by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Let the Jake Locker era begin in Nashville!

It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when HC Mike Munchak made the call on his starting QB in the middle of August. Locker, the ex-Washington Huskies first-round pick a year ago, demonstrated enough upside in spot situations in his rookie season to warrant the nod over vet Matt Hasselbeck, who now becomes a nice insurance policy at the position.

Whether the switch helps the Titans improve upon their 9-7 mark a year ago and allows them to challenge the defending division-champion Houston Texans remains to be seen.

No matter, Tennessee ought to feel pretty good about what it accomplished last season. After all, it was hardly a smooth ride a year ago, with the franchise making some significant adjustments on the fly and not having a normal offseason to work out some of those kinks due to the spring and summer lockout.

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Remember, the Titans switched coaches after the 2010 campaign, as Jeff Fisher was relieved of duties that he had held since the franchise was still based in Houston. Munchak was promoted in Fisher’s place, but the ex-Penn State lineman was embarking upon his first head-coaching assignment. Tennessee was also going to breaking in a new QB, whether it be recently-acquired Matt Hasselbeck from Seattle or the rookie Locker, neither of which having the normal offseason routine to indoctrinate themselves into new systems.

Moreover, there were distractions related to star RB Chris Johnson’s well-publicized holdout, which endured through almost the entirety of preseason, and WR Kenny Britt was lost for the season to a torn ACL in September.

So, all things considered, the Titans did pretty well to finish with that 9-7 mark a year ago.

Now, however, let’s see Tennessee do it again.

Oddsmakers are taking a similar approach, as the Titan season-win total is being quoted at a very modest 7 at the majority of Las Vegas wagering outlets. Although Tennessee is the second choice in the AFC South (priced at 9/2 to win the division), the Titans are still rated far behind prohibitive division favorite Houston.

The Titans are also being quoted longshot prices to win the AFC (28/1) and Super Bowl (60/1). In other words, expectations are not too high in Nashville.

Why aren’t the Titans being taken so seriously after their encouraging performance a year ago?

Beyond the switch to Locker at QB, some AFC South insiders still have questions about the strike force, which could be looking at more unwanted distractions after WR Britt (left) found himself in more off-field trouble during the offseason, this time for a DUI. By late August, no league-mandated punishments had been announced, but consensus among NFL insiders is that Britt has used up his mulligans with commissioner Roger Goodell, who is expected to soon announce punishments that will likely include game suspensions, perhaps severe. Britt’s most recent run-in with the law was his eighth such incident since being drafted in 2009, and he was spared punishment by Goodell after a meeting a year ago that followed repeated police incidents that occurred during the NFL lockout. Don’t expect Goodell to be so lenient this time around.

Even if Goodell displays additional mercy (which, as the climate of the times would suggest, is unlikely), Britt is still on the “PUP” (Physically Unable to Perform) list in camp as he rehabs last year’s knee injury. So it is unlikely that the Titans, at least at the outset of the season, are going to line up with their top-flight wideout combo of Britt and Nate Washington, who delivered a 1000-yard season a year ago. Baylor rookie Kendall Wright will apparently be given every opportunity to step in for Britt and join Washington in the starting lineup.

Marc Mariani, who fills out the depth chart at WR, has also been lost for the season with a broken leg suffered in the August 23 preseason tile vs. the Cardinals, giving Tennessee an even thinner look at the wideout positions.

Former South Carolina tight end Jared Cook (49 catches last year), however, appears to be emerging as a legit star on the attack end.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of RB Chris Johnson (right), whose subpar (by his standards) 2011 should not, according to many AFC insiders, be simply chalked up to his long summer holdout. Johnson, who rushed for 2006 yards as recently as 2009, might have already started the downside of his career, which isn’t always too long for RBs. Johnson has gained just 2411 YR combined the past two seasons and saw his per carry dip to a career-low 4.0 yards in 2011.

Then, there’s the QB situation, and the transition from Hasselbeck to Locker. Though no longer among the league’s elite QBs, and having endured many injuries in recent campaigns, Hasselbeck still enjoyed his most–productive season a year ago since 2007 at Seattle, completing 61% of his passes. Most observers, however, are in agreement that the move to Locker makes sense, with Hasselbeck always ready in the bullpen should Jake falter in the fall.

How the QB situation evolves is a delicate one for Munchak and o.c. Chris Palmer, which is a bit concerning for an offense that has adjusted into a pass-first mode for 2012. Along with Britt’s status and Chris Johnson’s apparent decline, and camp injuries along the OL (C Eugene Amano perhaps lost for the season with a torn triceps muscle), there are some questions to be answered on the strike force.

Moreover, there have been other distractions in the summer related to the apparent suicide of WR O.J. Murdock at the outset of training camp.

The Titans held their own defensively a year ago, ranking eighth in total defense stats, with a platoon that squeezed more than it could have imagined out of last year’s rookie class. Especially along the front seven, where rookie DTs Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey, and LBs Akeem Ayers (right, chasing down Cleveland RB Montario Hardesty last October) and Colin McCarthy, all fared much better than expected.

Still, d.c. Jerry Gray would like to locate a few more big-time playmakers, especially from the DE spots that produced just 11 sacks a year ago. The offseason addition of ex-Browns and Raiders LB Kamerion Wimbley, who is slated to put his hand on the ground and line up as a pass-rush DE in the Gray defense, will be an important development in the progress of the stop unit this fall.

A disconcerting early camp development has been the demotion of former first-round pick DE Derrick Morgan to second string. The team is reportedly losing patience with Morgan, slow to develop as the sort of force the Titans envisioned when investing highly in his two year ago.

The departure of veteran CB Cortland Finnegan via free agency (to the Rams) leaves the “D” very young on the corners, where Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty will be expected to hold up this fall. The safety combination of Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux, however, is a veteran one.

Special teams remain a solid constant, especially with PK Rob Bironas a field-goal threat whenever the Titans cross midfield; Bironas was a near-perfect 29 of 32 on FG tries a year ago, including six of seven conversions from 50 yards or more. Punter Brett Kern also dropped 31 parachutes inside of the opponents’ 20-yard-line a year ago.

Although the Titans slightly overachieved to get to 9-7 a year ago, they were underachievers vs. the spread, covering just 6 of 16 on the board. Munchak’s first edition was also especially unreliable as a favorite, recording a subpar 2-6 chalk mark a year ago.

The Titans were also “under” 10-6 for Munchak in 2011.

Summary...Despite finishing above .500 last season, the Titans still have the look of a team in transition, especially with the switch to Jake Locker at the QB spot. Although the pieces seem to be present on offense, where they fit remains a concern with lots of “ifs” at all of the skill positions; the QB situation, Chris Johnson’s waning effectiveness, and Kenny Britt’s status are all potential concerns. Meanwhile, the defense, while overachieving a year ago, is still quite young. The Titans intrigue, but we suspect a best-case scenario will have them on the fringe of the playoff discussion. Exceeding last year’s nine wins looks to be a tall order.

Just in case Tenenssee missed the palyoffs again, however, Nashville fans can always trek to the Sportman's Grille on 21st Avenue by Vanderbilt (shown above right) for some of the best barbequed cornbread in the region...a nice consolation prize!


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