderson are really names I want in my football life, but we have few tea leaves to read on the subject and a change would not surprise me.
I do not expect the Titans to spend a high, or indeed any, draft pick on a quarterback. Picking 11th, the Titans will not have their choice of quarterbacks unless they have highly varying opinions of which quarterbacks are players worth of so high a pick. Their other needs, especially given a likely defensive transition, make that even more likely. It is possible they could spend a late round pick on a quarterback, but on the whole I expect 2014 to be a Jake Locker evaluation year. I would not, however, absolutely rule out the Titans drafting a quarterback anywhere in the draft.