Titans should still contend in AFC South

Despite a salary-cap purge that thinned out their roster this offseason, the Titans still expect to be Super Bowl contenders.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Paul Kuharsky | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The Titans have proven they are capable of shuffling the people surrounding their core and staying competitive.

So even after an offseason that featured an out-with-the-old (DE Jevon Kearse, DT Robaire Smith, WR Justin McCareins and RB Eddie George) and in-with-the-new (13 draft picks) story line, Tennessee expects it will be in the thick of the AFC playoff picture for the fifth time in six years.

They are a solid team with reigning co-MVP Steve McNair running the huddle. Offensively, they will be even more wide open than last year, when they became just the third team in NFL history to score at least 30 points in six consecutive games.

While McCareins will be missed, the Titans should be more explosive, with running backs and tight ends able to run after the catch supplementing increasingly explosive receivers.

Defensively, the pressure is on a veteran secondary and LB corps because the pass rush could be slow to arrive. While the Titans may be dominant on the front line at tackle, they have only one proven end.

Quarterbacks: McNair is so comfortable in Mike Heimerdinger's offense that he's more likely to take a simple check-down pass to RB Chris Brown than tuck the ball and run. Still, McNair said it's a "guarantee" he'll be dealing with some sort of injury in the second half of the season. Backup Billy Volek showed loyalty to the team that had groomed him and re-signed in the offseason. He has proved himself to be a more than capable in reserve. Volek has a cannon for an arm, he's smart and played through training camp looking sharp and acting loose. The one question is, can he absorb a shot? Like a lot of teams, the Titans will be combing through the market for a third QB after final cuts. Grade: A-minus.

Running backs: The downside here is that second-year pro Brown is unproven over a long stretch. But his time is now, and he provided no reason through training camp to doubt he'll be an improvement over George in terms of productivity. His gliding style gets him to and through holes quickly, and the offensive line will love him for his ability to make their work pay off. Because he's 6-foot-3, he won't be able to avoid big hits, so he needs to continue to learn to anticipate those blows and shield his body. Veteran Antowain Smith will be the secondary ballcarrier. He's steady but is much more like George than Brown. Robert Holcombe is a versatile back who will work primarily as the fullback and make big contributions on special teams. But rookie Troy Fleming is the more interesting fullback because the Titans will line him up wide or in the slot and let him run a lot of routes. Grade: B-minus.

Receivers: Derrick Mason is learning how to cope with double-teams. His knack for creating separation, especially underneath, makes him a favorite of McNair. The other two receivers should help Mason excel. Drew Bennett is a do-everything athlete, and Tyrone Calico is a big, explosive threat so long as he concentrates on the ball all the way into his hands. Jake Schifino is expected to be fourth in line, but he won't get a ton of work if the top three are healthy. Look for the Titans to go with three-WR formations a significant amount of the time and to run a lot of plays where they shift to an open backfield, looking to create a mismatch. They'll take plenty of shots deep. The tight ends should catch a good share of balls with Erron Kinney and Shad Meier leading the way. The team's top draft pick, Ben Troupe, was awful in training camp and is likely to start the season as a non-contributor. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: A solid group that's intact for the second season in a row, which is a huge factor. The line took heat, sometimes undeservingly, for George's 3.3 yards-per-carry average last season. So it'll be eager to rally around the more explosive Brown. On a team that is likely to go three-wide, or even empty backfield, the line will be called on to keep McNair clean without much help, and it will do anything for him. He thanked them for their part in his MVP-season with gifts of Cartier watches and plasma TVs. OLT Brad Hopkins is the team's senior statesman, and ORG Benji Olson may be the best of a steady bunch. C Justin Hartwig has the least experience but has really improved. Jason Mathews is the key backup at tackle, but Todd Williams has come a long way and should be in line to start in 2005. Inside, the backups are inexperienced, and the Titans might not survive if Olson or Zach Piller went down. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: Things will work inside out for Tennessee, with DTs Kevin Carter and Albert Haynesworth set to be destructive inside. The depth behind them is young, but the Titans hope Rien Long and Randy Starks follow the growth curves of the young interior guys who've passed through Tennessee's locker room in recent years. The trouble is on the outside. While Carlos Hall looked solid in camp on the right side and could be a consistent threat, the people behind and opposite him were insufficient in camp. Draft picks Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom, both defensive ends, are more potential than production at this point, though Odom is better, provided he's on the right side. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: This group took a bad hit when Peter Sirmon was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in a non-contact segment of an August practice. Rocky Boiman replaces him on the strong side in the base defense, but it's the role of MLB Rocky Calmus that changes the most. Calmus moves from a run-stopping role player to an every-down 'backer, staying on the field with the nickel, which the Titans play more than any package. On the front end, Calmus and Boiman should be solid working with Pro Bowl OLB Keith Bulluck, who's got an incredible nose for the ball. The depth behind them is likely to include fifth-round draft pick Rob Reynolds and a player or two the Titans pluck off the waiver wire. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive backs: Samari Rolle is a shutdown corner who rates with the best of them. Andre Dyson is a quality No. 2 cornerback able to endure the extra throws that come his way and bounce back after rare slip-ups. Andre Woolfolk brings great size as the nickel cornerback and should be a big upgrade over the patchwork group, mostly safeties, used in the nickel role in 2003. The depth here is promising but inexperienced. SS Tank Williams got his shoulder patched up and could be primed for a breakthrough season. Expect him to move all over and do a good share of blitzing. FS Lance Schulters was unselfish last season, but playing in position on every down this time around, he should pull in some interceptions. Schulters and Bulluck set the tone with attitude. Lamont Thompson is an excellent third option who will likely play in the dime package. If the Titans are high-scoring, the defense will give up some passing yards and still be happy if it minimizes scoring. Grade: B-plus.

Special teams: The Titans gain distance with Joe Nedney returning as the placekicker, but he's not the guarantee on the mid-range kicks that his replacement, Gary Anderson, was in 2003. Nedney will help improve kickoffs, relieving Craig Hentrich of the duty. Hentrich is a superb punter in the clutch, capable of bailing the Titans out at big moments. Tennessee was a Jekyll-and-Hyde group on special teams last season, ranking 31st in the NFL on kick returns last year but first in kick-return defense, eighth in punt-return average and 14th in punt-return defense. They hadn't settled on return men by the middle of camp but hoped Michael Waddell grabs at least one of those spots. Grade: B-minus.

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Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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