Titans line up fresh faces to get return game going

Monday, May 31, 2010 at 10:45pm
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When the Tennessee Titans worked on fielding punts last Tuesday, Alvin Pearman was at the head of the line. Three rookies were behind him.

It’s probable that Pearman, a fifth-year NFL veteran, felt as if — because of those rookies — he was nearing the end of the line with his second team.

Signed in the middle of last season after Jacksonville released him, Pearman entered the offseason as one of two veteran return specialists on the roster. The other, Mark Jones, was released later in the day Tuesday, after struggling with injuries.

Pearman remained, but because the Titans used three picks in the 2010 draft to select players with return capabilities (in addition to other useful skills), it seemed clear they considered it a luxury to have a player whose primary role is returns.

“It looks like we may have our return search complete,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve got options there. We’ve got some guys that we feel like can clearly help us on special teams.”

It was clear after last season that they needed help. Tennessee was well below the league average in both kickoff and punt returns, and finished 25th in kickoff returns and 29th in punt returns.

Seven different players were used as the primary return man on kickoffs, and five different players received punts.

It was with that in mind that the Titans drafted wide receiver Damian Williams in the third round, cornerback Alterraun Verner in the fourth and wide receiver Marc Mariani in the seventh.

Williams was an all-conference choice as both a punt returner and wide receiver last year at the University of Southern California. He returned two punts for touchdowns in 2009. Similarly, Mariani was a second-team, all-conference return specialist in addition to a first-year wide receiver last fall.

They were second and third in line, respectively, behind Pearman at last week’s workout. Verner was not there because of NCAA rules related to the academic calendar at his university. The fourth was free agent rookie Bobby Sewall, a wide receiver out of Brown.

“We have a good group,” Fisher said. “Damian can catch [punts]. Marc can catch them. Sewall can catch them. It is what we thought.

“There are a lot of decisions that are involved back there. The game is different, the balls are different, the rules are different. We are just covering those things.”

Pearman, listed as a running back, understands many of those subtleties. After all, he has handled 92 punts in his career, which is more than the number of handoffs he’s taken (58). He’s also handled 22 kickoffs.

This year’s draft picks, though, in addition to the promise they offer in the return game, will be eventual contributors to the offense or defense beyond just the 11 or so rushing attempts Pearman has averaged for his career.

“I just want to add anything I can to my resume to help me make the squad,” Mariani said. “Returns is one of the things I think I can help with.”

The ultimate decision on which player or players secure the return duties for this fall likely won’t be made until late in the preseason.

“I think you have to be realistic, you have to be thorough and you have to get them the experience,” Fisher said. “… I think we’ll narrow it down early in the preseason and let them have as many reps as they possibly can.”

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