StrategyJuly 30, 2009

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Daily Preview: Tennessee Titans

By Jim Rockford

The Titans begin the 2009 season with a dark cloud hanging over them. The tragic murder-suicide incident that left Steve McNair dead at the hands of his 20-year-old girlfriend will undoubtedly haunt the team as they start their season. McNair continued as the face of the franchise, even though he had been out of the NFL for several years. On the field, If not for a key injury to RB Chis Johnson, we might have seen the Titans in the Super Bowl this past winter. After ripping off 10 straight wins, finishing 13-3, and grabbing the #1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs, the Titans season ended on a heartbreaking loss to the Ravens in a divisional playoff game.

Heading into 2009, hopes are high in Tennessee that the Titans will be right in the hunt again, with the best rushing attack in the NFL, led by one of the best offensive lines in football and a deep and talented backfield. The Titans have one of the tougher schedules, however, playing their AFC South foes twice each, and drawing games against the Patriots, Cardinals and a Christmas Day matchup against San Diego.

QB: Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Mortenson
RB: Chris Johnson, LenDale White, Javon Ringer, Chris Henry
WR: Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Kenny Britt, Justin McCareins, Chris Davis, Mark Jones, LaVelle Hawkins, Dominique Edison
TE: Jared Cook, Bo Scaife, Alge Crumpler
K: Rob Bironas

Quarterback: From Rose Bowl hero to barely hanging on to a roster spot – in 2006, things couldn’t have looked brighter for Vince Young. After leading Texas to their first National Championship in 36 years, former first-round pick Young has proceeded to underwhelm Titans coaches, teammates and fans. After watching journeyman and former nutjob Kerry Collins step in and take his starting job from him in the first game of the 2008 season, Young is now in a battle with former Bronco backup Patrick Ramsey to even hold on to the backup job in Tennessee. In the summer of ‘08, Young was being drafted right in the pack with other QBs, as redraft owners were having to burn about an 11th-round or 12th-round pick on him. This year, the guy is off all radar screens and no longer even has legitimate value even on your dynasty roster. Collins, who led the Titans to a 13-3 record after assuming the starting role in Week 1 last year, signed a two-year, $15M deal in the off-season with $8.5M guaranteed. That locks him in as the Titans starter, but it shouldn’t mean much to your fantasy roster. Collins can likely be drafted in round 15 or 16 of deep leagues, but is nothing more than a bye-week fantasy fill-in, and possibly not even that. Ramsey has no fantasy value this year and Alex Mortenson is on the roster only to give the Titans second-round pick DT Sen’Derrick Marks someone to sack in training camp drills. Avoid this entire group at your draft.

Running Back: The Titans’ superstar fantasy potential starts and ends with this position. Second-year man Chris Johnson enters the season with a lot of potential and huge expectations from fantasy nation, limited only by his own ability to keep his ego in check. Johnson has spent the early part of the summer using his Twitter account to encourage fans to submit creative end-zone celebrations (quote: “I think they should help me, being that this is a big country music town or whatever. I think they should be able to come up with some good things, because they’re used to entertainment“), and predicting his own ‘09 stat line. His latest predictive tweet calls for over 2,100 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs.

Don’t count on this kind of production, but Johnson is a surefire RB1 anyway. Last year, savvy owners were snagging Johnson anywhere from Round 7 to Round 12 in many fantasy drafts. After a 1,228-yard, nine-TD rushing season last year, Johnson will likely cost you your first-rounder or an early second-rounder this year to acquire. LenDale White redefined the vulture back role last year, racking up 773 yards, but stealing an amazing 15 TDs, almost all of them from within two yards of the goal line. In early drafts, White has been drafted as about the 80th player overall off the board, putting him at around the end of the sixth round in typical 12-team redraft formats. White’s value this year will be closely tied to the quantity of value meals he consumes between now and the start of the regular season, however. An off-season diet and conditioning program brought him into OTAs at 234 pounds, a full 27 pounds lighter than last year’s playing weight, and he’s predicting he will start the season at 230. The Titans drafted Javon Ringer in the fifth round. Ringer exploded in his senior season at Michigan State for 1,637 yards and 22 TDs, including two games of over 200 yards rushing. Although not yet on most owners’ fantasy radars, Ringer could have significant value if Johnson were to get hurt, and he is definitely worth a look in keeper leagues. If you are a Johnson owner, don’t be afraid to take Ringer as a handcuff late in your draft, especially if someone else nabs Len-Whale. Chris Henry has speed, but was a no impact player last year, and I’d expect the same this year, as Ringer is likely to beat him out for the third RB spot on the Titans this year.

Wide Receiver: After finishing 27th in passing offense in 2008, the Titans acquired Nate Washington from the Steelers in the offseason to try and shore up an “also-ran” receiving corps. Washington comes in with a ton of expectations after signing a $3M deal, but may have trouble meeting them, after finishing last year as Pittsburgh’s #3 receiver with only 631 receiving yards and only 3 TDs. More worrisome for fantasy owners, though, is that the guy only caught 52% of the passes that were thrown to him last year. Although Washington is being grabbed in rounds 14-16 of some drafts this summer, there are a lot more interesting guys to grab as a WR4 in my opinion, although ESPN’s John Clayton recently reported that Washington has been the biggest surprise on the team so far in offseason workouts in Nashville. The first Titan receiver being taken in most drafts is former Missouri Tiger Justin Gage, going around the 12th or 13th round. Gage is a gifted physical athlete, but after a 34-catch, 651-yard campaign in ‘08, there is little reason to believe he will put up bigger numbers in ‘09. If anything, I’d expect Gage’s numbers to drop off this year, with Washington and rookie Kenny Britt stealing some of the sparse receptions in offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger’s run heavy offense.

Britt, after a huge seven-TD, 1,371-yard season for Rutgers last year, has been hobbled by a hamstring injury in OTAs and off-season workouts, and has failed to impress so far this spring, struggling to beat the Titans’ talented cornerbacks when he is on the practice field. Maybe the preseason will allow him to show why the Titans opted to use their first-round pick to acquire him. Britt is worthy of a late round flyer, however, especially in keeper leagues and deep redraft leagues. Justin McCairens will have to hold off Chris Davis for the table scraps at the fourth WR position for Tennessee. Neither is worth a spot on your fantasy roster. Mark Jones, who Tennessee acquired from Carolina in the off-season, will have some value in leagues that award kick return and punt return yardage to individual players, as he averaged 24 yards per return on kickoffs and just over 39 on punts last year. He will be given first crack at both return spots by head coach Jeff Fisher during the preseason. Second-year WR Lavelle Hawkins and rookie Dominque Edison will be lucky to keep roster spots, and one or both could end up on the Titans’ practice squad.

Tight End: Possibly the most intriguing story to watch during the Titans’ preseason will be the TE position. Although Tennessee will not have an elite fantasy TE this year, expect to see a good battle between veteran Bo Scaife and rookie Jared Cook. The Titans traded away a 2010 second-round pick for the right to move up in the third round of this year’s draft and grab Cook out of South Carolina. At 6′5″ and 246 pounds, Cook ran the fastest 40 time of any TE at the NFL combine and has soft enough hands and solid enough route-running skills to line up as a WR on some plays. Shortly after drafting Cook, Scaife quit grumbling about the franchise tag that the Titans had slapped on him in February and signed his one-year, $4.46M tender offer. Funny how that works, eh? Scaife produced 2 TDs and 561 receiving yards last year, placing him around 16th amongst all fantasy tight ends. The addition of Cook, and the Titans’ obvious fascination with him, says that Scaife is being drafted too early in most summer drafts, with an ADP in the 11th round or so. I’d expect production from the TE position to be up somewhat in ‘09 to around 600 or 650 yards and maybe 5 TDs, but these stats will likely be split between Scaife and Cook, rendering both of them as TE2 and bye-week fill-in players at best. Veteran Alge Crumpler, once a reliable fantasy producer with the Falcons, is also on the Titans roster and has high name recognition amongst fantasy owners. Let someone else blow a pick on him, as his value now is primarily as a mentor to Cook.

Team Defense/IDP: The Titans defense/ST unit was the highest scoring unit in the NFL in Week 16 last year, racking up five sacks, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries, as well as running back a kick 83 yards for a touchdown in a late-season game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers. For leagues that play DEF/ST units as a single unit, you’ll see the Titans ranked anywhere between fourth and tenth this year. The 2009 home stretch on the Titans schedule has them playing the Cards, Colts, Rams, Dolphins and Chargers and Seahawks in Weeks 12 through 17 — many of these are teams that I’d expect to toss a few INTs to a willing and able Titans’ secondary. With the addition of Mark Jones as a kick returner, I really like this unit as a DEF/ST unit. The Titans will have several defensive veterans who will be playing for a new contract, attempting to impress new DC Chuck Cecil, and likely playing for playoff home-field advantage as well. I think they should be ranked in the top 3 DEF/ST units for leagues using this format.

For IDP leagues, Kyle Vanden Bosch should play more in ‘09 than the 10 games he was on the field in ‘08 and could finish the year as a top 10 DE. Jacob Ford is solid as well at this position. At tackle, Tony Brown, who is above average, may end up with a better stat line in ‘09 now that he will no longer be playing in the shadow of all-world DT Albert Haynesworth, who left for a big money contract from the Redskins. At OLB, Keith Bulluck is still productive in the 4-3 scheme and is worth having on your IDP roster. In the defensive backfield, both Cortland Finegan at CB and Michael Griffin at safety are top-five caliber players at their respective positions. Griffin has amazing speed, and both are smart players who could see numerous interception opportunities this year, especially with the Titans playing the pass-happy offenses of the NFC West during 2009.

Although not loaded with skill position superstars, expect the Titans to be right in the running for a prime spot in the AFC playoffs again in ‘09, and to make another run at the AFC Championship game come January.

Jim is a down on his luck private detective. He lives in a trailer on the beach in Malibu, CA. With plenty of free time on his hands due to his rather grumpy nature towards his investigative clients, Jim follows the NFL, and longs for that remote day far in the future when the NFL will return to sunny southern California. You can find him in the Cafe's Forums hiding under the identity spodog.
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