Monday, July 24, 2006

Titans Roster Prediction

A tad (read several months) later than I'd planned, but it is once again time for Tom's Annual Tennessee Titans Roster Prediction. This effort shapes out as somewhat more difficult than last year's, given that there might actually be players in training camp good enough to play in the NFL who won't make the team.

Let's start out under center, with the signal-caller. The official roster shows 4 quarterbacks in camp: Matt Mauck, Billy Volek, Vince Young, and Cody Hodges. Volek enters the year as the presumptive starter, given his NFL experience and time spent subbing for Steve McNair the past couple seasons. Mauck is the initial backup quarterback, given that he has several years of experience, including part of one with the Titans. Vince Young is the heir apparent and starts as the third quarterback. The Titans surprised me last year by starting the season with only 2 quarterbacks, but I forecast a return to 3 this year, and would be shocked if they carried a number other than 3.

Next are the ball carriers, running backs and fullbacks. In camp currently are Chris Brown, Jarrett Payton, Damien Nash, Travis Henry, Lendale White, Quinton Ganther, and Lamont Reid at RB and Troy Fleming and Ahmard Hall at FB. The team broke camp last year with four backs: Brown, Nash, Henry, and Fleming, and they are presumptive favorites to remain. Except Brown has requested to be traded. Nash, I'm convinced, only made the team because he had been a 5th round pick and they didn't want to cut him. Henry was suspended, injured, and unimpressive, though not so much that he didn't earn a contract extension. Fleming apparently forgot how to be a productive receiver, and may be the returning player with most tenuous hold on another roster spot, a dubious distinction he vies with Rich Gardner for. Payton made it on the field last year, and looked not awful, but has limited upside. Let's concretize these, using Football Outsiders' DPAR: Brown was 45th among the 53 RBs with 75+ rushes with a DPAR of -1.4, while Henry was 49th in the same pool with a DPAR of -4.3. Brown helped himself out catching the ball, 9th among 53 RBs with 25+ passes with a DPAR of 6.5, while Henry had a DPAR of 0.1 on his 20 passes. Nash didn't have enough carries to register, while Payton had a rush DVOA of 0.1 and a receiving DVOA of -1.4; ok, he's not a receiver. Don't worry, nor was Troy Fleming, whose ball-carrying responsibility was catching the football and only put up a DPAR of -1.3. Fleming doesn't carry the ball, doesn't catch it that well, and doesn't stand out blocking; good luck, but you won't be a Titan next year. The same, I believe goes for Jarrett Payton. Nash is the survivor of these cuts, but that doesn't mean he'll be around the whole year. Henry got another contract, so he'll be around. I believe Brown is the Titans' best running back, provides them something they don't obviously get with another back, and is in the last year of a contract, so unless somebody offers a top 3 pick for him, he'll spend 2006 in two-tone blue. White was a second-round pick, so he'll of course be sticking around. Those four will be the Titans running back corps come 53 man roster cut-down time.

Note, though, that none of those people catch the ball on a particularly serious basis. That is the job, ostensibly of the wide receivers. Tennessee went especially young at the WR position in 2005, and it cost them. Tyrone Calico didn't even really show flashes of his early rookie-season form, the rookies couldn't all produce at once, and Drew Bennett couldn't carry his team like Steve Smith did for Carolina. The Titans have a few WR in camp this year, as normal: Calico, Bennett, Jason Anderson, O.J. Small, Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby, Sloan Thomas, Bobby Wade, Grant Mattos, 6th round pick Jonathan Orr, Tramain Hall, and Mario Hill. Bennett's DPAR last year was a mere 3.7, 66th among WR with 50+ passes, but free agent signee David Givens was 28th with a 13.5 DPAR. Best of all, neither guy will have to do it all himself. The rookies last year were, well, rookies: none more than 50 passes, Roydell Williams DPAR 1.6, Brandon Jones 0.1, and Courtney Roby -0.1. All should improve on this figures this year, assuming health. Calico and Wade also return, but they were cover-your-eyes putrid: DPAR of -7.5 and -9.4, respectively, worst and third from worst among all receivers. Let's put it this way: Balitmore's Corey Moore, who caught only 1/6 of the passes thrown to him, scored better. Based on last year's performance, neither should have an NFL job. Frankly, I'm disappointed Bobby Wade hasn't been cut already, even if last year was a substantial improvement (!!!) over his -14.4 of the year before. Jones tore his ACL last year, but if he is fit and ready to go come opening week, I believe he, Bennett, Givens, Roby, and Roydell Williams will be the starting receivers. If he isn't, I expect him to be placed on IR for the first several weeks, and that O.J. Small or Jonathan Orr will make the team instead. (As noted at the time of the draft, I'm not an Orr fan.)

Other people do catch the ball on teams, particularly the Titans last year. The Titans didn't stop passing just because they didn't have the wide receivers to catch the ball last year, so the tight ends saw plenty of work. And there are five in camp this year: Erron Kinney, Ben Troupe, Bo Scaife, Gregg Guenther, and newcomer Jamie Petrowski. FO stats time: Kinney let the TE group with a DPAR of 9.1, 14th among TE with 45+ passes, while Troupe put up a respectable 4.8, 20th, and Scaife had a decent rookie year with 0.7, 32th, ahead of such a luminary as Dolphins TE Randy McMichael. I expect all four returning TEs to make the team this year, in part to play the HBack role formerly held by Frank Wychech and made vacant by the departure of FB Troy Fleming.

If all those people are going to be going anywhere with the ball, they'll certainly need someone to block for them. The Titans offensive line last year was ok; they were somewhat below average running the football, performing best on runs over right tackle, and very good at not getting sacked, ranking 4th overall with an adjusted sack rate of 4.4%. Naturally, that comes from LOTS of passes to the tight ends. If Norm Chow was tasked with ensuring the football gets out of the QB's hands quickly and keeping the QB upright, that happened. Doesn't mean the OL was anything special, which is just another indication that, particularly in a complex and dynamic sport like football, stats do not and cannot tell the whole story.

Anyway, here are the offensive linemen the Titans have in camp: centers Eugene Amano, Joel Rodriguez, Rod Olds, and Keven Mawae; guards Benji Olson, Zach Piller, Cody Douglas, and Derrick Warford; guards/tackles Jacob Bell and Mike Erickson; and tackles David Stewart, Michael Roos, Daniel Loper, Wendell Singletary, and Brad Rhoades. I would expect the Titans to carry 8-9 offensive linemen this year. Free agent signee Kevin Mawae I expect to make the team, along with Eugene Amano, based more on his special teams performance than his C play. I expected Amano to start with Rodriguez backing him up before the Mawae signing, and I believe Rodriguez could make the team over Amano if he shows he can do something on special teams. At the guard slot, I did not expect both Olson and Piller, longtime starters, to return, but since they're still around, I expect them both to make the team and start. Jacob Bell is also a lock, given his experience filling in for Piller at G in 2004, and being groomed for the tackle spot. Michael Roos, after performing well as Brad Hopkins' understudy in the RT spot last year, moved to the QB's blindside at LT. Daniel Loper and David Stewart are both in the battle for the RT spot, and whichever doesn't take that position will be a backup tackle and can also shift inside.

The offense is done, so now it's time for another unit. Since it's easiest, I'll do special teams. The Titans special teams were surprisingly decent last year, ranking 6th in DVOA after placing 30th a year before. Punter Craig Hentrich had a good year punting and deserves to return, while PK Rob Bironas relieved Hentrich on kickoffs and showed the Jets (and other teams) that you can find a kicker on the street close to as good as you can with a 2nd round pick (sorry, Mike Nugent, you're no longer a god among men as you were at Ohio State). Ken Amato also returns as the long snapper and last-string linebacker.

Oh, yes, the other 11 starters, the guys who (are supposed to) stop the other team from scoring. The Titans defensive line wasn't too bad last year, ranking 11% in adjusted sack rate and 13th in adjusted line yards. A look at the breakdown shows that the run-stopping defensive line was largely a function of the left tackle; the Titans were #1 by a LARGE margin in runs at left tackle, and the further you got from left tackle, the worse the Titans were. I have a sneaking suspicion that left tackle was primarily one Albert Hayensworth, with a supporting effort turned in by the man FO guru Aaron Schatz nicknamed 'Keith "The Entire Tennessee Defense" Bulluck.' Once you got past the LT, though, the Titans were at least a little porous, and prone to the big play, ranking 29th in allowing carries of 10 yards or more. Overall, though, the Titan defense was pretty bad, ranking 30th in Defensive DVOA. Despite the good rush defense and ok sack rate, the Titans had the WORST pass defense in football. They were pretty bad against #1 WRs (30th overall), awful against #2 WRs (last), a little above average against other WRs (11th overall), but bad again against TEs (#24), and awful against RBs (last again, and by a pretty substantial margin). Naturally, as noted above, the Titans spent their first two draft picks on offensive players, and didn't select a single cornerback in the entire draft. Let's go through the defense unit by unit.

The defensive line. As with every year, there are gobs of defensive linemen in camp: Albert Haynesworth, Rien Long, Jared Clauss, Randy Starks, Marcus White, draft pick Jesse Mahelona, Wayne Dickens, Chris Herring, and Jeff Littlejohn at defensive tackle, plus Kyle Vanden Bosch, Travis LaBoy, Antwan Odom, Bo Schobel, Copeland Bryan, Sean Conover, Adam Robers, and Tim Thompson at defensive end. I'm tired just typing all of those names in. At least 8 of those guys will make it: returnees Haynesworth, Long, Starks, Vanden Bosch, LaBoy, and Odom are all locks. I would expect 5th round draft pick Jesse Mahelona to become the 7th DL, bubble figure Jared Clauss to return, and Bo Schobel to stave off ending of his NFL dream for another year, despite spending much of last year on the inactive portion of the 53-man roster, primarily for lack of a better option at DE. If an undrafted free agent is going to make the team, as Gregg Guenther did last year and Drew Bennett did previously, then DL is where the best chance is. Frankly, it wouldn't shock me if either Marcus White or Jeff Littlejohn made the team, and I might have picked them if not for the positional logjam at DT. DE is MUCH weaker, since only last year's revelation KVB is any good, while LaBoy and Odom have shown flashes. I hope to say more about last year's efforts by individual defensive players when I pick up my copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2006.

The Titans also play, as with most defenses, with a couple linebackers on the field most of the time. As noted above, this has been Keith Bulluck and a bunch of junk. Peter Sirmon was good in 2003, then he tore his ACL, missed all of 2004, and came back at not full speed in 2005; a slow outside linebacker is a bad thing for a defense. Anyway, the LBs in camp are: Bulluck, Sirmon, Rob Reynolds, Cody Spencer, Jared Newberry, David Thornton, Stephen Tulloch, Terna Nande, Spencer Toone, Colin Allred, and Moses Osemweige. Bulluck is an iron-clad lock, as is free agent signee Thornton from the Indianapolis Colts. Tulloch and Nande were both relatively high draft picks, and thus should make the team. I expect there to be 6 LBs again, so two of Reynolds, Spencer, and Sirmon will make the team. Since I called the departure of Rocky Calmus last year, I'm tempted to do the same for Sirmon, given his injury, relatively high base salary, and the presence of Bulluck and Thornton at his OLB position, but I predict he'll leave in a trade to a team that has an LB need. This makes way for both Rob Reynolds, whom I expect to start at MLB with Tulloch backing him up, and Cody Spencer to both make the team.

Finally, defensive backs, your corners and safeties. In last year's amateurish effort, I flubbed badly this part of the team selection, not choosing enough players. I don't think I'll make the same mistake this year, as I'm projecting 11 DBs to make the team. The CBs in camp are Andre Woolfolk, Rich Gardner, Michael Waddell, Reynaldo Hill, Pacman Jones, Antoine Harris, Daniel McLemore, Keon Raymond, and Cedrick Holt, while the safeties are Donnie Nickey, Lamont Thompson, Justin Sandy, Vincent Fuller, Marcus Randall, Chris Hope, Calvin Lowry, Cortland Finnegan, and Jaxson Appel. Andre Woolfolk is in the last year of his rookie contract, so he gets to come back. Michael Waddell isn't quite as awful as he used to be. Reynaldo Hill isn't a starting-caliber NFL CB, but he was a good value as a 7th round selection last year. Jones, is well, Pacman... a bit of a head case, had the dropsies early in the year returning punts, held out, off the field activities, but started to play pretty well as the year went on before blowing up on the field. If he can keep his head straight and wants to improve, I saw enough from him to believe he could be an elite-level cover cornerback. As with the DL, though, and as noted above, the Titans aren't quite balanced positionally, with seemingly more, better safeties than corners. They added free agent Chris Hope from the Pittsburgh Steelers, resigned Lamont Thompson, who like Sirmon was coming off an ACL injury, then drafted Penn State's Calvin Lowry in the 4th round and Cortland Finnegan in the 7th. Thompson's a lock, as are Hope and Lowry. I also expect Vincent Fuller to be healthy and play a big role this year, Justin Sandy to play more, Donnie Nickey to hang on for another year, and Marcus Randall to make the team as a DB/OLB/special teams player. Yes, both Nickey and Randall could easily not make the team, making the way for one of the undrafted cornerbacks and another player at a different position, perhaps a 5th RB or 6th WR.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it, at least until I changed it. As noted above, I hope to acquire Pro Football Prospectus 2006 in the near future, and may supplement my predictions with additional data gleaned from the statistics there.

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