By J.D. Redemann
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
Well, Graceland resides in Memphis, while the Tennessee Titans hail from Nashville. Yet, the words of Paul Simon still ring true to the team’s rebuilding efforts after a season that saw them plummet from a near-postseason 9-7 to a disappointing 6-10 final record. In the wake of such a disappointing outcome, it’s fairly clear that any and all of the league’s “ghosts and empties”, players left for dead in free agency by their former teams, would certainly have received open arms in Tennessee. Fortunately, the team was able to find much more than a pile of rejected players or an “Island of Misfit Toys” to help buoy their playoff hopes for this season. A strong draft and solid free agent signing class should do wonders for the Titans’ final line in 2013-14. But will they provide enough protection to keep young QB Jake Locker on the field? Will there be enough depth to insure against one injury to RB Chris Johnson or WR Kenny Britt toppling this offense’s high-end potential? Let’s find out…
Added: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Shonn Greene, RB Jalen Parmele, C/G Rob Turner, C/G Chris Spencer, G Andy Levitre, OT Barry Richardson, WR Kevin Walter, TE Delanie Walker, DT Sammie Hill, DE Ropati Pitoitua, LB Moise Fokou, S Bernard Pollard, S George Wilson
Drafted: G Chance Warmack, WR Justin Hunter, LB Zaviar Gooden, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Lost: QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Jamie Harper, C/G Eugene Amano, WR Lavelle Hawkins
The Titans’ offseason moves have shored up some of the biggest problem areas the squad had last season, but they didn’t do much to increase depth at those positions. Still, for the more than $100 mil they gave out in contracts this spring, they did pretty well at the top in finding impact talent to add to their roster, and that is perhaps more valuable on a team that’s already built with a “boom-or-bust” feel to it. Losing the veteran presence of QB Matt Hasselbeck certainly isn’t welcome for the still-young and still-learning Locker, but the acquisition of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick after he was cut by Buffalo will be a much more cost-effective solution (and provide a slightly more talented player) in case their franchise QB cannot get over his bad luck in injuries…. The running game also got a slight upgrade, as TD vulture RB Jamie Harper was waived and new TD vulture Shonn Greene was brought in. The upgrade there is Greene’s experience and ability to perform in a lead back role if necessary (success being relative), as well as being a big-bodied goal line banger to complement CJ. RB Jalen Parmele should also provide a small amount of depth to a position that is very shallow should the big boys go down….
The impact of the draft and free agency was really felt along the offensive line in Tennessee, as two huge upgrades in G Andy Levitre and G Chance Warmack (drafted 10th overall this year) join the franchise. These two should anchor the middle of the Titans line and really help the running game find its footing (and the passing game keep its). They will be key to any success this offense has this year; the progress begins and may end with the O-line…. A couple of interesting receiving targets were brought in. Only likely for competition for a depth role on the team, WR Kevin Walter did alright for Houston the past few years when given the opportunity. Rookie WR Justin Hunter was a Combine beast, leading the draft class in the vertical jump (39.5 in.) and broad jump (136.0 in.). His 40 yard dash (4.44 sec.) also wasn’t too shabby, and neither was his shuttle drill (4.33 sec.). This guy will push for immediate playing time and could be explosive off the line. Both of these guys could be targets to keep an eye on as a waiver-wire pickup a few weeks into the season. TE Delanie Walker is another athletic beast, and finally has a starting opportunity. If you wait on tight end, or want to grab depth late, he could be a nice sleeper (see my Highlight Players below)…. This defense is still terrible, but at least they re-signed return monster Darius Reynaud, and brought in DE Ropati Pitoitua and S Bernard Pollard. These impact players won’t turn this D/ST unit into a Cinderella story overnight, but they could make them a little more palatable to draft in deeper leagues.
One Up: Delanie Walker, TE - Another of the patented “freakishly athletic” TE’s, at the NFL Combine in 2005, Walker brought in an unbelievable 4.49 second 40 yard dash, a 36.5 in. vertical jump, and 118 in. broad jump. Since then, we’ve been waiting for him to break out, but a little thing known as 49ers TE Vernon Davis (actually not so little) has been blocking him on the depth chart ever since. Now with a starting gig, I love Walker’s chances to be a major sleeper at a position that so desperately needs them this year. Looking at his production from the first half of the season, he had only 1.5 targets per game (TPG), a 58.1% catch rate, and amassed a measly 11 yards per game to go with drops in 6 of his first 7 games. At the halfway mark, though (and with Colin Kaepernick installed at QB), his production skyrocketed, receiving 2.6 TPG, a 66.7% catch rate, and 31.9 yards per game. Not too shabby for a backup TE, and it seems he can only rise from here! Now, he will be the main stallion in the Titans’ TE stable, so he figures to do quite a bit more work than he did last year, but he should be able to handle the job. He will be able to stay on the field due to good blocking production, and Jake Locker will need a reliable checkdown option in the middle of the field; Walker can be that guy. Bear in mind, however, that he is a late-round sleeper. There is some concern about losing potential targets to second-year WR Kendall Wright, who figures to work a lot out of the slot and has fantastic playmaking ability too. In addition, the offensive game plans had the option to use Cook for the past few years and never took full advantage of his abilities. Still, I think he’s worth a late-draft flier purely for the upside.
One Down: Chris Johnson, RB – The big joke last year was calling the much-maligned “Sonic the Hedgehog”, CJ0K, after he started the season with a disastrous 45 yards on 33 attempts from Week 1 to Week 3 in 2012. Seriously, that’s just under 1.5 yards per carry! He clearly was not hitting the holes with authority, possibly running scared or lazy, avoiding contact and only looking to bounce outside for the big play rather than taking what was blocked for him and looking for a cutback lane. Shortly after, however, Johnson did put up a 141 yard game in Week 4 followed by a 91-yard performance in Week 6 and then a 195-yard game in Week 7. the question, therefore, is: Which one is the real CJ? Regardless of the answer, why do we continue to trust the player whose inconsistency is well documented and spend a first or second round pick in fantasy drafts on that player? Clearly we can’t attribute all of Johnson’s running struggles to him. Part of the blame clearly falls upon the shoulders of an offensive line that looked slightly less hole-ridden than Swiss cheese in 2012, but there is now additional competition. Shonn Greene will take nearly all goal-line and high-leverage short yardage work in Tennessee now, reducing Johnson’s value to his week-to-week yardage consistency. In addition, if Johnson proves ineffective again like the beginning of 2012, they now have a backup who formerly held lead back duties in New York and has proven (relatively) capable for the job. Greene could push CJ much more than expected, and that’s not a situation you want to tangle with when drafting your RB2. Johnson is the prototypical boom/bust player that we all need to stop trusting as a reliable fantasy commodity. His final numbers may end up alright, but his week to week lines will leave you frustrated and unable to guess when the next “stud” or “dud” week will emerge. Stay away from CJ unless you can get him at RB20 or later.
1) With a beefed up O-line will Chris Johnson return to being a top 5 RB?
I don’t buy it. Johnson was the one of the most inconsistent running backs in the league last season. Per Football Outsiders, Johnson ranked 33rd in overall value at the position, no better than an RB3 for fantasy purposes. “Maybe,” you say in rebuttal, “he was more valuable on a per-play basis then, because of his explosive potential for massive gains!” Au contraire, mon ami! On a per-play basis, Johnson was actually only slightly better, worth the 32nd rank. His success rate, based on conversions of high-leverage situations was even worse than these two: a paltry 38th among running backs. Based on his play last season, his expected yardage total was 895 yards, nearly 400 less than what he actually achieved last season. Take away the extra yardage and vulture a few of those 6 TD’s for Shonn Greene, and CJ?K is a toxic fantasy asset that you want nothing to do with. Top 5 RB? More like Top 5 Disappointment.
2) Who’s the WR to own in Tennessee: Wright, Britt, or Washington?
I’ve got my money staked on Kendall Wright. First, let’s look at it from the opposite perspective: Kenny Britt keeps getting hurt and Nate Washington keeps getting older. Britt has possibly the highest upside of any player on this Titans roster. He always has. Yet, much like a Darren McFadden who slots out wide on every play, Britt cannot seem to finish a season healthy (or out of legal trouble). Last year, it was both knees buckling again, and now Britt finds himself with his back up against a wall in a contract year. The Titans’ brass drafted explosive WR prospect Justin Hunter to provide some competition for the starting job, and if Britt falters again it may be his last misstep in a powder blue uniform. His upside is just not worth the head- and heart-ache of knowing whether or not he’ll be playing on Sunday, thanks to a questionable status or suspensions. In all honesty, I would not be surprised to see Britt in another team’s uniform come next offseason. Washington, while certainly not tipping into the crypt, is not as spry as he used to be. This season, he is competing with Britt, Hunter, Wright, and Delanie Walker for targets, and on a run-first team with the somewhat inconsistent Jake Locker at the helm, who knows what will happen to that distribution? There have even been reports that Washington might be cut by the end of training camp. Not worth the pick right now. Wright, on the other hand is a rising star in this offense, and looks to get a sizable increase in work out of the slot, especially as Locker matures as a passer. A year after receiving 104 targets, Wright could really become the focal point of the passing game as his receiving abilities mature (he caught only 64 of those passes) and if the Titans’ offensive coordinators use his strengths to stretch the field vertically as well. This could be a big breakout year for Wright, and I like his potential-to-draft value ratio much better than any of the other receivers for standard formats. He comes in at 41st in our WR rankings.
3) Locker has never completed even 60% of his passes in either college or the pros. Is it time to give up on him as a prospect?
Typically, NFL quarterbacks are given about a three year “benefit of the doubt” before it’s considered that “The Book” on that player’s abilities has been “written”. Some notable exceptions include Chargers’ bust Ryan Leaf, the Bengals’ Akili Smith, etc. But Locker has proven to have much more potential than players like that. The question is: can he solidify that potential into legitimate production? Being that this is his Year 3 season, I think he needs to be given the benefit of the doubt for one more year. Bear in mind, Locker only completed 10 out of 16 games last year, thanks to an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, and only saw action in 5 out of 16 games in 2011. This is a player who has not gotten a chance to define himself yet, as he’s played less than a season’s worth of games (and through injury for most of that time). What has he shown us so far? He has natural scrambling ability that can extend plays. He has the toughness to play through the pain of continual injuries when he is not seriously physically hampered by them. He may be injury-prone. He seems to lack a fully-developed ability to read and react to coverages. Let him show us for certain if those last two are true before we write him off as another bust.