It’d been 2008 since the Tennessee Titans had a winning record when Mike Munchak replaced Jeff fisher as head coach following the 2010 season. Expectations were low, but Tennessee produced nine wins despite the underperformance of running back Chris Johnson and some key injuries.
Also promising was the play of rookie quarterback Jake Locker. He sat most of the season behind Matt Hasselbeck, but came into several games in relief and looked like a potential star. So where do the Titans go from there?
Justin Stewart, editor of the blog Titan Sized, shared his thoughts with Zoneblitz.
Zoneblitz: What did you think of Mike Munchak’s first year as head coach?
Justin Stewart: It was a really impressive first year. Munchak showed that he wasn’t the same conservative coach Jeff Fisher was by going for it on fourth down 14 times and converting 10 of them, creating an impressive 71.4% conversion rate. He also got players on the field that were never really given a chance by Fisher, such as wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins.
Overall it was a really good first year for him and he’s put hope in the hearts of a lot of Titans fans.
Zoneblitz: Did you see enough of Jake Locker to get a sense for his future as the Titans’ quarterback? Will it be his job in 2012?
Stewart: In the time Jake Locker did get on the field, it was impressive. He showed that he still has a lot to learn, but he also showed the ability to move the ball down field. He led the Titans to a great comeback against the Falcons late in the game, after an injury to Hasselbeck, though the Titans fell just short. He also showed some impressive play against the Saints. Locker’s deep ball has people drooling. He just has to improve on a couple of things, such as decision making.
Whether or not it’ll be his job in 2012 remains to be seen. It’ll be an open competition between him and Hasselbeck. I’d guess Hasselbeck is the starter for the first two to five games and then Locker will be handed the keys to the kingdom.
Zoneblitz: Will Chris Johnson’s 2012 be more like his 2011 or like his 2010? Was 2011 the product of his holdout? And if he has started to decline, do the Titans have enough depth to deal with it?
Stewart: Boy, is that ever the question. Some said Johnson lacked the burst he’s been known for, but I disagree. He was a product of his holdout and an offensive line that rarely stopped players from hitting him in the backfield. Though I doubt we ever see another 2,000 yard season from Johnson, I do believe we’ll see a significant bounce back this year, as long as the coaching staff addresses the offensive line problem.
Zoneblitz: For years the offensive line has been a strength of the Titans. It sounds like Munchak was dissatisfied with its play in 2011. Do you see changes coming there?
Stewart: Yes. There have to be. It was a pathetic year for what has been one of the league’s more heralded offensive lines in recent years. Jake Scott is set to be a free agent and most likely won’t be brought back. The Titans new General Manager Ruston Webster has also spoken of getting younger on the offensive line. Hopefully they’ll address it by taking one of the top two centers in the upcoming draft. This line hasn’t been the same since the loss of Kevin Mawae.
Zoneblitz: Kenny Britt appeared to be on the way to a monster season before he got hurt. What is your understanding of how his recovery is going?
Stewart: Webster has stated that Britt seems to be healing fast and should be ready in time for camp. We’re all hoping this time off has helped Britt heal all up. He’s got hall of fame potential but he’s gotta beat this injury bug that has kept him down the first three years of his career.
Zoneblitz: With Johnson, Britt, Jared Cook and others, the offense appears to have pretty good talent. How are the Titans set on defense? Are there areas where playmakers are needed?
Stewart: The Titans defense is a work in progress. Our defensive line is the biggest question right now. We’ve got amazing talent at defensive tackle with rookies Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey each shining in their first year. Defensive end Derrick Morgan is a question mark as of now. He looked great in his first year before we lost him to a torn ACL. This year he was also bugged by injuries, which lead to a rather lack luster performance. Hopefully this next season he’ll remain healthy and we’ll be able to see the player we were only able to glimpse in his rookie year.
The Titans will still be looking to bring in a new end on the other side of Morgan. Moving Jason Jones there was a miserable experiment and the Titans need somebody who’ll help them get some sacks. That’s the biggest need right now, a playmaking defensive end.
The Titans also need at least one safety. Chris Hope will be gone and Michael Griffin may not be brought back either. The Titans could look at drafting this year’s best safety in the draft, Mark Barron. He’s a big hitter who’d help rejuvenate an aging position. Cornerback is probably the most solid position on the defense, along with the linebackers. Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty have both proven to be a handful and the Titans also have an intriguing prospect in Tommie Campbell, waiting on the sidelines.
Zoneblitz: Almost the entire secondary is up for free agency this year, including corner Cortland Finnegan. Will any of them be retained? Should they?
Stewart: Honestly, I think only one will be brought back, strong safety Jordan Babineaux. He had a great year and I’d be shocked if they didn’t offer him a new contract. Backup safety Anthony Smith could also be brought back. It’d be crazy to just wipe the position completely clean. Finnegan, Griffin, and definitely Hope all seem to be on their way out. Finnegan should be brought back, not because of lack of talent at the position, but because he’s earned it. But his salary demands won’t be met by the Titans, unfortunately. He’ll be a big loss to the team and an even greater loss to the city of Nashville.
Zoneblitz: The Titans finished just a game behind Houston in the AFC South, but Houston lost several games late after several injuries. How far are the Titans from contending for the division or from making a run in the playoffs?
Stewart: Houston is stacked on both sides of the ball. There’s no denying that. This division has become a battle between the Titans and the Texans, with Houston having the upper hand. I’d give the Titans one to two years before they’re a serious contender, but I could see them making a run in the playoffs next year. They just barely missed it this year and that was without Kenny Britt and with CJ2K underperforming. It’s certainly a promising young team.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Titans do in free agency and the draft?
Stewart: In free agency, there are a few interesting prospects the Titans could look to bring in. Free safety LaRon Landry, defensive end Cliff Avril, and guard Carl Nicks are the biggest ones that come to mind. Landry is the only one that scares me. His injury history doesn’t give you a lot of hope that he can be out there for all 16 games.
In the draft I’d hope the Titans would take strong looks at the safety and center position. As I said up above, I’d like to see Mark Barron brought in to bring a new young playmaker to the safety position. The Titans also obviously need to address the line as well and I think center is where they need to start. They’ll also need to look at the defensive end, outside linebacker and probably even wide receiver positions in the draft. This defense is going to undergo a lot of change this offseason.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Stewart: Don’t count out the Titans this next season. Everyone tried to do it this last season and the Titans just barely missed the playoffs. They also came real close to beating the Falcons, Bengals, and Saints. A healthy Titans team is one to watch out for …