BEFORE THE start of training camp the Titans said that their starting quarterback job would be decided in a competition. Left unsaid, but entirely understood, was that they had picked the winner, Jake Locker, long ago. The derby, while prolonged, was rigged in Locker's favor the moment he was selected eighth overall in the 2011 draft. He has since been afforded every advantage over his more experienced rival, Matt Hasselbeck.
The Titans' passing attack, its packages heavy on moving pockets and the vertical game, was built for Locker's nimble feet and big arm. Hasselbeck, whose 3,571 passing yards were the most in franchise history for anyone not named Warren Moon, was merely keeping the seat warm for the former Washington star last year. And he knows that. "When I recruited [Hasselbeck], I told him that at some point you're going to be battling a first-round draft choice who we feel has a chance to be a very good football player," coach Mike Munchak says.
Munchak's system ("spread it out and throw it around the ballpark") produced a banner year for Hasselbeck, who completed 319 of 518 passes, both the second-highest totals of his career and numbers he never imagined when he arrived in Nashville as a free agent late last summer. "When I thought of the Titans, I thought of CJ [Chris Johnson] zone left, CJ zone right, mix it up with a little bootleg here and there," he says.
Locker is expected to continue that transition from a run-first offense. The do-it-all Johnson—fit, focused, eager to rebound from a subpar season in which he rushed for roughly half of his 2009 output—will still get his touches, but more of them will come in space, off pitches and passes. The plan is to create more one-on-one opportunities downfield for a deep group of big-play targets. Kenny Britt, recovered from a season-ending right-knee injury in Week 4 of 2011, is the best known of these players, but he is facing a possible suspension for a July DUI arrest, his eighth incident involving police since he was drafted in 2009.
Two other primary targets have stepped up in Britt's absence before. Wideout Nate Washington logged the first 1,000-yard campaign of his seven-year career last season, and third-year tight end Jared Cook had 759 yards, nine short of the franchise record at his position. They should be even more productive with defenses collapsing around rookie slot receiver Kendall Wright, drafted 20th overall out of Baylor. There, he excelled in a system that shares many of the run-and-shoot concepts of the Titans' offense.
Wright's explosiveness and vertical (outsized for a guy generously listed at 5'10") make him especially versatile, able to line up both outside and in. "His legs are built like a running back's," Munchak says. "He gets off the ground and makes catches that you wouldn't think he could get."
It's easy to liken Locker to the kid who gets a Porsche for his 16th birthday with only a learner's permit in his back pocket. What will keep him from wrapping this machine around a utility pole is an offensive line that allowed the league's second-fewest sacks (24). Its most vocal leader, starting right guard Jake Scott, is gone, but he was replaced by Steve Hutchinson, a leather-lunged All-Pro whose experience blocking for two dominant backs—Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Seattle's Shaun Alexander—will be a boon to Johnson. Starting center Eugene Amano, too, is gone, his season ended by a triceps injury in training camp. Reserve Fernando Velasco slides over from guard, a transition that has been smoothed by the elite instruction of Munchak and line coach Bruce Matthews, both of them Hall of Famers.
The only gift Locker lacks is greater self-assurance in the pocket. He picks up what he can from Hasselbeck, emulating the subtle lateral moves the 14-year vet makes to elude pressure and hold his downfield gaze. "It's easier to learn it when you see it rather than when you're being told," says Locker.
The talent is there; so, too, is the system to bring it out. Player and team are ready to take the next step.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 17
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 9--7
9 New England
16 at San Diego
30 at Houston
7 at Minnesota
11 Pittsburgh (Thu)
21 at Buffalo
11 at Miami
25 at Jacksonville
9 at Indianapolis
17 New York Jets (Mon)
23 at Green Bay
The Titans' commitment to shoring up a pass rush that had the second-fewest sacks (28) last year went beyond this off-season's hiring of four new defensive coaches—including 1989 Defensive Player of the Year Keith Millard. It most prominently included the signing of free-agent DE/LB Kamerion Wimbley from the Raiders. The contract (five years, $35 million, with $13.5 million guaranteed) could not have been more out of character for a team that rarely spends in free agency, even to keep its homegrown talents. But they're convinced Wimbley is still miles from hitting his ceiling.
Through six seasons the 13th overall pick in 2006 has 42½ sacks, and his size (6'4", 255 pounds) and taste for combat (for kicks he entered the American Ninja Warrior competition in March) have second-year coordinator Jerry Gray drawing up pressure packages similar to those of the Jets and the Ravens. Wimbley's experience at linebacker and defensive end gives the Titans the flexibility to switch schemes, from a 4--3 to a 3--4. That he won't be asked to drop into coverage as much suits him just fine. "It's definitely something that I want to take advantage of," he says. "I want to prove that I'm one of the elite rushers in the league."
Average length, in seconds, of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's drop-backs in 2011, the NFL low (and 0.3 seconds shorter than Jake Locker).
Average yards after the catch allowed by Tennessee's defense, the fewest in the league, edging out the Steelers and the Ravens.
Locker's completion percentage against the blitz, nearly 35 points lower than his rate against a base pass rush. The league average for QBs was 54.3%.
The plan is to use Johnson more on pitches and passes to get him into open space, where he's deadly.