Thursday, March 16, 2006

Money Well Spent? Titans New Free Agents Intrigue but Don't Excite; Serious Draft Issues Still Looming

David Givens, Kevin Mawae, David Thornton, Chris Hope. This is the new crop of free agents signed in a hurry by the Tennessee Titans. The default reaction of local Nashville radio and TV sports media seems to be a positive one. Forgive my cynicism, but I'm not so sure.

With the exception of the 35-year-old Mawae (left), the group has both youth and legit experience on its side, and, in the case of Givens and Hope, the rings of recent Super Bowl winners (New England and Pittsburgh, respectively). Thornton is an escapee from the Colts, who are losing players to free agency left and right, a fact that has to be good news for Titans fans, who see their prospects for winning in the AFC South suddenly boosted a tad with these developments.

But are you psyched about David Givens? I'm not. Givens (left) obviously has talent, and any improvement to the Titans receiving corps is welcome. But unless he suddenly breaks out in 2006, showing a level of game previously kept under wraps, Givens appears to be a solid possession receiver with the occasional penchant for the big play. What he does not appear to be is the field-stretching speedster the Titans hoped Tyrone Calico would be when they drafted him four years ago. Calico has been a bust. Injuries have consistently hampered his progress, and even when healthy he looked tentative, despite showing flashes of big-play ability.

Givens is not Terrell Owens. He's not Antwan Randle El , either, who escaped from Pittsburgh and has joined the Redskins in free agency. Givens is a decent football player who will help a struggling offense, but he is not the answer to a prayer. It is doubtful if Mawae is either. Clearly, the former New York Jets center has been signed as insurance, since younger veteran center Justin Hartwig vamoosed from Nashville to go to Carolina. The Titans are rebuilding and putting a 35-year-old at center. Hmmmmm... That sounds...uninspired.

The Thornton signing looks better. He's a savvy linebacker who has been playing with the improved Colts defense, and any help of this kind for the excellent veteran Keith Bulluck will toughen up Tennessee's defensive middle. Free safety Hope can't be a bad addition to the Titans' D, if only because there were so many holes to plug to begin with.

It's not so much that these guys won't help. No, the big issue is that the Titans still need SO MUCH help. After two dismal seasons, the team still has way too many question marks. Since winning wasn't happening in '04 and '05, we assumed that general manager Floyd Reese was laying the foundation for the big revival. Let's look at the current state of each position:

Quarterback—Steve McNair is an admirable athlete. Alas, he's one good pop away from retirement. His mobility, once a strength, is now a potential liability. Billy Volek didn't look as good last year as he did in '04.

Running Back—Chris Brown has durability issues. Travis Henry has talent but personal issues.

Offensive Line—Last year's results were mediocre. Michael Roos was the big rookie addition. He only looked so-so to me. The aging Brad Hopkins is a salary cap victim and Hartwig is now gone.

Tight End—There's some hope here. Ben Troupe is improving. Erron Kinney is a pro, but he's rebounding from an injury.

Wide Receiver—Givens helps a corps that was dominated by rookies once Drew Bennett was injured. The second-year guys should improve, but not one of them—Roydell Williams, Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby—is a true breakaway threat. Bennett is good, but he's not really a #1 talent. It remains to be seen if Givens is.

Defensive Line—A lot of young talent here, and the emergence of Kyle Vanden Bosch was huge. There's a positive outlook on the DL, but this unit must have a big year or there's more trouble on the horizon.

Linebacker—The addition of Thornton (left) helps. They still need another guy to step up. Peter Sirmon's threat to seek employment elsewhere should be greeted with a yawn. Smart and determined, alas, Sirmon is a pro but never was a prime talent.

Defensive Secondary—Hope (left) is an upgrade, but that might not be saying too much. This unit was in disarray all season long, and despite some improvement by #1 draft pick/#1 head case Adam ("Pacman") Jones, it still suffers from the slow development of CB Andre Woolfolk and the absence of front-line safeties. The Titans are looking to second-year man Vincent Fuller to fulfill some promise. But let's face it, the Pacman situation still looks iffy, despite his obvious native physical gifts. I actually heard local sportswriter/radio guy Joe Biddle say that Lance Schulters should or could come back. Uh... no thanks.

Special Teams—Rob Bironas is a decent kicker, but that's all. Craig Hentrich, soon to turn 36, can still punt. Pacman is the punt return specialist who displayed flashes of brilliance, but he's still an adventure out there. Maybe he needs some Ritalin.

In summary, this is a team that, in order to vault into the upper echelons of the league, could use upgrading at running back, on the offensive line, at linebacker, probably still at wide receiver, and definitely in the defensive backfield. Then there's the question of McNair's health and age and the fact that the Titans are staring at a #3 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft, making them a prime candidate for selecting marquee QBs Matt Leinart or Vince Young. (Please, no talk about Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler joining the Titans. Local guys rarely make the grade. It's just not a good idea.)

The Titans have a history of trading down in exchange for more overall draft picks. It's been a decent strategy in theory, but the QB situation needs to be addressed, and Leinart might be the answer. (Young is a brilliant raw talent, but it might take him a while to get comfortable in an NFL offense.) Possibly, the recent free-agent signings have been done as prelude to selecting Leinart, the Titans trying to fill needs they're otherwise afraid they won't get in the draft. That all makes sense; if only names like Mawae, Givens, Thornton and Hope were...uh...more hopeful.

Personally, I'm a big believer in foundation. That means strength on the offensive and defensive lines. Even if the Titans draft Leinart, they'll then be faced with the learning curve issue of a young QB. So if McNair is the guy no matter what happens, I say use the #1 pick on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the huge OL out of Virginia. He'll be a help for years no matter who's playing QB. But New Orleans, drafting one slot ahead of Tennessee, will have first crack at him, and they've got new free agent QB signee Drew Brees to protect. (But they need defensive help as well.)

Reese and Co. have usually had good draft instincts. This is a critical year for them. Leinart's selection will make for good copy, but is it the right move?

No comments: