Originally posted on Fox Sports Tennessee  |  Last updated 4/6/12
As an Ole Miss grad, the subject of his alma mater might have proved a tempting one for Ruston Webster to bring up during his organization's recruitment of Peyton Manning seeing as Manning's brother Eli and father Archie played there but the Tennessee Titans new general manager kept the discussions to business. "All Titans," said Webster, who was elevated to the job from vice president of player personnel on Jan. 18 when former general manager Mike Reinfeldt was promoted to chief operating officer and president. Just weeks into his new role, Webster was thrust into one of the highest-profile free agency chases the league has seen. Having lost out to Denver and made some key moves before and after Manning made his decision, Webster said the experience is something he will always remember. "It was interesting," he said. "It was a great experience. It's something I'll never forget. Every time you get to spend time around a player of that magnitude, with that much football knowledge, a passion for the game, I think it's time well spent. To be able to meet and our whole group to be able to spend some time around him, kind of get to know him a little bit, if you're a football guy and you like football, you'd love being around Peyton Manning. So it was good. Like I said, it's something I'll never forget." Webster said he thinks the pursuit of Manning did not affect the Titans' free agency plans, citing the signings of long-time Pro-Bowl offensive guard Steve Hutchinson and of linebackerdefensive end Kamerion Wimbley as proof. At present, he is preparing for the draft, where the Titans will select 20th overall, as they attempt to take a team that went 9-7 last season and narrowly missed the playoffs into one that can get over the hump. While perhaps the two most key people in the organization Webster and head coach Mike Munchak are virtual NFL lifers, they are relatively new in their current roles. Munchak, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman and the organization's longtime offensive line coach, will enter his second season as head coach and Webster, as mentioned earlier, is not even three months into his new position. So, there are adjustments. Webster said when needed he leans on Reinfeldt and will walks across the hall on almost a daily basis to consult with him. "I think some of the things are the same," said Webster, 49, who spent 18 years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and three with Seattle before joining the Titans in 2010. "A lot of the personnel issues are the same. I think for me it's just more dealing with managing more of a new group of people and having some expanded duties outside of just working on personnel. Even though it's always going to be my main concentration, I'm going to have other duties that I have to learn to balance, but I'm settling in. I'm enjoying it. I have a great relationship with our head coach, so that's all positive." Improving the pass rush is one of the team's top priorities, as the Titans ranked second to last in the league in that category with 28. With the departure via free agency in 2011 of Jason Babin to Philadelphia, the Titans lost 12.5 sacks that they were unable to replace last season. To that end, they signed Wimbley, who totaled 16 sacks during his last two seasons with Oakland, to a five-year deal reportedly worth 35 million with 13.5 million guaranteed. The Titans also hired Keith Millard as defensive assistantpass rush specialist he will work with linebackers and defensive backs, as well as linemen -- and will look to the draft for help. "I think we're always looking for rushers whether they're outside rushers, they might be outside linebackers, they might be inside pass rushers, but we're always look for guys with that knack," said Webster, who is pleased with the development of young players like linebacker Akeem Ayers, defensive lineman Karl Klug (seven sacks) and end Derrick Morgan. Another statistical category that stood out as a glaring weakness was rushing yards, where the Titans also finished 31st. Coming off his holdout, running back Chris Johnson's lack of production was well documented and during the season it was never completely pinpointed as to where the blame fell. During the offseason, the offensive line has been a focus. The Titans hope that Hutchinson's signing helps and they also could find a replacement at center for Eugene Amano, who played more guard earlier in his career. "Hutch has been a good player for a long time," Webster said. "We feel like he's still got a lot left to give and he brings leadership and the mentality we want for the team, as well. One thing we want to do is to improve how we ran the ball last year and he's part of that. He'll provide us good leadership and on our offensive line and on our team in general." It's impossible to know if the Titans might have landed some other coveted free agents like defensive end John Abraham, who re-signed with Atlanta, center Chris Myers, who re-signed with Houston, ex-Green Bay center Chris Wells, who signed with St. Louis, or possibly even highly prized defensive end Mario Williams, who ended up in Buffalo had they not pursued Manning, but the front office had no choice once owner K.S. "Bud" Adams Jr. made his wishes clear. Webster said he thinks the effect was negligible. "I don't know how much it really affected us," he said. "We signed Hutch during that point in time. It's just like I always say, it's like in the draft and free agency, you line up your board. You kind of know who's available where. We wanted to help our pass rush and we did that with Wimbley, we hope we did, with Kamerion. So I think we came out pretty good, actually." It seems any bruised egos from the pursuit of Manning on the parts of quarterbacks Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck set to battle for the starting job this season is minimal, if it all. Munchak kept both players appraised of the situation during the Manning hunt. "I have a good relationship with both of them," Webster said. "I go way back with Matt. Matt and I talked during the process. So that was all good. I have too much respect for those guys not to be up front with them, so that was all positive." He said he is excited about Locker's future and that the organization is lucky to have Hasselbeck. Having missed the playoffs by just one game losing to 27-13 in Week 15 to then-winless Indianapolis must have rankled the Titans are hoping for better in '12. Would failing to qualify for the postseason represent a disappointment? "Would it be a disappointment? I don't know that there's a year that goes by that (missing the playoffs) it's not a disappointment," Webster said. "That's what we're in it for. That's what we're playing for. We felt like we probably should've been there last year. Maybe a game or two that should've gone our way that we could've played better in "I will say this: I'm excited about the direction we're going in. Our young players, our quarterback situation is one we're happy with, so that's a big step in the right direction right there. We'll just keeping putting blocks on top of blocks and see what happens. But any time you don't make the playoffs you're disappointed."
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