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VOL. 8 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 19, 2015


Terry McCormick

Rotten to the Core: Titans Fail to Develop Talent

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As the Tennessee Titans sink toward the end of another lackluster season, they head into the off-season with still more holes to fill for 2016.

Some of that, of course, is inevitable with any team as an NFL roster. Even on the best teams can have a 20 percent roster turnover in the off-season due to injuries, free agency and new draft picks coming on board.

But the good teams around the NFL always seem to keep a core group of players together, usually led by a franchise quarterback.

Got New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on your fantasy team? If so, you might be in for a good weekend. The Titans have struggled to stop lesser players in the past few weeks.

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

The key is identifying a group of players who can stay together for four to six years around your quarterback, then identifying and grooming the necessary replacements to take the places of players who are no longer productive or become too expensive to keep.

Once upon a time, we saw even the Titans operate that way.

There was a quarterback to build around – Steve McNair – and core players like Eddie George, Frank Wycheck, Jevon Kearse, Bruce Matthews, Samari Rolle, Brad Hopkins, Keith Bulluck and Derrick Mason, the mainstays on the roster.

Every one of those players – except for Wycheck, who came from the Redskins on waivers – was home-grown.

Former general manager Floyd Reese’s philosophy on free agency was simple: Just let me keep my own players that I want and I’ll be happy.

It was a philosophy that worked and kept the team in contention for the better part of a six- or seven-year window that began shortly after they arrived in town.

But that was then, and we are now in an era in which the Titans have bottomed out.

There are plenty of theories and suggestions as to why that is, but one thing cannot be overlooked: The Titans simply have not developed enough players to constitute a “core,” a group of home-grown, “second-contract” players.

These are players who are drafted and groomed by an organization and are then productive enough to be rewarded with contract extensions to remain part of the team’s core group.

Without them, teams must depend on free agency to fill holes or reach into the draft for an inexperienced player to plug in before he is ready to play.

In examining the Titans drafts from 2007-11, where the current core should have come from, the Titans have a grand total of five players still on their roster: Derrick Morgan, Jurrell Casey, Jason McCourty, Craig Stevens and Michael Griffin.

Of that group, Casey is the closest thing the Titans have to a star. McCourty and Morgan are serviceable starters, but now both are out for the season. Stevens is a dependable role player, and Griffin has had his ups and downs at safety.

As an aside, the Titans did give a second contract to Chris Johnson after he held out in 2011, then moved on two years later after his production dropped.

And there are a number of former Titans from this era doing well around the league, guys like Stephen Tulloch, Alterraun Verner, Sen’Derrick Marks, Jason Jones and Jared Cook who could or should have been kept but are playing well elsewhere.

Therein lies a big problem with this organization. Even if the current core were all superstars, it still probably wouldn’t be enough, just from a numbers standpoint.

Part of the reason the core keeps changing is because the philosophy keeps changing with every head coaching swap. One coach’s core player is another coach’s square peg.

After this season, the draft class of 2012 hits free agency. First-rounder Kendall Wright had his option picked up to keep him around next year, but no one else still on the team from that year – Zach Brown, Mike Martin, Coty Sensabaugh – appears to be second-contract material right now.

And so the cycle continues.

Five things to watch

1. The effort

After initially questioning the Titans effort against the Jets, Mike Mularkey backed off somewhat after watching film. Still, he knows that the Titans will get blown out by the Patriots this week if they are not prepared, and said as much in his Monday press conference.

2. Getting open

The Titans receivers have not done a good job of getting the necessary separation to get open for Marcus Mariota to throw to. That’s one reason why tight end Delanie Walker is so much more trustworthy than the wideouts have been this season. Mularkey said part of the reason Titans receivers haven’t been able to separate is lack of crisp route-running, some is based on a lack of speed and/or quickness.

3. Can the defense bounce back?

The defense has been awful the past few games, and going against Tom Brady and the Patriots is not a recipe for success. If the Titans couldn’t slow down the Jets offense, what will happen with Rob Gronkowski running free in the Tennessee secondary?

4. Is it better to lose?

Mike Mularkey doesn’t think that way, of course, and neither should the players. But you can bet Titans fans are probably hoping for three more losses, which will probably guarantee them getting the first overall pick in next year’s draft.

5. Get the running game going

The Titans rushed for just 24 yards against the Jets and had zero rushing first downs. Even as bad as the Titans run game has been this season, that’s pretty difficult to do. Now they are without Dexter McCluster, who is out for the season with a broken wrist.

Three matchups to watch

1. Titans secondary vs. Rob Gronkowski

The Titans secondary has been a mess in recent weeks, as injuries and ineffectiveness have ruled the day. Now, there is the issue of facing Tom Brady throwing to Rob Gronkowski. The Titans don’t have anyone who would appear to be able to matchup against Gronk, whose fantasy football owners are probably salivating over the Titans coming to town.

2. Titans offensive line vs. Patriots defensive line

Bill Belichick never misses a chance to exploit a mismatch, and you can bet that he will use his experienced front seven to try and exploit a young Titans offensive line that has struggled to find any sort of cohesion this year.

3. Marcus Mariota vs. Bill Belichick

Belichick is the coaching genius, and though Mariota is smart and well-equipped, he is also a rookie and doesn’t have many dependable weapons outside of Walker at his disposal. Look for Belichick and to take Walker away and make the Titans other skill players to beat them.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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