Younger players push — could unseat — veteran Titans in training camp

Monday, July 2, 2012 at 10:05pm
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Eugene Amano (Christopher Berkey for SouthComm)

Now that the calendar has flipped to July, the countdown to training camp starts in earnest. Based on what took place during the offseason, though, time might be running out for several Tennessee Titans veterans.

Here's a look at some older players whose jobs will be on the line when camp opens in four weeks:


Marc Mariani

Position: Wide receiver/return man

NFL experience: Two years

Time with Titans: Two years

The situation: He was fifth on the depth chart at wide receiver — and the team only had five active players at that position. He still was fifth at the start of the offseason and then was pushed down a spot when the Titans drafted Kendall Wright in the first round. At the conclusion of offseason workouts, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck called Wright “as good as advertised.”

The good news: Mariani has been virtually unchallenged as a return man from the start of his career. He even earned a Pro Bowl invitation in that regard as a rookie. Recently, coach Mike Munchak gave him a vote of confidence when he said, “I think it is encouraging to see he has taken to the competition. He is a guy that has risen to the occasion.”

The bad news: With the change in kickoff rules that dramatically increased the number of touchbacks in 2011, Mariani’s value as a return man is diminished. Not only that, but he faces a possible challenge from Wright and others, including fellow wide receiver Damian Williams, in that regard as well.

Probable outcome: Barring injury to one of the other wide receivers, the Titans likely will convince themselves they can effectively replace Mariani as a return man, and he will be cut.


Will Witherspoon

Position: Outside linebacker

NFL experience: 10 years

Time with Titans: Two years

The situation: His production as measured by virtually every meaningful statistic dropped from 2010 to 2011, when defensive coordinator Jerry Gray instituted his scheme. At the end of last season he was starting alongside two rookies, Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers, so it was clear where the Titans planned to use Zach Brown, this year’s second-round selection.

The good news: The Titans are not exactly flush with linebackers at the moment, and two of their depth guys — Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey — primarily are special teams players.

The bad news: Gray wants his defensive line to be big and the linebackers and defensive backs to be fast. Brown, a state champion sprinter in high school, will be one of the fastest linebackers in the league the moment he steps on the field. “We didn’t have a guy like him that can run like that and do certain things,” Munchak said. “Then he becomes part of the puzzle — well, what else can he do?”

Probable outcome: Witherspoon will lose his starting job eventually but won’t lose his spot on the roster. His experience and the fact that he can play all three positions will make him a valuable backup for the remainder of the year.


Shaun Smith

Position: Defensive tackle

NFL experience: Eight years

Time with Titans: One year

The situation: Smith signed a three-year contract coming out of the lockout to add immediate size to the interior of the defensive line. The team drafted three players at that spot last year and one more this year. Plus, 2009 second-round pick Sen’Derrick Marks is as healthy as he has been in some time.

The good news: At 325 pounds, Smith still is significantly bigger than most of the other players at that spot. It is, as is often said, the sort of thing that can’t be coached.

The bad news: He entered the offseason as a backup, and last year’s rookies, particularly Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug, are only going to benefit from their experience. “They have been asked to do more things than they were last year,” Munchak said. “I think they kind of like that.”

• Probable outcome: It is hard to envision any scenario in which Smith is on the roster for the opener against New England. There are just too many young players in his way.


Eugene Amano

Position: Center

NFL experience: Eight years

Time with Titans: Eight years

The situation: Amano has spent the last two seasons as the starting center, and the run game has gotten steadily less productive. Management looked at virtually every notable free agent on the market but failed to sign anyone. “No one ever thought he would accomplish what he has, so he knows how to handle things and earned his way into a starting spot,” Munchak said. “He realizes that we need to get better this year.”

The good news: He is something of a fixture on a unit that historically values continuity. He has missed just four games in his career and he has started more than half of the games in which he has played, which includes appearances at both guard spots. More important, neither free agency nor the draft yielded any real competition for him.

The bad news: Among those vying to unseat him is Kevin Matthews, the son of offensive line coach and all-time franchise great Bruce Matthews.

Probable outcome: Amano will open the season as the starting center. If the run game is not better, though, the first place coaches will look to make a change is with him.

2 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 7/3/12 at 7:13

Young players or older players, it makes no difference this franchise for over 50 years is the franchise that champions go through on the way to glory.

By: MichaelWooley on 7/3/12 at 8:43

There needs to be a "quick-hook" on Amano. Too many times the past couple of years, we have had no push in the middle. If we cannot show improvement in the preseason, the Titan's may want to look to someone else for help.