Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Titans Get Crumpler While Key Linemen Leave En Masse

After the opening weekend of NFL free agency, some Tennessee Titans fans are scratching their heads. I’m with ‘em. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen three veteran defensive linemen up and leave a team so quickly, all at the same time.

In the blink of an eye, defensive end Antwan Odom, defensive tackle Randy Starks and defensive end Travis Laboy all signed new contracts with other teams. They were four-year men, and as unrestricted free agents they were free to bail. Guess the big question is, Why?

While Titans brass were celebrating the free-agent signing of former Falcons All-Pro tight end Alge Crumpler, Odom, Starks and Laboy got away, as did offensive guard Jacob Bell. Tight ends Ben Troupe and Bo Scaife are also on the free-agent block, and don’t blink or they might be gone too.

Crumpler could be a good addition. He’s been one of the best TEs in the league for years, and a personal favorite of mine. But he’s 30 years old, and his playing time was limited last season due to a knee problem. Let’s hope he’s healthy—and still young enough.

Meanwhile, watching a load of young veterans get away, all solid role players in the Titans’ 10-6 season in ’07, is mystifying. Laboy and Odom were both drafted in Round 2 of the ‘04 draft. Starks was grabbed in the third round the same year. Bell, a virtual unknown, out of Miami (Ohio), was snagged later in the fifth round. (Troupe was also from that draft, during the Floyd Reese era. Pretty smart drafting for a team that had no #1 choice that year.) All of the aforementioned have made steady improvement. The DLs were key supporting players assisting Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch on the Titans’ much-improved defense last season. Bell became a solid pro on a rebuilding OL unit and was presumed to be a regular starter for the next 5-10 years.

Now they’re all gone. Maybe there’s method to general manager Mike Reinfeldt’s madness. Or maybe the second-year GM is asleep at the switch. He’s not impressive in interviews, and even though head coach Jeff Fisher was grinning today about the Crumpler signing, it’s hard to know the plan.

It takes time to develop good linemen. If Reinfeldt’s getting replacements from the draft, it’s naive to think they’ll be immediately as good as the departed. And if Reinfeldt has scouted the free agent list, then he knows that most every name player at the trench positions is an older guy—and not necessarily a long-term solution. So why not sign the younger vets before they get away? He’s gonna have to sign somebody to fill their slots, isn’t he?

The Troupe/Scaife situation is also a little weird. With Crumpler’s arrival—and with third-stringer Ben Hartsock already departed via free agency to Atlanta—their status is up in the air should they stay. Scaife, a third-year man and hence a restricted free agent—which means the Titans get some compensation if he goes—had become the starting TE and one of Vince Young’s favorite targets in ’07. But Scaife is also a blocker, a valuable big man for a team that wants to run the ball. Troupe, on the other hand, has become invisible. Strange. After posting solid numbers in ’05—55 catches, 530 yards, 4 TDs—Troupe seemed ready to fulfill his promise as a star offensive TE. But he slipped off the radar in ’06 because of a foot injury, and never was in the mix in ’07, with only 5 catches for 47 yards.

It looks at the moment like Scaife will be retained, as the team moves to also keep in the fold other RFAs like kicker Rob Bironas and tackle David Stewart. Troupe might be deemed expendable, and the saga of how his star fell so far so fast remains filled with questions.

For all the hype about Vince Young, fact is the Titans returned to the playoffs in '07 due to the efforts of their defense and their offensive line. Young was an inconsistent, sometimes disappointing performer. Ditto running back LenDale White. Both still have promise, but in the meantime it was the trench guys that got things done. If the Titans were trying to save money on the recently departed, it might yet be seen as a penny-wise-and-pound-foolish mindset at work.

Reinfeldt's moves definitely bear watching. He could be a dummy—yet another ex-jock who looks good in a suit, and talks the talk, but is shortsighted. I miss frumpy old balding Reese. Pretty sharp cat.

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