Shutdown Countdown: Tennessee Titans season hinges on Jake Locker

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

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In 2011, the first season of the post-Jeff Fisher era, the Tennessee Titans won nine games, including four of their last six to finish in second place in the AFC South. Expectations were somewhat tempered in 2012 as the team was handing the quarterback position over to the inexperienced Jake Locker and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was expected to make big changes on his side of the ball.

[Related: Salary cap to bring big changes to Titans]

Locker was a typical first-year starter, wildly inconsistent while showing flashes of future success. The Titans struggled to put points on the scoreboard and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer during the season. Tennessee allowed a franchise-record 471 points (including 42 points off of seven defensive touchdowns allowed), topping the 460 points surrendered by the 1983 Houston Oilers (whose quarterback was Oliver Luck, father of Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts). The Titans hit a low point during a 55-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 23. That loss infuriated owner Bud Adams to the point where Mike Munchak's job security became a topic of internal discussions. Cooler heads would prevail, however, and Munchak was not fired. However, a fourth consecutive season without a playoff appearance would have consequences, so naturally COO Mike Reinfeldt was canned. Wait, what?

The Titans have a talented roster, but they may be another year away from being a legitimate playoff contender.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The Titans' roster has improved, with the team making several moves to improve both the starters and caliber of the depth on an offensive line that was 31st in Football Outsiders' "Adjusted Line Yards" metric. Running back Shonn Greene isn't a world-beater, but is a decent, between-the-tackles runner to complement Chris Johnson and the additions of tight end Delanie Walker and second-round wide receiver Justin Hunter will give Jake Locker two more weapons to work with in the passing game. Those moves on offense may offset the loss of defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, a solid run-stuffer who took his game to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Best offseason acquisition: Mike Munchak knows a thing or two about quality guard play, so it was no surprise when the Titans upgraded their interior offensive line by signing free agent guard Andy Levitre to a six-year, $46.8 million contract that included $16 million in guaranteed money. Levitre is expected to replace Steve Hutchinson at left guard, but has the versatility to play multiple positions along the line. The Titans doubled down on big money guards when they used the No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft on Alabama standout Chance Warmack, who was the No. 3 player in this year's "Shutdown 50" and will start the season at right guard.

Biggest hole on the roster: : The weakest part of the Titans' roster appears to be the middle of the defense. In terms of raw numbers, the Titans ranked 24th against the run last season. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, the Titans were 29th against the run. The team also lost Marks, who was arguably their best run-stuffing defensive tackle last season, and middle linebacker Colin McCarthy has been injury-prone, missing time with an ankle injury and has been slow to recover from a concussion that ended his 2013 season. Little was done to address the interior of the defense this offseason, which might haunt the Titans when the season begins in September.

Position in flux: : The projected starting wide receivers entering 2013 — Kenny Britt and Nate Washington — may be playing their final seasons in Nashville. Washington, who turns 30 in August, is the veteran leader of the group, but is not an overly dynamic player and is nearing the end of his current contract. Britt, a 2009 first-round pick, is known primarily for his multiple arrests off the field than anything he's done on the field and is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Titans invested a first-round pick in 2012 on Kendall Wright and used the No. 34 pick in the 2013 NFL draft on Justin Hunter, who are the future at the receiver position for the Titans.

Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: : If you watched the 2012 NFL draft, you might remember the name Zach Brown, who Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said was "allergic to contact" at North Carolina. That's not a glowing report for a linebacker, but Brown, who certainly is more of a "finesse" player, utilized his speed to post 92 tackles, including a team-high 11 for a loss, 5.5 sacks and intercept three passes, including two pick-sixes in a 38-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the regular season finale. Brown only played in 65.66 percent of the Titans' defensive snaps last season and is expected to play a larger role in 2013.

Stat fact: Eight offensive linemen on the 2012 Titans played at least 20 percent of the team's offensive snaps last season as 80 percent of the projected starting offensive line, and 60 percent of the offensive line in Week 1, finished the season on injured reserve.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Locker flourishes behind a revamped offensive line, Chris Johnson runs like he did in 2009 and Kenny Britt has a monster year as he plays for a second NFL contract. The defense plays up to its talent level as the Titans survive a difficult schedule to claim a spot in the AFC playoffs.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Locker struggles, Johnson continues his expensive downward spiral and Jerry Gray's vanilla defense makes the same mistakes — missed tackles, blown assignments, penalties — that plagued the unit during their 6-10 season in 2012. A fifth straight non-playoff season leads to Bud Adams, who turns 91 in January, cleaning house and a rebuilding process begins with a new front office and coaching staff.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: As it is with most teams, the success of the 2013 Titans season hinges largely on the performance of its quarterback. After sitting for much of his rookie season, Locker took over the starting role in 2012. In what was basically 10 games (Locker was injured seven plays into a Week 4 loss to the Houston Texans), Locker passed for 2,176 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, adding 291 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Locker was inconsistent, but not terrible, and from an advanced metrics perspective, he was just ahead of Blaine Gabbert in Football Outsiders' passing DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric. The Titans need Locker to make a big leap in 2013, which he's fully capable of doing. Expect offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains takes advantage of Locker's rare athleticism by using play-action and read option to keep opponents on their heels.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed

32. Oakland Raiders

31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns

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