When the Tennessee Titans lost their leading rusher in Travis Henry and their leading receiver in Drew Bennett, not to mention the suspension of Adam “Pacman” Jones, many wondered if the team had taken a major step backwards in the offseason.
After all, the Titans were armed with plenty of salary cap space for the first time in several years, but new general manager Mike Reinfeldt opted to spend very little of it on big-name free agents. Instead, Reinfeldt opted to plug a few holes with mid-line veterans and allow them to compete with the incumbent players on the roster.
Three weeks in to the season, Reinfeldt’s plan of staying away from high-priced additions appears to be working and the naysayers who balked at the strategy of avoiding a free-agent splash have disappeared in the wake the Titans’ 2-1 start.
What Reinfeldt and coach Jeff Fisher’s plan entailed was to sprinkle veteran players with varied track records to what was already in place, then have the competition in training camp to determine the starters in a number of areas.
That, combined with the strengths already on the team, has worked in the early going for a Tennessee team that has surprised many with its strong beginning.
Reinfeldt, who came from Seattle to replace long-time general manager Floyd Reese, tried to assess the Titans’ strengths and weaknesses as he determined what decisions needed to be made to bolster the roster.
“I think part of it was that you had to look at what the strength of the team was last year,” Reinfeldt said. “The head coach and the coaching staff was a part of that. [You have] a veteran coaching staff and Jeff is the longest tenured coach in the NFL. That’s a huge asset.”
He also liked what he saw in the offensive line and up-and-coming quarterback Vince Young, who was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2006. Reinfeldt figured correctly that with a strong line, LenDale White and Chris Brown could help offset the loss of Henry. He also new it was time for several of the team’s young wideouts like Brandon Jones and Roydell Williams to step forward with increased roles and responsibilities.
Reinfeldt saw some usable parts in the defense, despite it finishing last overall in rankings a year ago.
“You have a young offensive line that is potentially able to dominate games and young Pro Bowl quarterback,” Reinfeldt said. “We had some players on defense that were playmakers, but just needed more people around them.”
The next building block was adding depth. In years past, the cap-strapped Titans could ill afford major injuries, having to throw an untested rookie or stopgap fill-in into the mix if a starter went down. That has changed with Reinfeldt’s plan, as the Titans have added depth in a number of key areas, picking up former starters like Kelly Herndon, Bryce Fisher, Corey Simon and Gilbert Gardner.
“It’s important that we have depth,” Jeff Fisher said. “We have positions right now that if we were to lose a player for a play, a series or a week or whatever, we have a comfort level playing the players that are in the backup spots.”
The idea in adding depth and creating camp competition was that the veterans were a known quantity, and any young untested player who was going to play ahead of that veteran was going to have to perform at a higher level than what it had taken in years past to start.
For example, Herndon was in the cornerback mix along with Cortland Finnegan and rookie first-round choice Michael Griffin. Finnegan, a seventh-round pick from ’06, won the job with a strong camp and preseason.
“That’s a good thing,” Reinfeldt said. “We know that Kelly has a certain level, so we know for Cortland to be playing, he has to be playing really well. We’ve kind of raised the benchmark for the club at certain positions.”
The same thing goes for the defensive line where Bryce Fisher and Simon have helped push the likes of Antwan Odom, Tony Brown, Randy Starks and Travis LaBoy.
The competitive fight comes during the week to see which players at which position will be active on game day.
“We were very fortunate in that we are deactivating healthy players that have played in the league and have been starters and played for us,” Jeff Fisher said. “That’s not good for them, but it’s good for the team.”
Safety Chris Hope, who was vocal about the lack of depth when he first joined the team in ’06, agrees that the competition in camp and the depth is rock solid now.
“Vinnie Fuller and I were talking before the Monday night game that the coaches’ decisions on who to have active and who not is a tough one. Now you have a situation where a lot of guys backing up here are former starters, some of them former first-round picks,” Hope said.
Hope said the competition in training camp helped pull the team together. It was also a sign of the team’s solid depth that when players like Lamont Thompson and Courtney Roby, who had contributed in years past and had played well enough in preseason to make the team were on the outside looking in.
“It was a situation where not everybody who was here and working and making plays was going to make this final roster. We didn’t have room for everybody,” Hope said.
Thus far, Reinfeldt likes the way things are shaping up.
“Overall, I think we’re pleased with how they’ve been answered,” Reinfeldt said. “I think they’ll continue to be answered along the way. And if it doesn’t work, we have different alternatives and different choices if it doesn’t come out quite the way you’d like it.”
APPEAL: Albert Haynesworth will appeal the fine handed down by the NFL for his throwing of Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew to the ground in the season opener. Haynesworth was fined $5,000 by the NFL and drew a 15-yard penalty on the play.
PRACTICE SQUAD MOVES: The Titans re-signed receiver Biren Ealy to their practice squad Wednesday afternoon and also added tight end Jamie Petrowski back as well. Both were let go last week, Ealy from the 53-man roster and Petrowski from the practice squad. To make room, the Titans waived punter Glenn Pakulak and running back Quinton Ganther.