Titans should still contend in AFC South

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The Titans have proven they are capable of shuffling the people surrounding
their core and staying competitive.

So even after an offseason that featured an out-with-the-old (DE Jevon
Kearse, DT Robaire Smith, WR Justin McCareins and RB Eddie George) and
in-with-the-new (13 draft picks) story line, Tennessee expects it will be in
the thick of the AFC playoff picture for the fifth time in six years.

They are a solid team with reigning co-MVP Steve McNair running the huddle.
Offensively, they will be even more wide open than last year, when they
became just the third team in NFL history to score at least 30 points in six
consecutive games.

While McCareins will be missed, the Titans should be more explosive, with
running backs and tight ends able to run after the catch supplementing
increasingly explosive receivers.

Defensively, the pressure is on a veteran secondary and LB corps because the
pass rush could be slow to arrive. While the Titans may be dominant on the
front line at tackle, they have only one proven end.

Quarterbacks: McNair is so comfortable in Mike Heimerdinger's offense that
he's more likely to take a simple check-down pass to RB Chris Brown than
tuck the ball and run. Still, McNair said it's a "guarantee" he'll be
dealing with some sort of injury in the second half of the season. Backup
Billy Volek showed loyalty to the team that had groomed him and re-signed in
the offseason. He has proved himself to be a more than capable in reserve.
Volek has a cannon for an arm, he's smart and played through training camp
looking sharp and acting loose. The one question is, can he absorb a shot?
Like a lot of teams, the Titans will be combing through the market for a
third QB after final cuts. Grade: A-minus.

Running backs: The downside here is that second-year pro Brown is unproven
over a long stretch. But his time is now, and he provided no reason through
training camp to doubt he'll be an improvement over George in terms of
productivity. His gliding style gets him to and through holes quickly, and
the offensive line will love him for his ability to make their work pay off.
Because he's 6-foot-3, he won't be able to avoid big hits, so he needs to
continue to learn to anticipate those blows and shield his body. Veteran
Antowain Smith will be the secondary ballcarrier. He's steady but is much
more like George than Brown. Robert Holcombe is a versatile back who will
work primarily as the fullback and make big contributions on special teams.
But rookie Troy Fleming is the more interesting fullback because the Titans
will line him up wide or in the slot and let him run a lot of routes. Grade:

Receivers: Derrick Mason is learning how to cope with double-teams. His
knack for creating separation, especially underneath, makes him a favorite
of McNair. The other two receivers should help Mason excel. Drew Bennett is
a do-everything athlete, and Tyrone Calico is a big, explosive threat so
long as he concentrates on the ball all the way into his hands. Jake
Schifino is expected to be fourth in line, but he won't get a ton of work if
the top three are healthy. Look for the Titans to go with three-WR
formations a significant amount of the time and to run a lot of plays where
they shift to an open backfield, looking to create a mismatch. They'll take
plenty of shots deep. The tight ends should catch a good share of balls with
Erron Kinney and Shad Meier leading the way. The team's top draft pick, Ben
Troupe, was awful in training camp and is likely to start the season as a
non-contributor. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: A solid group that's intact for the second season in a
row, which is a huge factor. The line took heat, sometimes undeservingly,
for George's 3.3 yards-per-carry average last season. So it'll be eager to
rally around the more explosive Brown. On a team that is likely to go
three-wide, or even empty backfield, the line will be called on to keep
McNair clean without much help, and it will do anything for him. He thanked
them for their part in his MVP-season with gifts of Cartier watches and
plasma TVs. OLT Brad Hopkins is the team's senior statesman, and ORG Benji
Olson may be the best of a steady bunch. C Justin Hartwig has the least
experience but has really improved. Jason Mathews is the key backup at
tackle, but Todd Williams has come a long way and should be in line to start
in 2005. Inside, the backups are inexperienced, and the Titans might not
survive if Olson or Zach Piller went down. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: Things will work inside out for Tennessee, with DTs Kevin
Carter and Albert Haynesworth set to be destructive inside. The depth behind
them is young, but the Titans hope Rien Long and Randy Starks follow the
growth curves of the young interior guys who've passed through Tennessee's
locker room in recent years. The trouble is on the outside. While Carlos
Hall looked solid in camp on the right side and could be a consistent
threat, the people behind and opposite him were insufficient in camp. Draft
picks Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom, both defensive ends, are more potential
than production at this point, though Odom is better, provided he's on the
right side. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: This group took a bad hit when Peter Sirmon was lost for the
season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in a non-contact
segment of an August practice. Rocky Boiman replaces him on the strong side
in the base defense, but it's the role of MLB Rocky Calmus that changes the
most. Calmus moves from a run-stopping role player to an every-down 'backer,
staying on the field with the nickel, which the Titans play more than any
package. On the front end, Calmus and Boiman should be solid working with
Pro Bowl OLB Keith Bulluck, who's got an incredible nose for the ball. The
depth behind them is likely to include fifth-round draft pick Rob Reynolds
and a player or two the Titans pluck off the waiver wire. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive backs: Samari Rolle is a shutdown corner who rates with the best
of them. Andre Dyson is a quality No. 2 cornerback able to endure the extra
throws that come his way and bounce back after rare slip-ups. Andre Woolfolk
brings great size as the nickel cornerback and should be a big upgrade over
the patchwork group, mostly safeties, used in the nickel role in 2003. The
depth here is promising but inexperienced. SS Tank Williams got his shoulder
patched up and could be primed for a breakthrough season. Expect him to move
all over and do a good share of blitzing. FS Lance Schulters was unselfish
last season, but playing in position on every down this time around, he
should pull in some interceptions. Schulters and Bulluck set the tone with
attitude. Lamont Thompson is an excellent third option who will likely play
in the dime package. If the Titans are high-scoring, the defense will give
up some passing yards and still be happy if it minimizes scoring. Grade:

Special teams: The Titans gain distance with Joe Nedney returning as the
placekicker, but he's not the guarantee on the mid-range kicks that his
replacement, Gary Anderson, was in 2003. Nedney will help improve kickoffs,
relieving Craig Hentrich of the duty. Hentrich is a superb punter in the
clutch, capable of bailing the Titans out at big moments. Tennessee was a
Jekyll-and-Hyde group on special teams last season, ranking 31st in the NFL
on kick returns last year but first in kick-return defense, eighth in
punt-return average and 14th in punt-return defense. They hadn't settled on
return men by the middle of camp but hoped Michael Waddell grabs at least
one of those spots. Grade: B-minus.

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