There’s an opening for the Tennessee Titans this year. Despite their struggles in 2010 and the coaching changes in an abbreviated offseason that have made the start of 2011 a little more difficult than usual, it’s becoming apparent that no one is going to utterly dominate the AFC South this season, giving the Titans a chance to survive their recent troubles by capturing the division.
The problem is that question marks surround Tennessee’s top two offensive players. Chris Johnson continues to hold out for a new contract, while Kenny Britt could be facing a suspension from the league (or even the team) following a tumultuous offseason of typical shenanigans.
Johnson has been the NFL’s most productive back since the Titans drafted him 24th overall three years ago. Britt has been the team’s strongest receiver since they drafted him 30th overall two years ago. Last year, they were the team’s top two pass-catchers, while combining to record 21 of Tennessee’s 37 offensive touchdowns.
If Johnson and the front office can’t break their stalemate and Britt can’t stay out of trouble, the Titans won’t have any hope.
2010 in a nutshell: The wheels come off after a 5-2 start. The players seemingly give up on Jeff Fisher at around the same time Vince Young throws a tantrum that would eventually end his tenure with the team. They lose eight of their last nine games to finish 6-10 despite scoring more points than they allow.
Three predictions for 2011:
1. Chris Johnson will be in the lineup in September: I’m not guaranteeing Week 1, because I think it might require a ragged performance or two to really light a fire under owner Bud Adams and general manager Mike Reinfeldt. But eventually both sides will realize that this is a lose-lose situation and CJ2K will sign a compromise to stay in Tennessee for the next three of four years at, I’m guessing, about $12.5 million per season. That’s probably as close to “top playmaker” money as the Titans will agree to cave, and Johnson and his agent will come to the realization that wasting a year of prime football will do more harm than good.
2. They’ll be better at the quarterback position: Matt Hasselbeck is being forced to learn a whole new system for the first time in his 13-year career, but he’s been stellar thus far in training camp and the preseason, and No. 8 overall pick Jake Locker has joined him in the “exceeding expectations” department. New offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is a former quarterbacks coach who should get the most out of Hasselbeck before Locker takes the reins. The Titans still have a very good offensive line (completely intact for the second year in a row) and will keep defenses honest if Johnson and Britt are in the lineup. If Jared Cook can finally emerge at tight end, they could be in much better shape than people are predicting.
3. The defense will struggle again: In fact, they might be a candidate for the bottom of the league, at least in terms of yardage. Last year’s 26th-ranked D lost top sack man Jason Babin, famed defensive line coach Jim Washburn and starting linebacker Stephen Tulloch. How many fewer sacks will they get while trying to adjust to Jerry Gray’s defense without those key contributors from 2010? They’ll need youngsters Derrick Morgan and Akeem Ayers to step up quickly while hoping that a veteran such as Dave Ball, Jason Jones, Jacob Ford or William Hayes can emerge to help fill Babin’s shoes.
The final word(s): It looks as though it’ll be a tough season, even with Johnson and Britt on board. They’re young and they’re just getting acclimated to a pair of new systems after the work stoppage. For an inexperienced team, there’s quite a lot of depth, but they may have to wait a year for more playmakers to emerge. Another 6-10 season is on the horizon.