STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Titans started their 2013 season on a high note, winning three of their first four games. Their playoff hopes dwindled quickly, though, as the team won just four games the rest of the way to finish with a record of 7-9. The downfall coincided with yet another injury-riddled season for quarterback Jake Locker, as he missed a total of nine games. The losing record was coach Mike Munchak's second straight and he was fired during the offseason after three years of helming Tennessee without a playoff appearance to his credit.
Replacing him is Ken Whisenhunt, an offensive-minded coach who was hired to help spark an attack that finished in the league's bottom half in total offense each year under Munchak's tutelage. Though the Titans lost two playmakers in Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt this offseason, Whisenhunt – who worked as the Chargers offensive coordinator last year – still has young talent to work with in wideouts Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, as well as rookie running back Bishop Sankey. Meanwhile, Delanie Walker, who recorded a career-high 60 catches last season, figures to benefit from Whisenhunt's extensive experience working with tight ends.
While reigniting the team's ground game in the wake of Johnson's departure is a priority, ultimately the offense's success will rely largely on Locker beating the odds and staying healthy. Working in Locker's favor as he tries to get through the coming season intact is that he'll be working behind an offensive line that gave up a respectable 37 sacks last year (tied for the ninth-lowest mark in the league) and could be an improved unit with the addition of Taylor Lewan with the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft.
The failure to find an immediate replacement for Alterraun Verner, the AFC's co-leader in interceptions (five) last year, leaves the team thin at cornerback. The Titans did manage to address their run defense, which allowed the league's third-most touchdowns on the ground (21), by adding DaQuan Jones, who was regarded as one of the top anchor tackles in the draft. Another concern was the lack of a pass rush, as the team finished in the bottom half of the league with just 36 sacks. To help apply more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Titans brought in Shaun Phillips and his 79.5 career sacks (11th among current players). The hiring of defensive coordinator Ray Horton should also help the defense, as his first season in Cleveland last year resulted in the league's ninth-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed, an improvement from 23rd the year before. Due to the Titans' versatility and depth at linebacker, Horton is expected to implement a hybrid-front defense that will mostly resemble a 3-4.
Bishop Sankey – RB, Washington (Round 2, 54th Overall)
The first running back taken in the draft has drawn comparisons to Giovani Bernard.
Dexter McCluster – RB, Chiefs
Has a chance to play Danny Woodhead's role in a Ken Whisenhunt-led offense.
Shaun Phillips – LB, Broncos
Gives the team a much-needed pass rusher on the edge.
Chris Johnson – RB, Jets
Appears to be losing a step after recording a career-low 3.9 YPC last season.
Kenny Britt – WR, Rams
Rejoins Jeff Fisher, as the Titans finally gave up on their 2009 first-rounder.
Ryan Fitzpatrick – QB, Texans
Should be the starter in Houston after subbing for Jake Locker last season.
Alterraun Verner – CB, Buccaneers
Now the Bucs' top corner after leading the Titans with five picks in 2013.
Rob Bironas – K, FA
The Titans will hold auditions to replace their second all-time leading scorer.
LOCKER'S LAST CHANCE
Jake Locker managed an efficient 6:0 TD-to-INT ratio through the first four games of the 2013 campaign but was then bitten by the injury bug for the second straight season. He suffered a strained right knee and hip, which kept him out Week 5 and 6, and subsequently a Lisfranc injury in his right foot that shut him down for the final seven games and required surgery in November. This offseason, the Titans decided not to exercise their fifth-year option on his rookie contract, making 2014 a quintessential make-or-break year for Locker. Luckily for him, the team didn't address the quarterback position early in the draft and new backup Charlie Whitehurst isn't viewed as a threat to overtake him. Plus, Locker is now paired with a creative offensive mind in coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has worked with the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers. Though Locker has shown glimpses of improvement – completing a career-best 60.7 percent of his passes in 2013 – he has only managed a 22:15 TD-to-INT ratio and 7.1 YPA through three seasons, which has consisted of just 23 games played. Entering his fourth year in the league, Locker can no longer use his injury history or inexperience as a plea for the Titans to hold out for the realization of his potential.
BACKFIELD SANS CJ2K
With running back Chris Johnson now with the Jets, the knee-jerk reaction might be to ask who his direct replacement will be in Tennessee. However, the Titans may not rely on just one back to replace Johnson's workload. Though rookie Bishop Sankey has the skill set to be an all-around option at the NFL level, he's likely to be used in a committee, at least to begin the campaign. Assuming his knee holds up, Shonn Greene is a decent bet to handle short-yardage and goal-line duties, while free agent acquisition Dexter McCluster is likely to be used as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Jackie Battle and Leon Washington round out the team's backfield options. While the absence of Johnson may, at first glance, be jarring, his declining production no longer matched up with his big contract. After breaking off three runs of 80-plus yards in 2012, Johnson failed to register a rush longer than 30 yards in 2013. His rushes of 20-plus yards have also declined each of the past five seasons. He had just five such runs in 2013. While there may not be anyone on the current roster who can provide the upside the 28-year-old Johnson did in his heyday, the reality is that he's no longer in his prime and the Titans may be better off relying on multiple sets of fresh legs in his stead.
Rising: Kendall Wright caught 94 passes last season and could see more shots downfield under Ken Whisenhunt.
Declining: Nate Washington caught 58 passes last season but he figures to lose looks to second-year pro Justin Hunter.
Sleeper: Bishop Sankey will likely be a part of a committee, but he has the all-around skills to lead the backfield in touches in his first year.
Supersleeper: PPR alert: Dexter McCluster has caught more than 45 passes in three straight seasons, and Danny Woodhead recorded 76 catches working with Ken Whisenhunt last season.
Jurrell Casey - DT
Accounted for nearly one-third of the team's sacks last season (10.5 of 36).
Bernard Pollard - S
Excluding his rookie year, he's averaging just over 96 tackles per season.
Zach Brown - LB
Could excel inside in a 3-4 scheme after spending his first two years on the outside.
RotoWire Rank: 24