Implying beliefs from the Titans’ free agent activity

With the main wave of free agency done and few marquee players left on the market, I think it is useful to take a bit of a step back for a second and figure out what just happened. I did the writeups on each of the free agent signings and re-signings, and I'll have some more to say in more detail about some of the new acquisitions in due course. With a new coaching staff on both sides of the ball, though, we have a chance to get what the players they signed tell us of what they think, both in terms of what they think of the players already on the roster and what they want to do on the field.

Offense
Player: RB Jackie Battle
Impact on other players: Little, if any. There really wasn't anybody on the team with the same skillset.
What it tells us: Battle is not one of the best players in the league or even one of the best players in our backfield. Still, his versatility is extremely valuable for an NFL team. He won't be our feature back, but he can get a few carries if we need to use him. He can pass block on third down if we need him to, even if he won't be a dynamic receiver out of the backfield. He'll play special teams. Even if you think younger backs are better, you're not going to find a player in the draft who can replace everything Battle can do for us.

Player: RB/WR Dexter McCluster
Impact on other players: The chances are still good we'll be parting ways with Chris Johnson. Everybody knows this. CJ, for whatever his weaknesses, is the only back on our team who is anything like dynamic in open space.
What it tells us: Ken Whisenhunt's history in Arizona may have suggested a preference for downfield players, but he showed in San Diego last year he can run an offense that takes advantage of dynamic short area players. He won't be our feature back, but he can be a semi-effective running back in the right situation and is a good receiver. (There may be more to McCluster I'm missing, which is why I'm going to go back and watch how he played in 2011. Definitely on the to-do list.) Oh, and after last year's return difficulties the Titans had and the difficulty they had finding somebody else when those difficulties started, adding a player who was the league's most productive punt returner last year is a good thing.

Player: RB/Ret Leon Washington
Impact on other players: Assuming McCluster is primarily an offensive rather than a special teams player, none. The Titans needed a returner and didn't have one on the roster.
What it tells us: Washington stabilized the return position on last year's team. Watching the film of last year's team, it's obvious what can happen when you don't have a reliable returner. We can't let that happen again this year.

Player: QB Charlie Whitehurst
Impact on other players: Bye Ryan Fitzpatrick.
What it tells us: Installing a new offense, reps are at an absolute premium. We need to be able to start installing the offense effectively from the first day of OTAs. Whitehurst's familiar with Whisenhunt and OC Jason Michael from last year lets them do that. Plus, there are only so many reps to go around. As soon as he's healthy, Jake Locker will get all of the important reps and all the reps with the first-team offense. Yeah, maybe Whitehurst isn't a great player, but he signed him because he can fill a role for us. (This is the same reason teams play scrub veteran backups in the second half of preseason games rather than rookies, because it gives them a better chance to evaluate the play of the players around the quarterback.) Even if you think Fitzpatrick is a better overall player, he can't throw downfield effectively and Whisenhunt can't work with a quarterback who can't throw downfield-see Matt Leinart.

Player: RT Michael Oher
Impact on other players: The Titans don't think Byron Stingily is a starting right tackle.
What it tells us: Last season-heck, 2012-what we did was not a fluke. We the Titans believe organizationally having a strong offensive line is an extraordinarily important part of building a winning team in the NFL. Further, we believe in Oher as a player. You may think he was lousy in 2013 or that he hasn't developed since coming into the NFL. We don't care. We trust in our coaching staff and Bob Bostad's ability to make him a more effective player. Even if he wasn't that good last year, he played more effectively in the past-did you see Baltimore's Super Bowl run? Besides, the alternative to signing Oher was either playing Stingily or forcing a tackle pick early in the draft.

Player: WR/Ret Marc Mariani
Impact on other players: Competition for Leon Washington.
What it tells us: ICYMI, we had returner issues last year. We've seen what happens to teams with returner issues. We can't let that happen again. We will not let that happen again. Get the point?

Defense
Player: SS Bernard Pollard
Impact on other players: George Wilson, you're still the backup. Daimion Stafford, you're not ready to start
What it tells us: Having strong safety types play is no particular impediment for new DC Ray Horton's defense, as he showed in Arizona. Even if Pollard's not the best cover player and closer to an SS mold than even an interchangeable safety, that's not a big deal. And Horton can deal with his attitude. He's a leader himself and has been around and dealt with every type of NFL player between his playing and coaching careers. Pollard wouldn't do anything Horton has not seen before.

Player: DE Ropati Pitoitua
Impact on other players: Some defensive linemen won't make the team. Just who that will be remains to be seen.
What it tells us: Pitoitua was a solid rotational tackle in a primarily run-stopping role who likely will once again be a solid rotational tackle in a run-stopping role. Ray Horton defenses can use that type of player.

Player: DL Al Woods
Impact on other players: Some defensive linemen won't make the team. Just who that will be remains to be seen.
What it tells us: Another rotational player with 3-4 experience, like Pitoitua. Unlike Pitoitua, he has played both DE and NT. The Titans think he can play a bigger role than he's played in the past, though that does not mean he'll be Calais Campbell or Darnell Dockett and play most of the time.

Player: LB Wesley Woodyard
Impact on other players: Between Zach Brown, Moise Fokou, Zaviar Gooden, and Colin McCarthy, we don't have two players we're comfortable playing in sub package situations.
What it tells us: Linebackers who can cover are extremely valuable in this league. We think Woodyard is an excellent cover linebacker. We know the Broncos benched him in regular down situations late in the season because of run defense issues. We know if he has to take on and defeat blocks regularly he won't be an effective player. We think we can protect him enough to be a very successful player.

Player: DL Antonio Johnson
Impact on other players: Some defensive linemen won't make the team. Just who that will be remains to be seen.
What it tells us: First off, don't assume Johnson is automatically a lock to make the roster just because we re-signed him. He's making less than Pitoitua and Woods and the cap hit to cutting him is negligible in the scheme of things. Like Woods, he has 3-4 NT experience, something nobody else on our roster has. He's a solid rotational tackle. We won't ask him to be more than a solid rotational tackle.

Broader-Scale Thoughts on the Offense and Defense

Conceptually, I'm having a hard time putting the offense together. Maybe it's just because I don't have a clear mental picture of what kind of passing game Whisenhunt wants to run. While his Arizona teams were either good or awful depending on the quarterback play, I'm thinking the Titans will instead look more like the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that ran the ball as often as they could but threw effectively on scripted plays early in the game. From this perspective, Michael Oher is the only key signing and Dexter McCluster is just a gadget player to haul out every once in a while for situational purposes rather than a player who will be a key cog in the offense as his contract suggests he might be.

Defensively, I think I've seen enough Horton defense to get comfortable generally with what he wants to do, though as I've indicated before I need to get more comfortable with precise fits. I think we've learned Horton didn't think the Titans' defensive line was good enough, or at least had the right kind of players for his defense to have success. Beyond that, the other moves have been the dogs that didn't bark, or at least haven't barked. They haven't added a pass-rushing outside linebacker. That player may be coming in the draft, or among the lesser lights available in free agency if the draft doesn't produce one (I really thought they would have signed Shaun Phillips by now). They haven't added a cornerback, even though they lost Alterruan Verner in free agency. That has of course led to a lot of mock drafts with them taking a corner in the first round, and while that could definitely be a possibility depending on the shape of the board when #11 rolls around, their actions to date lead me to believe they have a relative comfort level with the corners they already have on their roster such that they won't force a corner the same way they forced a guard pick last year.

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