Coming off a 9-7 mark in head coach Mike Munchaks inaugural season, the Tennessee Titans have every reason to expect improvement in 2012 except for one key factor.
The Titans face a murderous schedule, especially out of the gate when they face three teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2011 in their first four games and the other is on the road against one of the NFLs better quarterbacks in San Diegos Philip Rivers.
Having made improvements on the offensive and defensive line and tweaks to the coaching staff, the Titans have addressed weaknesses from last season and ought to get better production from running back Chris Johnson, whose holdout no doubt hurt his on-field performance in 2011.
With such a difficult schedule six games come against 11 playoff teams plus what should be a very good Chicago team especially right out of the gate, the importance of training camp cannot be under-rated. Here are the top five story lines for the Titans entering camp, which begins one week from Saturday:
1. Who will start at quarterback?
Munchak has promised an open competition between last years starter, Matt Hasselbeck, who enters his second season with the Titans and 14th in the league, and Jake Locker, last years first-round pick.
Because of the teams win-now mandate, handed down from the top by octogenarian owner Bud Adams, Munchak has said that the schedule will play a role in choosing the starter. That factor gives an obvious nod in the direction of Hasselbeck.
Consider that the season opener comes at home against New England, whose coach Bill Belichick is perhaps the best game-planner the league has ever seen. Against a first-time starter like Locker, Belichick would find myriad ways to confuse the 24-year-old. Hasselbeck would stand a much better chance of navigating through the maze of defenses the Titans are likely to see.
But thats just one game. Last year, Hasselbeck struggled to stay healthy as the season wore on, unable to finish games against Atlanta on Nov. 20, New Orleans on Dec. 11 and at Indianapolis on Dec. 18, although he rebounded nicely in the Titans final two games. Whether his injuries are a trend begun by age remains to be seen.
In each of the games in which Locker relieved Hasselbeck, Locker performed ably, registering a minimum of a 91.5 quarterback rating, but critically he did not win any of them.
Locker finds himself in the position of the challenger in the heavyweight title bout: To win the job, he needs a knockout, not just a decision. Performance in camp but, even more so, in preseason games could make the difference.
2. Will Chris Johnson rebound?
Johnson justly deserved a reputation as one of the games two top running backs coming off his first three seasons in which he averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He held out of training camp last year to earn himself a contract that would support such status.
The two parties eventually came to an agreement but not without avoiding Johnsons lengthy absence from camp, which was magnified by the lockouts wiping out of offseason team activities and mini-camp. A combination of that and struggles by the offensive line led to Johnsons least-productive season: 1,047 yards, only four rushing touchdowns and 4.0 yards-per-carry average.
Johnsons woes, in turn, hurt the passing game, as opposing defenses did not have to worry about the threat he posed to the same degree as they did in the past. This season figures to be different. The signing of guard Steve Hutchinson ought to bolster the offensive lines run-blocking and with a full offseason under his belt and some hunger in his belly, Johnson should rebound. Again, one sign of whether or not that is apparent should come in preseason games and how Johnson hits the holes in camp an area in which some said he looked slow or tentative last season.
3. Will the pass rush improve?
The Titans totaled the second-fewest sacks in the NFL last season, a glaring weakness that needs to be corrected.
The signing of Kamerion Wimbley, who mostly played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme but will play defensive end for the Titans in their 4-3, should help. The Titans also made a few other moves, acquiring another defensive end with a bit more heft, Leger Douzable (6-4, 284), though Douzable, who also plays tackle, only posted one sack in 16 games last season for Jacksonville.
Also intriguing is the hire of Keith Millard as defensive assistantpass rush specialist. Millard will be charged with improving the pass rush not just of the defensive line but also the linebackers and secondary.
Linebacker Akeem Ayers, last years second-round pick, might help in that department. This years second-round pick, linebacker Zach Brown, who is known as a speedster, represents a somewhat unknown quantity in that department. In many ways, the Titans can only go up from last season.
4. Will the changes in the offensive line help?
With Munchaks background being that of a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and a long-time offensive line coach, the most disappointing statistic from last year for him is probably the fact that the Titans ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing yards at 89.9 per game.
In the offseason, Munchak has promised a hard look at the group. Among the moves designed to shore it up was the signing of Hutchinson, the seven-time Pro-Bowler.
At center, Eugene Amano, a nine-year veteran, will receiver competition for his job after being the starter since the beginning of 2008. Behind him on the depth chart is Kevin Matthews, entering his second season with the Titans out of Texas A&M. Another possibility is Fernando Velasco, 27, out of Georgia. Velasco has mostly played special teams for the Titans, but has played somewhat on the offensive line.
Its also possible that in the offseason the Titans have made whatever changes they have deemed necessary to their scheme to try and give the line a hand. Regardless, this area has to be better. Contact essential to line play is not allowed during the offseason so camp will be the incubation period to see who rises to the occasion. A few more training camp scraps which most often come from the line than usual could be in order.
5. Whither Kenny Britt?
Britt was arrested for the eighth time in his career on Friday, which definitely would seem to place him in the crosshairs of Commissioner Roger Goodell in terms of leagues personal conduct policy.
In any case, Britt was coming off surgery on his right ACL and MCL. Since that procedure, he has had both knees scoped so his physical condition seemed to be a question mark heading into camp.
Now, he could miss time for off-the-field reasons. A healthy Britt would have represented an important part of the Titans offense, as management seems to be jumping on the leagues pass-heavy, offensive-oriented trend.
If he misses time for injury or other reasons, then that will place more significance on the development and instant contributions from first-round pick Kendall Wright, who will need to gain a quick grasp of the offense. If Wright is not capable from the beginning, then the Titans are back to last years group (once Britt was lost for the season after Week 3) of Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins and tight end Jared Cook, who, frankly, were pretty good in 11.
However, the point of the offseason is to upgrade, not to keep the status quo. To reach a higher level, Britt or Wright or both will have to make an impact.