"This year is the 'tween year," says general manager Floyd Reese."Last year was the salary-cap purge year. Next year all the pieces will bein place to contend." Only five of the 87 players Tennessee brought to campwere 30 or older, and a 23-year-old-first-round pick Vince Young-is the futureof the franchise. He'll take the starting quarterback job from Billy Volek orthe newly signed Kerry Collins at some point this year. The free-agent marketwas a source for much-needed playmakers and leaders: wideout David Givens andsafety Chris Hope, who started in Super Bowls for the Patriots and theSteelers, respectively, plus center Kevin Mawae (formerly of the Jets) andlinebacker David Thornton (Colts).
No question this team will be better than the one that went 4-12 and wasoutscored by 122 points last season. Longtime quarterback Steve McNair was beatup and couldn't be counted on to play an entire season; his trade to the Ravenswas best for all parties, including his protégé, Young, who idolized McNairthough high school and college. Young is devoted now to offensive coordinatorNorm Chow, who's trying to get him ready to play at least one series in thefirst half and another in the second, beginning as soon as the opening game, tothrow opposing defenses a changeup every week.
"He needs tonot get confused by all the bells and whistles, the motion and shifting, ondefense," Chow says. "When he does, he'll be all right." Younggrabbed the reins of the offense right from the start of camp. Twoexamples:
•On one gallop hesaw 312-pound defensive tackle Randy Starks steaming toward him. Instead ofstepping out-of-bounds, Young leveled him with a forearm.
•In aseven-on-seven drill Young sprinted right, looking for a receiver. Underpressure he abruptly spun around, ran to the left, threw across his body with athree-quarter delivery and lasered a 55-yard spiral for a touchdown to wideoutTramain Hall. After seeing that, coach Jeff Fisher said, "That's just notfair."
The question is,How soon will Young master the routine plays? "How long do we wait to playhim?" says Chow. "That's the question of the year for us."
Volek isconceding nothing, but the signing of 11-year veteran Collins to a one-yearcontract spoke volumes. "As of this minute, Billy's our starter," Reesesaid late Monday. "But I don't know what next week will bring."
The question ondefense is, Can cornerback Pacman Jones, the No. 6 pick out of West Virginia inlast year's draft, get his head together? He's had several off-the-fieldincidents-the latest an arrest last week for disorderly conduct and publicintoxication-and against the Jaguars he complained about a call with suchvehemence and profanity that Fisher yanked him from the game. Tennessee needsJones to grow up fast because he hits like a safety and his tight coverageskills will help reduce the league-high 33 touchdown passes the team allowed in2005. Players such as Jones are the reasons why the Titans brought in freeagents like Hope and Thornton, veterans as valuable in their roles as leadersas they are on the field.
Tennessee may bea year away, but it's one of those teams that could sneak into contention ifthe youth movement suddenly comes of age.
10 N.Y. JETS
17 at SanDiego
24 at Miami
10 at Houston
24 at Buffalo
NFL rank T6
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage .527
Games against playoff teams 7
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE TITANS
> PacmanJones is the best cover corner in the division and one of the NFL's top fivephysical corners. But can he act like he's older than 13?
> If AlbertHaynesworth had a more consistent motor, he'd be the best defensive tackle infootball. He should be more physically punishing against the run.
> Defensiveend Kyle Vanden Bosch is a poster child for everything that's right about theNFL. Even after two major knee surgeries, he showed last season that he canstill get around the corner to the quarterback pretty well.
> SteveMcNair should have been shown the door earlier. He held that offense back thelast two years.
> For $25million I'd want a receiver to be faster and more physically gifted than DavidGivens.
Bill Volek trieshard, but his arm isn't strong enough. I expect Vince Young to be starting bymid-October.
Though twiceelected defensive captain in four seasons with the Colts, the lead-by-exampleThornton, 27, never got much attention in Indy. Playing over the tight endisn't a glamour job, but Tennessee recognized his value and signed the formerNorth Carolina walk-on to a five-year, $22.5 million free-agent deal in March.Helping to shut off running attacks that averaged 118.4 yards per game againstthe Titans last year (they ranked 22nd in the league in rushing defense) willearn him notice on a unit that is devoid of stars.
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COACH JEFF FISHER(97-85 in NFL), 13th season with Tennessee
DAVID GIVENS (NewAcquisition)
KEVIN MAWAE (NewAcquisition)
DAVID THORNTON(New Acquisition)
SACKS 12 1/2
SACKS 6 1/2
CHRIS HOPE (NewAcquisition)
SACKS 2 1/2
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 23/9/17 DEFENSE 22/17/19
PAC OF WOES A prodigy at cornerback, Jones, 22, needs a veteran to school him on conduct outside the lines.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BIRKWITZ