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VOL. 131 | NO. 156 | Friday, August 5, 2016

Do Titans Finally Have Their Offensive Line?

By David Climer

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New Tennessee Titans coach Mike Mularkey’s stated desire to play “exotic smashmouth” football – especially on offense – requires a good offensive line. But if there’s one thing the Titans have not had in recent years it’s a good offensive line.

Tennessee Titans strong safety Da’Norris Searcy, left, congratulates rookie offensive tackle Jack Conklin during practice this week. 

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Whether it’s due to the coaching carousel, changing philosophies, bad drafts, free-agent busts, injuries, poor player development or any combination of the above, the offensive line simply has not played up to standards.

And that must change or the mediocrity will continue.

While there is so much focus on quarterback Marcus Mariota’s transition from his first NFL season to his second and the new schemes installed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, it is the grunt work done in the trenches by the offensive line that could dictate how things play out.

I’m admittedly old-school about this, but I sincerely believe the quality, character and performance of your offensive line sets the tone for a football team.

That’s where your identity is forged. If your offensive line is tough, relentless and efficient, other things tend to fall in place.

Remember the glory years of this franchise? Back then, Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews was an anchor and players like Brad Hopkins and Benji Olson were fixtures. Do you think Eddie George gained all those yards on his own? Those Titans teams took on the personality of the offensive line.

Things have fallen off badly in recent years. It’s not for a lack of trying. The Titans repeatedly have tried to improve via the draft and free agency. But the franchise’s investment in its offensive line is the biggest bust since the prime lending crisis.

In three of the last four drafts, the Titans have used a high pick in the first round on an offensive lineman – guard Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall in 2013), tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 11 in 2014) and tackle Jack Conklin (No. 8 this year).

Prior to Warmack, you had to go back 20 years to find an offensive lineman drafted in the first round by this franchise.

It should be noted that the draft selections of Warmack, Lewan and Conklin came on the watches of three different head coaches – Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey. Ruston Webster was the general manager when Warmack and Lewan were picked and Jon Robinson is the G.M. who drafted Conklin.

Lewan’s progress at left tackle has been undermined by shoulder problem. Conklin looks the part at right tackle, but he has yet to face the live fire of an NFL game.

As for Warmack, he has been serviceable (46 starts over three years) but far from spectacular. All in all, he has not played up to the standards expected of a top 10 draft pick.

In defense of Warmack, he is working with his third offensive line coach this preseason. As a rookie, Warmack’s position coach was Bruce Matthews. Bob Bostad stepped in as offensive line coach in 2014. Russ Grimm is now coaching the position.

Warmack has been critical of Bostad, pointing out in one interview that Bostad played linebacker for Division III school Wisconsin-Stevens Point in college and suggesting he was in over his head as an offensive line coach in the NFL.

Be that as it may, Titans management declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Warmack’s rookie contract. The team has not ruled out negotiating a long-term deal, but it is also possible Warmack will become a free agent after the season.

The current unit is a work in progress. As if things were not already unsettled, the Titans suffered a body blow when Byron Bell, the likely starter at left guard, dislocated his ankle during off-season workouts and is lost for the year. That means three-fifths of the starting line will be new in 2016.

The arrival of Conklin provides a fresh start. Barring an injury or a major surprise, he will be the starter at right tackle when the Titans open the season against Minnesota.

Early signs are encouraging. After playing left tackle at Michigan State, Conklin has embraced the challenge of switching to the right side.

“It’s gone pretty smoothly with Jack,” Mularkey says. “You don’t say a lot to Jack. You’re not hearing his name called out a lot. He’s just very steady.”

Conklin fits the profile Robinson wants in the offensive line. In addition to size, strength and athleticism, Conklin has a workmanlike attitude that should translate well to the NFL.

If Conklin solidifies the right tackle spot, he will solve a problem that has plagued the Titans since David Stewart retired after the 2013 season.

The position has been a revolving door.

The Titans originally thought they had found Stewart’s replacement when they signed free agent Michael Oher to a four-year, $20 million contract in 2014. It didn’t work.

Oher was an ineffective blocker in both the running game and the passing game. Pro Football Focus, which grades every player on every snap of the ball, ranked Oher the No. 78 tackle in the league. The Titans cut him after the season.

Oher turned around and signed with the Carolina Panthers and had a very good season at left tackle for the Super Bowl team.

He allowed a career-low four sacks and signed a three-year contract extension for $21.6 million.

The same tackle that failed to produce in one year with the Titans is now a fixture for the Panthers.

Last season, the Titans signed Bell with the idea he would step in at right tackle. But during training camp, Bell moved inside to guard, with rookie third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi taking over at right tackle.

Poutasi started the first seven games of 2015 but struggled so badly that he was benched at midseason.

Titans coaches finally realized why most other NFL teams had viewed Poutasi as an interior lineman instead of a tackle. He simply didn’t have the quickness and range to handle speed rushers on the outside.

Poutasi is one of three players competing for the left guard spot. The others: Quinton Spain and rookie Sebastian Tretola.

At center, Robinson identified Ben Jones as the answer and made him a priority in free agency. He got his man.

Jones, a fourth-round draft pick by Houston in 2012, has played in 64 straight games, with 43 starts.

He has played guard, but it is his experience at center that made him a key off-season target by the Titans.

The Titans have not had consistent, effective play at the center position since Eugene Amano retired after the 2011 season.

“Ben is a tough, smart, dependable player,” Robinson says. “He is a great teammate and passionate about the game. He is strong and a good finisher with some nasty to him.”

Those are the qualities you want in an offensive lineman.

It remains to be seen if the Titans finally have assembled the right combination of players up front to lead this franchise out of the NFL wilderness.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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